In an open letter titled “Sinai, Not Washington,” an eclectic group of Orthodox Jews decry an “unhealthy confusion of Torah values with politics” and warns “We must not allow ourselves to be co-opted by any party.”
The seven signatories to the letter, published in late July by Cross-Currents, an online journal of Orthodox writers, include Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Jacob.
Feldman told the AJT by email from Israel, where he lives, that the letter was intended “to be a wake-up call to Jews, to stress 1) that Jews should not view ourselves as simply another bloc of voters, a la the Hispanic vote, the Black vote, the suburban vote, the female vote, etc.; and 2) that classical Jewish values — Torah values — should not be forgotten by Jews in the heat of this election season.”
“On a practical level, we feel that it is unwise for the Jewish community to fall into a knee-jerk identification with any single political party. No one should feel that we are safely in their pocket. We can have much more influence with a party when they do not take our support for granted,” Feldman said.
Though “Sinai, Not Washington” was directed at Orthodox Jews, “non- Orthodox Jews are invited to listen in,” he said.
In addition to Feldman, the signatories were: Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, editor and publisher of the Intermountain Jewish News in Denver; Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for The Boston Globe; Eytan Kobre, a Manhattan attorney; Yosef Rapaport, a media consultant; Rabbi Avi Shafran, public affairs director of Agudath Israel of America, and Aviva Weisbord, a psychologist and executive director of SHEMESH, which provides educational support services to Jewish schools in Baltimore.
“Moral degradation infects a broad swath of the American political spectrum. In the camps of both liberals and conservatives, many political players are on a hyper-partisan quest for victory at all costs,” the letter says.
In that quest, “Good character and benevolent governance are devalued, contrition is seen as weakness and humility is confused with humiliation. Many politicians and media figures revel in dividing rather than uniting the citizens of our country. Others legitimize conspiracy theories. None of this is good for America, and certainly not for us Jews.”
The letter also cautions that “The integrity and impact of what we convey to our children and students . . . are rendered hollow when contradicted by our admiration for, or even absence of revulsion at, politicians and media figures whose words and deeds stand opposed to what we Jews are called upon to embrace and exemplify.”
“Serious moral issues — truth, loyalty, contrition, vengeance, tolerance — are at the heart of much of today’s political discourse. Whether we realize it or not, many of us have come to be guided in such matters, at least in part, by politicians and media figures with whom we share neither values nor worldview,” the letter says. “We are a people charged with modeling and teaching ethical behavior and morality to others. It should be inconceivable for us to be, and be seen as, willing disciples of deeply flawed people who are now the de facto arbiters of what is morally acceptable. We should be ashamed when Torah leaders seem to have been replaced as our ethical guides by people of low character and alien values.”
The letter addresses the challenge of striking a balance between religious belief and engagement in the state: “As Orthodox Jews, we live in a benevolent host society to which we have rightly given our loyalty. It is thus important that we not be regarded by the American public as turning a blind eye to the degradation of our moral climate in exchange for political support for parochial interests.”
“There are issues of great importance to us, like education funding, anti-discrimination laws and the affordability and safety of our neighborhoods, and we rightly advocate for our positions,” the letter says. “But we must reject the efforts of those who, for self-serving electoral gain, seek to turn Jews against any party or faction.”
The letter also urges: “We must ensure that Israel is not used as a political weapon. We must oppose efforts to turn support for Israel from a broad consensus into a wedge issue. Although we may rightly be concerned about trends regarding Israel in some corners, indicting an entire party as anti-Israel is not only inaccurate but has the potential of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nor should any party’s strong support for Israel become a justification to blindly support its politicians in every other matter. We should advocate for Israel’s security and other needs without painting ourselves into a partisan corner.”
The letter concludes: “When we vote, let us do so as Torah Jews, with deliberation and seriousness, not as part of any partisan bandwagon. We are not inherently Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. We are Jews – in the voting booth no less than in our homes – who are committed, in the end, only to Torah.”
Feldman said that while the response generally has been positive, “Some have read the letter as being anti-Trump, but that is a mis-reading. The letter was not intended to be anti- or pro- any candidate. It was intended to be pro-sanctity, pro-Gdliness. We deplore all kinds of immorality and dishonesty and unethical behavior, from whatever source. No party has a monopoly on it. Each political party has more than its share of such things.”
Feldman expressed concern that “if openly anti-Semitic individuals and groups are given legitimacy – such as [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi’s recent endorsement of the anti-Semitic Rep. Ilhan Omar – and society continues to cave in to outrageous demands of BLM [Black Lives Matter] and BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] then American Jews could face some problems. We are fully aware and concerned about the negative influence of such groups, but that was not the thrust of the letter.
“The letter was designed to remind Jews that we operate from an eternal standard, and not a sliding scale of values that shifts with the wind,” Feldman said.