Election Issues & a Torah Yardstick

As we take a Momentous Step into the Voting Booth

Dear friends, I assume that practically all of you have already decided how you will vote for President and Congress. The issues that have stirred our country during this campaign will not go away on November 9, and I thought you might be interested to recall how Torah addresses some of the major issues before us.

Indeed, when we on the staff and Board of The Shalom Center looked into this, we were often surprised to realize that the ancient teachings address issues that might seem 21st-century questions.  So we are sharing these teachings not only out of concern for the American future, but also out of respect and admiration for the Biblical and Rabbinic past

Yet of course the future matters. This election, perhaps more than any since the election of 1860, forces us to choose between two radically different visions of the American future and the future of Mother Earth. To choose the world our children will live in. They are watching, listening, wondering. Peering, as it were, into our voting booths.


 ISSUE: What policies should we adopt to deal with the increasing distance between the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor in the U.S.? Here we present several different biblical texts.  They all see extreme economic inequality as troublesome, but they propose several different approaches. 

The first passage is at the heart of the Prophet Isaiah’s outcry (58: 6-8) that the ancient rabbis thought important enough to designate the Haftarah for Yom Kippur:

"This is the kind of fast that I desire:
Unlock the hand-cuffs put on by wicked power!
Untie the ropes of the yoke!
Let the oppressed go free,
And break off every yoke!

"Share your bread with the hungry.
Bring the poor, the outcasts, to your house.
When you see them naked, clothe them;
They are your flesh and blood;
Don’t hide yourself from them!”

Amos 6: 1-7: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion—Those who lie on couches of ivory and loll on their beds, who feast on lambs of the flock and calves out of the stall; who hum snatches of song to the tune of the lute; who drink from basins of wine, and anoint themselves with the choicest oils, and feel no pain concerning the destruction of Joseph.

 "Therefore, they shall be the very first to go into exile—yes, become refugees!—and no longer shall they dine at haughty banquets."  

Lev. 19: 9-10:  “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Breathing-Spirit of the world—your God."

These three passages set forth distinct responses to economic inequality: The first calls not for individual charity but for society-wide commitment to help the poor; please note it speaks also to what we would call “mass incarceration”  (“the hand-cuffs put on by wicked power”)
and connects it with poverty. The second bitterly attacks the uncaring rich. The third " width="3" height="3">requires that as a matter of absolute right, the poor must have access to a paying job very like the kind of work that everyone else is doing. What approaches should we take?

ISSUE:  Hostility to "outsiders": minority races, foreigners, blue-collar workers, minority religions:

Many Americans have expressed concern for EITHER the “new-Americans” who feel left out and disempowered, OR the older white-worker culture and class that feels increasingly left out and disempowered.

But Torah hints that the attitudes involved are not very different. Beginning with the story of Pharaoh’s enslavement of Israelite workers, this oppression can be defined as anti-worker, anti-immigrant, anti-religious-minority, anti-racial minority. It seems to me that expressing concern for all these groups and contempt for none of them is a Prophetic, neither a “progressive” nor a “conservative” approach.

 Exodus 12:49: “The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you. "

 Leviticus 19:33-: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am YHWH/Yahhhh, the Breathing-Spirit of the world, your God."

 Issue: Should the ultra-wealthy pay more in taxes to support good schools for all children, pure water supplies , and the creation of well-paying jobs to repair the rotting US infrastructure   -- or should the ultra-wealthy have their taxes radically reduced on the assumption they will then hire more workers?

Deut 26: 1-3, 11-12: “When you have entered the land that Yahhhh, the Holy One of Blessing Who Breathes all Life --your God -- is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first-fruits of all that you grow from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the InterBreath of Life your God will choose as a dwelling for the Sacred Name  and say to the priest in office at the time, ‘I declare today before the Holy InterBreath of Life Who  brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; that now I bring the first-fruits of the soil that You have given me.’

“When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to [those who have no land of their own] –--  the Levite, the foreigner, the orphan and the widow, so that they may eat in your settlements and be satisfied. Then say to the Interbreath of Life your God: ‘I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the orphan and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them.’ ” 


 ISSUE: How shall we deal with proposals for gun control, especially proposals to perform background checks for possible mental instability or proclivities for violence in those seeking to purchase guns?

Lev. 19:14: “You shall not put a stumbling block in front of the blind." 

Rabbinic interpretation:

S.A Choshen Mishpat 427:8: “It is a positive commandment to remove and be vigilant about any stumbling block where there is a danger to someone’s life … and if you do not remove it or leave the stumbling block and it brings about danger you have failed in your mission to fulfill the commandment and [you] may have been responsible for spilling another’s blood." 

Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 16a: “One should not sell weapons to idolaters, those suspected of murder, or robbers -- either weapons or accessories of weapons; nor should one grind any weapon for them, nor may one sell them either stocks or neck-chains or ropes, or iron chains. If he has never committed murder, why not [sell them to him]?— It refers indeed to one who has not committed murder; but we may be dealing here with a cowardly thief who is apt at times [when caught] to save himself [by committing murder]."

ISSUE: CLIMATE CRISIS: One of the saddest aspect of the election campaign so far is that it has rarely addressed in any serious way the greatest danger facing America, all human society, and the entire web of life in which the human species emerged and has grown – the danger of climate chaos resulting from the overburning of oil, coal, and unnatural gas.

Some candidates who have previously said the climate crisis is a hoax have begun reluctantly to admit something is happening, but deny human action and corporate behavior is causing it. We need to decide: Is action by human beings the cause of the danger, and can human action choose whether to heal the problem or make it worse?

Here is what the Torah speaks on the relationship of human action and earthy abundance or disaster:

Leviticus 25:3-5 “The land [or “Earth”] shall observe a Sabbath for YHWH/Yahhh, the Interbreath of Life. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of YHWH/Yahhh, the Interbreath of Life: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. It shall be a year of complete rest for the Earth.”

Lev. 26: 3-4: “If you follow these My laws and faithfully observe My ways of making connection, I will grant your rains in their season, so the Earth will yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.”

Lev. 26: 3-4, 31-35: “If you disobey Me [by not letting the land rest], I will lay your cities in ruin, I will make the land desolate. And you I will scatter among the nations. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin.

“Then shall the land make up for its Sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it could not observe in your Sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it.”  

So as we vote tomorrow (or have already voted), let us bring these spiritual and religious teachings to bear on the issues that have surfaced in this election campaign and will continue beyond it.

May we all be blessed that the decisions the American people make in the next few days bring nearer what the Prophet Jeremiah taught us to pray for: The shalom –-- the peace and harmony and wholeness – of the cities where we live.


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