This post continues the weekly series on the Nishmablog that features responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. This week's presentation is to one of the questions to which Rabbi Hecht responded.
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Question: Should we look for or expect to see “Jewish values” in US presidential candidates?
This is a most interesting question for it involves many side issues that need to be elucidated.
First, we must clarify the exact nature of the question as the two verbs that drive this question – ‘look for’ and ‘expect to see’ -- reflect two very distinct undertakings. The former is of a more active nature, asking of us, it would seem, whether we should be searching for Jewish values in the candidates. The latter would seem to be of a more passive nature, asking of us, it would seem, even if we should be able to identify Jewish values in the candidates. The further implication of this distinction could be in the role we assign to the integration of Jewish values in our evaluation of a candidate. The former, asking of us whether we should actively look for Jewish values in a candidate, would seem to imply that this should be an important criterion in our selection process. The latter, asking of us if we should even expect to see an integration of Jewish values in a candidate, would seem to imply that this, at least for pragmatic reasons, may not be a significant factor by which to render a decision. It would seem that before we even tackle what we may describe as the substantive question of the role of Jewish values in an election, we may have to consider the nature of the very relationship those outside of the Jewish world may have with Jewish values.
Second, of course, is the very issue of defining what Jewish values are. Regular readers of the Jewish Values Online website will no doubt recognize the powerful challenge this question presents for there are significant value differences between the branches of Judaism. I remember watching President Obama’s recent address to a convention of Reform Judaism, noting the powerful applause he received – and expected to receive – in response to certain comments. I also noted that if these same statements were made to a convention of Orthodox Judaism, the response to these very same statements would be the opposite and most negative. To those attending the Reform convention, the statements of President Obama would be presented as reflecting Jewish values; at an Orthodox convention they would be perceived to be attacking of Jewish values. So before we answer as to whether we should look for or expect to see Jewish values in US presidential candidates, we have to first define what we mean by Jewish values.
Continuing along this chain of thought, we may also wonder about what may even be the distinction between what we may term Jewish values and general universal values. When President Obama spoke at the Reform convention, he knew what to expect. There was no doubt that in the minds of the delegates – and perhaps even the President – there was a perception that he was maintaining Jewish values as defined within the parameters of Reform Judaism. Yet these values were not unique to Jewishness but reflected the values of many members of the general population. They could be said to reflect a certain perception of what would be a universal value consciousness. So the question is not simply what are Jewish values but also what makes these values distinctively Jewish so that they can be defined by this particular term.
It may be that we wish to describe certain values as Jewish because the root of such values emerged from the Jewish world; indeed many of the values within Western society did begin within the ancient Jewish world. Is this, though, what we now mean by the term Jewish values; they are the values that originated within the societal confines of the Jewish People? But so what? Why is it important for us to identify these Jewish values – except, perhaps, to feel the pride of being the originators? From his perspective, we may wonder why it would even be important to identify the Jewish values within a candidate. All that should really matter is whether we agree with his/her values regardless of their origin. We clearly would want to identify the values that are the basis for a candidate’s decisions – but why care if the origin is Jewish? We should just care if we agree or not.
There is, though, perhaps, another way of defining what we may mean by Jewish values that would reflect a more specific, and narrower, understanding of the term and could have a more specific relationship to the Jewish People – and thus could be of a more particular purpose to us. By the term Jewish value, we could be referring to positions that are favourable to the Jewish People. For example, in this context, the support of Israel could be considered a Jewish value. Our question in that case would then be whether we should look for or expect to see the assurance of such support in a US presidential election.
Again, in this context, the difference between ‘look for’ and ‘expect to see’ would be significant, but on the surface, we could offer a simple answer that we would clearly want a US presidential candidate to have such a value, i.e. a positive disposition toward the Jewish People. The exact nature of this support, though, may still be a question. There may be different ways by which a person could promote his/her support of the Jewish People, i.e. express such a Jewish value, with some positions expressing this stand being in conflict with others expressing this very same stand. It may actually be that two individuals, honestly declaring their support of the Jewish People, could adopt two diametrically opposite practical positions. Again we would be left with the need for us to determine our support for a candidate based upon our personal perceptions of the values maintained regardless of generic terms.
There is, however, one more point I would like to make in this regard and this is one that I offer specifically as an Orthodox rabbi. Maimonides, Shemona Perakim, Chapter 6 presents a distinction between two different types of mitzvot: Chukkot, the commandments whose sole basis is Revelation itself, and Mitzvot Sichliyot, the commandments which have a rational basis. For example, the prohibition of eating pork would be an example of the first category – the only reason we observe such a command is because God has so directed us. Maimonides goes so far as to state that we are not even to develop moral feelings in regard to such mitzvot – for example to feel that it is intrinsically disgusting to eat pork – but we are to even perceive that this action in itself is not problematic; we solely desist because that is God’s Will. An example of the second category would be the prohibition of murder. In regard to such directives, we are not only to abstain from such behaviour because God has so ordered us but we are also to feel the immorality of such an action. Unlike eating pork, we are to feel that murder is disgusting and inherently wrong.
This recognition is, in my opinion, very important in the context of this question. There are times where we, as Jews bound by Torah commandments, may share certain standard conclusions with others yet would still not share the same moral structure and thought processes. There are cases where, for example, we may observe a certain standard because it is a chok even others from a different religious perspective may believe this standard to be a correct moral outlook – a view we may even find challenging to accept. It is thus important for us to recognize that, even as we may wish to define another as having a ‘Jewish value’ because we both share the same conclusion, this may not actually be the case. There still may be a wide chasm in underlying moral concepts.
The bottom line may be that there may be a point in looking for or expecting to see Jewish values in a US presidential candidate but there may be an even further point in being able to identify and articulate how we, as Jews, do not share underlying moral and ethical concepts with someone even as we may reach, for completely different reasons, the same action conclusion.