Democratic Duty

Q. Is voting an ethical obligation?

A. While voting is not an absolute ethical obligation, Jewish tradition educates us in a number of ethical principles that we fulfill when we take part responsibly in participatory democracy.

Participating in elections is a way of showing respect for the government and identification with it. If we look at Jewish history, we see that appropriate respect and deference towards legitimate authority is an important value For example, although Moshe went through prolonged and trying negotiations with the wicked Pharaoh, he maintained at all times an appropriate degree of respect for Pharaoh’s royal status. And despite the bitter enmity of the wicked king Achav towards the prophet Eliyahu, the prophet personally ran before the king’s carriage to emphasize the honor due the sovereign. (I Kings 18:46.)

Jewish law prescribes a special blessing recited on seeing a king, praising God “Who gave of His glory to flesh and blood.” And we are particularly encouraged to see kings so that we may recite this blessing.

It is true that these signs of identification with the sovereign are generally discussed in a monarchy, but if we examine them carefully we will conclude that they are even more appropriate in a democracy. The commentaries explain that the main reason we have to be so careful to preserve the honor of the king is that his honor is the honor of the nation as a whole. In a democracy, the government proudly declares itself as the representative of the people, so the obligation to respect and identify with it is at least as great.

But voting doesn’t merely show our respect for the system of government; it also gives us an opportunity to influence the leadership of the nation or community. Of course it would be a shame to fail to take advantage of this opportunity. Our considerations should not be limited to our own community but should also take account of the welfare of the entire nation. Then our vote will be a fulfillment of the prophecy given by God to Jeremiah, who transmitted the following message to the Jewish exiles in Babylonia: “Seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you, and pray for it unto God, for in its peace will you have peace” (Jeremiah 29:7).

Many eminent and outstanding Torah scholars were careful to vote in every major election. A surprising number were themselves elected representatives in their countries, including Rabbi Meir Shapira, who was later the head of a leading Yeshiva and the founder of the daily Talmud learning program, the “Daf Yomi”.

Voting is a simple and effective way of showing our respect for the enlightened system of government that prevails in democratic nations, and gives us a chance to influence public life in a positive direction. While it is not an ethical obligation, it does give us an opportunity to fulfill many ethical ideals. It’s a shame to needlessly neglect this invaluable opportunity.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 17 and commentary of Maharsha; Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 224:8-9