Judaism Has a Politics Problem

by Rabbi Jacob Rupp April 26, 2017


post-political-mayAs a child I always thought that to be a good Jew meant to be politically active. I was a proud Democrat, fighting for the poor and the oppressed. My mom had been a hippie, my grandparents proud liberal idealists. My father, whom I grew to disdain, was a Rush Limbaugh Republican. When my parents divorced, my father left and I was free to explore Conservative values without his face on them.

In college, I became the poster boy of the pro-Israel movement on campus. My Jewish identity was my fraternity and staring down the pro-Palestinian students who intimidated us. When my youthful rebellion began and I started questioning my left-leaning upbringing, I encountered something far more than curiosity; I found I was considered heretical, rather than simply politically different.

Fast forward to today where I have all but removed myself from politics. Yes I have an opinion, and yes I think we should have a perspective on world events. But as a rabbi and a Jew I believe Jewish identity is not, cannot be, our politics.

Recent generations of Jews were raised in institutions that, in order to stay relevant, had to peddle political content and wrap Jewish concepts like tikkun olam and tzedaka around the headlines in the newspaper. While this approach might temporarily prop up a rabbi or synagogue, it leads to profound disengagement in the long run. Why hear the rabbi talk or go to synagogue? It’s easier to turn on Fox or CNN. Or if you are younger, to disengage totally in favor of Snapchat and Instagram.

There are three profound problems with infusing Jewish connection and identity with politics.

1.) Our political scene of the past decade or so has become so divisive that rather than disagreeing with our neighbor’s politics, we judge their character.

2.) When we build a movement around support for a human-made platform like a political party, oftentimes we think that Judaism, a Divine system, errs when it differs from whatever the current political environment is.

3.) Our Jewish identity is so weak these days that any opportunity to speak to a Jewish person should focus on what it means to be a Jew rather than how they should vote.

When I became more “Orthodox” it was really hard for my friends and family to accept that I wasn’t judging them. Sure, we disagree on the fundamentals of life and religion, but it is an intellectual argument. Families don’t need to see eye to eye, in fact our strength is when we don’t. But today if we hear the guy in shul votes differently than us, suddenly he’s evil incarnate. Against that backdrop, we learn to hide our beliefs, lest someone judge us. Rather than promoting dialogue, politics in religion promotes superficiality and disconnection.

Secondly, politicians are human. When we become so enamored of a certain leader or his policies, we easily lose sight of the fact that Judaism is timeless; its values and ethical obligations will at times align and at other times collide with current policy and morality. But this is backwards. We should take a “pick and choose” approach to our political ideologies, not to our Torah.

And what does it mean to be Jewish, anyway? At a huge social gathering of close to 1,000 Jewish men, I was broken-hearted when the keynote speaker launched into an intellectual discussion of the fine points of Israeli and American policy. It’s not that he wasn’t interesting; he was. It certainly isn’t that I don’t think Israel is crucial to American Jews; I am a proud Zionist. But what a wasted opportunity. There was a reason that when Moses spoke to the Jews he spoke about eternal concepts of right and wrong, of taking responsibility, reward and punishment, the profound love G-d has for the Jewish people and how to survive through adversity. He didn’t turn to his views on the headlines of the day. There are some things more profound than current events, like the meaning of life.

The Judaism that inspired our ancestors could actually be far more inspirational and relevant to us than politics. As it says in Proverbs, “The candle of G-d is the soul of man.” If we are looking for big meaning, big purpose, big impact, we need to turn inward. We are built in the image of G-d. What does that mean? How can I actualize my potential? That is what our religion has focused on and what makes it still relevant. Empires will rise and fall. There have been times we have been blessed to live in our homeland in peace, and times when we haven’t. The big issues that our religion should focus on is what kind of people should we be, what legacy we will leave, what kind of future we will build for our kids. I can turn to social media or cable news if I’m looking for anything less.

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