Recently, I received an email from a colleague whom I respect and esteem. He invited me to join “Rabbis for Biden,” whose goal is to “help Joe Biden become President of the United States.” Even though I think Mr. Biden is the better candidate, I will not be joining the group. I thought I’d share with you my thinking.
It is not an easy decision. Nor is this the first time I’ve had to consider it. I was invited by colleagues to join “Rabbis for Obama” and declined then as well.
In fact, given my judgment regarding Mr. Trump’s lack of character, his fitness for office and the damage I believe he does to the country, this time is far more difficult than the last.
Good Reasons to Join
There are, in fact, good reasons to join that I have considered carefully. In fact, this is not at all an easy decision, independent of particular candidates. I have wrestled with it and continue to struggle with the arguments pro and con.
The first, and foremost, is that I believe that political action is an important way for me to act on my values and moral commitments. Given my commitment to improving our country, political action is a significant element in reaching that goal. Likewise, I am grateful to live in a democracy such as we have, even with its faults, and a democracy is only as good as the people who participate in it.
The second is that my joining might persuade others to support Mr. Biden as well. Perhaps someone who values my opinion, or who finds my arguments persuasive, might be influenced to vote for him.
Finally, political activity like this can demonstrate to people that religion is not something that takes place only on Shabbat in shul or around the Pesah seder table in our homes. Any religion worth its weight, I believe, acts on the values it expresses. And when religious leaders organize, or join causes, or take to the streets as an expression of those values and out of a desire to improve our human community then they model a deep and thoughtful commitment to that community.
Why I Don’t Join
With all that said, why don’t I join?
I don’t join for three reasons.
One: I understand my role as a rabbi to be the articulation of the values and teachings of our tradition. Those values and teachings cannot be summed up in a political platform, nor can they be embodied by a single candidate. Thus, though I’ll certainly vote for candidates that best match those values and am happy, privately, to articulate whom I support and why, I usually do not do that in my role as rabbi. (What I wrote earlier in this post is the exception to that rule.)
Second, in joining such a group I’m afraid that I’ll identify myself with it, its platforms and its candidates. But I cannot do that, shall we say, carte blanche. It is important to me – as an individual and as a rabbi – to maintain an independence of thought that is able to critique even the party or candidate that I support when I believe it has failed to match the values I hold dear.
Finally, I believe that the role of religion is not to support the state or its politics. Rather, religion ought to bring its way of looking at the world – with its deeply considered higher values – to bear on the imperfect conduct that marks every state. The role of religion vis-à-vis the state is, in a democracy, critique and not comfort. I’m afraid that when we get too cozy with a party or politician, it becomes easier to forget that responsibility
In This Time & Place
I wrote earlier that maintaining this position is more difficult than ever before because of the state of our country and the leadership that has, in so many ways, contributed to this reality.
Often, when I think about the relationship between religious leaders and the state, I think about Hitler and Nazi Germany. Whether or not it would have made a significant impact, I do believe that Germany’s religious leaders should have joined in common cause and proclaimed from their pulpits that Germans should reject the Nazis. And I think of those religious dissidents in the former Soviet Union and China, who have stood against the state and its evil.
I don’t know where the tipping point would be at which I would join a “Rabbis for So-and-So” but it’s not yet here.
At the same time, it’s not so far away.
Please make sure that you are registered to vote; to encourage everyone you know to do the same; and to take steps now to ensure that you are ready to vote when that day comes.