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Tuesday, November 24, 2020
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Editor's note: This dvar torah corresponds to Breishis 47:4, and overlaps and complements לא בחיל ולא בכח from 16 Cheshvan, 5781 (2 November, 2020). We are grateful to Rav Twersky and Torahweb.org for allowing us to reprint it here. To read it in the original, visit: https://tinyurl.com/y6tba64m

Life in the diaspora poses various conundrums, amongst them political involvement/activism. We aim בס»ד to focus on one representative, specific question. To what degree, if any, should we be involved in presidential politics?

As citizens we have a self-interest in and responsibility for society[1]. On both accounts, our right to vote translates into a responsibility to do so. And, in fact, that was the position of my grandfather, Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, as well as Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l (amongst others).

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Our relationship to and standing within the diaspora is dialectical. Externally, from a secular, societal perspective we should be recognized and appreciated as full-fledged citizens. But internally, from a Torah perspective, in our own eyes we are always strangers.

וזה ויגר שם מלמד שלא ירד יעקב אבינו להשתקע אלא לגור שם. פירוש, מלמד לדורות בכל גלות וגלות ההנהגה, שידעון שלא ירדו להשתקע רק לגור עד בא קץ הימין, ויהיו נחשבים בעיני עצמם לא כאזרחים.

“‘He sojourned there’: This teaches us that our patriarch Y’akov intended only to sojourn, not settle [in Egypt].” I.e., this teaches for all generations how Jews must conduct themselves in each and every exile, that they should know that they have not descended to the diaspora to settle, rather to sojourn until the redemption (literally, end of days), and they should view themselves as non-citizens. (Meshech Chochmah, Vayikra 26:44)

Civic loyalty to and responsibility for our country of residence notwithstanding, we recognize that the land outside of Eretz Yisrael is not ours. Our existential mindset and consciousness are that of an uprooted, displaced refugee whose real and rightful place is in the Land of Israel.

We must also be constantly, acutely aware of the dangerous reality of anti-Semitism, both latent and active. While the world is blessed with the devout of the nations (חסידי אומות העולם), it is also plagued by the scourge of anti-Semites. We must not be ignorantly lulled into a naive, false sense of security based upon our own very limited, mostly congenial, personal experience (for which we are very grateful to the United States). Instead we must be wisely, cautiously realistic, based upon our extensive, bloody, national-historical experience. Anti-Semitism is very real, and easily ignited or excited.

[As an aside, our generation, at times, lacks adequate historical consciousness. But that is a subject for another time.]

II

How did all this translate this year in terms of politicking?

Election campaigns are often (as of late, almost always) adversarial and divisive, never more so than this year. To the best of my knowledge, never before in our lifetimes has there been a [very well-founded] concern for violence in the aftermath of an election. In some respects, the country resembles a tinderbox.

Nothing could be more clear: In general, our conspicuously campaigning as Jews for any candidate is egregiously wrong and dangerous; how much more so this year given the volatile divisiveness of the campaign; how much more so when such politicking is carried out aggressively, even belligerently. It is wrong because a sojourner should not insert himself into political controversy and adversarialism, especially when marked by such volatility and vitriol. It is dangerous because ר»ל there are dangerous anti-Semites on both sides who are easily provoked. Inevitably one side loses, potentially leaving a small segment of its supporters explosively angry. In such a climate it is highly irresponsible to act so conspicuously and provocatively. We are resilient and not easily intimidated; but we are also wise and prudently cautious.

Simply (if a tad too colloquially) put, a visitor should not interfere in a domestic, political fight. And a potential target of anti-Semitism should not be seen as seeking to influence the outcome of a highly charged, volatile campaign. His lack of realism in that effort does not diminish the potential danger.

The practical applications are not all behind us. Pre-election campaigning has concluded; but who knows what post-election protests await? It is categorically forbidden and utterly reckless for any Jew to participate in such protests should they materialize.

III

Some supplementary perspectives on politicking. It is incongruous, and thus wrong, to campaign as Jews for John Doe. Whereas religious-moral values can and should determine how we vote, ultimately voting is a political act. This is so because of the need to politically assess which candidate will best advance those values. Given the variability and individuality of perception and judgment[2], it is commonplace that people with the same vision nonetheless disagree in their political assessments of competing candidates. Thus, voting remains very much a political act. And for this reason it is entirely incongruous, and thus wrong, for us to identify ourselves as Jews for John Doe.[3]

[I believe that this is why my grandfather steadfastly refused to give political endorsements. When we venture outside the realm of Torah and yet speak in her name, we politicize Torah. This can never be countenanced.]

Moreover, when we publicly, vociferously identify as Jews for John Doe we overstep our boundaries. In so doing, willy-nilly we indicate that Jewishness is the determining, driving force. Yet we are not qualified nor have we been authorized to speak on behalf of Judaism.

IV

Our sojourner status and vulnerability preclude partisan political activity such as presidential electioneering which, by its very nature, is antagonistic and confrontational. Advocacy, outside of an election campaign, however, can greatly differ. Let us explain and illustrate by focusing on a particular historical precedent: the marches and protests on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

There was a definite difference of opinion regarding the practical advisability and effectiveness of such activism. The activism did not, however, conflict with the principles outlined above. The reason being that Soviet Jewry advocacy did not align itself with a particular political party. This enabled the Soviet Jewry movement to non-antagonistically, by means of moral suasion, promote its vital, noble cause. While political actions and measures on behalf of Soviet Jewry were clearly sought, the advocacy was unequivocally moral and its United States context non-antagonistic. By contrast, presidential campaigning even when religiously-morally motivated is inescapably political and thus confrontational. Therein lie the differences.

Rabbanim who publicly opposed the Vietnam War operated with a similar (overlapping but not identical) calculus. They felt that their actions were not only justified but warranted because the anti-war position for all its political implications was fundamentally moral (and thus fundamentally apolitical); in that vein a broad spectrum of Americans coalesced around it. By contrast, presidential campaigning, for all its religious-moral motivation, is fundamentally political.

It goes without saying that the “Rabbis’ March” on Washington during World War II in an attempt to halt genocide was an עת לעשות (a time for emergency measures) that requires no analysis or further explanation. The recent election in England, featuring the dangerous, overt anti-Semitism of the [then] Labour party provided another unquestionable instance of עת לעשות, albeit of an entirely different magnitude.

In present times, the annual Israel Day Parade apolitically, non-confrontationally advocates by joyfully celebrating the U.S.-Israel alliance that has traditionally enjoyed broad, bi-partisan support.

V

It is imperative that we carefully assess every instance of political involvement or activism in light of the above principles and criteria.

[1] “We feel obligated to enrich society with our creative talents and to be constructive and useful citizens.” (Rav Soloveitchik, “Confrontation,” Tradition, Spring-Summer 1964, pp. 27-28.)

“The answer is enshrined in the brief self-introduction of Abraham our father to the children of Heth. Certainly I am a resident, I am one of you, I engage in business as you do, I speak your language, I take full part in your social-economic institutions. I even serve in the armed forces and am ready to defend the country should it be attacked by an enemy. I work with you in the laboratory, endeavor to overcome illness; I produce and develop the country, I am a resident in the fullest sense of the word. But at the same time I am also a stranger an, in some fields, a foreigner…” (idem, “The Rav Speaks,” p. 74). See also Rav Schachter שליט״א, Divrei HaRav, p. 96.

See Bereishis Rabbah 79:6:

ויחן את פני העיר התחיל מעמיד הטליסין ומוכר בזול הדא אמרת שאדם צריך להחזיק טובה למקום שיש לו הנאה ממנו.

He (Yaakov Avinu) began to set up carts and sell merchandise inexpensively. This teaches that a person has to feel and express gratitude [in a tangible way] to a place (of residence) from which he benefits.

My father, zt”l (“Torah of the Mind, Torah of the Heart,” ed. Rabbi David Shapiro שליט״א, p. 74), quotes this midrash and comments, “Chazal teach us here that a person must acknowledge his indebtedness to society by contributing toward its welfare.”

The halacha of דינא דמלכותא דינא (the law of the land is binding) also imposes a modicum of civic responsibility upon Jewish citizens.

[2]ת״ר הרואה אוכלוסי ישראל אומר ברוך חכם הרזים שאין דעתם דומה זה לזה

The Rabbis taught in a baraisa: One who sees multitudes of Jews says, “Blessed...the Sage of the Secrets” for their minds are not similar to each other. (Berachos 58a, Artscroll trans.)

תניא היה רבי מאיר אומר בשלשה דברים אדם משתנה מחבירו בקול ובמראה ובדעת

Rabbi Meir habitually said, “Man is unique in three respects: voice, appearance and mind.” (Sanhedrin 38a)

[3] For a (partial) parallel, see Magen Avraham 618:1.


Rabbi Mayer E. Twersky is one of the roshei yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. He holds the Leib Merkin Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud and Jewish Philosophy.

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