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Jewish and Political

By Roz Silver

Are Jewish values connected to politics? 

Some would say they are intrinsically connected. Other ancient societies had laws, but the Torah’s concern with justice and mercy was rare and remains transformative, for us and for the societies the values helped to forge.

In late February, some of us were privileged to participate in a Zoom program by Rabbi Shai Cherry, an author (Coherent Judaism: Theology, Creation and Halakhah; Torah Through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary), former college professor (Vanderbilt University, University of San Diego), and rabbi at Adath Jeshurun, north of Philadelphia.

As Cherry put it in his presentation, politics requires policies: the United States has laws and code; Jews have halakhah, the body of mitzvot.  By reviewing various hot-button issues, Rabbi Cherry urged us to examine political decisions in the light of Jewish values. He emphasizes that the choices are not always clear-cut.

For example, “extending an open hand to the poor” is a principle, but its fulfillment might involve voting for a party that promises tax cuts and giving more to charity or, in contrast, voting for a party that taxes more and paying more tax and giving less tzedakah.

“Supporting a significant inheritance tax is a policy in line with our value of reducing income inequality – but it’s not the only way to get the job done,” Cherry said.

For example, he pointed out, “there are no classes on gun control in rabbinical school.”

“The most I can do,” Cherry said, “is point to scholars and studies that seem compelling, given our relative ignorance of the issues. But even that strikes me as arrogant. Who am I to be advocating an expert's position when I'm no expert? If someone asks during Kiddush (remember that?), then I can speak as a layman and not with the pretense of authority.”

"Since rabbis are not policy experts," Cherry said, "we can't speak authoritatively on many contemporary issues where there are competing Jewish values."

Rabbis should be masters of Jewish and modern values as they're expressed through halakhah, he said. 

"Sometimes,” he said, “halakhah has competing values (gun control). Sometimes, it offers multiple policies to express a shared value (death penalty). It's challenging to translate traditional values and halakhah into modern policies (tzedakah, abortion, and refugees).”

As Cherry explained, Talmud is about extrapolating from relevant analogies, with situational ethics.  Context is everything.


Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782