Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

It’s not politics, it’s Torah

Last Shabbat, I upset some people when I attacked both President Donald Trump’s executive order essentially eviscerating the Affordable Care Act, and his plans to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

I was talking politics, they said, and I have no business doing so from the pulpit.

As I have written several times in the past, however, I do not talk politics from the pulpit, and no rabbi should. They and I should talk Torah. I was talking Torah.

The Affordable Care Act needs fixing, if not a complete overhaul. But no responsible Republican leader in the House or Senate is prepared to do harm to the ACA until a fix or a replacement is in place. The health care of 20 million people, especially those with pre-existing conditions, is at risk otherwise. Trump, however, issued an executive order in essence ordering the federal government to stand down when it comes to enforcing the act’s provisions, notwithstanding the risk. Insurance companies now may feel free to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions because the federal government will not impose penalties.

Torah law, at its very core, requires us to care for everyone’s health and welfare. For example, Leviticus 19:16 states, “Do not stand idly upon the blood of your fellow,” whoever that fellow is, or whether we even know the person.

Our help cannot be half-hearted. It cannot be “idle.” We must provide the most effective help possible.

There also is the law of pikuach nefesh, endangering a life. When you deny health coverage to someone at risk, you are endangering a life.

Pikuach nefesh is considered pre-eminent in religious Judaism. Almost nothing — not even Shabbat, or the laws of kashrut — takes precedence when life is threatened.

This is derived from Leviticus 18:5, as I noted in my final column of 2016: “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live.” Said the Talmud, “shall live by them, not die by them.” (See BT Yoma 85b, BT Sanhedrin 74a, and BT Avodah Zarah 27b, or the Mishnah in BT Makkot 23b for discussions of and exceptions to the meaning of the verse.)

This is a very Jewish, very Torah, concern. It is not politics.

The same is true about my comments regarding the embassy.

Jerusalem was, is, and forever will be the capital of the Jewish people, and so it must be the capital of the Jewish state. I believe this with every fiber of my being.

The embassy should be moved, but it must be done with great care, not as a ploy to garner votes. Congress understood that in 1995, when it overwhelmingly passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act. It required the State Department to move the embassy to Jerusalem by May 1, 1999, or have its budget cut in half.

However, because Congress was fishing for votes but feared the consequences, it added an escape clause. The president, the law stated, may suspend its implementation every “six months if he determines and reports to Congress in advance that such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.”

That escape clause, used by every president from then on, was put there because Congress understood that moving the embassy to Jerusalem, absent a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians, very likely would cause a murderous new round of Palestinian terror attacks, resulting in the loss of much Jewish blood (and Arab blood, as well).

Pikuach nefesh plays a role here, as well, obviously. So does another halachic principle, sh’fichut damim (the needless spilling of blood). Sh’fichut damim is why King David was denied the honor of building God’s House. His hands were too sullied with blood.

Not only is it not permissible to put lives in danger if that can be avoided, it also is not permissible to set up a situation in which blood likely will be spilled, again if that can be avoided. Moving the embassy without a comprehensive peace deal would violate both principles.

True, terrorists do not need excuses to commit their atrocious acts. Such acts of terror are on their heads, however. On the other hand, taking actions that almost certainly would lead to more acts of terror puts the onus on both the terrorists and on those whose actions provided the excuse.

To repeat, I agree rabbis should not discuss politics from the pulpit, or anywhere else, when they are in their personae as congregational rabbis.

We do need to talk about — and to teach — Judaism, however. If it sounds as though we are talking politics, it is because many of the people hearing us have a mistaken, even distorted, notion about Judaism, thinking that it is just about ritual and religious observance.

Jewish law operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and it covers every aspect of our lives, from when we wake up until we go to bed.

Leviticus 19, for example, requires us to achieve lives of holiness through real-life deeds, not theories or ideals or rituals. It requires us to pay respect to our parents and our elders. It requires us to give food to the poor in a manner that as much as possible will not embarrass them. It requires us to pay a laborer his or her wages on time. It requires us to create a just and equitable society.

As God’s “kingdom of priests and holy nation” (see Exodus 19:6), we must do things God’s way, not our own. Sometimes, that may clash with our own individual interests, but that is what being Jewish requires. As rabbis, our job is to teach that.

Some may disagree with us about whether one party or another, or one politician or another, or one piece of legislation or another, better represents those values. We rabbis often disagree among ourselves about such things.

Please do not tell us, however, that we have no right to address such issues in the first place.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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