I was recently asked why is it that I, as a rabbi, speak about politics at all? “Shouldn’t you only speak about Torah and Jewish topics?” I strongly agree with this sentiment. Politics in nature are divisive, and the role of religion and community is to bring people together. To understand why one needs to understand the extraordinary changes American Orthodoxy has gone through and the direction in which it is heading.
As a rabbinic student, I had the honor of being part of the Strauss Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. One day in class, I found myself sitting through a persuasive argument on how money equals free speech, and why money in American politics–surely not a matter of consensus and without much to do with Torah or Western Thoughts–is the right thing for democracy. This was no exception. The Orthodox public sphere is so dominated by GOP politics that when we see expressions of that partisanship, we don’t think twice; it is just what part of Orthodoxy has become, and when we see any expressions in the other direction, it is shocking and alien to many.
This is why the Tikva Fund, a conservative think tank made most famous recently by inviting Ron DeSantis to explain to New York Jews why they should move to Florida or “how to combat wokeism,” is able to openly recruit students in Jewish day schools and high schools. At the same time, its equivalent on the democratic (Western) side of the spectrum could never dream of such a thing. Organizations that are affiliated with some of the most militant elements in the GOP are considered to be just mainstream normal parts of Orthodox life. This is how I got to see in an event as apolitical as Chidon Hatanach national finals, a day school father showing up with a “Let’s go Brandon” shirt, something that would never happen in the other direction. It is also why I get to see in Orthodox spaces “The Heritage Foundation” swag, an organization that advocates for committing women who have abortions to psychiatric facilities against their will and is praised by the NRA as it helps perpetuate America’s gun promiscuity, the leading cause of death among American children.
This is why when infamous Congresswoman Mary Miller gave a speech saying “Hitler was right,” there was a group of mainstream Orthodox rabbis who made sure to go out and defend her, while rabbis with far less extreme positions on the democratic side of things would be afraid to express those in the Orthodox community. It is why rabid antisemites like Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene are featured with adoration in one of the Orthodoxy’s largest magazines days after her attempt to overthrow the US government which we now learn she sought to be pardoned for, while we can never dream of that happening to any part of the other side of the political spectrum. American Orthodoxy has turned too much of who it is to be synonymous with extreme GOP politics and me not joining that ride seeming too extreme to those who have taken it will not change my mind.
The branding of extreme GOP politics as normative Orthodoxy while ostracizing everything that is taken for granted by Jews in every other Western country, such as the right to vote, the right to healthcare, and your children’s right to not get shot up in school or somewhere else in a mass shooting, hurts us all. If you thought that being a thoughtful armchair conservative who is “just concerned about the judiciary” from your home in New York, this week’s Supreme Court decision is delivering open carry handguns to a subway or street corner near you. If you are an Orthodox woman in Florida who was “just concerned with how woke the country has become,” the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and their promise in the decision to change much more will jeopardize the health, maternal mortality, and life expectancy of Orthodox women in red states in ways that most people in our community cannot begin to imagine. There is good reason for the double-digit gap between life expectancy and average income in New York and many other red states. Public policy, investments in health and education, and regulations that are shared with the rest of the developed world make a difference and have real outcomes.
The fact that Americans died from COVID at the rate of three times more than in other countries and that the Orthodox community has died at an even higher rate than the general American population, is another one of the prices we pay for political extremism in our community. These are not abstract discussions.
And yet, we have come to a situation where positions that are mainstream in Orthodox communities in Israel, the UK, Canada, France, Australia, and other large Jewish communities have come to be seen as anti-Orthodox, anti-Jewish, and even antisemitic in our own community.
When someone who has known me for years and knows of my commitment to Israel and the wellbeing of the Jewish community heard that I do not share their conservative political views, which by now are the views of almost 80 percent of American Orthodoxy, they looked at me in disbelief. They said: “I almost feel like you support BDS.”
Portraying fellow community members as hostile, unloyal, and even antisemitic for believing in ideas like universal healthcare, ending America’s child killing spree perpetrated by promiscuous gun laws, voting rights, workers’ rights for decent treatment and pay, which made Shabbat observance possible in this county, and other policy issues that do not divide the Jewish community in any other county will take a hefty toll from our community. Besides for the cost opposing these policies, which are a partisan discussion, it will unnecessarily divide us even more than we are divided, it will alienate many who should not be alienated, and it will undermine the ability of Jews in blue states, i.e., the vast majority of Jews, to have a say in our local and federal politics.
For these reasons and more, I speak my mind on political issues despite the cost that it might pay for doing so. The Orthodox community has reached an absurd situation where thoughtful and altruistic leaders who do not side with right-wing talk radio points are afraid to speak their mind and are even ostracized, while populist radio hosts are cheered on wherever they go.
This is how we have come to the situation where some prominent Orthodox rabbis who have not joined this ride, can be cheaply attacked by online Orthodox pundits while at the same time, Ben Shapiro receives a hero’s welcome in every Orthodox venue he attends. Any responsible parents can ask themselves if they see something wrong with Orthodox teens feeling such adoration for Ben Shapiro while feeling little regard for pillars of our community and thinking where this is headed ten years from now. This is why I will continue to speak out despite some finding it to be the exception rather than the norm.
We cannot allow a situation in which rabbis who are deeply engaged with far-right Christian groups and the extreme-right Steve Bannons of this world are seen as doing their sacred duty towards our community, while those who take positions shared by a majority of Americans and the vast majority of the developed world are seen as un-Orthodox pariahs. It is wrong to those rabbis, it undermines other members of our communities who also share those positions, it estranges those who might consider joining our community, and it undermines the interests of our community.
As a rabbi, my highest duty is to teach and inspire as many Jews as possible. While achieving this broadest reach is compromised by taking political sides on some issues, it cannot bend to foreign trends in our community. If all the cool kids stop talking to one kid, it is wrong for me to do the same. If the Orthodox community has decided for the past two decades to go from more of a 50-50 political split towards a 90-10, I will not shun that 10, nor will I side with the 90 because it is popular. I will continue to serve 100% of our population, even if those disagree with me. I will be there to ensure those who are not part of the vocal majority of our community know that their voice is a legitimate part of our community and that politics are never a reason for exclusion from a community of faith. Most importantly, I greatly value those whom I know disagree with my politics and still keep up a cordial, respectful, and friendly relationship and see value in preserving a Jewish community in which belonging, learning, and collaboration are not conditioned on the most recent hot topic on American cable TV. We might fiercely disagree, but we will always be brothers.