How Jews Should Vote
By Rabbi Avi Shafran
Yes, Varda, there is a Jewish way to vote - or at least a genuine Jewish perspective to bring to political races like the current one for the American presidency.
Some Jews would assert that “voting Jewish” consists only of analyzing the respective candidates’ positions or pronouncements on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, or any of a number of domestic social issues, or on Iran, Darfur or the environment.
Such analyses are certainly proper. But there is a larger context in which to place them here, an overarching Jewish principle.
A June 6 New York Sun editorial rejected attempts to link Senator Obama with odious people he has known. The editorialist noted that even American presidents who had espoused repugnant views before their elections, came afterward to act very differently from what their erstwhile views would have led anyone to expect.
Before he ascended to the presidency, for example, Harry Truman expressed deeply negative opinions about blacks, Asians, Italians and Jews; yet, once in office he greatly energized the cause of civil rights and confounded his State and Defense Departments by recognizing Israel within minutes of the Jewish State’s declaration of independence. And – like Richard Nixon, another man with seemingly strong personal feelings of ill will toward Jews – he supported Israel with military supplies at a crucial juncture in the Jewish State’s history.
Thus, when it comes to world leadership, it seems, it is not unreasonable to expect the unexpected. The Sun editorialized its explanation of the phenomenon: “…once a man accedes to the presidency, reality has a way of asserting itself.”
The Jewish take on the unpredictability of world leaders, however, lies less in reality’s self-assertion than in the upshot of a posuk in Mishlei: “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of Hashem” (21:1).
Our mesorah’s understanding of those words is that while all human beings are gifted with free will, there are times when Divine guidance – even Divine coercion – can play a decisive role in the actions of mortals, and in particular those of national leaders.
That is not, of course, necessarily to say that by virtue of their exalted positions such people are mere automatons, or that they are never responsible for choices they make. “Merits are brought through the meritorious,” says the Gemara, “and iniquity through the iniquitous.”
What it is to say, though, is that some element of Divine intercession can sometimes be at play in a far-reaching royal – or Presidential – decision.
Thus, the Torah tells us, Hashem “hardened the heart” of Paroh and, centuries later, acted through Achashverosh to grant Esther’s wishes and rescue ancient Persia’s Jews from Haman’s hand. (The phrase “hamelech” in the Megillas Esther, we are informed, on one level actually means “the King,” the ultimate One). There are, similarly, many more recent examples as well of national leaders acting in ways that would never have been predictable before their rise to power. It is almost as if someone (or Someone) had reached into the leader’s heart and fiddled around with its contents.
When such Heavenly interventions take place, our mesorah teaches, they are the fruit of Jewish merits – or, sadly, the lack of the same. What matters in the end is not the leaders’ pasts but rather the Jews’ presents – the current state of our dedication to Hashem and His will.
Which idea, of course, rather radically alters the attitude we should take, if not the calculus we should make, when we weight candidates for high office. It doesn’t obviate either the need to assess their characters or positions, or the importance itself of voting – a duty that our gedolim strongly stress. Hashem’s intervention in human affairs does not absolve us humans from shouldering our ethical or civil responsibilities.
But from a truly Jewish perspective, the tipping point of how kings and presidents will in the end act regarding issues that matter most is the relationship of Klal Yisroel to the Creator. Whoever happens to be elected is of considerably less import than the critical factor: our zechuyos, our spiritual merits.
So, yes, Varda, while there may not be a clear candidate for the Jewish vote in November, there is a clear perspective for Jewish voters to keep in mind: What matter more than our choices in the voting booth are the ones we make in our homes and our lives.
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
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