Writings from the Rabbis

Judaism in the Hallways of Democracy
Mar 12th 2013

Look closely and you’ll see me cringe ever so slightly when religious leaders speak on issues of public policy. My face reveals what my heart conceals. What gives them the right to tell our political leaders how to vote? Why should a priest or imam have sway on legislation that affects my rights or pocket book?

As a Jew, I don’t want the doctrines of other religions bearing on my life. As a Canadian, although our country has never built a wall between religion and state, I am concerned about the encroachment of tenets of faith into the hallways of democracy.

While I have no difficulties in Jewish religious leaders encouraging specific behaviours among their co-religionists (indeed this is part of my role as a rabbi), when that influence crosses religious boundaries, I am less enthralled.

My head however knows what my heart denies. All societies are based on the deepest convictions of their founders and citizens. Whether rooted in western philosophical notions of individual freedom and social contract or religious ideas about the divine right of kings, every society from time immemorial has and indeed must correlate with the central beliefs of its adherents.

Establishing what those beliefs entail, and translating them into concrete public policy, is no easy task, especially in a country as widespread and diverse as Canada. It requires long conversations and intense study. Jews should join those conversations and study groups.

Our tradition brings tremendous wisdom beyond strictly ritual matters.  Our texts speak of the need to balance tenants’ rights against the landlord’s justifiable aspiration for profit and where the balance between those two poles may lie. Our ancient books (and some great new ones, too) contain insight into environmental stewardship vs. human desires, criminal punishment vs. rehabilitation, and the parameters of the community in the provision of health care for all. From creation onwards, our vision of humanity is one that is created in the image of God. From that vision, a policy that maximizes human dignity is a policy that speaks to the deepest of Jewish values.

It behooves us to speak out, not only because others already are, but because we too are members of this society. Let us proceed humbly and with caution. The greater the impact on individual freedom, the greater the need to have widespread support for an idea. Jews are well versed in the tyranny in the majority. We must not, however be too timid as to silence ourselves. Whether it is health care for refugees or human trafficking, we have wisdom that deserves sharing.

The Talmud teaches (b. Shevuot 39a), “The entire world trembled in the moment when God said at Sinai, ‘Do not take the name of Adonai Your God in vain.’ ”The Torah was not a simply a present to the Jewish people – the entire world was its audience, but it is our responsibility to ensure that when religion is invoked in public debate, that we are there, ensuring that an authentic Jewish verse is heard.

 – Rav Adam