We hear from many politicians (most often those running for high office) that 'Everyone agrees' on issues concerning when life begins, homosexuality, marriage, etc., all based on using 'our religion' as the premise for the assertions. Should Jews enter the discussion in religious terms based on Judaism and Jewish values and Jewish law, especially where they disagree with these assertions?
Core Torah Jewish values define our approaches to life-cycle issues like marriage, divorce, gay orientation, and death. In public and political debates and discussions concerning these issues, it is totally legitimate and even imperative that we honestly and respectfully give voice to those core Torah beliefs and eternal Jewish values. Those beliefs necessarily inform our stands on such public policy issues.
At the same time, we do and must recognize that America is a wonderful secular state, not a Torah society. The separation of church and state is part of the American idea and mystique. Therefore, we often will choose to be judicious in deciding how far to push our beliefs in the national debate, motivated not by whether some people will be offended by the Torah’s eternal truths but by the practicality of asking “Now that we have borne witness, must we press into people's faces?”
Halakhah defines when life begins, when life ends, when a marriage is sacred, when abortion is permitted or even positively indicated, when forbidden. It is appropriate to bring these eternally held views into the national discussion because they help inform that discussion. Perhaps most importantly, when we do quote “Jewish law” and advise the public of “where Judaism stands,” it is important to be honest. Judaism is not liberalism, and it is not conservatism. Judaism is not the Democrat Party platform nor the Republican Party platform. Rather, Judaism is Judaism – the halakhah – on its own terms. Perhaps nothing is as confusing, as offensive, and as repugnant to integrity than the practice engaged in by some national Jewish organizations that misrepresent authentic Judaism and halakhah just so that they may fit in with the secular ideologies that truly animate them.
A circle does not naturally fit perfectly into a square. A size 11 foot does not naturally fit into a size 7 shoe. Judaism should not be contorted and distended just so that a secular ideologue can fit her ethnicity into a secular debate when the honest position of Judaism differs from that of her preferred secular ideology.
In the US we have allowed the Christian religious right to co-opt the conversation on religion and politics. They often assert that to be a religious person means to supporting their agenda and their candidate, often a Republican. Last time I checked, God has not registered as a Democrat or a Republican.
Several recent books address this phenomenon notably, EJ Dionne’s, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right" (2008) and Jim Wallis’, God's Politics. Both men argue that religious faith and values can play a role in the public sphere while keeping the division between church and state. In their books, both point out that the religious right has created the culture wars by making the statement that religion ONLY has something to say about abortion, homosexuality, marriage etc. when in fact religion can also inform the conversation on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, environmental issues, and social justice. Doesn’t the Bible teach that we supposed to choose life, protect the earth, and take care of the poor, orphans, and widows? One can be deeply religious and lean left politically. Something that seems out of step with the dominate messages sent out by the political parties.
So, should Jews enter the discussion in religious terms based on Judaism and Jewish values and Jewish law, especially where they disagree with the assertions about homosexuality, abortion and marriage? Absolutely!!
We should use our religious tradition to first change the frame of the conversation and broaden it beyond these touchstone issues. Then, we should use the values taught in our tradition to help frame our thinking on political issues. Jewish law and values will not tell us directly how to vote on every issue, but it can and must help us to think about the issues facing us today. What is our responsibility towards the earth for example? Are we required by the Torah to live sustainably? Lets study the texts on the sh’mita, the sabbatical year in the Bible where the earth is left fallow. What do they teach us? We could do the same with the number of text admonishing us to take care of the poor and widowed. What an amazing educational opportunity for us all that will bring true value and meaning to the ancient text and have them inform our lives today. I think we need to jump in and start learning, and then talk about what we have learned with our friends, neighbors, and politicians. Absolutely let’s enter the conversation. We have a lot to contribute!
There is no doubt in my mind that we should enter the intellectual fray. In fact, I beleive that we are ethically obligated so to do. This is why Reform has established the Religious Action Center in Washington, D. C. (For more information on this see http://rac.org/.) Why should those who disagree with us have a monopoly on political discussion?
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