Question: Should I refrain from consuming media produced by celebrities who later became known as Anti-Semites? For example, the Lethal Weapon series includes Mel Gibson, although it was produced before he became known as an Anti-Semite. Another example is the music of Pink Floyd, which included Roger Waters, but was produced before Waters became known as an Anti-Semite.
[Administrator's note: This issue appears in various forms. For example, one question on the website has to do with purchasing German-made autos (and other products): http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=991.
In another context, many rabbis advise the couples they counsel not to use any music at their wedding composed by Wagner or Mendelsohn because they either worked with/supported the Nazi regime, or they were seen as destroyers of Judaism - which is why it is rare to hear "The Wedding March" by Mendelsohn at a Jewish wedding.
Not too long ago, a fashion designer expressed vile anti-Semitic views, and there were repercussions, including at least one famous person publicly refusing to wear anything by him, or from the design house he worked for, raising a massive amount of negative publicity for that fashion house.
The issue that underlies this question is whether the person, and their actions/politics, can be separated from the art they create. It deals with memory, repentance, forgiveness, compassion, and punishment, among other matters.]
Can One Cordon Off Evil Ideas from Art and Science
Many people face the dilemma today of deciding what media and speakers are acceptable to engage. Should you watch a movie produced by an anti-Semite? Should you listen to an opera written by a composer favored by the Nazis; what about accepting scientific research that was conducted by Nazis? These moral dilemmas are at the core of a larger issue - can there be a separation from contemptible people and the art they create?
Art is particularly problematic for those seeking morality in execution as well as theme, for many artists and performers are egotistical, vain, often willing to exploit anyone to advance their own art, and inclined toward flaunting their distaste toward conventional morality. For example, Pablo Picasso is remembered for powerful paintings such as his anti-war masterpiece Guernica. However, his first cubist painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, shows five naked prostitutes who stare out at the viewer, taking in the perspective of a potential customer. The painting was universally condemned when it was first exhibited. Now it hangs prominently in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In short, the art world has overlooked Picasso's often-cruel depiction of women in art (and in his life). Similarly, in 1913, the brilliant young composer Igor Stravinsky wrote the score for a ballet presented by the prestigious Ballet Russe Company of Serge Diaghilev, choreographed by Vaclav Nijinsky, the most famous male ballet dancer of the day, and conducted by the excellent Pierre Monteux. The result, Le Sacre du Printemps, created a riot at its Paris premiere, as the ballet graphically depicted the ancient pagan sacrifice of a virgin. The audience literally drowned out the substantial orchestra, but was probably much more offended by the choreography, which featured deliberately crude, "primitive" movements, unlike the refined, graceful movements of conventional ballet. Today, however, the work is considered a staple of the orchestral repertory in spite of its gory programmatic theme (the choreography, as with most ballet revivals, is usually modified).
Then there is Richard Wagner, whose work and legacy is notoriously contentious and divisive. Jewish conductors such as James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera have conducted and championed Wagner's operas, yet public performances in Israel have been, socially verboten. Long-time Israel Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta played one Wagner excerpt as an encore in 1981, and Daniel Barenboim played another excerpt in 2001 in Jerusalem, but they were met with fierce demonstrations and did not persist. In 2012, a planned Wagner concert sponsored by the Israel Wagner Society was canceled due to public opposition. Regardless of one’s opinion, Wagner’s influence on orchestral composition, and beyond, cannot be denied. Consider, for example, the popular Star Wars films. In addition to similarities between these stories and the subject of Wagner's Ring cycle, the use of short musical themes and phrases that are associated with specific characters, which is standard for many film, was pioneered by Wagner (the leitmotif). The great Jewish conductor Leonard Bernstein once stated, alluding to Wagner’s achievements and enduring influence, “I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees.”
Nevertheless, Wagner exhibited vicious anti-Semitic beliefs throughout his life. In addition to writing his virulent anti-Semitic treatise, On Jewishness in Music, denouncing the role of Jews in music, Wagner expounded upon his abhorrence of the Jews in his letters. Perhaps the most despicable is Wagner's letter to Bavarian King Ludwig II in 1881, where he simultaneously acknowledges that his current conductor, preparer of the vocal score, and prospective impresario for an upcoming opera were all Jewish, but then gives vent to pure hatred:
If I have friendly and sympathetic dealings with many of these people, it is only because I consider the Jewish race the born enemy of pure humanity and all that is noble in man: there is no doubt but that we Germans especially will be destroyed by them, and I may well be the last remaining German who, as an artist, has known how to hold his ground in the face of a Judaism which is now all-powerful.
Proponents of Wagner point out that Wagner wrote voluminously on countless topics. Indeed, one volume of "selected" letters contains about 500 (and is nearly 1,000 pages long), which represents only about 5 percent of the composer's letters. There are those that argue Wagner was more of an opportunist than anything else. In 1881, the same year he wrote his most notorious anti-Semitic diatribe, he wrote: "I have absolutely no connection with the present 'anti-Semitic' movement." He chose Hermann Levi, the son of a rabbi, to conduct the premiere of his final opera, Parsifal, at Bayreuth, the opera house he constructed for the performance of his works, , in 1882; Levi continued to conduct the opera for a decade after Wagner's death in 1883. In typical fashion, Wagner tried to placate other anti-Semites who objected to Levi by trying to get the conductor to convert (or do a sham conversion) to Christianity, but Levi refused. Wagner's supporters note that Nazi ideologues would not have permitted Levi to conduct, especially at Bayreuth.
While many cite Wagner’s anti-Semitism as the reason for their objection, it is Wagner’s association with Nazism that most people find unconscionable. Although Wagner died in 1883, decades preceding the rise of Nazism, his ostentatious anti-Semitism and Hitler’s fondness of his music, appropriations as a German cultural role model, and usage of his music at Nazi rallies have resulted in Wagner’s conflation with Nazi ideology and the atrocities of the Holocaust. Professor Robert S. Witrich writes, “Wagner can hardly be held responsible for the monstrous way in which the Nazis implemented some parts of his vision half a century later. Moreover, many Wagnerians – then and now – were utterly remote from Nazism. Indeed, some were self-proclaimed humanists, socialists, feminists, vegetarians and free-thinkers.” For example, Wagner’s music found enthusiastic support among 19th-century revolutionaries like the Empress of France and King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and even Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who claimed to have listened to Wagner every evening while writing The Jewish State.
Scientific research is even more problematic, especially when the research is designed to cause injury and death to subjects to its unwilling participants. When people think of inhumane (indeed inhuman), unethical and objectionable scientific studies, the Nazi concentration camp examples immediately come to mind. Josef Mengele is the most infamous Nazi officer and physician who conducted these horrific experiments at Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1943-45. Mengele became obsessed with unusual people, especially twins (perhaps because twins fit the experimental model of a matched subject and control). While he played classical music and at times projected a facade of medical protocol (extensive medical drawings and models of the subjects' anatomy, etc.), he was a sadistic monster who tormented his subjects with wretched experiments, and then would often kill them once finished. Of the 3,000 people he experimented on, only about 200 survived when the Soviets liberated Auschwitz in 1945. Incredibly, when he fled from Auschwitz, eventually to end his days in South America, Mengele took all his experimental notes, in the perverse belief that his research was valuable and would make him famous.
At Dachau, there were more “plausible” experiments conducted. Many prisoners were immersed in freezing water and then revived by various means, and others were put in a pressure chamber to see how much pressure they could take before they died, ostensibly to see how fighter pilots could survive after crash landing in the North Sea, or how they could deal with high altitude flying. However, there were no efforts to ensure that the prisoners did not die from the experiments; autopsies were routinely conducted immediately after death, with pictures scrupulously documenting the torture. Thousands of other experiments were conducted on prisoners to evaluate new drugs for adverse effects.
Disturbingly, Americans played a role in validating and promoting the pseudoscience that eventually led to such cruel tortures disguised as science. Madison Grant was a founder of the Save the Redwoods League and President of the New York Zoological Society, and was on the Board of Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History. However, he was also a founder of the American Eugenics Society, and wrote The Passing of the Great Race in 1916, which had an endorsement from former President Theodore Roosevelt. In it, Grant advocated the extermination of inferior races through eugenics:
Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.
Grant, who ascribed to the racist notion that multiple human races had evolved and that the "Nordic" race was superior, further advocated isolating "inferior" races in ghettos. Hitler himself praised Grant’s ideas, and Mengele used similar pseudoscientific terminology ("race hygiene") in his warped scientific research. This state-sanctioned racism led to the notorious "Tuskegee Experiment" where the U.S. Public Health Service decided that rather than treat syphilis, it would observe the disease's effects on black men in Macon County, Alabama. Sadly, Grant’s writings are still cited favorably by hate groups in chatrooms all over the Internet.
The medical community has struggled over how to deal with scientific research data derived from such objectionable methods. In 1997, an American Medical Association (AMA) committee noted that several series of recommendations, from the time of the Nuremberg trials on, have been put forward to evaluate the ethics of medical research. The committee observed, however, that not every piece unethical research should be rejected. For example, the pioneering work of Andreas Vesalius on anatomy, published in 1543, was produced from dissection of the cadavers of executed criminals, a crime in those days. The committee, however, did advocate for rejecting data from inhumane experiments:
Special attention needs to be paid to data collected from experiments that are incontrovertibly inhumane…. One primary argument against using material obtained from Nazi experiments or the like is that such experiments were not experiments at all, but rather means of torture overseen by scientists and physicians. Results derived from senselessly cruel acts offer little scientific merit and should never be used, just as poor data collected under ethically sanctioned experiments have little value and would never be used.
Instead, the AMA committee recommended that data from inhumane experiments could usually be replaced by more ethical experiments, and should only be used if it is absolutely necessary for knowledge and cannot be replaced by more ethical experiments. In 1998, the AMA adopted these recommendations (Opinion 2.30):
Based on both scientific and moral grounds, data obtained from cruel and inhumane experiments, such as data collected from the Nazi experiments and data collected from the Tuskegee Study, should virtually never be published or cited.
In the Jewish religion, and throughout our traditions, there is precedent for blocking some language from our ears and cognition - lashon hara, or the “evil tongue.” Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chaim) discusses, at length, the philosophy and ethics of the power of speech and the avoidance of others’ unethical speech in Sh’mirat HaLashon, or “Guarding of the Tongue.” There is also modern legal precedent for dismissing ideas from consideration (such as evidence attained unlawfully and/or unethically).
It is difficult, to be sure, how to gauge the utility of beautiful things that are brought into the world from repugnant minds. This dichotomy creates a sort of cognitive dissonance, which to be sure, enters into the language of comprehending the complexities of the world around us. Is it a moral imperative for Jews to reject any piece of art that we know comes from the mind of an anti-Semite? If that was the case, Jews would boycott every museum that displayed a painting by Degas or Renoir. Then again, Rambam taught that one should accept the truth from wherever one finds it. Ideas (and by extension art and scientific research) are to be considered regardless of their origin, but with caution. I, for example, will read books advocating atheism, but I read them with a critical and cautious lens. That is much easier done with a theological issue, but with moral issues I do believe we must caution ourselves even more from certain immoral premises. Should one read a book that denies the Holocaust, or a book that advocates for genocide, or a book that claims Jews or blacks are innately inferior? I state with conviction that we should not entertain such immoral and dishonest postulations. While the First Amendment allows evil ideas to exist, we, as the consumers of media, knowledge, and history, determine whether or not they enter our ears, conversations, minds, hearts, and souls. Before some beauty, where possible, we must cry with painful memory of horrors but garner the courage not to turn away. There is often too much to learn from the moral and aesthetic complexity.
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Question: This question appeared in the New York Times Magazine: Is it ethical to buy something at a yard sale or a flea market at the seller's asking price if you know the value of the item to be significantly higher than what is being asked? Let's say, for example, someone is selling an old comic book worth thousands of dollars but asks for only a quarter because he or she does not know the true value. Is it incumbent on the seller to do his or her research? If the seller does not, is it fair game? Does the buyer have any obligation to inform the seller?
Value is complicated and sometimes subjective. We need not reveal how much we personally value an item we want to buy, nor does a buyer need to reveal how much she values a particular item. In particular, antiques and rare items are especially complicated to put an objective, or wholly accurate, value on.
The Torah (Leviticus 25:14) teaches the prohibtion of ona’ah (taking advantage of another in business). An owner may not overcharge for an item and a buyer may not underpay. The Talmud considers ona’ah to be like theft. Generally, ona’ah mandates that an owner may not charge more than 1/6th of the market price for an item and the buyer may not pay less than 1/6th of the going rate.
Further, there is a halakhic concept that an acquisition is not valid if crucial information was not known at the time (mekach taut) that would have persuaded the buyer or seller not to make the deal. Knowing something is a rare valuable antique when the buyer does not know is not merely a case of ona’ah (underpricing) but is a case of mekach taut (a faulty deal) since there is a level of deception involved. This principle is meaningfully illustrated in the story of Simon ben Shatah:
Simon ben Shatah was occupied with preparing flax. His disciples said to him, “Rabbi, desist. We will buy you an ass, and you will not have to work so hard.” They went and bought an ass from an Arab, and a pearl was found on it, whereupon they came to him and said: “From now on you need not work anymore.” “Why? He asked. They said, “We bought you an ass from an Arab, and a pearl was found on it.” He said to them, “Does its owner know of that?” They answered, “No.” He said to them. “Go and give the pearl back to him.” “But, “they argued, “did not Rabbi Huna, in the name of Rav, say all the world agrees that if you find something that belongs to a heathen, you make keep it?” Their teacher said, “Do you think that Simon ben Shatah is a barbarian? He would prefer to hear the Arab say, ‘Blessed be the G-d of the Jews,’ than possess all the riches of the world…It is written, “Thou shall not oppress thy neighbor.” Now your neighbor is as your brother, and your brother is as your neighbor. Hence you learn that to rob a gentile is robber,” (Palestinian Talmud, Bava Metzia 34a)
Garage and rummage sales frequently raise questions about false perceptions. In one case covered by the media, a woman bought a box of miscellaneous items at a flea market. Among the items, she liked a painting because it had a nice frame. Rather than discard the painting, she put it in a garbage bag and took it to an auction house, which told her that she had actually purchased an authentic Renoir painting worth $75,000. Since neither the buyer nor the seller knew that the painting was genuine, this was clearly not deliberate deception. On the other hand, if the purchaser had been an art dealer and known of its value, or if the seller had pretended that a known forgery was a masterpiece, then that would have been another matter.
In the United States the legal doctrines of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) and caveat venditor (“let the seller beware”) generally apply to the exchange of goods, and or real property, between buyers and sellers. The case of Laidlaw v. Organ is perhaps the most famous, and oft-cited, decision regarding the principles of warranty, non-disclosure, misrepresentation, and/or mistake. The decision holds that when two parties are dealing at arms length and both have equal access to information that pertains to the bargained-for exchange there is no duty to disclose, for either party. However, if a party intentionally deceives another the contract is subject to rescission; the deception can either be fraudulent misrepresentation or material misrepresentation, and both forms make the contract entered into voidable.
There are exceptions to the general – no duty to disclose – rule. Courts will hold parties that are in fiduciary relationships and/or confidential relationships to higher standards due to their unique status. Fiduciary relationships, such as the relationship between business partners or attorneys and their clients, are based on one person’s ascendancy over another through the placement of trust and confidence, or the assumption of a position of influence. For these types of relationships to function successfully they require a high degree of candor between participants and therefore both parties are held to rigorous standards. Confidential relationships, such as the relationship between brother and sister, husband and wife, doctors and patients, clergyman and parishioner, are not so much the product of a legal status as they are the result of unusual trust or confidence reposed in fact. Parties with these sorts of relationships aren’t held to the same rigorous standards as those in fiduciary relationships but, legally, one party cannot take advantage of the other or deal on unequal terms.
A particularly evil case occurred in the then British colony of Pennsylvania in 1763, when a British commander endorsed the idea of selling blankets from a smallpox hospital to the unsuspecting local Native Americans, in the hope that the Native Americans would contract smallpox and die. While the specific events and outcome remain controversial among historians, it seems clear that the sellers were not only distorting the value of the blankets, they were literally trying to kill the buyers. While such despicable and brutal acts of deception may seem so evil that it is hard for us to actually comprehend the act’s perpetration, similarly malevolent practices are taking place today.
The current economic crisis that our nation is slowly recovering from was largely set off by predatory subprime lending by major US investment banks. Banks would attract subprime borrowers with advertisements offering loans with no down payments and their no-savings requirements, then provide borrowers with adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) loans for the full purchase price of the home which have a fixed, below market, interest rate for the first 2-3 years but then are adjusted every six months to a much higher rate for the duration of the 30-year loan. These banks made loans to borrowers on terms that the borrowers would be unable to pay, which the banks knew. In determining what the borrower could afford, through the standard debt-income ratio, the banks would only consider the introductory interest rate and not what the ratio would ultimately be when the interest rate skyrocketed after the 2-3 year introductory period. These investment banks preyed on millions of families who sought their share of the American Dream, who wanted to raise their children in a home, who sought safer neighborhoods and better schools, all the while knowing that once that introductory interest rate went up after 2-3 years, and if the market didn’t increase allowing for re-financing, that these families would have their homes foreclosed and lose everything.
Overall, there needs to be some order in the marketplace in order to equally protect buyers and sellers. Indeed, the motivation behind many investments, or purchases at garage sales, is the hope, on both sides of the bargain, that there will be financial gain and there is nothing inherently wrong with this. The issue, very simply, is one of fairness. We must be cognizant of Torah and the prohibition of ona’ah as well as American legal precedent regarding misrepresentation and non-disclosure. However, the maxims of caveat emptor and caveat venditor stand for principles of being prudent, cautious, and informed buyers and sellers; therefore, we must be responsible and diligent in our business undertakings while remaining ethical and socially conscious.
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Question: In prison, must someone eat their kosher meals in their cell to keep (observe) kashrut? Or can they eat these meals in the common area, as long as the food is heated and served in Styrofoam or plastic containers, with plastic utensils (using separate dishes and utensils to avoid mixing meat and milk, and to avoid any forbidden foods being included), and wear a yamulke (often called a kippah, or head covering) and say the appropriate prayers?
Jewish prisoners should surely do their best to fulfill all kashrut requirements. If prison officials are not cooperating, one might contact Aleph for support.
It may be safer for prisoners to eat kosher meals in their cells rather than in the common area. My understanding is that in many prison contexts, receiving any special treatment can lead to abuse from other inmates. This will, of course, vary based upon context.
From a strictly kosher perspective, if the food is re-heated in a non-kosher prison facility while the food is covered in its containers as you specified that is fine.
Prison is most often a very dark and lonely experience. Any support family and friends can provide are so important. Further advocacy should be done to ensure that all prisoners are treated with human dignity.
Many blessings, Shmuly Yanklowitz
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Question: How long is too long to date before two Jewish adults decide to get engaged? Is this a matter of Jewish law or of custom?
This is a matter of custom not law. The traditional custom is that dating should be short since one should have the clarity of what they are looking for and be able to detect that quickly. However, in modernity this (for better or worse) has become more complicated.
I believe there are four crucial types of questions one must answer before choosing to get engaged (or to end a relationship):
Do you share the same values and life goals?
Do you respect him or her? Does he/she have good midot?
Are you attracted to him/her? Can you become attracted to him/her?
Do you enjoy being together? Do you connect?
I believe these questions can be answered relatively quickly if a couple spends time together talking about important matters.
The rabbis taught that a relationship where one cares about another based upon one factor is a relationship that will not endure. Rather one must truly to admire/love the full person they are choosing to marry. Marriage will be the foundation for the rest of their lives. Some couples can figure out if they’re right for one another quickly. Others need time to learn about each other. There is no science to the art of the dating. One must listen to one’s heart and be honest with oneself and with the other one is dating.
Bivracha, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
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Question: A few months ago, I accidentally discovered that my wife of almost 3 years (the complete love of my life) was having an affair with another man. The circumstances were just horrific.
I was just stunned and devastated to learn all this. I had no idea of my wife's frustrations, and no idea she was someone that was even capable of doing such a thing.
We have been to regular counseling for months now, and even now my wife is still at a loss to completely explain what happened and how it evolved.
Here is my question...
Now, 3-4 months removed from the affair, I am still occasionally dealing with hurt and pain that I may never fully get over 100%.
Nonetheless, I have forgiven my wife and chosen to stay with her. In spite of what occurred, I do love her tremendously. I do believe she is my beshert/soulmate. I am happiest when I'm with her, and I still see my future with her, and I believe that she feels the same way about me.
Tears beyond tears have been cried by both of us, and my wife has expressed an enormous amount of regret, remorse, and an appropriate amount of self-loathing, all of which I judge to be genuine.
At times, she has even suggested attending Shabbat services at our local synagogue to atone and ask G-d for forgiveness.
For sure, I am not fully over what happened, and I may never be fully over it altogether. Likewise, she may never be able to get over the fact that she committed adultery and betrayed and acted against someone she loves. It is a terrible tragedy in both our lives that can never be undone. But I'm pleased to say that my wife and I are currently in a very good place. We are extremely happy with one another and extremely in love. And ironically, the communication which has resulted since the affair (which should have come prior to the affair) has taken our relationship to an even far better place in so many ways than where I perceived it to be prior to the affair.
In short then, I have forgiven my wife.
I hope that she can eventually forgive herself.
Will G-d do the same?
What does Judaism say about this situation?
Adultery is a terrible sin that has significant implications in Judaism. A couple dealing with such a situation that wishes to stay together should meet with a posek (rabbinic legal expert) and a counselor.
It sounds like you have experienced a lot of pain and courageously done a lot of difficult work to rebuild your marriage. This is such holy work.
You ask if G-d will also forgive your wife? I really don’t know, but I believe so.
The Jewish tradition teaches us that we should forgive others because G-d is a forgiving G-d since we should emulate G-d’s ways (halachta b’drachav).
We recite in the selichot liturgy each year around the High Holidays: “Mochail avanot amo, maveer rishon rishon, marbeh mechila, l’chataiim uslicha l’fosheem. Oseh tzadakot im kol basar v’rauch, lo karatam teegmol” – G-d deals righteously with all and does tzedek (justice) pardoning chataiim (careless wrong doers) and forgiving poshiim (intentional wrong doers). Forgiving others here is connected to tzedek - forgiveness of those who have erred is a fulfillment of justice. Part of what it means here to be righteous is to be a forgiver (to emulate G-d). To understand that humans are fallible and to be loving of others who stumble. G-d models humility for us by forgiving us.
Rav Yisrael of Rizhin has a point relevant to your current struggle. He distinguishes between the Solaiach and the salchan. The solaiach is one who forgives because he or she is in the mood (not intrinsic to the self). The salchan on the other hand forgives time after time as it is a core point of the natural identity as a forgiver. To perpetuate opportunities to forgive and to repair relationships is to become a salchan. You have learned that you cannot forgive your wife one time. Rather, you need to forgive her in your heart time and time again. This is helping to cultivate a very deep virtue in you.
There is another step. Just as we are obligated to forgive others, so too we are commanded not to bear a grudge (lo titor). This commandment is in the same Biblical verse as the command to love others like ourselves. Forgiving another is about the past. Removing a grudge is about a present sense of indebtedness. To truly love another, we must move beyond entitlement and release our grudges.
I wish you so much healing in the future. May overcoming this challenge continue to bring you and your wife closer and closer. May you heal and heal again. May you be gentle with yourself and with one another. There is no one worth cherishing more than our life partner.
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Question: How important should the Israel factor be when deciding who to vote for during a presidential election? Do American-Jewish voters have an obligation to vote for the most pro-Israel president, even if he conflicts with them on other values?
Whether or not a candidate for public office supports the state of Israel is important to American Jews, but it is not the only issue we care about. Indeed, in 2012 it is highly likely that all major Presidential candidates will be pro-Israel, so that American Jewish voters can concentrate on voting for the candidate who best embodies the principles of the Torah and the American republic.
While Jewish law does not mandate that we support one party or another, there is an imperative to vote. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in a letter written in 1984, explained that all American Jews must vote, since we must express our hakarat hatov (gratitude) to the leaders of the great nation we reside in.Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky dismissed those who doubt the impact of their individual vote, noting that recent elections have been decided by just a few hundred votes: "Therefore, I urge all members of our community to fulfill their obligation to vote for those who strengthen our nation—whether materially or spiritually.”
As American Jews, we have dual commitments. First, we must use our influence to secure the welfare and security of the Jewish people. Secondly, we are to use our vote to promote peace and protect the vulnerable in society. Ignoring American policy decisions impoverishes our choices and is irresponsible. Our choices of leadership are made with greater nuance if we allow all of our concerns as American Jews a place at the table, and this will help ensure more honest and passionate deliberation. We cannot check our moral and spiritual convictions at the door of the voting booth.
American Presidents have supported Israel from its inception. While we may have disagreed with these Presidents on individual issues, each has given significant aid, validity, and support in times of need. While we cannot assume this support will always be there and must always offer our unequivocal support to Israel, recent polls offer encouragement that the American commitment to Israel remains solid.
A Gallup poll showed that Americans are more pro-Israeli today than they’ve been in over 20 years. An overwhelming majority now favor the strongest American support for the Jewish democratic state. Consequently, the Presidential candidate will almost certainly be pro-Israel. Thus, I believe that one’s primary responsibility in the upcoming election is to vote for what is best for the American people and for what promotes national and global justice.
The most pressing need to address is those suffering right before our eyes. The great 20th-century halakhic authority Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach taught: “In relation to the obligation to pay the costs of saving the life of a sick person who is in danger of dying: From the straightforward reading of Sanhedrin 73a, we see that one is obligated to do everything to save him, and if not, one transgresses the negative commandment: ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor’” (Minkhat Shlomo, V.2, 86:4).
The Jewish people have moved beyond the shtetl, where we just relied upon righteous individuals to help those in need. Today, we know that we need government, non-profits, and individuals – in a word, the whole social system – to be engaged in relieving the poor and sick from their suffering. This is the paramount priority we must remember when voting: Which candidate best supports the mission of the Jewish people to defend the vulnerable? Who will most effectively stop genocides, get millions of Americans back to work, reform education, and reduce crime? Which candidate throws off the responsibility of helping the poor, relegating it to the assumption that wealthy individuals will supply the need? In an era where Americans give only 1% of income to charitable causes, we cannot naively hope for the grace of individuals. Ensuring the welfare of the vulnerable must be supported and enforced.
Our faith must inform how we vote. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argued, “We affirm the principle of separation of church and state. We reject the separation of religion and the human situation.”In the end, the core message of the Torah is that the Jewish people are created to be ambassadors of justice and defenders of the vulnerable. May the Jewish voice emerge this election year to transcend our self-interest and ring loudly as a call to protect the vulnerable.
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