Howie Beigelman is Deputy Director of Public Policy for the OU’s IPA | Institute for Public Affairs. The following Op–Ed first appeared in New Jersey Jewish News prior to Shavuot on June 3, 2011. The views represented herein, like his weekly Politics & Parsha blog, are his own and reflect neither psak or policy of the OU.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln famously replied to a request they pray that God be on their side that his concern was rather “whether we are on God’s side.”
In the political and policy business, especially for a Jewish nonprofit, we use – and we hear, see and read – many religious expressions and justifications on policy, and yes, even political opinions and stances. It’s hard not to have some moral or ethical philosophy underlying the stands you take. I believe commentator George Will (but it may have been P.J. O’Rourke) once noted, it’s not as if you can spend billions of dollars value free. Every decision has a value behind it. At least one. Maybe two or even more. Sometimes complementary; often competing. Still, I think it’s time we all stepped back and realized, God – and Torah – didn’t register with any political party or political philosophy.
And strange as it may seem, Shavuot, with the custom of many to stay up all night and study Torah in what is known as “Tikun Leil Shavuot” is an opportune time to reflect on that.
Both sides of the political and religious spectrum are guilty of this overuse. Those who qualify as center-right folks quote from the Bible and the Talmud about moral issues, the typical Old Testament God of justice and punishment. Their counterparts on the left are forever quoting from the social justice prophecies: Jeremiah, Micah and the like. Rare is it to see them quoting the same texts. And even rarer is it that you see them recognize other texts within Jewish tradition speak contrary to and perhaps even contradict their worldview.
God isn’t a registered Republican. Or Democrat. The Torah isn’t Marx’s Das Kapital anymore than it is Smith’s Wealth of Nations. And despite the Jewish community’s overwhelming allegiance to the Democratic Party platform, it isn’t lifted from Maimonides Book of Mitzvot. Orthodox Jews flirtation with Republican politics doesn’t mean that party’s principles match up with the Code of Jewish Law either. This is all before we take a look at philosophy of Judaism, whether in the Bible, Prophets, Talmud or later works.
If you are Orthodox at least, much of the Jewish tradition is the direct word of God – but even for the most liberal of movements – that tradition is at the least believed to be Divinely inspired. That means that the same tradition is pro–death penalty but also allows abortion in more cases than some denominations of Christianity. It provides for minimal taxation and the bare minimum in government services, but also outlaws usury, requires a right of first refusal to adjacent property and demands we leave sheaves and corners of the field for the poor. It allows for slavery to repay debts but also has strict rules on how to treat those slaves.
The prophetic voice of Judaism was – and remains – equally about helping the poor and the downtrodden as it was about serving God and performing ritual. The strict halachic voices of Biblical and Talmudic Judaism emphasized the commandments of Sabbath, Tefillin and kashrut as much as they did charity to the orphan and widow.
Lest we forget, the prophets themselves didn’t practice prophetic Judaism as it is now oftimes showcased. Elijah like Samuel before him – and like many after him – spoke truth to power in the finest prophetic tradition. But Samuel took a sword to kill Agag, King of Amalek. Abraham and Jacob both went to battle, as did King David, and Mordechai and Esther.
Similarly, the strict observance of commandments, recalled Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, didn’t stop his grandfather, the great Jewish scholar, Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, so concerned with the minutiae of observance to also be a paradigm of care and concern for the poor and those who had no one to stand up for them.
Perhaps there is no better time to recognize this than Shavuot, the holiday on which we celebrate God’s descent to Sinai and His giving of the Torah. Marked by many with the tikun and its all–night learning of Jewish law and lore. Like anything – or anyone – we delve into for a long look, it’s not quite the same as it looked on – or from – the surface. If everyone would come out of Shavuot a little less certain they speak “for” the Almighty, and a little less sure each of their political positions would survive in a messianic age, we will all be better off. Our political debates and communal discussions will hopefully be more humble and more honest.
This Shavuot, let’s resolve that God and Torah are registered independents. What a tikun – repair – that could be.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.