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Revaluing Our Values

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is running for Congress, but Torah shouldn't be used as a political weapon
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in
So a rabbi runs for Congress and announces  that his platform – as part of his campaign as a Republican – is defined by “values,” as opposed to the “decadence” that defines America (and especially the policies and principles of the Obama administration.) And here I find myself puzzled: I like to think of myself as a relatively learned and engaged Jew; I hope to be able to say that I live my life defined by values, and I strive that those values remain consistent to Jewish values as best possible. Why, then, are the “values” that define this political platform – which speak to be authentic Jewish values – so unrecognizable to me?

The language of values has long been co-opted by one side of the partisan political divide in America. Virtually all of the major political and advocacy organizations that have the name “Family” in their title tilt conservative, most notably the Christian-affiliated “Values Voter Summit.” It is noteworthy to see a prominent Jewish political candidate claim this mantle as well, but also rather predictable: Orthodox Jews in America are trending rightward politically and aligning themselves on social issues with similarly-minded Christians, with the claim that these platforms correlate with their religious beliefs. It also continues to tell the amazing story of Jewish success in America, as these Jews see room within this welcoming society to articulate their most deeply held Jewish beliefs as legitimately worthy of being political platforms in the American public square.

But though this phenomenon of associating ‘values’ with specific conservative political positions may not be new, it is still troubling to those of us who think that our (opposing) political positions are driven by values as well. And the entry of Jews into the values camp suggests the continued division of Jewish communal life away from any sort of consensus and towards polarizing political partisanship. We saw this earlier in the year with the AJC and ADL desperately trying to hold onto bipartisan political consensus around Israel – which on the substance of the issues has never been more uniform – only to be rejected by the Republican Jewish Coalition, who see in the current president a vulnerability in his credibility about Israel that is exploitable for political gain. This episode and now this candidacy with its rhetoric suggest that the tides are turning in American Jewish political identity, that we are moving away from thinking about our community as a community and then allowing for diversity in the ballot-box – and instead, beginning to act like separate groups of Democrats and Republicans who happen to share some semblance of ethnic or religious background.

Perhaps more alarmingly, the very notion of Jewish values as an independently meaningful phrase is mercilessly corroded in this process of politicization. I happen to believe that control over one’s own body is consistent with the Jewish value of self as articulated in the idea that we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God; that the Jewish values of caring for widows, orphans and the needy that Deuteronomy tells us will never cease from our midst (nevertheless will not pick themselves up from their bootstraps, or in candidate Shmuley Boteach’s words, intrinsically learn to be self-reliant) necessitate we maintain and extend social policies that do this work; and that the Jewish values which understand the difference between governmental policies of the countries in which we live and halakhah allow us to believe in public policy that is fair and equitable for all even if it is not what we might allow in our own particular religious environments. But I am not so naïve, so anti-pluralistic, or so opportunistic as to claim that in these political platforms I am singularly reflecting and representing absolute values; I am making sense of the world for myself, and trying to be consistent in my ideals. Lost in all of this rhetoric is humility (also a Jewish value), a recognition of complexity (that too), and a tolerance for the multiplicity of interpretation of tradition and values (ditto) as to what constitutes a fair reading of Jewish tradition.

But since I still believe in the power of values, I want to offer an alternative. I do not want to lose the language of values under the cloud of moral relativism, even as I want it to stop being thinly veiled code for conservative political positions. There is no realistic way to stem the tide of intra-Jewish political partisanship; we Jews are, after all, Americans participating in a polarized political discourse, and that polarity is moving reasonably in-house. But we might agree to resist the instinct to allow the co-opting of Jewish values as means of masquerading our political platforms if we can find a way for Jewish values to speak to our broader aspirations.

A clearer approach involves talking about Jewish values as they inform our lives in the public sphere, hopefully in a way that will be equally useful to us Americans navigating our proud presence in the American public conversation, as well as to Israelis trying to assert a values-based Jewish identity that should not yield Jewishness to its most radical elements. Jewish values should be ideas that define the parameters of public discourse, ideas that shape how we speak to each other, ideas that help us illuminate our priorities, and ideas that make us better citizens of the Jewish community and the world.

Here are three: In the Houses of Hillel and Shammai we are offered templates and role models for principled disagreement and the validity of disagreement for the sake of heaven. Ultimately, one of the houses usually wins, for even when there is civil public debate there also is the matter of legislation and law. But the key Jewish value is the civility itself and the mutual affirmation that both houses find in Jewish tradition for the very possibility that both are not just legitimate views, but even clear articulations of the living words of God. The Jewish values lesson is not in the triumph of Bet Hillel, but in our awareness that God and Judaism transcend policy difference – they define how we speak as much as what we say.

In Genesis 1 we are taught that humans are created in the image of God; shortly after the flood, Noah is retaught this principle but with a caveat: while he is again given license to be fruitful and multiply, while he is again allowed to run rampant over the earth and subdue it, the limitation of his being created in the image of God comes in his needing to recognize that his fellow humans, too, are created in the image of God. Jewish values teach us to respect our autonomy as living beings, to crow and take pride in our God-like power and the limitless potential of our humanity; and at the same time to maintain a deep and abiding humility for the existence of the other God-images around us. Jewish values dictate that we take our human lives seriously, values which allow both for a moral articulation of the pro-life and pro-choice positions – as long as they are done civilly, with the intent to promote a belief in humanity and Godliness on all sides, and not a demonization of some humans at the cost of others.

And Deuteronomy teaches us conflicting ideas in the same maddening and inspiring chapter: that our generosity makes it possible that there be no needy in our midst and at the same time that the needy will never cease from being part of our world. Jewish values teach us the value both of social responsibility and humility in our awareness of the social order – that while there may be times that our social policies cannot fix the inherent brokenness, we are not free to desist from our responsibility to be social fixers. Does this mean school vouchers or Medicare? Is it housing projects, safety nets, or tax breaks? I’m not sure, and let’s be honest – neither are you.

But Jewish values should be a mechanism of inspiration and a source of authority – and neither a political weapon nor a blunt rhetorical object. Vote your politics, but please do not let Torah be their prisoner.

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is President of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. This article appeared originally in the Jerusalem Post .

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