Do Torah Values Belong In The Voting Booth?
Ezra Friedlander quoted by Sandy Eller on the Weprin vs Turner race
New York, NY - Bob Turner’s historic victory over David Weprin in the 9th Congressional District on September 13 was a victory not only for Republicans but also for Orthodox Jews who played a large part in electing a Republican to a congressional seat that had been held by Democrats since the 1920s. A new political reality has emerged as the Jewish community proved that it will come out in force to support the candidate whose views it feels most closely match its own, regardless of the candidate’s religion or political party.
At the same time, however, the election also brought to the forefront an issue that has increasingly become the subject of debate among Orthodox Jews - the propriety of mixing politics with religion. In other words, should a Torah observant Jew bring his or her religious values into the voting booth or leave them at home?
According to many observers, David Weprin’s outspoken support of gay marriage cost him the election. Weprin’s identification as an Orthodox Jew made his support of gay marriage especially egregious for many. “The issue here was beyond just supporting gay marriage,” said New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who crossed political lines to support Turner. “This was him getting up and using his Orthodoxy as a way to say that supporting gay rights was okay. That is something that is so beyond the pale that it really rallied Orthodox Jews, even those who would ordinarily never get involved, telling their followers not to vote for Weprin.”
Weprin tried defending his stance on gay marriage before the election, telling a largely Jewish audience at a candidate forum, “It has nothing to do with my personal religious beliefs. I am not running for rosh yeshiva.”
Clearly, the election results showed that many disagreed with that statement. Indeed, shortly before election day, a letter signed by forty prominent rabbanim, including Rabbi Yisroel Belsky and Rav Shmuel Kaminetzky, circulated which declared it “forbidden” to vote for Weprin campaign because of his stance on gay marriage.
“There is no question that an Orthodox Jew cannot vote for a candidate who comes out in favor of an act that is clearly an abomination,” said Rabbi Menachem Shayovich, who chaired Agudath Israel’s Commission on Legislation and Civic Action and was a special assistant to former Governor Hugh Carey. “Many people, not just Orthodox Jews, felt that this was definitely a reason to vote against David Weprin. This is wrong from both a religious and a civil rights perspective and I would feel just as strongly about this issue for a non-Jewish candidate as well.”
Rabbi Michael Broyde, professor of law at the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, disagreed. “Politics is very complex,” he told The Jewish Press. “We want to be against government regulations that coerce people to go against their religious beliefs even if that means allowing for things that we might not agree with. You can’t tell the government we need you to accommodate our religious beliefs but not those of someone else. We need to have people in government who will protect our rights as religious Jews, and who they have to join in alliance with to protect our needs is not a halachic decision, but a practical one.”
Rabbi Gil Student, author of the popular Torah Musings blog, suggested that while politicians need to decide if they will adopt the liberal approach of allowing for maximum freedom in our society or the more conservative approach of expecting the government to build a moral society, they must realize that their decision can cost them votes.
“Like many others of my generation who have never faced religious discrimination, I do not see an intense need to support liberal policies. We vote with our conscience for whichever politician, regardless of religion, we believe will contribute to this country by building a society that is morally and economically sustainable. Orthodox Jewish politicians can legitimately choose either approach, but they cannot expect the support of Orthodox Jews who choose differently.”
While in this election, the conservative viewpoint represented by Turner was in sync with Torah values, that is not always the case. “Just because a position is taken by right-wing Christians doesn’t make it a Torah position,” advised Howie Beigelman, director of state affairs for the Orthodox Union. “That is especially true in the case of abortion where halacha often permits, and sometimes even requires, an abortion. We cannot assume that just because there is a generally conservative political view that it is Torahdik. God didn’t register with a political party. We can’t be so parochial as to carve out Orthodox friendly bills. We are too small a minority in a pluralistic democracy. If someone else’s rights are trampled, we know too well from history, ours could be next.”
Ezra Friedlander, CEO of The Friedlander Group, a non-partisan public affairs company based in New York and Washington that represented Weprin’s campaign, warned that mixing politics with religious beliefs is dangerous. “Your own religious faith and beliefs should be just that, your own,” he cautioned. “Not only should we be careful as voters not to bring religion into the political discourse, but candidates who share your religion should be careful not to appeal for your support because of that shared allegiance.
“Additionally, influencing the public discourse with one’s private religious beliefs is both wrong and counterproductive and would set a dangerous precedent for other religious faiths. What if it was a Muslim imam or Catholic priest that dictated to their communities that their vote on certain issues should be in accordance with their religious beliefs? The greatness of our democracy is our ability to express our positions on every issue, but bringing our religious perspective into the political process will only encourage others to do the same, which can be both to our benefit and our detriment. We may identify allies in other religious communities whose beliefs mirror our own but once we have let the genie out of the bottle and espoused religious doctrine as part of a political campaign, we may find the results disturbing and sometimes quite dangerous.
“We have the right to advocate for what we believe in as individuals and as a community but we must do so wisely. Bringing our sacred Torah into the murky waters of political campaigning is not a practice we should be engaged in. Politics is inherently not pure, while the Torah is the epitome of purity and holiness. Why mix the two? Keep religion out of politics because when you bring the Torah into the political process you are sullying something that is holy and pure.”