Orthodox Jews in the United States of America enjoy freedom and opportunity unprecedented in the millennia of Diaspora Jewish history. From the regimes under which our ancestors lived, the most that could be hoped and prayed for was benevolent toleration by the ruling monarch and majority.
But the United States was founded by religious minorities fleeing persecution. Thus, religious freedom was built into the constitutional DNA of this country through the First Amendment and the political philosophy of the founders. President Washington most famously expressed this value in his letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island:
All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
On this basis, the Orthodox community has the opportunity to engage in every area of American civil society – including the arena of politics and advocacy. Not only can we advocate for the parochial needs of our community; we have the opportunity to engage – as Torah Jews – on the wide range of issues that shape American society and its character. The challenge is when and how we should do so.
Torah sages of the last century offered some guidance on this question unprecedented in Jewish history. In a seminal essay in 1964, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, zt”l, posited an obligation upon Jews to engage in the struggles that all people are involved in. He insisted that we must act as “human beings committed to the general welfare and progress of mankind…. interested in combatting disease, alleviating human suffering, in protecting man’s rights, in helping the needy, etcetera.”
Forty years prior to that, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, zt”l, spoke at the dedication of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There, Rav Kook said that a key aspect of Judaism is “to propagate Jewish ideas and values…into the public arena of the universe at large. For this purpose we have been established as a light unto the nations.”
While these statements assert an imperative for Orthodox Jews to engage in broader social concerns, they do not suggest an obligation to advocate for the wholesale incorporation of halachic principals into the United States Code of Law. Moreover, as a religious minority, American Jews benefit from a prevailing reluctance among most Americans to have explicitly religious tenets govern our pluralistic society.
Finally, the Orthodox community has a set of its own needs and interests and the government can help or hinder our meeting those needs. Engagement in political debates over polarized cultural issues could result in our families and institutions not receiving the support of – or even being harmed by – officials on the “other side” of these debates.
Thus, a primary challenge for those, like the Orthodox Union, that represent the Orthodox community in the halls of government is balancing advocacy for Orthodox interests with bringing the Torah’s values to the debates over broader societal issues.
We should first recognize that these concerns do not frequently conflict. One is hard-pressed to find an issue of interest to the Orthodox community whose defense or advancement does not benefit other segments of society. An excellent example of this can be found in a highly impactful, but little known incident, involving the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l. Civil rights activist Shirley Chisolm had been elected to Congress and was assigned to the Agriculture Committee where her opponents thought she would be unable to serve her Brooklyn constituents. When she complained about this to the Rebbe, he told her it was an opportunity to direct surplus food from America’s farms to America’s poor.
Of course, the Rebbe was keenly interested in the welfare of his flock – especially those who were poor. But he provided policymakers with a means of serving poor Americans across religious, ethnic, and racial lines. (For many years, Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm publicly credited Rabbi Schneerson with proposing what became the federal “food stamp” program.)
In the same vein, expanding legal protections for religious exercise benefits people of all faiths; increasing the funding government allocates to support parental choice in education benefits countless families beyond our own community. Even issues that seem highly parochial – protecting the practices of male circumcision and ritual animal slaughter – benefit our fellow citizens in the Muslim community. Thus, there is little advocacy the Orthodox Union pursues that serves our interests in an exclusively “parochial” way.
But what of Rav Kook’s notion that we should propagate Jewish ideals and values into the public arena? How are we to engage on issues that don’t have a unique impact on the Jewish community but have a moral and ethical dimension and shape the character of the society in which we live?
On this front, we have much to draw upon from our decades of advocacy experience. The “values issues” where it makes the most sense for the Orthodox community to engage and give voice to a Torah-informed perspective are those where there is a prospect of shaping the debate and thus making a meaningful impact.
While there may be a temptation to weigh in on all sorts of issues, what our experience has shown is that the further away a religious entity gets from issues that most Americans intuitively sense carry a moral/ethical dimension, the less influential the religious advocate will be. To put it sharply, rabbis expressing a view about the merits of ethanol subsidies won’t have much sway on the matter.
On the other hand, in 2002 the debate over government funding for embryonic stem cell research was on the front burner and Americans were keenly interested in the views of various faith traditions on this matter because of its moral dimensions. The OU’s announcement in support of funding this research, counter to the Bush Administration policy, was front-page news in The Washington Post.
It is also critical that Orthodox advocates seeking to impact the public debate give voice to an authentic and clear Torah perspective. Too often and too easily some will breezily cite a pasuk or a Talmudic statement that is twisted to suit the speaker’s political stance, but does not accurately reflect the Torah-halachic position. Moreover, the halachic approach to many issues is complex. We should never sacrifice the integrity of the Torah’s authentic teachings for the sake of political alliances or expediency.
At this time of the Jewish year, we regularly study Pirkei Avot. Therein, the rabbis famously expressed conflicting views about engagement with the ruling government. R. Chanina exhorts us to pray for the welfare of the government, while R. Gamliel cautioned us to be wary of those in power. In the United States, we are blessed to live under the authority of a benevolent government and we have the opportunity to shape the laws and character of the society at large. We must pray that Hashem grant us the wisdom to do so properly and effectively.