October 23, 2020

SAMILOW | There Is Not One Jewish Ballot

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Last week, a guest column wrongly asserted that “Jewish principles” require that “American Jewry, nay all Americans of conscience, must vote Biden over Trump.” According to the column, Biden is “a real mensch” who embodies “Jewish values.” While I am no doubt heartened to see Cornell students apply their religious values to the public square, the author’s thesis relies on a gross simplification of Jewish values and a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between religion and politics.

Modern Judaism encompasses a wide array of theological views and religious practices and, accordingly, resists easy categorization. To some Jews, Jewish values mean applying the moral precepts of the Torah to modern life; to other Jews, it means observing Jewish law and traditional practices. The author glosses over this complexity and instead asserts that Jewish values are merely his own progressive values, and seemingly nothing more.

The column suggests that Judaism is not a rich theological, legal and cultural heritage. Rather, Judaism can be reduced to a single slogan: Tikkun Olam  (“repairing the world”). Tikkun Olam is an old liturgical phrase, with a historically different meaning, that was adopted by the Reform Movement in the latter half of the twentieth century as a way of religiously grounding their commitment to social justice.Today, it refers to the idea that Jews have an obligation to concern themselves with the welfare of the wider world. The Jewish community should be concerned with the wellbeing of those around them, but too many progressive Jews have come to see social justice as the only aspect of Judaism. The end result is that the Jewish religious tradition is reduced to support for the en vogue social causes of the day.

Indeed, the author concedes this, citing Biden’s support for the Affordable Care Act and cancer research as evidence of his commitment to Jewish values. Are we seriously to believe that an ancient faith impels us to support President Obama’s controversial healthcare reform?  The author is, of course, welcome to support policies he believes are in the interest of society, but it devalues Judaism to suggest that it, or any religion, can be reduced to support for a specific set of contemporary public policies.

Now, Jews are famous for disagreeing. There is, of course, the popular saying that for “two Jews, there are three opinions.” The major denominations of Judaism – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox – have wide theological disagreements. Reform Judaism, which emerged in nineteenth century Germany, sought to adapt Judaism to European society by refocusing the religion around ethical principles rather than adherence to Jewish law, or Halakha. In recent years, Reform Judaism has come to be defined by its commitment to Tikkun Olam, which it accomplishes through social justice work. Conservative Judaism formed in response to the Reform Movement and sought to find a middle ground between modernity and tradition. Conservative Judaism considers Halakha binding, but does not see the Torah as the literal word of God. Instead Halakha is rooted in communal acceptance and, as a result, has and will continue to evolve with time. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, maintain the binding, largely unchanging nature of Halakha and believe that the Torah is the revealed word of God.

These deep theological differences have significant ramifications for the political sphere. By and large, Reform and Conservative Jews are politically liberal and supportive of the Democratic Party. In contrast, Orthodox Jews are more socially conservative and supportive of the Republican Party, with a recent poll from Ami Magazine finding that 83 percent of Orthodox Jews intend to vote for President Trump. The column seems to suggest that the political choices of these committed Jews are somehow anathema to Jewish values.

The author is seemingly unable to grasp why religious Jews would be turned off by a Democratic Party that is increasingly alien and hostile to people of faith. He doesn’t understand why committed Jews would not want to vote for a party where the likes of Louis Farrakhan and his disciples are tolerated. And he ignores the concerns of proud Zionists about the growing anti-Israel sentiment within the Democratic Party. Instead, he chooses to cast any Jew who is uncomfortable with Biden and the Democratic Party as in opposition to Jewish values. The simple fact of the matter is that “Jewish values” can’t tell you how to vote. Individuals have to decide which candidates align with their values, religious or otherwise. The author has concluded that his values, not “Jewish values,” better align with Vice President Biden.

After making the case for Biden, the column goes on to provide a laundry list of allegations against President Trump. While they are not particularly relevant to this column, I do want to flag one particular claim, because it reveals a disturbing proclivity to cheapen the memory of Holocaust in service of political gain. In the president’s proposal for a “1776 Commission” to counter the educational influence of The New York Times’s 1619 Project, the author sees an effort “reminiscent of the Hitler Youth.” Obviously, the degree to which schools should try to instill a sense of patriotism is a worthy public policy debate. But to compare it to the indoctrination program of a genocidal regime is grossly irresponsible. And as if one unhinged comparison weren’t sufficient, the column also goes on to compare Trump to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels and Trump’s campaign platform to Nazism.

However quaint the notion might be, I continue to maintain that it is possible to criticize Trump without comparing him to Nazi Germany.

But these temporal political squabbles are ultimately a distraction from what’s really important. Religion is about communing with and serving God, finding meaning in the world and choosing to live one’s life in accordance with a system of belief. Judaism is one of these systems of belief. Its religious tenets are varied and complex and do not align with any particular political party. Jews of all stripes should, informed by their religious values, choose who they think is best. But they should not claim that Judaism makes that choice for them.


Matthew Samilow is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. On Malott’s Front Steps runs every other Friday this semester