Now that the election season is heating up, once again the question will be asked, what does the Jewish community want? How will they vote? What will they base their choice on? If you listen to the polls, the pundits and the politicians (and many of the putative spokespeople for the Jewish community) the answer is simple: Israel. However, the question needs to be asked: is this the right answer? What should Jews care about, as Jews?
If by being Jewish one means connecting oneself to the wisdom of the Jewish tradition one would find that Jews who put social and economic justice at the heart of their concerns are tapping a deep vein. When God informs Abraham that God is going to destroy Sodom, Abraham challenges God: “Will the judge of all the world not do justice?” Speaking of Sodom, the prophet Ezekiel understood their sin as “She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” Jeremiah channels God saying: “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight,” from which Maimonides, the great 12th century Spanish Jewish philosopher and jurist, understood that the true goal of the religious and philosophical path—beyond even knowing whatever it is that one can know about God—is to practice love and righteousness and justice in the world.
It is the Rabbis who move from the hortatory to the practical. In the third century mishnah, and the later Talmuds, the Rabbis move beyond the individual obligations of charity—whether demanding that the corner of the field be left over, or helping one’s fellow when she falls on hard times—and establish poverty relief as a political obligation to be fulfilled by cities and gathered by assessment. Every poor person who lives in, or even passes through a city must be supplied with two meals a day, a place and provisions for sleeping and shelter. As a matter of fact, residency in a town is itself described in terms of obligations towards others. When one lives in a town for certain period of time (3, 6, 9, 12 months) one must take on various levels of obligation towards other residents and the town itself.
The rabbis unpacked the Levitical verse: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt.” They interpreted “they are My servants and not servants to servants.” The central act of Divine intervention in the world is seen by one of the greatest Talmudic Sages as a prooftext that workers cannot be forced to work against their will.
I could go on. Social and economic justice issues are the heart and soul of the Jewish tradition, from Isaiah to the Rabbis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (of all denominations) who spoke in favor of, and some who demanded, that workers be afforded the ability to organize and have the protections of collective bargaining.
So why is it that when a politician wants to reach out to the Jewish community she goes to AIPAC, or he goes on a trip to Israel? Most American Jews live in the very cities which were devastated by the economic collapse and are being victimized by the monetizing of our morals (in which the economic bottom line always trumps the ethical bottom line). Most American Jews feel the call of the tradition to create cities wherein justice lies. The thinking that the American Jewish vote should be swayed only by a candidate’s policies on Israel is made all the more absurd by the lack of any real daylight between the policies of Democrats and Republicans on Israel. As a community we should demand that when politicians speak about Jewish issues, they speak about the issues that really matter to us, issues of social and economic justice.
I will give Jeremiah the last word (channeling God, of course) : “And seek the well-being of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its peace you shall find peace.”