For nearly two millennia politics was poison for the Jewish people. The principle aim in understanding the machinations of power was to make oppression less onerous. Great swaths of tradition that spoke to the exercise of power lay mostly unexplored. Today there is a resurgence of interest and I would like to highlight three crucial lessons from the anomalous historical experience of Judaism.
Vote not veto. Religious convictions cannot be exiled from the public sphere. To ask someone to set aside their religion is to exile passion, conviction and principle. Imagine the analogy; we would say of a candidate, or a voter, “you may enter public life, but whatever you believe deeply you must set aside.” It is ludicrous. So a public declaration of faith as a determining factor in a vote on an issue or a candidate is both sensible and inevitable.
At the same time, my religious conviction cannot serve as argument in the public discourse. Religion is not an irrational belief, but it is an orientation of soul. To ask you to see with my eyes, or vote with my conscience, is tyrannical. This is not to discount the ability of religion to persuade; it is a caricature that it relies only on unfounded assertions. But the argument must follow the same rules as political argument in general and work by persuasion, not prophetic fiat.
Against the tyranny of majority or minority. The first is clear and arises as a special fear from Judaism as a minority tradition in every land except for modern Israel. In religion the majority will inevitably set the parameters but precisely because we are dealing with the deepest convictions of a community, special care must be taken to carve out the greatest possible space for the minority.
These are easier principles to enunciate than to practice. Is not working on the Sabbath a ‘right’ such that an employee cannot penalize a worker for his refusal? Does covering one’s face with a veil in public impinge on the public’s right sufficiently to warrant prohibition? The decision in such cases is of course a balance, but I am arguing for the weightiness of the minority community, whose unusual practices are too often unsupported because unsympathetic.
However we are familiar with the phenomenon of minority groups so passionate that the numbers of the many bow before the frenzy of the few. Intensity of belief is a delicate calculation in politics because often the indifference of the many is due to failing to envision the consequences of lassitude. When the law is enacted or fails, suddenly there is recognition of what is at stake. Jews, along with many others, have been as often victimized by a galvanized minority as by a cruel majority.
Mutability. The Jews passed through innumerable lands and saw many different political configurations. Even today in Israel the situation has changed often and is still in flux. So here is a plea for something in politics that we could use more of in religion as well – epistemological humility. These are complicated questions and we are unlikely to get them right without many wrong turns. Moreover, they are questions whose surrounding conditions will change, so even if we did get them right, they will not necessarily be right in changing circumstances. An indulgence that may be permitted a small minority for example (use of a drug in a religious ceremony is one example) may prove impossible if the minority grows larger.
“Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know’” is some wise and often unheeded Talmudic advice.
What is most needed? Clichéd though it may be, civility and an assumption of goodwill. Respect for the other is a constant challenge as we encounter the other in an age of immigration and the growth of cities. We will increasingly jostle up against each other. The difference with religion is that as it poses the problem it also suggests the solution. There is nothing in the ideology of nationalism that encourages amity. Different cities or sports teams spur division but do not instruct us on tolerance. But religion, while sometimes serving as a generator of differences, also teaches that all human beings are in God’s image. So as it divides it provides the impetus for uniting. It is up to us to be faithful uniters and that begins by making the public sphere open, raucous, opinionated, respectful and kind.
Perspectives: Religion and Public Life is a blog series about the relationship between religion and secularism run by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The aim is to offer a wide range of opinion and expertise on the subject, drawn from around the world. Rabbi Wolpe’s reflection is part of this series. Find the latest blogs here (http://www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/religion-public-life)
David Wolpe is senior rabbi at Sinai Temple. This article is excerpted from a longer essay written for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation as part of its ongoing series, “Perspectives: Religion and Public Life.”