Rules of Engagement

By Simeon Kolko

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We are nearing the end of a time many like to refer to dismissively as the “silly season.” But for Jews, some of the antics on display during this year’s campaign should not just be blown off semantically that way, as if they had no wider repercussions for the health of the country, or our own community. American Jews are highly engaged in the political process, both as elected officials and shapers of the public agenda. What is—or should be—the Jewish significance of this involvement?

While Judaism does not equate with a particular political party or policy position, there are at least a few things from the teachings of our tradition and values that can and must shape our political behavior. In a modest effort to contribute to this discussion, I would offer the following Ten Commandments of Jewish political behavior:

1. Thou shall demand decency and respect in public discourse.

The rabbis teach that any controversy for the sake of Heaven deserves to endure, but a dispute rooted in pettiness does not. Conflict and passionate disagreement have their role in public life, insofar as they pertain to issues that matter.

2. Thou shall act with enlightened self-interest.

As Hillel taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” The late Abraham Joshua Heschel was a moral exemplar who was both a proud Jew and citizen of the world. His ability to keep these polarities in balance can serve as a guide to the formation of our multiple identities and our engagement with the world.

3. Thou shall feel emboldened by the capacity to shape history.

In the words of Rabbi Tarfon: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Despair is foreign to the outlook of the Jew. Our history is a testament to the powerful idea that individuals both can and must change the world.

4. Thou shall have peripheral vision.

The Torah commands us 36 times to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. The painful aspects of our history are meant to ennoble, not to instill anger. In the midst of unprecedented freedom and affluence, we must place our encounter with being on the periphery at the core of our identity.

5. Thou shall help repair our broken world.

The Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam demands that we accept our role as God’s partners in furthering the work of creation. We do this by private acts as well as through the pursuit of policies likely to further this vision.

6. Thou shall be a faithful custodian of the bounties with which we have been blessed.

The Talmud tells the story of Honi, who saw an individual planting a carob tree and asked him if he would live to see it bear fruit. The answer is that we plant trees because it is a recognition of our responsibility to leave a legacy for those who will outlive us. When we accumulate massive debts that will be passed on to future generations, and abuse the environment, we are not being faithful custodians.

7. Thou shall be passionate in the pursuit of justice, and careful in its execution.

The Torah teaches us: “Justice, justice, shall thou pursue.” Clearly, the pursuit of justice is at the cornerstone of our society. The repetition of the word justice in this phrase suggests that both the ends we pursue and the means by which we pursue them must be just.

8. Thou shall display patriotism by advocating for Israel.

Any Jewish political agenda must place support and advocacy for Israel at the forefront of its efforts. While there can and must be disagreement over specific policies, the centrality of Israel cannot be in dispute. The United States is predicated on the notion that its citizens balance multiple identities. As Justice Brandeis taught, to be a Zionist makes one a better American.

9. Thou shall walk boldly in the public square, and show humility in matters of personal faith.

In the words of the prophet Micah, “God has told you, what is good and required of you: Only to do justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” This immortal teaching reminds us that justice is at the cornerstone of civil society; society cannot endure in the absence of acts of goodness and kindness; true piety is inward, hidden from the world, and devoid of arrogance and hubris.

10. Thou shall form a covenantal relationship with public officials in furtherance of the common good.

The civil society can only be created when individuals embrace responsibilities as well as demand rights. Our public officials owe us a commitment to respecting the public trust given them, and conducting their business with transparency and integrity. We, in turn, owe them and each other a willingness to be active and informed participants in the political process, and to provide them the space in which to make difficult and courageous decisions on our behalf.

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