— by Rabbi Burt Visotzky
Every four years, the intersection appears: the Days of Awe cross paths with the final weeks of the presidential campaign. The debate grows more heated. Talk of policy may dominate the conversation as we dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah or as we break the fast on Yom Kippur.
Perhaps most prominently, especially for people of faith, we will hear discussion of values – what are American values? Who are “values voters” and what do they believe? What role should Jewish values play in how we choose to vote?
In this Jewish season of awe and remembrance, of judgment and renewal, in this American season of electoral politics, our community bears a solemn burden in our public discourse. We must ask ourselves: how must we, as Jews, understand and tackle the great issues of our day? In politics and in the new year, what guidance can we glean from the pages of our tradition, from the lessons of our history, from the values of our people?
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With the aseret yemei t’shuvah upon us, Jews can turn to our liturgy for instruction and answers. Here, in our sacred texts, Jews can find a roadmap for action. Here, we can find the wisdom of our forebears – to inform our lives as Jews, as Americans, as engaged citizens. Here, we can find our deepest values, and apply them to the great political challenges of our time.
The prayers of these pages reflect our wishes for the future; so too must they be demands of ourselves: to perfect the world, to love peace, to pursue justice, to never stand idly by in the face of intolerance.
Consider the Avinu Malkeinu, our prayer asking G-d for understanding, for compassion, for redemption.
This prayer asks G-d to heal those who are ill and to not beseech us in old age, connecting us today to the debate over Medicare and Social Security, to the need for an inclusive policy for the care of our fellow Americans. We ask G-d to end disease and war, with celebration for our exit from Iraq and with hope for swift conclusion to the conflict in Afghanistan.
We request to be inscribed for livelihood and sustenance, and to fill our storehouses with plenty, reflecting our debate on how to create jobs; how to build an economy of fairness and opportunity; how to protect our environment and preserve G-d’s creation.
We beseech G-d to annul the designs of our enemies and to raise up the glory of Israel – a clarion call for a principled foreign policy founded on both diplomatic strength and military might. It is a call to maintain our support for the state of Israel, helping her defend herself, coming to her aid in the global arena, facilitating a lasting peace with her neighbors.
Consider the litany of the Al Chet – begging forgiveness from G-d for our transgressions.
In the midst of our economic crisis, we speak of bribery and overreaching in commerce, usurious interest and sins of food and drink — demanding policies that check excesses, responsibly regulate trade, defend families from financial ruin, and protect children from harmful and unsafe products.
With our ongoing discussion of civil rights, we ask forgiveness for base hatred — imploring us to end fear of those who are different; to abandon bigotry in all its forms; to shut out the forces of anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, and prejudice. We must embrace love and understanding, civil rights and equality for all. We must never treat anyone as a “stranger in a strange land.”
At the heart of our discourse, we consider the charge of Isaiah on Yom Kippur: the prophet’s call to feed the hungry, provide shelter to the homeless, clothe the naked, and most of all, to not turn away from your fellow human being.
These are Jewish values. These are American values. And at this intersection of Judaism and politics, our liturgy guides us and our tradition points the way.
In this season of prayer and political debate, as we open the machzor and enter the voting booth, may we have the strength to vote by the light of our values and assume responsibility for ourselves and our nation.
May we have the wisdom to elect leaders who reflect the core tenets of our faith. May we have the judgment and character to uphold our obligations as Americans and as Jews. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Rabbi Burton Visotzky is the Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at The Jewish Theological Seminary.