July 19, 2024
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July 19, 2024
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Why (Orthodox) Jews Should Vote for Joe Biden

The Torah of my primary role models, Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Aharon Lichtenstein and Abraham Isaac Kook:

embraces every person, created in God’s Image, with love

is concerned for the welfare of humanity as a whole

is morally driven by concern for society’s vulnerable

sees wealth and power as means to moral ends

actively embraces science and expertise to perceive objective realities

scorns liars

fearlessly engages the world and its challenges with confidence, strength and broad vision

espouses passionate religious Zionism

fights for the welfare of the Jewish people and its religious liberties

instinctively eschews the vulgar and praises retiring modesty

communicates with thoughtful, articulate language

counters present and potential dangers with foresight and wisdom

distinguishes and balances greater priorities and smaller ones

Just a few short years ago, Modern Orthodox communities would have found these statements neither controversial nor political. Yet in the years since Donald Trump arrived on the American political scene and rapidly came to dominate American Orthodox Jewish life, what were truisms are now seen as both. Consider me old fashioned, perhaps, but Trump’s presidency has not changed me or my values in a fundamental way.

That’s why it’s easy for me to support Joe Biden for president. An imperfect politician? Sure. Policies I disagree with? Yup. But also: a moderate Democrat. A decent man, praised by allies and foes alike. A passionate Zionist and defender of our people for more than 40 years of public life—including against left-wing extremists. (Trump encourages right-wing extremists.)

Biden has embraced the Jewish people and Israel since childhood. With his transactional approach to life, Trump embraces only politically conservative Orthodox Jews, in a divisive way, calling Jewish Democrats “disloyal.” Regarding Orthodox Jews, he said: “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”

Biden and his party take scientific and medical realities seriously and present serious, detailed plans to address serious issues. This election, the Republican Party didn’t bother to adopt any platform. Having abandoned serious governance and policy-making in favor of holding power by supporting an unpredictable leader, it couldn’t. Instead it stated that it “rejects the policy positions espoused by the Democratic National Committee today” (as if rejection constitutes a policy of one’s own) “[and] enthusiastically supports the President’s America-first agenda.”

Last week, this paper published online my full-length analytical essay, “Why (Orthodox) Jews Must Vote for Joe Biden”; tinyurl.com/y3w4nr4b. I stand by its contents and encourage you to read it—yet I agree with critics that, particularly as a rabbi, I should have used “should” instead of “must” in its title. Self reflection and admitting error are Jewish values that have also become old fashioned in the “never admit you’re wrong,” “double down” Trump era.

In that essay I argued that, on issue after critical issue, Biden is the better candidate, whose positions are more consistent with Torah values. (This includes support for our beloved Israel, where I compared Biden’s lifelong, deep-seated, morally-based support for Israel with Trump’s transactional approach.) I rebutted the common argument that “Biden is beholden to [or: controlled by] a socialist, anti-Israel, antisemitic left,” noting that an accusation of radicalism more accurately and dangerously fits Trump and his right-wing.

In truth, a few far-left “Squad” Democrats won House seats in 2018, get a lot of press, and are not Israel’s friends. But Democrats took control of the House in 2018 by moderate Democrats winning swing districts; 59 of the 62 new Democratic Congress members consistently support Israel. Democratic House members condemned BDS by a vote of 209-16 (joined by “Squad” member Rep. Ayanna Pressley). Biden defeated 20 other presidential candidates by distinguishing himself from the Democratic hard left. He reflected Democratic consensus by rejecting as “a gigantic mistake” the far left’s recent calls to threaten or “condition” military assistance to Israel. The suggestion that if elected president after a half-century of public life and the campaign of his lifetime, Biden (along with moderate Democrats) will lurch radically leftward is baseless.

I also rejected the suggestion made by many Trump supporters that one can separate Trump’s words from his policies, and argued that his rhetoric is as dangerous—including for Jews—as his policies. To which I here add: We religious Jews pay an enormous price in our own religious integrity (and our “brand,” as the rest of our people and world sees us) when we downplay his fundamental indecency as well as the dangers of his bigotry and xenophobia, and their damage to society.

More broadly, strongly aligning our religious community with a particular party compromises our religious integrity. We Orthodox regularly decry our non-Orthodox brethren for this, yet too many of us now do the same—with widespread, painful
personal and spiritual consequences for existing and potential members of our communities with differing political views. A party’s decisions which, inevitably, diverge from our basic values force us to live with the resulting moral dissonance, or to compromise our own religion. And when our community willingly identifies with a political leader whose own supporters acknowledge his unprecedented personal failings, our religion risks becoming a personality cult. The Orthodox world already abounds with these woes.

In summer 2018 I published an essay, tinyurl.com/yxrp4lxr, for a sister Jewish Link publication, writing as one of “countless thinking Jews intoxicated with love for Torah, Israel and our people, and devoted to Jewish interests, as well as proud citizens seeking what we deem best for our world, our nation and its interests, and our fellow Americans.” Then, I wrote that “many American Orthodox Jews and rabbis join the majority of Americans and American Jews in considering Trump to be an active danger to our nation and its longstanding norms, as well as to the world as a whole.”

In those pre-COVID days, I of course did not specifically imagine that the New England Journal of Medicine would soon have disastrous reason to directly speak out against a sitting U.S. president for the first time in its 208-year history in an editorial entitled “Dying in a Leadership Vacuum.” Yet today America leads the world in infections and death, our citizens dying of COVID-19 at a rate of almost two 9/11s a week, with a president who says “we’re learning to live with it.”

Of course, I also didn’t specifically imagine that Trump would close his term in office by rejecting the ultimate democratic norm: a commitment to a peaceful transfer of power. Beyond endangering our nation’s health and threatening the stability of our democracy, one shudders to imagine how else a second-term Trump could actively endanger our country and world. Yet here’s the ultimate fear, as expressed by Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, as well as student, son and grandson of my teachers:

This is a mentally disturbed person without any inhibition or judgment who controls the button of the most powerful nuclear weapons in the world—and here [in Israel] people applaud him… They don’t ask how it’s possible to abandon the fate of humanity to such an unbalanced man, who doesn’t recognize the concepts of truth and falsehood… All of this will harm us, even if there’s an embassy in Jerusalem.

The choice is obvious: Joe Biden is better for our country, the world and the Jews. Without hesitation, (Orthodox) Jews should vote for him.

Rabbi Barry Kornblau is the rabbi of Young Israel of Hollis Hills – Windsor Park in Queens, New York, and served for a dozen years on the rabbinic staff of the Rabbinical Council of America. His views represent no entity, and are personal.

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