Eyes, ears, Jewish law, and election 2016

With the appearance of most of the presidential hopefuls at the AIPAC conference this week, it is time to explore the halachic quagmire known as election season.

Jewish law has very strict guidelines when it comes to “bad speech,” lashon hara. Political candidates, on the other hand, appear to have no guidelines at all. They tell half-truths and no-truths, they disparage their opponents and others directly or by innuendo, and too often they engage in misdirection and misinformation — the two go hand in hand.

The candidates also violate a law found in Leviticus 19:14, which prohibits placing “a stumbling block before the blind.” Halachah treats this as a law against both misdirection and misinformation.

A recent commercial for Gov. John Kasich, for example, promised, “He’ll do for Michigan what he’s done for Ohio — create jobs.” Pity Michigan if that happens. Yes, Ohio has seen a 7.6 percent rise in all jobs since Kasich became governor (it is 9.3 percent for the private sector alone). Michigan, however, added 10 percent more jobs in that period (13 percent in the private sector alone). Ohio’s job growth rate is also below the national average — 9.5 percent overall and 11.7 percent in the private sector.

Hillary Clinton attacked Bernie Sanders for voting against the auto industry bailout. This was not a lie, but it also was not the truth. Sanders voted against a bill that was unclear as to how much would actually be spent on the auto industry, but he did support the bailout.

Sanders, meanwhile, is trying to make inroads with black voters. He keeps saying that “51 percent of African American kids today are unemployed,” whereas the latest figures put it at 25.2 percent. That still is too high, but it is still less than half what Sanders claims.

If you listen to Donald Trump (and, halachically, you probably should not do so; see further on), “we’re going to lose $505 billion in terms of trades with China” alone. In Trump fact, he adds, “we lose money with” every trading partner. In real fact, the entire U.S. net trade deficit comes to around $530 million, of which China accounts for a hefty $366 billion. And in at least six cases—Brazil, Netherlands, Belgium, Argentina, Singapore, and Australia—the United States had positive trade balances in 2014, the last full year for which statistics are available.

Then there is Sen. Ted Cruz. The Texan to whom some Jewish organizations are flocking keeps talking about “Judeo-Christian ethics” when what he really means is that the United States was founded as a Christian country and must be run as a Christian country. That’s Christian, not Judeo-Christian.

John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., which tells you something about him knowing whereof he speaks. He is the author of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction.”

Warns Fea, “When Cruz says he wants to ‘reclaim’ or ‘restore’ America…, [he] wants to ‘restore’ the United States to what he believes is its original identity: a Christian nation.”

Consider some of what Cruz himself says.

In a book written by his father, Cruz is quoted as saying, “If our nation’s leaders are elected by unbelievers, is it any wonder that they do not reflect our values?”

All of us who go to the polls elect our leaders. If the leaders we elect do not reflect Cruz’s Christian values, and we voted for them, we are the “unbelievers.” The inference is that in a Christian country, only believing Christians should have the right to vote. Whether Cruz understands the import of his statement is an unanswered question at this point

Cruz also has said, on the campaign stump: “If the body of Christ arises, if Christians simply show up and vote biblical values, we can restore our nation.”

This is lashon hara because it disparages the morality and ethics of anyone who is not a Christian, and also the morality and ethics of those Christians who do not adhere to Cruz’s radically fundamentalist version of Christianity.

Lashon hara is a broad category. It includes telling deliberate lies, but it also includes telling truths without “a need to know” on the part of a listener (“need to know” is a narrowly constructed exception to lashon hara). It also includes a special subcategory known as motzei shem ra, in essence a disparaging of someone else. The current presidential campaign, which can only be categorized as disgusting, has become a paradigm for all categories of lashon hara.

There is an aspect of the laws of bad speech, however, that makes this the halachic quagmire it is: Lashon hara also includes a prohibition against listening to, or even reading, the bad speech emanating from the candidates. It also includes a prohibition against passing on these “statements.” In other words, if we watch a debate, or listen to a speech, or read about either in a newspaper, we, too, are violating lashon hara. Worse, there is little we can do to avoid breaking the law, because the media are having a field day covering this election.

That brings us to another conundrum, deciding whom to vote for from among the bad speech candidate crowd, who sadly are the only choices we have.

Consider this excerpt from the Takkanot of the Council of Cracow, which ruled Jewish life there in the Middle Ages. It sums up the guidelines for voters very well. It also leaves no doubt about who is at fault when our leaders fail us:

“…that no one of them [meaning us, the voters] has made any deal or deals with any other individuals or groups regarding the election. Also, each [voter] must promise to act for the sake of heaven and the common good, as he [or she] is instructed from on high, and not out of favoritism or self-interest or personal grudge….

“These electors [meaning us] should not act hurriedly, but should think carefully…, for once they have signed their opinions…, nothing can be changed.”

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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