Dan Ornstein

Turn It And Turn It Or Lose It

General elections in America are held on the first Tuesday of November. I eagerly anticipate whichever election, national or local, is coming up on that day, because for the few moments that I fill in my ballot then scan it into the vote counter, I feel liberated from the fashionable yet depressing cynicism about the ebbing life of American democracy. The corruption, gridlock, and stupid selfishness that taint the system seem to be briefly washed away, and I actually imagine my vote joining a sea of others that might shift the direction of the ship of state. The late speaker of America’s House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, correctly argued that all politics is local. Indeed, the more localized the election, the more empowered I feel to make a difference that could have widespread consequences for the community due to its more direct impact.

Except, of course, when I have no clue about whom or what I am voting for. In my city, the capital of New York, the most recent election season offered up a mayoral contest, along with votes for our school board, judicial positions, and six dry, complex propositions for changes in the state constitution. I have barely enough time and energy to attend to the fine details that keep me informed in my rabbinic duties, and my regular study of Talmud is about as much wrangling with legal minutiae that I can handle. Exhausted from work the night before the election, I perused our local voter guide for last minute information. I turned to my wife, commenting with deep sophistication, “I have no clue as to what any of this means.”

I steeled myself for next day’s voting with two default options: simply vote yes to all the proposed constitutional changes or just skip that part of the ballot. Conscience stricken that I would treat democracy so cavalierly, I committed to figuring out what I was being entrusted to vote for, as quickly and thoughtfully as possible. My first meeting that next morning was Torah study with a good friend who has many years of experience in state government. Apprehensively, I asked him, “Would you mind if for Torah study today we looked closely at the six propositions on the ballot?” He was happy to oblige my quest to be better informed.

For the next half hour or so, we closely read the legalese and fine print of at least three of the propositions, parsing their language, asking each other questions, and arguing about the meaning of details as well as the potential global significance of each law. Obviously, what my friend and I did was not technically Torah study, but in the broadest sense it too was a form of Torah, because it helped me to act in accordance with the best spirit of Jewish law. Allow me to make the outlandish argument that voting is more than a privilege or a right, it is a mitzvah, a religious obligation. Voting fulfills at least the spirit of the commandment of minui melekh, the Israelites’ requirement to appoint a king upon entering the land of Israel, which is mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 17. Though Jewish law interpreted the lineage rights and political powers of a Jewish king quite liberally, the commandment is nonetheless remarkable. It assumes that the people, with God’s help, would be active participants in the selection of their leader; it also places genuine restrictions, checks and balances upon royal power, and speaks truth to that power when the king tries to play God. Witness Nathan the prophet’s excoriation of King David, in Second Samuel, chapter 12, when he commits adultery with Batsheva, then has her husband, Uriah, murdered.

A very narrow reading of this law would restrict its mandate to the Jewish religious community of the past or of some messianic future, exclusively. It would insist that the Torah’s laws have nothing to say about the electoral concerns of the greater society, whose laws are largely incompatible with Judaism. My much broader interpretation recognizes the great importance of our informed engagement as Jewish citizens with the democracies in which we live, in Israel as well as in the Diaspora. This does not mean that Judaism is or should be recast wholesale in the image of Western liberal democracies. However, democracy is a very safe and healthy political and physical home for the Jewish people, and it promotes peace that allows all its citizens to thrive. We do not want to treat it lightly, thus the critical importance of learning its “Torah” before we make critical decisions about its welfare.

Perhaps another parallel between traditional Torah and the reading of arcane voter propositions exists as well. Judaism teaches us to serve God under rabbinic authority, but we are never told to serve God or the Rabbis blindly. Every page of Torah and every Talmudic argument, however abstract or theoretical, calls us to become informed students who think critically and argue ideas robustly. Similarly democracies, especially in the internet age, offer citizens real opportunities to make informed electoral decisions. Religious and political leaders with tyrannical impulses want nothing more than for us to become unthinking and apathetic when issues and positions become overwhelmingly complex and demanding. The book, Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Sages, warns us not to go down that road. “Turn it over and over again for everything is in it,” it demands of the student of Torah. To which I would add, “Turn it over and over again or risk having it taken away from you.”

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at