November 29, 2023
November 29, 2023

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We All Have a Responsibility to Our Core Jewish Values

“…Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings…that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself and that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” —Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Like all Americans, Jews have their own parochial voting interests. Evangelicals tend to vote for candidates based on social issues; Cuban Americans support hawkish, anti-Castro elected officials; and Jewish Americans, as we know, tend to prioritize pro-Israel candidates.

There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, James Madison explicitly points out in the Federalist Papers that our political system is designed to stymie reactionary change by making room for conflicting political factions to express themselves and lobby for their own interests. Fair enough. The question becomes, however, how does our community define its self-interest. And if we support President Trump, or desist from voicing our opposition to him, are we betraying that self-interest?

Through the highs and lows of Jewish history, Jews have taught humanity to cherish the dignity of each and every human being, to care for the underprivileged and beleaguered and to model behavior that reflects kindness and mercy to those in need. The Jewish corpus is full of debates and arguments over law, custom and even value systems, but the mandate to be compassionate as expressed in the Talmud, “Just as God is merciful so you must be merciful” (Hulin, 84A), is not a point of contention. It is echoed in both the written and oral law; and our biblical forefathers, prophets and contemporary spiritual leaders, such as Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and, more recently, Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, echoed this in their teachings.

Given that we are charged with this most fundamental mandate, it is shocking, embarrassing and reprehensible that our community, and by that I mean the North American Orthodox Jewish community, has for the most part failed to express moral outrage at the expressions of racism, misogyny and xenophobia that have characterized the Trump administration.

Yes, our institutions released a bland statement when President Trump publicly supported white supremacists. But for the most part, the collective “We” privately roll our eyes at Trump’s daily inanities but fail to exercise our right of dissent against a president who continually insults minorities, objectifies and demeans women, provides cover to racists and bigots and comports himself in a way that is beneath the dignity of the office of the President of the United States.

So why don’t we express the moral outrage that embodies our raison d’etre? Why aren’t we flooding the letters to the editor sections of daily newspapers, locking arms with our Haitian and African brethren at protests or demanding that our community leaders use their bully pulpits to fulminate against the filth emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania?

Living a Jewish life requires making hard choices between competing values. We believe in freedom but also equality. How do we square the two when to create equality we must circumscribe freedoms? Fasting on Yom Kippur cleanses our souls, but if one is sick, do we prioritize our physical health? Famously, the Talmud in Ketubot (17A) addresses the question of competing values in a discussion of whether one should prioritize truth when addressing a bride on her wedding day or kindness, in which case one should praise the bride regardless of her attributes. The Talmud is very clear that it is kindness and compassion that rule the day.

Even if one assumes that President Trump is having a positive impact on the future of the Jewish state, we must ask ourselves if the ends justify the means. What good is it to have a Jewish state if as a community we betray our most fundamental Jewish values? We may not see guilt when we look in the mirror, but if we open our eyes, we will all see responsibility.

By Keith Zakheim

 A Bergenfield resident, Keith Zakheim is the CEO of PR firms Beckerman and Antenna Group, and serves as a strategic advisor to political leaders, both domestically and internationally.


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