With just a few days until Election Day, I feel a call as a private citizen and rabbi to describe the values that implore me to vote as I will. I do not believe that clergy should tell people how to vote, but I do believe in clergy’s responsibility to point out their guiding values. In this critical election that will determine the future of our country, and from my home state of Florida, which could again determine the outcome of a national election, I feel compelled to share mine.
In America, citizens have the right to cast their ballots according to their own perceptions, knowledge, desires and dictates. For some Americans, their vote is about one issue, whether that issue is the economy, health care, immigration, race relations, the environment or international relations. For others, they will be looking at competence, character and the lived values of the candidates. I imagine that many, like me, will have top of mind the handling of the global pandemic that has already killed nearly one quarter of a million people in this country to date.
My consciousness as a rabbi and as an American will drive my vote.
That means that I’m not only interested in a given policy, but in the values that drive policy decisions. From where I sit, the most urgent issue in this election is undoubtedly to “choose life,” in the struggle against this devastating pandemic. All of my decisions grow from there.
As a Jewish American, my vote is reflective of a personal history. My maternal ancestors escaped Nazism and authoritarianism and came to this free nation that welcomed them as immigrants fleeing persecution. Welcoming the poor, the hungry, and oppressed is a function of our great nation, and it is also an imperative of Judaism. That Jewish struggle, the fleeing of persecution and the need for a place of eternal refuge in the land of our ancestors, also informs my choice to vote for a candidate with a reliable history of strong support for Israel.
But it is not only through the lens of the past that I am influenced to vote as I will, it is also about our future and our responsibility to our children and children’s children. We Jews have a wonderful story about an old Jew planting a tree. When a Roman soldier scoffs that the old man will never live to see the tree bear fruit, his response is, “as my forefathers planted for me, so I will plant for future generations.”
What other values will drive my decision?
Our nation’s founding principles are grounded in the ideas of the Enlightenment and the principles of “freedom, liberty and justice for all.” They are also found in the Torah tradition, which gave the world a notion of justice to be applied equally to all; the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. The Torah’s Ten Commandments begin with God introducing Himself as a liberator of a slave people.
Just like the Jewish people’s ethos or midrash in this regard, America has its own defining stories about the integrity of our earliest leaders. Prime among these founding myths is the story of our first president as a young boy saying “I cannot tell a lie.” This was the first story I learned in school that defined what we should expect from the character of a president. In my Torah the greatest models of leadership were people who exemplified humility.
In Judaism, like in this nation’s history, we have embedded values that are both a matter of faith as well as day-to-day law. This includes our duty to demonstrate kind and respectful treatment toward the other at all times. Every human being is created b’tzelem Ehlohim in the image of God. In the Torah, that concept never differentiates between race, creed, intellectual capacity, ability or gender. It is at the center of what we aspire to be as a nation.
My religious convictions and faith demand adherence to what science teaches, most seriously regarding human life and health. And I have always been taught that as a Jew and as an American that my wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of all. This is true economically and socially, but it is especially evident in the face of a pandemic.
The words are found in the seal of our nation are “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning, “Out of many, one.” In America, as well as in the tradition of the rabbis, there is respect for diversity and disagreement, as well as the value of multiple opinions. And yet, with our differences or perhaps because of them, we are one people. We are one nation.
These are my formative values that drive my choice today. As a private citizen and a rabbi, I want a president who will tirelessly work to preserve these foundational principles that guide me as a Jew and as an American. I urge every Jewish voter – in Florida and around this great nation – to reflect on his or her own foundational principles and to cast a vote accordingly.
Rabbi David Steinhardt is a Conservative Rabbi in South Florida and a Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.