School-related ethical idea #1.
Whenever I have a lot on my plate and try to figure out what’s more important, one strategy I try to use is “2-for-1.” Which items on this list are both important once for themselves, and also valuable for what they enable me/my organization to do down the road?
So as I think about the urgent need to make the opening of school successful in all ways this fall, I thought of this 2-for-1 approach to deciding when, whether, and how to be with other people for, say, the next 6-8 weeks.
(This is very contextual. I live in New Hampshire, where the infection rate has been very low recently compared to the country as a whole. There are possibilities for the opening of schools here that don’t exist in many if not most other places in the U.S.)
Here is a four-part ethical maxim, first draft, a kind of emergency ethical order:
As an ethical approach, this puts care (including self-care) at the center and focuses our action on one of the top social solidarity issues at hand right now, which is schooling.
I should say that I am proposing this as a collective action. It doesn’t make much sense as an individual maxim; it wouldn’t hurt but it wouldn’t make that much impact. My whole point is to think about social solidarity, what we can all do for the public good
I am leading a synagogue, and this intrigues me because it gives a purpose for some of the things we are working on for in-person gathering. We focused first on care – stretching for funerals and shiva (mourning). Our outdoor, small group parking lot services have tested out procedures and refinements, and have yielded observations about what works and what doesn’t (for adults; no kids involved yet). What we learn as we plan and pilot for the Jewish high holy days in mid-September can be very valuable for schools in a number of ways.
In fact as I write this, I think about making this a kind of prayer/kavvanah/intention for any in-person gatherings we have: “Behold, I am here today for the sake of the children in our community, their parents, their teachers and all who support the education of our youth in every way.” This could itself be the test of an action right now – if one can make that statement one is about to do something worthwhile, and if one can’t make the statement one should reconsider.
This is my D'var Torah for Parashiyot Mattot-Mas'ei, on July 18, 2020.
This is a Rubik’s Cube:
The Rubik’s Cube starts all jumbled up, with random colors mixed together all over each side. The goal is to get every one of the six sides to be entirely one single color. This is tricky because whenever you move one thing toward one side, you move another thing off its place somewhere else.
Sometimes it’s possible to work the Rubik’s Cube by solving a whole side and then moving on to the next one. Even if you do it this way, you still have to dislodge something from that side temporarily while you are fixing up another side. You have to make the perfect side imperfect again for a bit in the process of tackling another side of the cube. Everything is connected, so moving something into place also involves moving something out of place for a moment. If you’re really good, you can move it back.
I think of an ethical life as a Rubik’s Cube that is partially solved, maybe one or two or even four sides solved but others stubbornly not. Moral dilemmas are usually like this too. You have a number of ideas that make sense, several sides of the picture are solved, but the whole thing isn’t, and something is completely messed up elsewhere,. Part of what makes it right on this side is making it wrong on that side.
So we have a partially solved Rubik’s Cube in the parasha. It’s the case of the accidental killer and the city of refuge. The situation is that someone has killed another person -- God forbid, chas v’challilah -- and no one questions that A killed B. It might have been a flying axe blade, or even a push because A didn’t know B was there. It happened. That’s clear.
It’s also true that A is not an enemy to B. There’s no specific motivation anyone suggests, no grudge between them. This is attested by other people in a court. That side is clear.
There is the family of B, who have suffered a terrible loss. They are bereft, and they are considered by the Torah in its time to be justified in seeking the death of A. It’s more than understandable; things can’t just be let go. And tthe Torah believes that the community as a whole is in danger whenever blood is spilled and nothing is resolved. Members of thefamily of B are given the name of go’el ha-dam, “redeemer of blood” or “redeemer of life.” It’s sometimes translated as “avenger”, but in the Torah it’s not a negative name. They are considered to be standing up and acting for the value of life. Another side that’s clear.
There is a lot of clarity here, many sides of the ethical Rubik’s Cube lined up, but there is no way to get the last side in place. If A, the killer, is put to death, that’s an unjust punishment. If A pays money to the family of B, that is considered an insult to the life of B and the idea that human life is beyond all value. If nothing happens, that’s also not just and does not respect human life.
The Torah feels both that the family of B is entitled to try to kill A, and that A should not be killed.
So the Torah instructs the people to set up cities of refuge, arei miklat, where A can safely escape the family of B. There has to be a city in every region of the land and every region just outside the land where some of the tribes live. The cities are supervised by the Levi’im, a special group of leaders. Person A stays there until the death of the current kohen gadol, the high priest, and only then can go free.
Again God forbid that anyone be killed at the hand of another, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I have been trying to think about the law of ir miklat as a response to all the unsolved Rubik’s Cubes in our social life. Situations where life and death have been at stake. Every motivation on each side is right, every suggestion for what to do is right at least in its own terms, but there is no picture as a whole that is right. Or at least it’s not as right as each of the pieces of it.
And in that situation the Torah institutes miklat -- refuge, shelter. It’s an end to killing, a suspension of the violence, and it’s not proposed as a solution. Everyone is frozen in their current imperfect situation, no one forgets what originally happened, and everyone is prevented from making it worse.
This doesn’t happen all by itself. The Levites are involved. They are leaders with a special spiritual role, who live not with their own tribes but linked across all the other tribes throughout the land. And the high priest is somehow involved. He is a leader whose job each year is to restore the community to spiritual balance, to cleanse the Temple and the community from all the wrongs that have happened in the past year every Yom Kippur.
Two of the life-and-death realities that are ongoing right now are the pandemic and the question of school in the fall, and the racial justice issues around policing and incarceration. Two really challenging Rubik’s Cubes. This week as I’ve had the parasha in mind I’ve been particularly attuned to how some sides are solved and clear, and yet the whole is not solved at all.
In my world as a parent, there are a whole bunch of statements that are clear about keeping students safe and keeping teachers safe, about the importance of learning and of schools for the overall wellbeing of kids and of families.... and yet it does not look anything like the Rubik’s Cube as a whole is any more solved than before. Some people think that it’s enough to solve one side and stop, and others think it’s enough to solve a different side.
Over the past two weeks, while criminal justice reform work in legislatures and agencies has not been the major news, we’ve had very visible conflicts in print and digital media, with statements about the importance of keeping the claims of people of color in the center, and with statements about the importance of open inquiry and critial investigation around proposed solutions. Some people think it’s enough to solve one side and stop, and other think it’s enough to solve a different side. The Rubik’s Cube as a whole looks very disarranged.
So what would the ir miklat, the city of refuge, look like today? I have been thinking that people are exhausted by the efforts of trying to solve even a single side, to reach some moral clarity on either of these issues. This exhaustion itself creates a heightened possibility that we will harm each other more, even by accident, that we will harm ourselves. A summertime ir miklat doesn’t require anyone to let go of the clarity they have achieved. It’s a pause, with a commitment to being careful, a promise not to make anything worse.
Just as each region in the land had its own city of refuge, maybe each ethical “region” where there is conflict and violence needs it own way and time of refuge right now.
Maybe we could take turns. I said in my e-mail yesterday that I think all of our educational leaders and all of our racial justice leaders and all of our police leader should take a week or two away, to find a city of refuge. I think we all deserve a miklat as well, a safe refuge for a time, because we’ve all been pried open and exposed for months now.
And I know I have been looking for Levi’im, for leaders to oversee these dilemmas who are especially grounded in service to us, and who connect the many tribe. I have been looking for the Kohen Gadol. A purifying figure or a purifying group, who are willing to put maybe not their lives at stake, but at least their reputations on the line. Leaders who will say: We know these things seem impossibly complex. But we want to be in this game; we want to solve these Rubik’s Cubes. We want people to stand around us and cheer us on. We don’t want fear of death and fear of killing and fear of harming to be all there is to say with certainty. We want to hope to be more certain, and we want to attack the Rubik’s Cube with creative problem solving, and we want people to value the magical things in our schools and our society, in every beautiful color. We want to be inspired, and we want to be inspiring.
We don’t know how to solve the Rubik’s Cube of racial justice yet, nor do we know how to solve the Rubik’s Cube of school this fall. We have a lot of sides worked out, but we aren’t going to get the rest of them by running ourselves past exhaustion, with times and places of refuge, guided by the right people.
You who have heard me speak know that slow down is not my usual message, and “just do a mitzvah and another and it will all work out” is not my philosophy. Miklat should be a very specific kind of pause. The Torah tells us every year to seek cities and places of refuge, starting in this mid-summer portion and over the nex six weeks. It will come up in the Torah every couple of weeks -- and then the Torah will say it’s time to head toward the promised land,. Time to finish wandering. But we can’t march if we don’t have the refuge we need. I hope you will find some in the next weeks, and I hope you’ll do your part to make sure other people find them too.
This was my Dvar Torah for (Zoom) services on June 6, 2020. I'm making reference here to the Bar Mitzvah of Seth Brown.
I want to thank the Browns again for this simcha and as I told them, usually my words of Torah are light on days like this, but sometimes the world thrusts events at us that call for some Torah that can’t wait. So I will take a few minutes for words of Torah after the week we have had. I am going to speak quietly and with humility, not pretending to be possessed of every insight about race in America or to be a tzaddik myself in this area. I will add some more to this at our program on Monday evening.
And this is Torah from a particular point of view, the Torah of this particular Jew who is white and has many privileges, who has been thinking most of all about the black people who are closest to me, namely my own cousins and members of this Temple community, some of whom are children. I have been thinking about how I see the world and change in the world, because of where I come from. My formative experiences center on the mid- to late-1970s. Saturday night TV in that time in my house was The Jeffersons, Bridget Loves Bernie, Mary Tyler Moore – the television of a world moving toward integration of every kind – and I was a Sesame Street child, who took for granted Gordon and Susan and Bob and Luis and Maria. In there was the struggle for Soviet Jewry, which was everywhere in my Jewish world, and seemed like the same thing.
And one of the records always playing in my home was Marlo Thomas’s “ Free to Be You and Me.” Here’s the verse that for a long time was my anthem: “There’s a land that I see where the children are free, and I say it ain’t far to that land from where we are.”
I was taught to see that better world not too far away, to know it wasn’t here but to believe it was being created by people like my parents and their friends and my teachers and by me and my friends. The question I never had until a few years ago is how far is that land, really, from where we are. If it has taken so long to get there since the mid-1970s, is that because it is in fact farther than I thought, or is it close enough to see but there is a river in between with dangerous rapids and we have not built the bridge, is it close enough but we have for some reason refused to pay the money to clear the road that would get us there straight and fast.
Or to say it like the Torah would, as we are in the book of Numbers -- why is such a short walk from Egypt to the promised land taking forty years.
So what is the basic spiritual outlook of someone trying to get us to that land?
In the Talmud (Yerushalmi Nedarim) two rabbis debate: If you had to sum up the Torah, basically, how would you do it? Rabbi Akiva says that the most important principle of the Torah is in Leviticus, “Love your neighbor like yourself” (19:18). Ben Azzai, who was a younger scholar, said it’s a different verse, from back in Genesis: “This is the book of the story of humanity: In the day God created the human, in the likeness of God God created him" (5:1).
Rabbi Akiva says: It’s all about of love of other people, and the action that flows from that love. The major thing is to stretch yourself – first to the limit of the comfort zone you have with people who are like you, and then a bit beyond that. Get to the person who is near you, and figure out how they are not basically different from you but basically like you. There is effort to care, the effort is to look for something in common, and the effort is actually to do something helpful or caring.
Ben Azzai says, basically, Okay Boomer. Flower child. Love is great, but if you’re really loving you’re going to reach a limit pretty soon. We can only love so many people. It’s exhausting and there’s going to be resistance because of that. At some point you’ll make your neighborhood of concern bigger, sure, and then you’ll stop and you’ll decide that the other people aren’t your neighbor. You’ll say that you can’t find anything like yourself, you tried but you couldn’t. You’ll start coming up with reasons not to love certain people.
No, says Ben Azzai, we need a bigger frame. This is the book of the story of all humanity. If you’re going to stretch, stretch your imagination to include all people. In the Torah, a book is a place to keep records. A book is bigger than our hearts. It’s where the data is, whether we have an emotional attachment to it or not. And we know that a book is also stories, and stories take us farther than neighbors can and stories get us talking about them. Books and stories are going to take us to neighborhoods we’re just not going to get to otherwise even in our own towns, to prisons we’re never going to visit ourselves. Get some data, learn some history. Learn where your neighborhood itself comes from, who built it.
Rabbi Akiva would say back: You young people, you think you share enough brilliant articles on Facebook you’ll change the world. The brain might see farther than the heart, but it is weaker. If you learn more than you can do, you are in danger of overwhelm, and of not being able to see an ending that’s different from the terrible stories that have been told so far. At some point you have to decide to care, or you have to decide to act, and you can only do that by knowing someone new or by knowing someone familiar in a new way. So work on stretching what like-yourself means to you. And when you made your neighborhood a bit bigger, now try to love all the neighborhoods in your city. This is how it really works. Most people need relationships to change. We don’t have a book with the right ending yet, because no one has written it, and the only way to write it is to love our way there.
Who’s right – I find something compelling in both approaches and both critiques. I wish I knew if one was more right. But be one of them, commit to at least one of these middot, these qualities, and get someone to hold you accountable. If you’re an Akiva, get yourself an Akiva-guide and also a Ben Azzai to challenge you, and vice versa. Please please, I beg you here, please hold me accountable.
I would like to think that this week’s protests happened because we have all been living for weeks in a daily reality of being more attuned than usual to life and death. The germ that is killing is literally novel, that’s its very name, and we have been hiding because that’s what is necessary. The way George Floyd was killed – from that we have been hiding too long. We have been saving lives for months now, lives we know and lives of strangers we can’t see, all of a sudden we’ve been doing it, and at great personal discomfort and sacrifice. When it comes to black lives, why can’t we do the same.
This is a version of the D'var Torah I gave on Saturday, April 4, 2020, Shabbat Hagadol 5780.
According to the Passover Haggadah:
“The Torah speaks of four children. One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple, and one does not know to ask. Echad chacham, v’echad rasha, v’echad tam, v’echad she-aino yod’ea lish’ol.”
I have been thinking about these four children as responses to COVID-19. The smart responses and the evil ones, the simplistic and the – what -- oblivious or simply dumbstruck. I think each of these children has two sides, a side that needs support and encouragement and a side that needs teaching and guidance.
The wise one asks: What are the specifics about this disease? What do we know about how it spreads? What steps have been effective in different countries or regions? What do the models say? Who are the chachamim, the experts and Sages, to whom we should be listening?
In the Seder, the wise child asks: Mah ha-eydot v’hachukim v’hamishpatim asher tsiva Adonai etchem? “What are the testimonies, the rules that you don’t ask questions about, and the rules whose reasoning is important, that Adonai has commanded?” What is based on well-attested research, what are the things we don’t have time to debate but simply all have to do, what are rules that will work better if we take the time to understand them?
That’s the chacham of today, and the more of this we have the better we will all be. We need to encourage more people to be both well-informed and trusting of the scientific policymakers and the officials who are listening to them.
The Haggadah says that you should give the chacham detailed answers, of the specifics of the laws of Passover. So too today, the chacham needs ways to be practical – things to know and to teach others, concrete ways of giving tzedakah and doing for people who are vulnerable in all the ways that people are at risk now.
Of course, it’s also hard to be chacham right now. The chacham is the one who knows more than most what there is to be frightened of, who has the burden of seeing the danger in a trip to the store or a walk in the park. Who worries about people who have no option of staying home to work safely, who has no one to go shopping for them. These aren’t reasons to avoid being the chacham. But the chacham needs support – so as not to become overwhelmed or burn out. So as not to become so worried or sad that it’s impossible to smile or laugh or share a good moment with someone.
The wicked one asks: What is the burden that you have all taken on? In most years at the Seder, we often call this rasha not wicked but rebellious, in a sort-of good way, and we have more understanding than the rabbis of old seemed to. We say it’s just a phase, or it’s a teenager, or there is value in critical thinking, and maybe we even admire the rasha for not going along with the crowd.
But today we can say that there are wicked people, and we see them all over. They are standing too close to other people in the supermarket. They are coughing without covering. Online they are suggesting that only older people will die and we shouldn’t all have to lose our jobs because of that. Or that this is all a hoax or a liberal conspiracy.
And the Haggadah’s answer to the rasha is no answer today – fling it in his teeth, fine, if that’s your position you will not be redeemed. That’s not going to work now. The hazard of their wickedness isn’t just to them but to the rest of us through them.
So we are in the position of what Judaism calls the mitzvah of tochacha, confronting and trying to correct someone’s behavior. Which means taking a stand in public and telling strangers to step back or get out of here, as evenly but firmly as we can.
And to anyone who expresses views that can make this all worse, we have respond calmly also – in the way we repeat the new mantras of safety, by combating the bad reads with good ones that aren’t angry or ideological but sensible and factual.
I think too that today’s rasha needs understanding. There may be terrible fear at the heart of this: a fear of confronting what is really happening, or of having one’s worldview suddenly challenged or possibly irrelevant to the day. The rasha needs comforting.
And the online rasha who says it’s really not that serious a disease has long ago become deeply mistrustful of knowledge and of political authority.
Now is a time for us to show that knowledge works. People who value knowledge are creative and faithful and tireless and compassionate. Now is a time for us to key in on figures in authority who are relentless about human life; who show what it means to take responsibility and be advised by those who know more; who admit error and move on because they are committed to the people who chose them. We have to notice all these people now, and talk about them to people we know who are stuck in rasha mode.
The simple one says: What is this? This tam is the one who doesn’t keep close tabs on the news; who isn’t intentionally going out unnecessarily or willfully misbehaving but is making do with a minimum of information and precautions while out.
Or maybe the tam is the one of few words. Cooped up in the house with everyone, this is the one who doesn’t really want to fill the time together with talk, or doesn’t want to talk about feelings or worries.
And the Haggadah says: Open up to this one: “With a strong hand did Adonai bring us out of Mitzrayim.” Don’t overwhelm with more than they want to talk about. Start with the big picture: We are in a tough time and we are fortunate that there are strong powers out there doing their best to keep us safe and guide us through. And I will be here for you, to answer whatever question you have, about what’s going on or about what this is like. To talk to you when you do want to talk.
There is one who does not know what to ask or how to ask – she-aino yode’a lish’ol. The Hebrew could mean: One who does not know how to ask anything at all, or one who doesn’t know that it’s okay just to have questions, or one who doesn’t know which of the many questions would be appropriate to ask at this moment.
I think about our actual children, who will have this interlude in their formative years that will shape them, or who are aware enough that this time will be something shadowing their adult lives. They must be so full of questions, and it’s hard to have answers we don’t know what the next few days are going to be like.
And I think of the teaching of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who taught that the one who doesn’t know how to ask is the most profound of the four children: For who even knows what questions are worth asking?
What do we ask at a time like this? Sure, there’s a too-familiar script of questions from catastrophes past: Why is this happening, why did this person die, why did I get sick or why did I not, what kind of God is this?
Now on top of that: What will it be like to hug someone again, to be with a boyfriend or girlfriend, to put out a bowl of potato chips at a party? How do you talk if the only options are to be focused through a phone or screen, or not to talk at all? We used to sit around in a room, talk for bit, wander and in out, talk a bit and stop and talk again. If we spend two months seeing people only on screens except for those in our house plus the quickly cashier at the supermarket, what will be the impact on our friendships? On society?
What will be the effect of this big unplanned experiment in distance and togetherness? Will we find ways to be more close and more responsible for people we don’t usually see, but who are tied to us, who affect us, who feed and care for us? What will we discover that we cherish about our face-to-face, local communities?
You can go crazy thinking of questions. I am, a bit. Or you can be fascinated by them. I am, actually, a lot.
It’s appropriate to take time not to ask anything, just to deal with what is in front of you. It’s okay to be overwhelmed by so many questions that you just can’t ask anything.
It’s also important that we move from not-asking, or not-being able to ask, or knowing what to ask first.
The Haggadah says: When you don’t know what question to ask or answer, tell the story, and say: “This is something that Adonai did for me when I went out of Mitzrayim.” We’re going to have stories to tell. Don’t forget to put yourself at the center. How it affects you. How you are acting. Your part of the story matters no matter what. You are the person who deserves to be taken care of while we are in this Mitzrayim, and you are the person who deserves to be brought out from this Mitzrayim.
We are all children now, in the midst of a society of children who are wise and wicked, simple and overwhelmed. We will do our best to understand this story while we are in it, and to teach each child of any age according to the need they have right now. So that as many of us can come out as possible, as we once came out Mitzrayim.
May you all be well, Shabbat Shalom, and even in these times a Zissen (sweet) Pesach.
For my NH undecided friends, and for people out there in states voting soon who haven’t picked a candidate:
I’m not registered as a member of a political party, but on Tuesday I am going to take a Democratic ballot and vote for Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
I didn’t decide finally until about a week ago. I’ve been thinking about a small number of candidates, some of whom aren’t in the race anymore and some of whom are. I just posted about how it is that I go about choosing whom to vote for in general, and hopefully this post will look like an application of what I wrote there.
I have heard Senator Klobuchar speak twice now in person. Apart from the policy proposals, which she shares with some of the other candidates, Sen. Klobuchar has a combination of intelligence, forcefulness joined to openness, and humor. She has a record of accomplishment on matters large and small, first in her (my!) home state of Minnesota and then as a Senator in Washington in the most challenging legislative environment in recent memory. She feels a connection to people whose lives are affected by what public policy has and has not done, and that connection seems rooted in her biography and the story of her family. She has a record of building coalitions beyond the Democratic Party. She projects in her words and her public manner the qualities of decency, dignity, and empathy that belong in the Oval Office.
One of the hardest things in the campaign is going to be battling with President Trump and talking about divisive issues and where division is coming from, while also staying connected to as many Americans as possible. Even without President Trump, the political environment would be polarized. Solutions in Congress to complex problems like health care and immigration reform have been elusive. I am looking for someone whose whole package of leadership skills and experience under fire gives her a fighting chance to detoxify our politics and also make an impact. Of the candidates remaining, Sen. Klobuchar strikes me as the one with the best chance to do all of that.
It also means something to me that she has the support of people in my community whose wisdom and fundamental values I know and trust such as Joe Foster, Helen Honorow, Bill Barry, and Rep. Latha Mangipudi.
For people in the Jewish community who wonder about issues of special concern to us, Senator Klobuchar has a record of supporting Israeli security as an American national interest, and being part of what has been and should be a bipartisan consensus on Israel’s right to self-defense and the desire for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She has spoken out against anti-Semitism in our society.
I like to think I am not voting for Sen. Klobuchar just because of the Minnesota connection (though it doesn't hurt!)
I have thought about Mayor Buttigieg, whom I admire particularly for his reflectiveness and his willingness to talk about faith and about moral dilemmas in leadership. I think it says a lot about him that after Harvard and other experiences he chose to go back and try to make a difference where he came from even though it’s a small city, not the center of the world. Executive governmental experience is very important to the job of president. I think Senator Klobuchar has more experience and mettle for the job at hand in all its dimensions today.
I admire Sen. Warren particularly for her work on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was one of the most important actions with teeth that was created after the financial crisis. Exploitation in finance isn’t as easy to talk about as health care or education. The lessons Sen. Warren draws from her personal history are also compelling. What has put me off have been some of her attacks on people or groups who disagree with her. There is a way to disagree and to work strongly from one’s principles without mocking people or painting all opponents on an issue with the same brush, whether it’s a social issue or an economic one. Right now, we need a leader who is especially good at both winning and not-demonizing.
There is a lot of good in Vice President Biden’s record and his long experience, and also some bad policy judgment in that record. I admire the clarity of Sen. Sanders, and have been thinking more and more about his take on wealth and inequality and poverty than I have in a long time. I have in the past had less of a black-and-white approach about wealth (see my previous post, referring to philosopher John Rawls), but even if I agreed with Sen. Sanders, this is a moment when a politics that rebuilds the center is also necessary if we are really going to make headway on issues related to inequality (also see my previous post). Because of that, I haven’t done a lot of looking into his record or story.
If you’ve read some of my previous posts or blogs about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it won’t surprise you that I have issues with recent statements from both Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren.
I thought briefly about taking the Republican ballot and voting for Governor Weld to make a statement about the president. But as I wrote in the other post, I do not vote for symbolism but to make an impact.
So I have made my choice. I will be voting for Senator Amy Klobuchar this Tuesday, after being undecided for longer than I can ever remember being. Good luck making your choice well, and see you at the polls.
This is an attempt to write down something I’ve never written out before: how I decide whom to vote for in elections for national office. This is how I understand what I am doing. There’s plenty here to discuss or argue about.
Voting is in one way the most morally consequential thing we do. The outcome of a vote, especially for national office, has far more of an impact that the generous or committed acts of most individuals (myself, at least) or the money we give to nonprofits.
It’s worth approaching the vote in the spirit of Rabbi Moses Maimonides’ teaching that we should always regard the world as in a perfect balance between merit and guilt, such that our next act will decide whether we will earn a judgment of merit or a judgment of destruction. While most elections are not decided by our single vote, we know well that they can be. It’s important to vote with the thought that your vote could be the one that decides about budgets and military actions and how laws are implemented and enforced. Who will eat and who will go hungry, whose illnesses will be researched and treated, whose lives will be risked in battle, who will live or die in another land because America does or does not act in those places.
I am writing this as an American patriot, a lover of my country, who is also a Jew trying to follow the spiritual and ethical teachings of my Torah and aware of my place in the long history of the Jews. I have for a decade not been registered with a political party. Political acts and decisions are religious acts for me; the parties are practical instruments.
If I had to put this into a flow chart, this is how I break it down. I’m going to do all of this in theory, conceptually.
At the root for me is an idea that the political philosopher Michael Walzer puts this way: “[T]hink of the welfare of the most vulnerable people in the country. And then vote, gladly, for the candidate who minimizes their vulnerability.”
There is a lot here. Walzer (who is worth knowing a lot about, and I should write about him separately sometime) says right before this quote that it’s not about whether you like or inspired by a candidate, or whether you judge the candidate to be a good person in some fundamental way (more on this below). It’s about what that person can deliver in terms of the most vulnerable.
I think this would be an ethical imperative for me regardless of my Jewish principles. For me it’s a fundamental part of Torah. I generally apply this in the spirit of the political theorist John Rawls. Rawls argued that inequality, or something that increases inequality, can be justified morally so long as it also benefits the most vulnerable in society.
And Walzer argues that today, the first part of that is to minimize vulnerability. There is also a step beyond that, which is transforming the conditions that allow anyone to be vulnerable – but first, who minimizes their vulnerability.
The vulnerability I have always thought about first is economic vulnerability – whether it’s not being able to afford adequate shelter or food, or not being able to afford adequate medical care. With that, I have thought about economic vulnerability that comes from discrimination, on the basis of color and other bases, and the discrimination itself. More lately, I have come to think much more about the vulnerability of refugees.
1. So first I want to know – does the candidate even care? And not just about certain vulnerable groups, but about all of them. Everyone has blind spots, and many have come up through the ranks on the basis of work on behalf of a particular group. But caring only about vulnerable whites or vulnerable people of color, to the exclusion of other vulnerable people, isn’t enough.
This isn’t only about policies. I think certain policy approaches show more caring about vulnerability. But I’m always open to the candidate who argues for why another approach is also caring and is effective. Anyone who is sincere makes my first cut. Even if the policies being offered have been associated in the past, or are associated today, with people or groups who clearly don’t care about the most vulnerable.
2. Walzer argues specifically about our era that ‘[w]hat the most vulnerable people need right now is the protection afforded by a strong constitutionalism. The defense of civil liberties and civil rights… -- this is a centrist politics.” I would add another element to this “centrism”, which is a defense of the idea of America as a whole, made up of different groups with different origins and with different philosophies.
Some of this is about policies and the ways laws are enforced. It’s also about a political culture – the responsibility not to divide. I look for a candidate who speaks about America expansively and inclusively in her or his rhetoric, and who can disagree with passion without demonizing.
3. There are two things I think about next: Are the candidate’s policies reasonable approaches to minimizing vulnerability? Is the candidate someone who could actually accomplish something that minimizes vulnerability?
While these two don’t come in a particular order, I have been thinking more and more about the second question, the leadership dimension. One candidate might have a better set of policy ideas, but be a terrible leader – ineffective, bad at mobilizing people, wilting under pressure, and/or polarizing. Having that person in office hardly minimizes the vulnerability of the vulnerable.
The “How To Be President” initiative I helped found is about aspects of leadership beyond policy choices. I am looking for a leader who is clear-eyed about things like failure and compromise; who has forcefully, driven-ness and humility; who knows that not all your allies are good people and not all your opponents are evil; who has a way of thinking about how decisions at the top affect everyone; who has a way of knowing how to ache when policies fail or ignore some Americans, and when to push through in the face of that pain.
4. There are also Jewish issues, meaning issues of the interests of the Jewish community. A lot of Jewish issues are covered already in the earlier passes -- particularly with regard to hate, bias, discrimination, religious freedom for minorities. But other things being relatively equal, the candidate who has a blind spot about anti-Semitism will fall back in my line.
Then when it comes to Israel, I am looking for the candidate who believes Israel is a fundamentally democratic country; who understands the dangers Israelis live with in their region; who supports justice for both Jews and Arabs in Israel-Palestine and does not place the responsibility for the conflict solely on Israelis; who knows that most Jewish-American supporters of Israel have no truck with Muslim-haters, racists and the religiously intolerant just because those people might also support Israel.
5. Usually, these cover everything for me in the decision tree. Sometimes, in a given election, there is a specific issue of the moment. I reserve the right to figure out where it should fit in my general scheme.
I never get someone who is perfect on all these criteria. Elections are always choices between two or more actual candidates. Each time, I try to assess who is best overall on these criteria, and I figure out how I am going to weigh each consideration as I go. If the choices each have serious flaws, I don’t know how I am going to “dock” for them until I do it.
I don’t vote to feel good about what I believe or to have the satisfaction of “being right.” Lives are on the line. As long I keep my eye on why I am voting, whose lives depend on my vote, I believe I am doing the best I can.
Go to my post from a couple years ago, with links to the text and to a later reading of the letter from King himself. Simply the most important teaching about what it means to be religious that I think I have ever read:
It is not easy to take a day off of school or work for the High Holy Days. As school pressures have become more demanding, even at younger ages, the decision about bringing children to services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on a school day might be more difficult for a parent than ever before. In places like New Hampshire -- any place where there are few Jewish families in any school -- there can be a lot to navigate in terms of homework, tests, and after-school activities.
So here are five reasons to take your child out of school and bring them to services anyway!
1. It's amazing to see so many people taking time all at once to make ourselves and the world better.
This is the essence of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
It's one thing to say that each of us should always be trying to be a better person. It's another to see hundreds of people focused on that all at once.
We can show our children: Look how many people are working on bringing out the good in themselves and each other. It matters so much to them that a lot of them are taking off from work, and from school.
This is what being Jewish is all about.
2. So many Jews!
Especially outside of, say, Israel and New York, when do you see the Jewish community so big?
If you are a child in a place where your family is the only Jewish family around, or one of the only ones, you may not feel like you are part of something big and important. Being a minority can feel special. But seeing you're part of something bigger when you're Jewish is also special, and can make it easier all the times when being a minority is hard.
3. Shofar is really cool.
During Rosh Hashanah daytime services, and at the very end of Yom Kippur, the shofar (ram's horn) is sounded. On Rosh Hashanah, there is a specific order of blasts, long and short and very short and very long. It's really like nothing else we ever do in a service.
It's ancient and primal. The shofar itself is pretty exotic. In our synagogue, there are different looking shofars that our blowers use.
Plus, in a lot of synagogues, the kids are invited to come up really close even in a service where there are hundreds of people. You get the best seat.
Also, not to be sneezed at -- the Torah scroll. Not everyone gets to see it up close when it's open. But we have been copying it word for word for more than two thousand years, onto parchment scrolls.
4. Learning to be different
Coming out on a weekday to a religious service, and especially a Jewish one -- that's pretty countercultural. It's good to fly in the face of the culture of conformity and achievement, at least here and there.
It's good for our kids to learn that standing proud in your identity is important and not easy, but worthwhile if the cause matters. It can even feel good. Especially when you can tell your friends later about the shofar, or a Hebrew word.
Being different takes effort. You have to explain things about yourself and your culture, you have to know about your heritage. A lot of the work belongs to parents -- to be the ones to explain and advocate toward teachers and coaches. By the way, I (or whoever are the rabbi or Jewish leaders where you are) am right behind you, to equip you or to make calls on your behalf.
5. Hanging out
There's the service, and then there's not being in the service. Kids get to see other kids who are Jewish too and more or less their own age. But it's not Hebrew School, so they get to hang out and catch up and even connect with new kids.
There's always a couch or a room or some corner in the synagogue to find and claim. Kids get to make the place their own.
Behind almost any adult synagogue regular, or or almost any rabbi, there are stories and memories of what we did on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur when we weren't in the service.
All that -- and you and your child or children will hopefully find services meaningful too -- words, teachings, songs and melodies.
So even if it's hard, and even if you yourself the parent have a lot of questions about what's going on and what it all means, think about coming to services on the High Holy Days and sharing this experience with your family.
Got any thoughts or reasons of your own? Leave them in the comments!
If you are in our area and don't already have a synagogue for the High Holy Days, we would love to have you at Beth Abraham. Click here to learn more or get in touch.
This is the sermon I gave three years ago, during the dog days of the 2016 election. But there is a lot here that still resonates, about the leaders that I crave. I'm going to work on the text I refer to there from the Slonimer Rebbe and probably teach more about it this Shabbat.