My Jewish Standard column for September 2016: Why rabbis are awful at politics
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
My friends and I are having ongoing heated discussions about the presidential election. Some of us prefer Hillary Clinton, and others of us prefer Donald Trump. And some of us would like to have a third viable choice. I recently saw that 45 Orthodox rabbis issued a condemnation of Trump’s policy statements, and I know that other Orthodox rabbis support him. I often have turned to Jewish traditions for guidance in matters of morality, ethics, and social justice. This year, I am confused about who our religious teachings guide us to vote for in this upcoming election. Can you help to clarify this please?
Politically Puzzled in Paramus
Dear Politically Puzzled:
Since you raised the question of rabbis opining on politics, let me first consider a trend in our history, namely how terribly awful rabbinic Jews have been in the realm of politics for the last 2,000 or so years.
Let me make it clear. I believe that we have the greatest religion in the world. We have an enormously comprehensive and expressive set of narratives and beliefs, and an equally impressive set of rituals and actions for the cycles of the year, for the cycles of our lives, and for all other purposes.
We could have — and we should have — won the “election” and become the world religion with the greatest number of adherents. Back in prior centuries and millennia we had many chances to become the world’s dominant religion. But time after time, rabbis made bad political choices and elected to emphasize the wrong aspects of our faith, our culture, and our history.
Consider one critical example — how centuries ago Jews made wrong political decisions about how to relate to the Roman Empire.
This is not a matter of debate. Great rabbinic leaders, like Rabbi Akiva, supported rebellion against Rome. As leaders they were ineffective standing up to the empire. And worse, to compound their failings, after they lost to Rome they instituted commemorations that were politically devastating. Take the example of the fast of Tisha B’Av. Its basis is that Romans were bad to us — they destroyed our Temple, we lost, and we fast and lament the devastation that Rome brought upon us. Such lamentations are not in any way useful political activities.
Meanwhile, in their neighboring churches, Christians emphasized a simpler narrative. They said that the Romans are so powerful, they were able to crucify and kill our God. The lesson: we need to respect the might of Rome and work productively with the powerful forces in our world. The outcome was not immediate. But over time, Christianity made accommodations with Rome; eventually it was effective. A major Christian headquarters was and is situated in the middle of the city of Rome.
Bottom line lessons: Rabbis, with their combination of hubris and their politically naïve understanding of power, ignored the realities of their world, instituted onerous, uninspired, counterproductive fasts and laments, and fostered equally bad political decisions.
Meanwhile, Christians went on to fashion and promulgate dramatic religious narratives, and made the necessary compromises and accommodations that allowed them to adapt, and to embed their religion into the real political world around them.
The result of the centuries of our history — there are now 2.2 billion Christians in the world and 14 million Jews. And yes, it would be nice to believe the anti-Semitic narratives that in spite of our small numbers, we Jews control the press, or the entertainment industry, or whatever it is that is the conspiracy story of the moment.
The plain fact, however, is that we lost the competitions (the “elections”) many centuries back for many reasons. Among them it is fair to say that our leaders did not highlight, feature, or emphasize the politically potent aspects of our belief and practice systems, and they did not negotiate effectively enough with the powerful political entities of their world.
As the resulting metrics show, as a faith community, we were bad at politics, and I think we continue to be terrible at it. We do not know how to compromise effectively, and that works constantly against us.
Why is this? It’s not just that our rabbis have no training in politics or political science. It is that our fealty to our cumulative ineffective traditions leads us down many wrong roads. And so those who try to bring our religion into play to guide us in the political arena are not doing us any favors.
What about those 45 Orthodox rabbis who condemned Trump? If he wins, where does that leave them? Way outside of political power and influence, that’s certain. And if he loses, it’s not going to be because these 45 clergymen boldly spoke up. They will garner no praise.
My advice to you is that you ignore rabbis who preach and practice bad politics. Rabbis should keep quiet about presidential politics.
But if they cannot, they should urge that candidates with bad policy ideas, like Mr. Trump, repent and change. They should implore them to reconsider their negative political stances and tone down their rhetoric. That is what our rabbis, who purport to be moral leaders, speaking on the authority of God and Torah, should do.
Implore and instruct — that is the correct rabbinic activity. Those who condemn with pompous indignation — that is the most awful of the bad politics and the bad rabbinical instruction that you should stay away from.
Accordingly, let me be clear. I cannot guide you based on Jewish traditions to vote for or support one or another of the candidates. And anyone who implies or insinuates that our Judaic heritage demands that we favor either Hillary or Donald is misrepresenting Judaism and its teachings to you.
Why do I say that? I’ve given you some historical reasons. Let me now be analytical and look with you at the highly ironic proclamation of the 45 Orthodox rabbis criticizing Donald Trump and his policy opinions.
The rabbis condemn Trump for inflammatory and discriminatory policy statements. What’s wrong with that, you ask. Well, we Orthodox Jews don’t just proclaim, we practice gender segregation in our synagogues. And we don’t just opine, we practice outright discrimination against non-Jews. And we don’t just editorialize, we continue to maintain overt theological condemnations of gays and gay lifestyles.
So for Orthodox spokesmen to critique Trump for views that he very well could drop and change tomorrow — that is highly ironic and hypocritical. Every day, rabbinic Judaism practices, as core policies, what Trump says in theory, in hyperbole, and in rhetoric about fearing and excluding the “other.”
Orthodox rabbis are quite vehement in preaching against a Jew marrying a non-Jew, and non-Jews are not welcome to partake in our Jewish tradition or its rituals. Gays still are classified as living abominations before the Lord. And, believe it or not, in this 21st century, Orthodox Jewish women still sit in the shul behind the mechitzah, and cannot receive Torah honors or lead the services. They cannot divorce their husbands, no matter how abusive and awful the spouses are.
And those are just the highlights of the discriminatory, segregationist character of the Orthodox world. The discrimination runs deep, and it runs strong. And to top it all off, the rabbis say that what they are preaching and doing is God’s will.
Mr. Trump may have wrong ideas and policies, but he does not attribute them to divine origins. And being the flighty, erratic, capricious, opportunistic person that he is, tomorrow Trump could turn around and disavow all those bad ideas.
Prudence dictates that at least the Orthodox rabbis stay silent about the biases and discriminatory policies of others, until they have cleaned up their own acts in these areas. And by the way, that is not likely to happen anytime soon, if ever.
Accordingly, let me underline that sadly our traditions continue to support discrimination and targeted segregation, even after all the reforms in America of the past generation have moved the main legal barriers away and brought American culture and politics closer to affording fair and equal civil rights across the board to all of our citizens.
The 45 rabbis are wrong to pluck this and that out of our tradition to condemn the rhetoric of a specific man at this precise time. It’s a near perfect case of a segregationist and racist pot calling a segregationist and racist kettle black.
But, you may insist further, isn’t it urgent and moral to call out an imminent danger to our country, if that is what you believe Trump represents? Well of course, yes. But do you know what? Even if this ruthless man Trump were to be elected, I am sure that his awful, ridiculous opinions never would become law or practice in our land.
Our democracy is strong, and our systems of checks and balances make it impossible for one dangerous man, even if he is elected president by some compounded quirks of our voting, to dictatorially impose ruinous policies on our nation. His harmful racist views will not become our laws. It will not happen.
Ultimately, I urge that you go out and vote based on your own innate practical and secular assessments. In this matter, please, do not seek out the advice of religions or of rabbis.
Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of many books about Judaism, including “Jewish Magic,” a new Kindle eBook on Amazon.
The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all of the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.