Ultra-Orthodox Jews who support Donald Trump are caught in a contradiction between the values of their communities and the behavior of their chosen candidate. They purport to value modesty, yet they back a man who jokes about penis size during a Republican debate. They claim to value upright speech, but they prefer the candidate who makes offensive comments about everyone from Mexicans to women to, yes, Jews. How do the ultra-Orthodox square their standards of morality with the Republican front-runner’s lack thereof?
According to Vice.com, Jacob Kornbluh, who reports on the Orthodox Jewish community for Jewish Insider, stated that “there is no question support for Trump is widespread” in the ultra-Orthodox world. This observation tracks with my own experience living and working within Brooklyn’s insular ultra-Orthodox community. The reasons for this support seem to range from the fact that Trump “speaks his mind” to his hardline stance against Muslims. Some appreciate his business acumen (despite his bankruptcies and failed brands) and his dedication to “making America great again.”
But the main quality Trump supporters share may be their tendency toward authoritarianism. As Matthew MacWilliams wrote in Vox, “People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies.” This sounds like the profile of an insular ultra-Orthodox community in which every decision — from which school children should attend to whether or not to vaccinate them — is influenced, if not determined, by rabbinical leaders.
Given the tendency of Orthodox followers to obey their leaders, statements of endorsement for Trump from even just a few such figures may have a great impact on views and votes.
Among the Orthodox rabbis who have endorsed Trump is Yosef Mizrachi, the controversial rabbi who attracts a large following of returnees to Judaism, or baalei teshuvah, and who generated outrage earlier in the year when he disputed the number of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Mizrachi’s lectures focus on fear of God and accepting life’s misfortunes as an expression of divine will or even punishment, and he often preaches that women should dress with the utmost modesty to prevent calamities from befalling world Jewry.
In a YouTube video, Mizrachi declares that, “If Trump is elected, maybe the Jews can expect four to eight years of better days than they have had in the last eight.” Mizrachi describes Trump as “straight… his opinions are straight. Hopefully he will improve his speech… but so far he is in the right direction.” Mizrachi then cites a story that seems to connect the conversion of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, with a Hasidic Jew changing Trump’s tire while the billionaire was stranded on the road. It’s the kind of story that’s high on sentimentality, low on credibility, and it was undoubtedly intended to clinch support for a candidate who has the merit of having a Jewish daughter, even though his speech needs a bit of “improvement.”
The fact that Trump’s daughter converted to Judaism hasn’t escaped other pro-Trump rabbis. A prominent Lubavitch rabbi, founder of the Meaningful Life Center and publisher of the Algemeiner Journal, Rabbi Simon Jacobson, explained to Haaretz that the Journal made Trump the guest of honor at its February 2015 gala because, “He’s unabashedly pro-Israel and he is very proud of his Jewish daughter.” Although the gala took place a year ago, and explaining the reason for the award is not the same as an endorsement, the fact that the current candidate was guest of honor at an Orthodox publication’s recent event may have real staying power among Algemeiner readers.
Jacobson’s intimation that part of Algemeiner’s decision to honor Trump has to do with “his Jewish daughter” should prompt us to ask: Why wasn’t Ivanka herself honored? After all, she was the one who gushed to Vogue magazine about her enthusiasm for Shabbat observance, following her conversion under the auspices of Orthodox rabbi Haskel Lookstein. Is it fair to give Trump credit for his daughter’s conversion when, according to Jewish law, a convert is officially the child of Abraham?
Jacobson’s other reason for honoring Trump, the candidate’s “unabashedly pro-Israel stance,” was not backed up with evidence, but that didn’t stop it from being echoed by Rabbi Shmuely Boteach in a Jerusalem Post op-ed. Although Boteach has so far stopped short of endorsing Trump, he decried comparisons of Trump to fascists as “vile,” and declared Trump a “staunch supporter of Israel,” following up this unsupported statement with: “Americans want to vomit already from the poll-driven drivel offered up to us by so many fake politicians who lack any kind of conviction and simply want to hold office.”
But Trump’s support for Israel has hardly been “staunch” or consistent. Maybe the assumption that Trump is a staunch supporter is due to the unfortunate political math that equates “far-right” with “pro-Israel.” Trump’s Jewish supporters seem to have forgotten his cringe-worthy comments before the Republican Jewish Coalition — that they were good “negotiators” — followed by the statement, “I don’t need your money.” Trump has also said he would be “neutral” on Israel and has not ruled out dividing Jerusalem. But he might revise these statements at the AIPAC conference, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he adopts a more hawkish tone on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The question that remains is how Orthodox rabbis who support Trump will handle questions about the daily preoccupations of Orthodox observance, such as modesty, upright speech and kosher education that eliminates harmful social influences and promotes positive character traits in children. The rabbis will probably respond that presidential candidates are not perfect and need not rise to the standards outlined by the local yeshiva.
But Trump’s unprecedented vulgarity and verbal abuse makes him more problematic than any candidate in recent memory. Do these Orthodox rabbis not feel concern that their children will want to find out more about this Trump — and maybe even imitate his ways — because of their fathers’ support for the candidate?
Shula Rosen is a pseudonym used by an Orthodox freelance writer. She has published work in Heeb, Jewniverse and the Kenyon Review.