Thursday, March 30, 2023

The country was transfixed all last week to the spectacle of newly elected members of the majority political party in the House of Representatives not allowing themselves and their colleagues to “take their victory” as scheduled, as they convened to elect a speaker who would be next in line to the presidency of the United States after the vice president. This takes on added significance in light of the age (and possibly other factors, according to some) of the current leader of the free world. It took the Republicans 15 rounds (or votes) until they finally settled on their leader, who had the support of more than 90% of their members from their first vote until their last.

There was speculation that the failure to coalesce around the candidate supported by such a super majority of the elected representatives of their party, could result in the emergence of a coalition with moderates from both parties to deprive the person with the support of the super majority of the position.

How could this happen? And could it have been prevented? Once again, a study of the references on not merely one page but two pages of the Daf Yomi, the daily page of the Talmud read around the world, could have prevented this crisis from reaching such a stage.

First, some background. The tractate studied around the world at this time dealt with nedarim, vows. Observant Jews have 613 biblical commandments to observe, and countless rabbinical laws interpreting them, so they are discouraged from imposing additional obligations or restrictions on themselves. Nevertheless, there seems to be something in the human nature of some people to strengthen their resolve—in some instances to express anger or resentment—by means of a vow. A disproportionate number of vows seem to have been made, from time immemorial through to Talmudic times, through to the current era, forbidding people to benefit from the object of their displeasure.

Yet from round one until round 14, anywhere from four to 21 relatively “right wing” Republicans who had been elected to serve in the House refused to “take their victory” and support the person who was so tantalizingly close to becoming Speaker of the House. This would prevent the emergence of an alternate “consensus” candidate supported only by members of the “left wing” of their party, together with members of what has often been referred to as the “left wing” party. Personal animosity and distrust seem to have caused this bizarre situation.

It has been calculated or estimated that most of the vows dealt with in the tractate of Nedarim are those by which one individual breaks off relations with another either in whole or in part. In Congress this past week, up to 20 individuals were willing to break off relations, to a degree, with the overwhelming majority of the members of their party even after they had imposed such restrictions on the candidate they opposed. They even admitted that he had conceded to them all the humiliating and oppressive restrictions on his powers they had demanded, so that he would in effect be bound by vows, or their equivalent, and forced to rule in a straight jacket to enforce these vows. Yet they still refused to vote for him because of their personal animosity.

The Talmud (Nedarim 78b) referred to “one who is silent in order to sustain (or ratify) a vow,” but only by dragging out the time for a determination. By the six remaining holdouts voting “present” instead of “aye,” their silence, in effect, sustained the vote for speaker, but only by dragging out the time for a determination. They refused to vote in the affirmative earlier in a sign of unity that could have ended the national nightmare—and waste of time—much earlier. Had the person in the Talmud not been silent, he could have upheld the vow more clearly and expeditiously. Had the reluctant (to put it mildly) members of Congress voted aye, rather than present (the equivalent of silence), they could have resolved the matter at hand earlier and provided a sense of unity within a party whose representatives essentially shared the same general values, if not necessarily the nuances or the means of personalities to achieve them.

A reference to matters involving the mutual relationship between a husband and a wife (Nedarim 79b) prompted a discussion of the sensitivity of not just one spouse for another, but also one friend for another, and one student for one’s teacher. Rabbi Shalom Rosner, who lectures on the daily daf, All Daf, via the Orthodox Union website, used this opportunity in a taped lecture to cite the Rambam (Maimonides) on the three levels of friendship. The basic or lowest level is friendship l’to’elet, for expediency; one friend derives benefit from the other. The intermediate level is friendship for menucha, in this context to share experiences together, to feel good when in each other’s presence. The highest level is ma’alah, to share a common goal, a common dream. This is the ultimate. Members of Congress from the same party do not necessarily have to feel bound by the intermediate level; They do not have to like each other’s company. But for the good of their party—and their country—they should unite for mutual benefit or expediency (the basic level), for a common goal and a common dream (the ultimate level). This is a lesson taught by the Talmud indirectly, by the Rambam directly and by the Democrats in voting unanimously on every ballot despite the various shades of differences (some very significant) between the members of their party.

No matter what our politics are—no matter what our personal preferences may be—if we share a goal, we should unite to achieve it.

Rabbi Reichel takes no position in this article about the politics – just the lessons to be learned -- and notes for the record that the contemporary rabbi he quoted made no mention of politics, having taped the lecture long before the first ballot was cast.

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