I think that, over the years in America, many important rabbis (including Rabbi Soloveitchik, ob"m) have asserted the importance of voting, for one of two reasons:
1) For the health of the Jewish community, both on specific issues and in general. The Jewish community long ago learned that by virtue of its general political involvement, candidates and legislators take the Jewish position seriously. In voting, then, we lay the groundwork for success even on issues not currently on the table.
2) For specific issues, voting is how we try to produce positive outcomes (often, from a Jewish perspective, such as, most prominently, in terms of the State of Israel).
I think one could argue for a Jewish reason to vote in at least two other ways as well. First, as an expression of gratitude to the United States, a country that has been a land of opportunity for the Jewish people in many ways. Since the US only functions fully when its citizens are committed, etc., fulfilling our civic duty is also a Jewish value in that it shows we recognize and appreciate this country, and work for its best health and welfare. (There could, perhaps, also be a dina de-malchuta aspect; while it is not law that citizens should vote, it is certainly part of the expectations of a citizen, and we are supposed to live up to such expectations. If there were no draft, e.g., but a strong expectation that people should enlist, and most Americans enlisted, it would seem to me at least plausible that Jews who lived in America ought to be enlisting).
Finally, I think voting can be brought under the general Jewish rubric of contributing to a world that is well settled and well run. Just as the verse says God placed us here le-ovdah u-le-shomrah, to guard the land and work it (that's a verse about Eden, but my teacher R. Aharon Lichtenstein thought it relevant to the world as a whole), and a verse in Isaiah tells us that God didn''t create the world for it to fall in disrepair, but for us to settle it. In this country, part of making sure the world is settled is paying taxes, and doing our best to install governments that will be effective and productive for the health of this society.
In his role of preaching hope and encouragement to the Babylonian exiles, the prophet Jeremiah (Chapter 29) gives specific instructions on how Jews are to live among their “hosts.” He tells them to settle in: build homes, plant gardens, marry and grow families. He also adds that the exiles should “seek the peace of the city where I [meaning God] have caused you to be carried away captive and pray unto the Lord for it; for in the peace thereof you shall have peace” (v. 7). “Seeking the peace of the city” has historically been understood as participating in the welfare of the countries in which we have lived. Voting in elections can certainly be construed as participation in the democratic process that best assures the welfare of society. While there is no legal obligation to vote, there is indeed a civic obligation and, if not an actual Jewish legal obligation, voting is certainly interpretable as a prophetic instruction.
If you have read the answers of my two colleagues, you will find that they have each laid out excellent responses. The essential feature of both is that they find no specific Jewish legal obligation (under Halachah) requiring one to vote. They each give some good support to the reason one might feel such an obligation as a civic duty, but they do not offer a Halachic reason. It seems to me that they are correct, because I can neither think of nor find any Halachic obligation that would direct one to vote in civic elections.
Given the question as asked, the answer appears to be ‘no’, and in fact, just the opposite seems to be the more likely response. We find in Pirke Avot (BT Nezikin/Damages, Tractate Abot, often called the Ethics of the Fathers) there are some directions to avoid being engaged with the government and to seek to avoid being a public servant, if possible – so there is certainly not much support there for an obligation to engage in civic responsibility! No other sources of support in traditional texts come to mind.
I would argue, however, that we might derive such an obligation as a result of reasoning from other Halachic applications. In specific, here is an initial stab at such an argument.
My Orthodox colleague, Rabbi Rothstein, quoting Rabbi Soloveitchik (of blessed memory), has presented the position that there is an obligation to vote on the basis of preserving the health and wellbeing of the Jewish community in both specific and general matters of policy. I agree that this is an important reason to encourage Jews to vote, but I don’t view this as a particularly Halachic approach.
He next indicates that he sees an obligation to vote in order to protect the reputation of the Jewish community as an active and engaged voting block, thereby offering some leverage for bargaining and as a form of persuasive influence. This holds truly only if the majority of Jews in a particular electorate vote for the same candidate or party; something that is not assured today, and seems to be heading towards even less cohesion, if the published analyses are correct. In any case, once again, I don’t view this as a Halachic matter.
Further, Rabbi Rothstein posits that there is an obligation to live up to the expectations of acting as a ‘good citizen’ as a way of expressing appreciation for the position that Jews enjoy in this nation. I certainly agree that Jews have enjoyed a far better position and much greater success in the United States than many other locations in the world, and we should express our appreciation, but it does not strike me that voting is a way to do so. Voting seems to me to be the exercise of a right and a privilege, as well as an expression of civic engagement and participation; I do not feel it is a way to say ‘thank you.’
Finally, he mentions that there may be some obligation under the principle in Jewish law that dina de malchuta dina (the law of the land is the law – when Jews live in a non-Jewish nation, they are obliged to follow the laws of that nation, as long as these laws do not violate Halachah). This last seems a bit of a stretch, to me, as it is not a legal requirement that an American citizen vote (we are given the privilege and right, but not obliged to do so), so this does not strike me as an instance that this principle would be relevant.
Rabbi Allen, my Conservative colleague, presents the teaching of Jeremiah concerning living in non-Jewish cities (peoples/states/nations), and enjoining Jews to seek the peace of the city, which Rabbi Allen explains as including participating in civic life. Rabbi Allen extends this obligation to the act of voting as an expression of seeking the peace of the city. I find myself agreeing with the concept he sets forth, but not feeling that this is a specific enough basis of support to justify the claim to an existence of a Halachic obligation to vote.
To this point, I am not convinced that I could see an obligation to vote as a matter of Jewish law. If there is to be such a Halachic obligation, I think it would have to arise from a different source than has been discussed so far.
One possible source of such a holding might be seen in the obligations that Jews have under the Halachic principle of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), as it is widely understood. It would seem to me that we could legitimately argue that if we feel that things are not as good as they should/could be, and we may bring about changes that will improve the situation by voting, we would be obliged under this principle to act by casting our vote. Since things can ALWAYS be better, the obligation to vote would be perennial, arising in every election at every civic and governmental level.
I make no claims that this analysis is complete, or that it creates the obligation to vote under Jewish law; it is simply an approach to reasoning that may support such an obligation. The current position remains that there is no Halachic obligation to vote in civic elections.
Submitted by Rabbi Joseph “Rabbi Joe” Blair
Answered by: Rabbi Joseph Blair
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