Double standards for rabbis and politics | Elchanan Poupko
I was recently asked why, as a rabbi, do I talk about politics? “Shouldn’t you talk only about Torah and Jewish matters?” I completely agree with this sentiment. Politics is inherently divisive, and the role of religion and community is to bring people together. To understand why one must understand the extraordinary changes that American Orthodoxy has gone through and the direction in which it is heading.
As a rabbinical student, I had the honor of being part of the Strauss Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. One day in class I found myself sitting in front of a persuasive argument about how money equates to free speech, and why money in American politics – certainly not a matter of consensus and without much to to do with Torah or Western thoughts – is the right thing for democracy. This was no exception. The Orthodox public sphere is so dominated by GOP politics that when we see expressions of this partisanship, we don’t think twice; that is exactly what a part of Orthodoxy has become, and when we see expressions the other way around, it is shocking and alien to many.
That’s why the Tikva Fund, a conservative think tank made famous recently by inviting Ron DeSantis to tell New York Jews why they should move to Florida or “how to fight revival,” is able to openly recruit college students. in Jewish day schools and high schools. At the same time, his equivalent on the Democratic (Western) side of the spectrum could never dream of such a thing. Organizations affiliated with some of the more militant elements of the GOP are considered normal parts of Orthodox life. This is how I could see in an event as apolitical as the national final of Chidon Hatanach, a day school father showing up with a “Let’s go Brandon” shirt, something that would never happen in the other meaning. It’s also why I see in Orthodox spaces the loot “The Heritage Foundation”, an organization that advocates for women who have abortions in mental institutions against their will and is praised by the NRA for helping to perpetuate gun promiscuity in America, the leading cause of death among American children.
That’s why when infamous Congresswoman Mary Miller gave a speech saying “Hitler was right,” there was a group of traditional Orthodox rabbis who made sure to come out and defend her, while rabbis with far less extreme positions on the democratic side of things are afraid to voice those in the Orthodox community. That’s why rabid anti-Semites like Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene are adoringly featured in one of Orthodoxy’s biggest magazines days after her attempt to overthrow the U.S. government for which we now learn she has sought to be pardoned, when we can never dream of that happening to any party on the other side of the political spectrum. American orthodoxy has morphed too much into who it is to be synonymous with extreme GOP politics and the fact that I am not joining this race by seeming too extreme to those who have taken it will not change my mind.
The branding of the GOP’s extreme politics as normative orthodoxy while ostracizing everything that is taken for granted by Jews in every other Western country, such as the right to vote, the right to health care and your children’s right not to be shot at school or elsewhere except in a mass shooting, hurts us all. If you thought you were a thoughtful armchair conservative who’s “just concerned about the justice system” from your home in New York, this week’s Supreme Court ruling delivers open-carry handguns on a subway or a street corner near you. If you’re an Orthodox woman in Florida who was “just concerned about how the country woke up,” the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and their promise in the decision to change much more will jeopardize the health, maternal mortality and life expectancy of Orthodox women in red states in ways most people in our community cannot imagine. There’s a good reason for the double-digit gap between life expectancy and average income in New York and many other red states. Public policies, investments in health and education and regulations shared with the rest of the developed world are making a difference and having concrete results.
The fact that Americans have died from COVID at three times the rate of other countries, and that the Orthodox community has died at an even higher rate than the general American population, is another of the prices we pay for political extremism in our community. These are not abstract discussions.
And yet we have come to a situation where the dominant positions in Orthodox communities in Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Australia and other major Jewish communities have come to be seen as anti -Orthodox, anti-Jewish and even anti-Semitic in our own community.
When someone who has known me for years and is aware of my commitment to Israel and the welfare of the Jewish community heard that I did not share his conservative political views, which are now held by nearly 80% of American orthodoxy, he looked at me in disbelief. They said, “I almost feel like you support BDS.
Portraying other members of the community as hostile, disloyal, and even anti-Semitic for believing in ideas such as universal health care, ending the killing of children in the United States perpetrated by gun laws, the right to vote, workers’ rights to decent wages and salaries, what made Shabbat observance possible in this county, and other political issues that do not divide the Jewish community in another county will have a heavy toll on our community. Besides the cost of opposing these policies, which is a partisan discussion, it will unnecessarily divide us even more than we are divided, it will alienate many who should not be alienated, and it will undermine the ability of Jews in the Blue States, that is, the vast majority of Jews, to have a say in our local and federal politics.
For these reasons and many more, I speak my mind on political matters despite the cost it might cost. The Orthodox community has reached an absurd situation where thoughtful and altruistic leaders who do not side with right-wing radios are afraid to speak their minds and are even ostracized, while populist radio hosts are encouraged wherever they go.
This is how we have come to the situation where some prominent Orthodox rabbis who have not joined this ride can be cheaply attacked by Orthodox experts online, while at the same time Ben Shapiro receives the welcoming a hero in every Orthodox place he frequents. Any responsible parent might wonder if they see anything wrong with Orthodox teenagers feeling such adoration for Ben Shapiro while having little respect for the pillars of our community and thinking where this will take us ten years from now. This is why I will continue to speak out even though some consider it the exception rather than the norm.
We cannot allow a situation in which rabbis who are deeply engaged with far-right Christian groups and the far-right Steve Bannons of this world are seen as doing their sacred duty to our community, while those who take positions shared by a majority of Americans and the vast majority of the developed world are considered unorthodox pariahs. It is bad for these rabbis, it undermines other members of our communities who also share these positions, it alienates those who might consider joining our community, and it undermines the interests of our community.
As a rabbi, my highest duty is to teach and inspire as many Jews as possible. While achieving this broadest reach is compromised by political stance on certain issues, it cannot pander to extraneous trends in our community. If all the cool kids stop talking to a kid, I’m wrong for doing the same. If the Orthodox community has decided over the past two decades to move from a more 50-50 political divide to a 90-10, I will not avoid this 10, and I will not side with the 90 because he is popular. I will continue to serve 100% of our people, even if they don’t agree with me. I will be there to make sure that those who are not part of the vocal majority of our community know that their voice is a legitimate part of our community and that politics is never grounds for exclusion from a community of faith. Most importantly, I greatly appreciate those I know who disagree with my policies and who always maintain a cordial, respectful and friendly relationship and see the importance of preserving a Jewish community in which membership, l Learning and collaboration aren’t driven by the latest hot trends. topic on American cable television. We might fiercely disagree, but we’ll always be brothers.
The writer is an eleventh generation rabbi, teacher and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN–The American Israel Jewish Network