It only happens on the rare Shabbos morning in which our rabbi is away. One of our community members steps to the front of the main sanctuary between the Torah reading and mussaf, the additional Sabbath service. I always expect them to offer a few words about the week’s Torah portion in our rabbi’s place, as is customary at this point in the service. However, they usually will offer political diatribes instead.
“Of course, if only President Obama would be smart and declare air strikes on Iran …”
“Of course, the Democrats are out to destroy family values …”
“Of course, no one would expect Hillary Clinton—who hugged Arafat’s wife, remember?—to do anything about …”
Of course, he (usually, it’s a he, but not always) says, because anyone who disagrees with him must be be devoid of common sense.
It is true that most of the members of my Orthodox synagogue vote Republican, and that most Orthodox Jews nationwide endorse Republican candidates in national elections. However, I do not belong to the Republican Party, and I often strongly disagree with Republican Party rhetoric.
Yet I refuse to believe I am devoid of common sense.
When I talk politics with my secular or non-Jewish friends, my situation is no more comfortable. I find myself in the minority among a crowd of liberal Democrats. On many occasions, I find myself nodding along with their opinions about civil rights, education spending, and gun control because they dovetail with my own. But if I dissent with liberal ideology about another subject on social media or at a party, I’m liable to be called names.
I am stuck in the middle.
Growing up, family gatherings consisted of wall-to-wall Democrats. Every Passover Seder involved rants against President Reagan—or, later, President George H. W. Bush—complaints against his latest nominees for the Supreme Court or cabinet positions, tirades against Republican senators who endangered abortion rights and artistic freedom, and general disgust with the GOP. Relatives attacked excessive defense spending while schools and public services saw budgets slashed.
It may have been the 1980s, but Nixon was still the butt of jokes around our family’s Thanksgiving table. When I walked into my grandparents’ garage growing up, the first thing I noticed was the McGovern hard hat.
Looking back, I can think of only one cousin who admitted he was a Republican. His membership in the GOP was offered as evidence he was an oddball.
Given my upbringing, it was natural that I joined the Young Dems on my college campus even before I was old enough to vote. The first article I wrote for my college newspaper was about attending a Clinton-Gore rally at which then-Sen. Gore spoke. The resulting story made the front page of the paper.
During college and graduate school, I became more religiously observant. The way I led my private life became more conservative, but my political beliefs remained essentially the same. I remember joyfully voting for President Clinton’s re-election during my first opportunity to vote in a presidential election. Earlier that year, I had joined my first Orthodox synagogue. I didn’t really see a contradiction in these two affiliations.
Two years later, I met my future husband, a Republican. A former Democrat, he had been disgusted by Whitewater and revolted by President Clinton’s moral failings. He listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio but turned it off whenever I entered the car.
When I called my much-beloved great-aunt to announce our engagement, she asked, “Is he a Democrat?”
“Republican,” I responded.
“Rats! Well, at least your grandmother said he’s nice. And cute.”
(This was the same great-aunt who pointed out Tom Selleck every time he appeared on the TV screen. “Such a good-looking man. Too bad he’s a Republican.”)
In the first few months after our wedding, my husband and I tried to keep political arguments to a minimum, but were not entirely successful. I considered it a small price to pay for an otherwise lovely spouse.
About a year into our marriage, my husband handed me a book he’d just finished reading. “You’ll love it,” he said. The book was A Tzaddik in Our Time, Simcha Raz’s biography of Rabbi Aryeh Levin. I found the stories of Levin’s kindness, gentleness, and generosity of spirit captivating. However, one story would influence our marriage in unexpected ways.
Levin insisted that it was a Jew’s duty to vote, but that joining a political party was a mistake. In his ethical will, he wrote:
I was careful not to be allied with any political party or group, in keeping with the teaching I received from my tutors, the great and holy Torah scholars: And truth was lacking (Isaiah 59:15)—because they became adarim, separate little herds, in which a person would strive only for the good of the members of his group and vote only for a candidate from his group, even if that person was unfit for the position under consideration, rejecting a fit and qualified candidate.
His words got me thinking. I brought them up with my husband, and upon mutual agreement, we both switched our party affiliations to “Decline to State.”
Political arguments in our household declined immediately. Resolving to vote solely based on our independent assessments of ballot measures and candidates, we eschewed party loyalties. When issues came up, instead of listening to pundits and politicians, we considered carefully: Is there relevant research on this topic to direct our course? And what would the Torah say about this? Even when we disagreed, we managed to restrict these conflicts to the issues rather than defaulting toward partisan insults and character assassination.
As we lost attachment to our parties, my husband and I found our positions move to the middle. My husband stopped listening to Rush. I started actually listening when politicians spoke, regardless of their label. Political figures I’d admired in the past frustrated me because their inflexibility and unwillingness to start sincere dialogue and negotiate. Those who bridged gaps and reached across the aisle won my appreciation.
It helped that our congregation’s rabbi rarely discusses politics from the pulpit, and when he does so, he calmly offers a perspective based in Jewish law and tradition. No party is singled out for shame or admiration.
The next change took longer, but was equally profound. I noticed that I could calmly and carefully point out research indicating that illegal immigrants actually contribute to the economy, and if the people I was talking to were strongly committed Republicans, they’d spout completely fact-free rhetoric back, citing some radio or cable TV pundit. I could add on arguments from the Torah favoring a more gentle approach on immigrants—to Orthodox Jews, no less—and they’d continue on the same tirade.
Dyed-in-the-wool Democrats were no better. If I pointed out to them that property owners who sent their kids to private school paid the same taxes as those who sent their children to a public one but received less benefit, they were more likely to tell me private school parents deserved this “penalty” for pulling their kids out of the system than to discuss ways to provide vouchers without harming public schools.
Their opinions had little relation to facts, and if confronted with facts, they either got evasive or defensive. And loud.
After experiencing this for a while, I mentioned this to my husband. He pointed out to me a set of books on our shelf, the multi-volume English translation of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler’s magnum opus, Strive for Truth.
Dessler writes that people don’t generally look for truth. They sift through evidence and only select what defends their personal desires. They use logic and memory and pathos to justify what they’ve really wanted all along. The trick is to learn to want the right things, says Dessler, by using the Torah as our guide.
When I ask my fellow Orthodox Jews why they are Republicans, they usually say something about defending “family values”—shorthand for opposition to abortion and an LGBT agenda. Even if we assume that the Republican positions on these issues parallel those of Orthodox Judaism, which is not entirely the case, how do those issues take precedence over other aspects of the Republican platform that run counter to the Torah?
Can an Orthodox Jew accept a candidate who tosses about words of onaat devarim (intentionally hurtful speech) toward anyone in his way? What about one who publicly states he wants to kick immigrants out of the United States? Who favors the interests of Big Business? And do we really believe that a country that penalizes people of color on an institutional level is a nation of justice? The Torah has as much to say about proper speech, xenophobia, and the pursuit of justice for both the strong and the weak as it does about “family values.”
The reality for Orthodox American Jews is this: No political party in the United States has a Torah-friendly platform. On some issues, Jewish law leans to the right, and in others, to the left. Sometimes, the same Torah-based sources can be used to defend both sides of an argument (regarding the legalization of marijuana, for example). When we vote in an election, we can only use our best judgment.
The day of the last presidential election, my 92-year-old grandmother phoned me. “Did you vote yet?”
I paused, not knowing how to reply. After much soul-searching, I’d voted for Romney. Taking a deep breath, I said, “Don’t worry, Grandma, I did my civic duty.”
She sighed. I think she understood my message, because the next thing she said was, “Well, I guess that’s the important part. So many people don’t realize that it’s our responsibility to be part of the democratic process.”
I’ll be doing my duty again next year. A few weeks back, a friend shared a link with me to ISideWith.com. The website offers to tell you which candidate to vote for according to your views on issues. It also accounts for how strongly you feel about each issue. My husband and I each spent 10 minutes filling out questionnaires about Obamacare and gun rights and the environment. I was told my ideal candidate was Bernie Sanders. My husband’s? Ted Cruz.
We had a good laugh over it.
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Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mother, and writer in Los Angeles.