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Michael Knopf
Rabbi and editor of 'No Time for Neutrality'

Saving democracy is a Jewish obligation

Saying that democracy itself is on the ballot has become a cliche for a reason. Experts widely agree that threats to democracy in the US and around the world are rising, including the specter of political violence and election subversion as we approach next month’s midterms. 

Democratic decline should be particularly worrisome to Jewish Americans. Historically, as democracies falter, persecution and violent extremism against minority groups, including and especially Jews, tends to rise. Indeed, the erosion of American democracy in recent years has coincided with a dramatic increase in antisemitic incidents in the United States. Kanye West’s recent outbursts and with the hate it unleashed are but a terrifying case-in-point. But the Jewish obligation to democracy goes beyond the physical safety of our immediate community. Rather, preserving and strengthening democracy is central to our more overarching responsibility to repair the world.

Back in 1932, as the forces of fascism were beginning to take hold around the world, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr observed that selfishness is the defining characteristic of every conceivable form of government, particularly authoritarianism. Democracies are not perfect, but democracies, unlike totalitarian regimes, enable and empower individuals to criticize laws, systems, and leaders, and to work through the political process to make the state increasingly inclusive, just, and peaceful. 

But democracies are not inherent or self-perpetuating. According to German philosopher Erich Fromm, who witnessed the rise of Nazism firsthand, human beings have a tendency to “escape from freedom,” to gravitate away from the messiness and uncertainty that are part and parcel of diversity and liberty, toward homogeneity and authoritarianism. 

The gravitational pull of selfishness on the human soul is great; on human societies, greater still. Without cultivating a force powerful enough to oppose our natural predilection toward selfishness, we invariably succumb to the encroaching tyranny.

According to Jewish tradition, there is only one force capable of enabling and empowering individuals to think critically about their own self-interest and care about the welfare of others: yirah

The Hebrew term yirah can be translated a number of ways: fear, awe, reverence, respect. But conceptually, yirah is the recognition that we are merely a small part of something vast beyond all comprehension. It is akin to the feeling of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. 

A person with yirah understands the limitations of human knowledge and even imagination. A person with yirah comprehends the pettiness of self-interest, and the equal importance of the needs of all other people; indeed, the equal importance of the needs of all the rest of creation. A person with yirah by definition possesses a sense of broad responsibility, a recognition that the wellbeing of others is no less important than my own and that, in fact, our wellbeing is bound up together. 

Yirah is, therefore, the opposite of the arrogance of granting primacy to one’s own interests, an irreverent attitude toward others’ wellbeing. And because yirah is intrinsically opposed to self-interest, its growth within a population necessarily constrains society’s selfish impulse. Thus, unless we are actively cultivating yirah and advancing the inclusive, just, and peaceful world that reflects it, we are permitting ourselves and dooming each other to continue to be dominated by the tyranny of arrogance in all forms. 

The purpose of Jewish religious practice – study and prayer, tradition and ritual – is to help us cultivate a sense of our place in and responsibility for the world. And we nurture this awareness not as an end unto itself, but as the means through which we, to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, take ourselves out of the narrowness of our own self-interest, recognizing our relationship to and responsibility for one another. 

Jewish faith and practice is in this sense meaningless unless it leads us to recommit ourselves to the work of making our world ever more just and peaceful. And that work is not theoretical and abstract. It’s practical and concrete. It requires systemic change and societal transformation on every level – local, state, national, and international. It therefore demands our political engagement because, in a democratic society such as ours, politics is the process through which the change envisioned by our tradition can be achieved in our world. And it also means we must not treat our synagogues as sanctuaries, retreats from the raging fires of the outside world. We must bring worldly affairs into sacred space, consider secular pursuits part of our spiritual practice, and recognize the place of politics in the pulpit.

As this election season draws near, I pray that my fellow Jewish Americans, along with all Americans of faith and conscience, draw upon their yirah in order to preserve our democracy, protect our collective wellbeing, and pursue a more just society. This is no time for neutrality. Now is the time for people of faith and conscience to pray through our political action, to put our worship to work, to raise our voices and cast our votes. Democracy isn’t perfect, but it’s the best path we have for pursuing our sacred responsibility of establishing heaven on earth.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Knopf is co-editor of 'No Time for Neutrality: American Rabbinic Voices from an Era of Upheaval', now available on Amazon, and spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia. The views expressed in this article are solely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of his congregation.
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