“Don’t be political.”
“Stick to the Judaism. We’ll watch the news if we want politics.”
“You should really focus on the Jewish aspect of our lives and stay out of politics.”
These are actual quotes from emails I have gotten in just the last year when I have mentioned things in sermons that people deem as, in their words, “too political.” So often I am told by congregants, “Don’t talk politics.” I am asked to steer clear of political commentary and stick to Judaism. If I speak on a topic that breaches the boundaries with which people are comfortable, I know exactly who will be sending me emails over the next few days. Don’t talk politics, stick with Judaism.
Here’s the thing, though. Judaism is politics.
The word politics comes from the Greek politika, which means, “of, for, or relating to the people.” We usually use the word politics to mean governance, and policies made by those in power, whether we agree or disagree with them. But really politics is about the needs of the citizens. So when people ask me not to speak on politics, I hear them asking me to avoid addressing the concerns of the people.
That would not be the Jewish way.
The Talmud, in Pirkei Avot, reminds us of Hillel’s words, al tifrosh min hatzibur, “do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:5). This rather well-known teaching reminds us that as Jews we thrive in community. We seek out others, usually who are similar to us, to form groups living in society together. The instruction not to separate from it is a reminder that the affairs of the people are the concerns of all the people.
In the next chapter, Rabbi Chaninah teaches us to “pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the awe it inspires, a person would eat his neighbor alive” (ibid. 3:2). That’s a bit of a morbid way to put it, but Maimonides has a similar teaching. He writes that if a tiny business man tells a giant beggar to get out of his face, and he listens, you know that there is government in power. Knowing that there is a system concerned for the wellbeing of all people creates a mode of behavior that, in general, makes a city with a governing body a good place to live.
In Tractate Meilah, Rabbi Reuven ben Isterobeli is credited with thwarting laws the Romans tried to impose on the Jewish people that would forbid them to observe Shabbat and Brit Milah, which he did by disguising himself as a Roman and participating in their policy discussions. How did he disguise himself as a Roman? He cut his hair in the Komei style, which was how the Romans did it. This meant he had to shave the sides of his head (Meilah 17a). Shaving the sides of his head was a direct violation of the Biblical prohibition against shaving the corners of his head, but in order to participate in politics, they allowed him to shave. So participating in politics was so important that the rabbis allowed violation of certain commandments in order to have a voice in the discussion.
To repeat: it was permitted to violate a commandment to participate in politics.
On the other hand, Pirkei Avot also has Rav Shemayah’s dictum, “do not become a familiar friend of the government” (Pirkei Avot 1:10). This may seem contradictory to the instruction to bless the government, but really it is a warning to not become overly involved with the people who make up the government. The phrase for “do not become a familiar friend,” is lo titvada. Titvada shares its root with l’da’at, “to know.” This kind of knowing is exactly what I hope you think it is. Perhaps a more colloquial translation would be, “do not become bedfellows with the government.” So while we are instructed to bless our leaders, we should not become beholden to them. For any reason. It is not particular people to whom we should be aligned, but it is all people about whom we should be concerned. That is what politics really means, and that is what Judaism is all about.
As Jews we have no problem with arguing. We love it. The Talmud even gives examples of good arguments and bad arguments. The classic good argument, known as b’shem shamayim, “for the sake of Heaven,” is between Hillel and Shammai. Hillel and Shammai were turn-of-the-first-century rabbis who regularly had differing opinions regarding how to interpret Jewish law. Because they were arguing so that the Jewish people would be informed in all of their decisions, their arguments are categorized as b’shem shamayim. The classic bad argument is that of Korach, who argued with Aaron in the book of Numbers, asking who he was to be the priest when they were of the same blood, same family. Aren’t they all as good as Aaron and his sons, they asked. While it might have been a good point, Korach was arguing for the sake of self-promotion, not good for the community.
Lately, as Americans, we have confused politics with partisanship, and we have maintained loyalty to personalities and parties rather than to our nation. This is exactly what Rav Shemayah warns against. We are becoming too familiar with those in power. We are allying ourselves with people and with parties instead of slinging ourselves with the governing we have hired them to do.
Of course, there are some exceptions.
Justin Amash is a Michigan congressman born in the US to Palestinian refugees. His father fled to America at 16, and America provided opportunities for his family that they would never have had in the Middle East. His parents were enthusiastic Republicans, and he was elected to congress as a Republican in 2011. In July this year, he left the Republican Party, and he now serves as the only Independent in the House of Representatives. In his words, “In recent years...I’ve become disenchanted with party politics and frightened by what I see from it. The two-party system has evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions.”
In other words, his motivation is the mitigation of the power of the duopoly that exists in the United States Government. A duopoly exists when an industry gets run by two behemoths. The one that dominated as it grew to power in the 80s was in the soda industry. Coke and Pepsi control 70% of the soda market, and as often as we might drink Dr. Pepper or A&W Root Beer, Coke and Pepsi dominate the supermarket aisles, soda machines, and convenience stores.
The main difference, and the very problem between the soda industry and the government industry is that we have created a duopoly between Republicans and Democrats, and allowed them to control nearly 100% of the active market. There are independents like Justin Amash, but I could only find six senators and eight representatives in congress since 1970. That’s a total of thirteen people in almost 50 years, thirteen because Bernie Sanders is on both lists. Only three of the thirteen were elected as independents and remained independent throughout their terms.
Katherine Gehl, CEO of Wisconsin dairy company Gehl Foods, and Michael Porter, Harvard Business Economics Professor, recently published a Harvard Business School Report called, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America.” Their report shows that current political parties have made it very hard to compete if people are not playing by their rules. It would be one thing if they were taking care of their customers (us), yet they are much better at creating revenue and jobs for itself. Customer satisfaction is at historic lows. Fewer than 25% of Americans say they are satisfied with how things are working. In terms of popularity, the government ranks below every industry, including cable TV, health care, and even airlines. For these industries, when customer satisfaction gets so low, we usually see new competitors or products like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. In politics we do not see any new entrants except for Democrats and Republicans. Why? Because they work really well in one arena: colluding with each other to keep new parties out of government (Freakonomics, Season 8, Episode 10, "America's Hidden Duopoly").
Government today has become less about politics, the concerns of the people, and more about beating the opponent. They strengthen their stranglehold on the market by catering only to the extremes. All they have to do to win an election is show that they are this much less hated than the other person. The political industry that gets people elected runs independent of the issues they are supposed to be taking care of in our nation. This is not politics. This is partisanship.
What is worse is that the parties are the ones who set rules that benefit from the duopoly, not the people. In the American duopolistic model, polarization is a feature, not a bug. It is a feature created to cater to the wealthy, the special interests, the lobbyists, etc. As late as the 70s and 80s, landmark legislation was passed by both parties. The Social Security Act of 1935 had 90% Democratic support, and 75% Republican. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had 60% of Democrats supporting it, and 75% of Republicans. Today, landmark legislation can only pass if the party pushing it through has enough votes to carry it by themselves. The Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 with 0% Republican votes. Trump’s 2018 tax reform bill passed with 0% Democrat votes (ibid).
Why is it that this is happening more and more as we tread this path in the life of American politics? Because we are losing sight of the other in order to try to promote our own agenda. Because we are paying scant heed to the good of the community in order to make offerings to the cult of personality. Because on the rare occasions when we do try argue b’shem shamayim, we use logical fallacies instead of providing counterpoints. Because we give all the attention to those who would insult their political rivals rather than engage with them.
Gehl and Porter suggest a way out of this spiral of social destruction. Part of their plan includes non-partisan, single-ballot primaries in which all candidates for office would be on one ballot, with the top four vote-getters advancing to the general election. This would be followed by ranked choice voting. We would vote for these four candidates in order of preference, ranking them one through four. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes, the lowest ranked candidate is dropped, and those votes are re-allocated to the voters’ second choice until one candidate reaches over 50% (ibid).
As unlikely as it would be for their solution to come to fruition, their idea would give a candidate the need to appeal to a larger group of voters. They would have to hope that they could garner the second choice of voters who would not choose them first. This would require them to talk about the issues instead of just talking at each other. It would require real care about the good of the people, the politics, and not just allegiance to partisanship.
In today’s Torah reading we are commanded by God to choose. It says, hachayim v’hamavet natati lefanecha habrachah v’haklalah; uvacharta bachayim l’ma’an t’chiyeh: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you will live.” The idea of choosing good over evil, blessing over curse, and life over death sounds easy. The problem is, as I have mentioned many times, these choices are never labeled. Like being in the voting booth, we usually make our decisions based on subtle distinctions. This choice may be slightly less bad, and this choice may be slightly more acceptable. And what is good for us may be bad for the person next to us. Usually our decisions are way more important than Yanni or Laurel, and we saw how bothered everyone got over that.
It would be great if we had some sort of guide to help us make the subtle decisions. It would be wonderful if there was some text, something written down and cherished for generations that had instructions for how to tell the blessing from the curse. [LOOK AT THE TORAH] Oh, wait a minute!
In the Torah portion we read this afternoon, we will hear the holiness code. It begins with God telling Moses to tell the Israelites that they should be holy because God is holy. Let’s be honest, that seems like a tall order at first. It almost feels impossible to make our choices from this morning based on God’s holiness. But then Moses breaks it down for the Israelites. What does being holy actually mean? Simple things at first. Honor your parents, keep Shabbat, don’t steal, don’t worship idols, make proper sacrifices, don’t harvest your field’s corners. Then it gets into bigger social issues. “Do not curse the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind.” Judge fairly. Do not spread slander. Respect our elders. Be honest in judgment. Treat strangers as if they are already citizens, because we were strangers. If that doesn’t sound like a political platform, I don’t know what does.
Of course, we could talk about any one of these statements for hours, but I am just giving you the straight text today. Right out of the Torah: Judge fairly. Do not spread slander. Respect our elders. Be honest in judgment. Treat strangers as if they are already citizens, because we were strangers.
Striving for holiness means that holiness should imbue every aspect of our life. When we are here in the sanctuary or at home. Whether we are at work or driving on the highway. Whether we are shopping or having dinner with friends and family. Whether it is Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, or election day. We are commanded to be holy, and we can demand that holiness from everyone, from the people we lead to those who lead us. We should demand it from our own leaders.
Our American duopoly is far from holy, and it is getting farther and farther by the minute. Every negative ad, every bit of mud slung, every tweet brings us out of the holy and into the profane. When we say nothing about it, we are giving it permission to grow and thrive, to infect our political system and our daily lives. Judaism permits us—or rather it commands us—to engage in the welfare of the people. It commands us to be politically active, and to do so in a manner that shows our love for our neighbor as well as for our nation.
Justin Amash, Katherine Gehl, and Michael Porter get it. There are current political candidates who get it. There are plenty of politicians and candidates who do not get it. We are surely stuck with the current system of gerrymandered electoral districts for the foreseeable future, but we still have the obligation to vote, and to participate in the political process—without becoming bedfellows with any person or party, and without insulting or scorning those who disagree with us. Being holy means we argue b’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven and for the good of the people. Being holy means we treat our neighbors with respect, no matter their political leanings. This is our mandate, direct from our sacred texts.
Judaism IS politics. Politics should be holiness. It is up to us to take part—to write to our senators and representatives; to speak out when we witness the injustices of the current system; to blow the whistle on lashon hara from our leaders; to let them know that we will only support those who strive to be holy, for we are holy.