With President Obama having just taken the oath for his second term in office, we can allow ourselves the luxury of thinking about substantive issues in ways that transcend party affiliations and divisions. We no longer have to debate how and for whom Jews should vote, and instead can confront the far more important question of what Jewish values teach us about the nature of a just society and the role and responsibility of the individual in shaping it.
Jewish teaching on this issue begins early in the Bible, in chapter 4 of Genesis, when we are introduced to the personality of Cain, who personifies injustice and serves as a model for what we must not become. In response to God’s query regarding the whereabouts of his brother Abel, Cain offers a response that sets the foundation for Jewish morality: Am I my brother’s keeper? The core of Jewish ethics may be summarized by the answer: “Yes, you are your brother’s and sister’s keeper.” When you walk in the world as a Jew, you relinquish the singular perspective of self-interest and accept that the existence of others breeds responsibility to them. This responsibility is not the mere consequence of a social contract, but a core aspect of what it means to be human. Others claim you, and their existence demands of you that you see them and respond to their needs.
In the Jewish tradition, this principle gets translated into a Law of Non-Indifference, which serves as the foundation for governing the relationships among human beings. “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray do not remain indifferent. You must take it back to him ... you shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: You must not remain indifferent” (Deuteronomy 22:1-3).
The defining feature of a Jewish public space is that it must be a safe one; safe not merely from harm, safe not merely from a Hobbesian definition of the state of nature as being a state of war of all against all, but safe in the sense that individuals who enter it know that their well-being is a concern of all who share in that space. A space is a safe one when all who inhabit it are “fellow keepers,” a space wherein the individuals recognize their responsibility to override their personal interests and not merely refrain from harming others but actually care for and respond to their needs.
The biblical law of lost property quoted above shapes a mode of behavior and consciousness whereby fellow citizens do not come into the public domain either to merely survive, or conversely, in search of benefiting from others’ misfortunes. What could be more natural or simple than “looking the other way” when coming into contact with a lost piece of property. Who needs the hassle of trying to run down the owner? As a busy person, I don’t have time to be my brother’s keeper or, more opportunistically, I can view such a moment as a prospect for personal gain. Who knows, I might reason, perhaps it is meant to belong to me. Perhaps it is a gift from God. In both cases the lens is actually a mirror: When I look at someone else’s loss, I can only see myself, my needs and interests. Jewish tradition commands, however, that we walk in the public domain in a different way. At the heart of the ethic of non-indifference is the smashing of the mirror of self-interest to do what is just and right.
Jews in America have been blessed with the gift of freedom and equality and given the opportunity to not merely pursue our religious life free of persecution, but also the opportunity of full partnership in shaping the American public sphere. The First Amendment “wall of separation” between church and state, which Jews so judiciously protect, is meant to ensure that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Its aim is to separate church from state, but not religion and religious values from the public discourse.
I don’t know whether God is a Democrat or a Republican, nor do I want to argue that one of them is more conducive to creating a just society. I do want to argue, however, that as Jews we are inheritors of a value system that has much to contribute to a public discourse about the nature of such a just society. As Jews, we must be the enemies of indifference and the advocates of a social contract that educates and obligates all to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
America is in the midst of a serious discussion about its present and future identity and how the values that it holds dear ought to impact on issues such as universal health care, entitlements, deficits, gun control and the environment, to name just a few. As Jews, our role in this discussion should not merely be expressed in the way we vote, but in the way we bring the values of our tradition to shape this public discussion.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.