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Rabbis, when it comes to elections, just say…nothing

In the likely event the candidate you endorsed turns out to be a crook, it's a desecration of heaven and Torah
Illustrative: Haredi Jewish leader Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman arrives to cast his vote in the Israeli general elections in for the 20th parliament, in Bnei Brak on March 17, 2015.  (Yaakov Naumi Flash90)
Illustrative: Haredi Jewish leader Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman arrives to cast his vote in the Israeli general elections in for the 20th parliament, in Bnei Brak on March 17, 2015. (Yaakov Naumi Flash90)

“This Torah will not be replaced,” shrieks a billboard in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. Is this about a protest against missionaries trying to snare precious Jewish souls? No. A closer look reveals that the threat to the Torah isn’t coming from missionaries, but rather from opposing slates in the local elections. Below this powerful slogan, taken from Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, appear portraits of eight rabbis with long beards who, we may infer from the sign, are instructing their followers to vote for the Gimel slate of candidates. But the very next billboard mixes things up: It too depicts rabbis, but their irreplaceable Torah seems to be a different one. So which of them is the immutable God-given Torah?

This phenomenon is not limited to Bnei Brak or even to the Ultra-Orthodox community. In the attempt to win a few more votes, candidates and parties in plenty of other towns recruit rabbis to support them, and many rabbis indeed answer the call. But should rabbis be involved in every sphere of life? Or does this up-to-the-neck involvement in local (and national) politics debase them and the Torah?

In contrast to Christianity, in which there is a clear and principled separation of religion and state, Judaism aspires to regulating every aspect of life, both on the individual and public levels. There are many passages in the Talmud that deal with the governance of the community and the townspeople’s obligations, and they have been translated into chapters in the Shulhan Arukh (code of Jewish Law), alongside the laws of ritual hand-washing and prayer. Rabbinic participation in politics is not a new phenomenon; over the years rabbis have held leading positions in religious parties, and both religious and secular parties have enlisted rabbinic support in order to pick up a few more votes.

But the fact that halakhah (Jewish religious law) has an inherent aspiration to influence the real world, still does not justify the rabbis’ practice of meddling in politics. The current situation is not ideal. In principle, it seems improper for rabbis to use their influence to win votes for a party that will eventually promote specific interests. Rabbis who do not speak for themselves, but in the name of their Torah learning or in the name of Heaven, are turning the Torah into “a spade to dig with” (Avot 4:5) in the plain and disreputable sense of that metaphor – a tool for achieving material goals.

Rabbis’ deep involvement in politics may also end up being blasphemous. Local politics, even more so than national politics, is frequently dirty business, and not just because the municipality is responsible for collecting the trash. Enlisting religion in the support of a particular candidate, who might (perish the thought) turn out to be less than an angel, is liable to sully the name of Heaven and of the rabbi, and not just of the candidate. When rabbis spread their holy wings over a particular local candidate, they are inevitably sticking their heads into a political debate that, at least during the campaign, divides the community. Their ability to stand up after the election and serve as a unifying force or to speak in Heaven’s name in order to promote unity is severely undermined.

When a rabbi is active in the public arena, expresses views on public matters, or takes a political stand and supports a candidate or list, he is not speaking only for himself. The public sees him as speaking in the name of his knowledge of Torah and in the name of Heaven. If he wishes to sanctify God’s name, and not the opposite, he must take responsibility and be very cautious in the statements he makes.

Rabbis are community leaders; as such they should take positions on community matters. But when it comes to politics like local elections, it is incumbent on them to make it clear that they speak only for themselves, and especially that they exemplify the Talmudic dictum, “Scholars, be cautious with your words” (Avot 1:11).

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.
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