Rock the Vote: Jews, Politics, and Tikkun Olam

BY: Chana Cooper[i].

When forming political positions and affiliations in modern-day America, it can be incredibly difficult to determine the proper relationship between one’s personal religious convictions and political stances. As Orthodox Jews, we ask ourselves: what role should Halakhah play in informing our political views in secular society? What are our responsibilities, if any, to our non-Jewish American neighbors, and how should these obligations impact our political opinions and affiliations?

When grappling with these issues, two polar opposite views form. The first divorces religious and political beliefs. Adherents of this view develop political views based solely on universal principles and values rooted in American culture and government. With an eye towards the First Amendment, they believe that to allow personal religious convictions to affect public, legal, and political views is to be un-American and not in-line with the spirit of the constitution, particularly when such views impose on the rights of the others.

In contrast, others assume that one’s religious convictions must not be separated from political views, and thus they support those legal positions most in line with their religious ones. Without particular concern as to the constitutionality of such an approach, these individuals argue that Orthodox Jews should press the American government to enact laws, in both social and moral realms, inspired by the Torah’s vision.[ii] However, each of these approaches is overly simplistic and fails to take into account the complexity of the Torah’s perspective on the relationship between the religious and political views of a Jew in a non-Jewish country.

In order to fully understand this relationship, we must first investigate the nature and extent of the Jewish obligation of tikkun olam, of bringing the world to a state of perfection. The term “tikkun olam” is found in the Aleinu prayer in which the Jew yearns “letakken olam be-malkhut Sha-ddai,” “to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty,” so that “kol benei vasar yikre’u vi-shemekha,” “all mankind will invoke Your name.”[iii] Thus, the mission of Am Yisrael is not simply to look inwards and develop its own moral character, but to reach outwards and bring the entire human race along on the journey toward moral perfection. This Jewish duty is found throughout Tanakh as God exhorts His people to serve as a “light unto the nations” and to bring the world to religious wholesomeness.[iv]

For the Jewish nation, reaching spiritual perfection necessarily means completely observing the Torah and mitsvot. However, as non-Jews are not commanded in all of the mitsvot, attaining spiritual perfection for them cannot entail fulfillment of all the mistvot, though it would require the fulfillment of the Noahide laws.[v] Although some, possibly including Rambam, believe that Jews are required to enforce the Noahide laws through coercion, the majority of halakhic authorities maintain that no such requirement exists.[vi] Furthermore, most authorities maintain that Jews have no obligation to prevent a Noahide from violating one of his seven laws and can even assist him in sinning, if the non-Jew could have committed the sin without the help of the Jew.[vii] However, there may still remain an obligation to ensure the general acceptance of Noahide laws among the non- Jewish public.[viii] Despite the absence of an obligation to spread the observance of the Noahide laws, it is certainly still commendable to do so.

In addition to any possible halakhic obligation to spread the Noahide laws, each Jew has an obligation to improve society that stems from the inherent ethical value of such a mission. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes, “We have always considered ourselves an inseparable part of humanity and we were ever ready to accept […] the responsibility implicit in human existence.”[ix] Our responsibility to the general world stems from being human, not just from being Jewish. Additionally, though Jewish self-interest certainly comes into play, the drive to improve society must also come from “[s]elf-interest, not as Jews, but as full members of society.”[x] The Torah itself alludes to such an obligation by warning Am Yisrael not to oppress the stranger “ki gerim heyitem be-Erets Mitsrayim,” “for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”[xi] The rationale for this obligation is not simply because God forbade it but because Jews are expected to understand the universal experience of oppression and the pain it causes.

Rambam highlights this imperative in Mishneh Torah where he states that Hazal obligate us to visit the non-Jewish ill and bury their dead.[xii] In explaining this halakhah, Rambam quotes the pasuk, “Tov Hashem la-kol, ve-rahamav al kol ma’asav,” “Hashem is good to all; His mercies are on all His works.”[xiii] Though Rambam also includes darkhei shalom[xiv] as a justification, indicating that Hazal are driven by Jewish self-interest as well, the citing of this pasuk makes it clear that we must treat non-Jews with kindness and respect, for that is the right way to behave.

The role of Jews in improving society is not limited to purely spiritual causes. The obligation of tikkun olam includes ensuring that the material needs of members of our society are met as well. Enjoinders to care for the needy and extend a giving hand to the poor permeate the Torah and Talmud. R. Soloveitchik states, “We consider ourselves members of the universal community charged with the responsibility of promoting progress in all fields, economic, social, scientific,” in addition to ethical.[xv] Furthermore, “we are human beings, committed to the general welfare and progress of mankind […] we are interested in combating disease, in alleviating human suffering, in protecting man’s rights, in the helping of the needy, et cetera.”[xvi] Thus, for example, the religious Jew discussing nationalized healthcare must consider the improved physical well-being of those covered under proposed healthcare reform legislation.

In regard to governmental regulation of morality, it is impossible to ignore the fact that a society whose government is unconcerned with the moral welfare of its citizens will become corrupt. With no ruling body to set consequences for morally inferior behavior, it is inevitable that immorality will prevail. Living in a spiritually corrupt country is terrible for the soul, both Jewish and not. It is important to note that American law permits religious belief, or any other ideology, to affect public policy, so long as a secular justification for the policy also exists.[xvii] Thus, for a Jew in today’s world, the need to improve the moral condition of his non-Jewish neighbors must inform his political views and can legitimately do so in an American legal system.

Although it is clear that, as Orthodox Jews, Halakhah should inform our general vision when it comes to politics, this is not necessarily true when it comes to specific political issues. In his article “Jews and Public Morality,” Marc D. Stern, a renowned expert on religious liberty, claims that since many contend that there exists an ethic separate from Halakhah, political decisions aimed at improving society need not necessarily be based on Halakhah. In fact, in certain situations, using secular, political logic is preferable and will result in a better solution than if one turned to Halakhah.[xviii] It must be noted that this principle is not universally accepted and others argue that a religious Jew should only use religiously-based logic.[xix]

Putting aside the question of how we should derive our political views, there remain a number of obstacles in the Jew’s path to fulfill his imperative to improve the spiritual and physical welfare of his non-Jewish neighbors in the modern world.  In regard to spreading knowledge of Noahide laws, the parameters and applications of these laws are often ambiguous and difficult to determine, as there is little source material dealing with these issues.[xx] Thus, it is not always clear what the Torah thinks a “spiritually perfect” non-Jew should do in many situations.

Additionally, in certain circumstances, even where the proper, Torah-informed perspective is clear, self-interest may prevent us from encouraging legislation supporting it. Although from the vantage point of Halakhah homosexual relations are prohibited for both Jews and non-Jews, pushing an anti-gay legislative agenda may harm Jewish interests, as such legislation would open the door for the American government to discriminate against individuals based on their moral practices. American Jews have long been protected under U.S. law against discrimination, and pushing an anti-gay policy could jeopardize this protection, which would be a very negative development for the Jewish community. It should be noted, however, that in a case where a law stands in opposition to the religious beliefs of a certain group, legal exemptions can be obtained to prevent the group from violating its religious strictures.[xxi] Thus, the fear that enacting certain legislation will directly harm the Jewish community is mitigated.

Perhaps the most daunting obstacle to the Jew’s mission to spread the Torah’s moral vision is promoting an agenda that runs counter to the Western principles that stand at the core of the American governmental system. For example, Torah law (Noahide law for non-Jews, Halakhah for Jews) sometimes treats Jews and non-Jews differently, even when the cases are identical. This is true, for instance, of the legal standards of evidence needed in order to prescribe a capital punishment for certain crimes, which make it easier to execute a non-Jew than a Jew.[xxii] In modern times, the ubiquity of the legal principle of “all men are created equal” precludes the possibility of treating Jews and non-Jews differently. From a practical perspective, then, it can be more beneficial to support views more in line with Western values in order to maximize effectiveness.

For the tikkun olam-minded observant Jew, party affiliation presents an incredible challenge, as the present-day Republican and Democratic Parties both often abide by tikkun olam principles in certain realms but not in others. The Republican Party often emphasizes “the right to apply religious values to public policy” and supports governmental regulation of morality to a greater extent than does the Democratic Party.[xxiii] Thus, the Republican Party’s view on gay marriage, for example, is in accordance with the Torah’s perspective, unlike the majority Democratic view. However, the social values of the Democratic Party are often far closer to those of the Torah than are the Republican Party’s. The Democratic Party views governmental responsibility for the physical welfare of its citizens as essential and advocates for more government involvement in social justice issues. In contrast, the Republican Party believes that the government ought to take a more laissez-faire approach and let each individual fend for himself.

This tension in choosing a party affiliation based on social versus moral values is not a new one. Many Orthodox Jews in the late 19th century in Germany often associated themselves with Catholic parties, whose religiously-informed political stances, they felt, were closer to the Jewish position than were the views of the more liberal parties. However, other Orthodox Jews supported the more liberal political causes and felt that “the victory of basic, liberal ideology represented progress for Jewish religious liberalism.”[xxiv]

Thus, in forming and deciding political views and affiliations, the Torah-dedicated Jew must accept his responsibility to general society, both in improving its moral ways and in caring for its physical needs. I believe that neither of the two approaches outlined at the beginning of this article constitutes a suitable answer to this challenge; a more middle-ground approach is needed. It is clear that our political positions must, and legally can, be influenced by our Torah values and our mission to be metakken olam. However, I believe that in certain cases political reasoning should take the place of halakhic reasoning, though to ascertain which cases is difficult. Furthermore, we must find a balance between pragmatism and principle and attempt to spread our values while still recognizing and addressing obstacles, such as the lack of clarity about the Noahide Laws, Jewish self-interest, and conflict with Western values. I do not know what the parameters for weighing each of these considerations in the decision-making process should be, for to any given political issue there may be multiple legitimate approaches. However, we must be willing to arrive at the conclusions through honest, thorough examination of all the issues involved.

Chana Cooper is a senior at SCW majoring in Physics and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.


[i] I would like to gratefully acknowledge Marc D. Stern for his guidance and support in the writing of this article.

[ii] When the term “moral” is used in this paper, it indicates a religiously-inspired morality that relates to one’s relationship with God and does not necessarily have a secular justification.

[iii] Metsudah Siddur translation.

[iv] Isaiah 42:6.

[v] Although a few halakhic authorities state that the Noahide laws for non-Jews are no longer binding, the majority opinion holds that non-Jews are still legally bound by these laws. See: Michael J. Broyde, “The Obligation of Jews to Seek Observance of Noahide Laws by Gentiles: A Theoretical Review,” in David Shatz, Chaim I. Waxman, and Nathan J. Diament (eds), Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1999), pp. 103-143.

[vi] Broyde, pp. 120-129. Some, including the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, believe that Rambam requires coercion to whatever extent possible, while others limit such an obligation to the times of absolute Jewish sovereignty. Others maintain that Rambam has no such requirement at all. In any event, most other authorities, including Nahmanides, Tosafot, the Tur, the Shulhan Arukh, and Rema, do not require coercion.

[vii] Broyde, p. 131.

[viii] J. David Bleich, “Tikkun Olam: Jewish Obligations to a Non-Jewish Society,” in Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law, pp. 61-102, at p. 73.

[ix] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Confrontation,” Tradition 6,2 (1964): 5-29, at p. 20.

[x] Marc D. Stern, “Jews and Public Morality,” in Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law, pp. 159-200, at p. 161.

[xi] Exodus 22:20, ArtScroll translation.

[xii] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 10:12.

[xiii] Psalms 145:9.

[xiv] The literal translation is “ways of peace” but the interpretation of the phrase is disputed.

[xv] Soloveitchik, “Confrontation” (addendum), p. 78.

[xvi] Ibid., pp. 20-21.

[xvii] Marc D. Stern, “Civil Religion is an Obstacle to Serious Yirat Shamayim,” in idem (ed.), Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence, and Fear of God (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 2008), pp. 349-376, at p. 350.

[xviii] Stern, “Jews and Public Morality,” pp. 176-178. A detailed analysis of this issue is beyond the scope of this article but can be found in Stern’s essay.

[xix] Meir Soloveichik, “A Nation Under God: Jews, Christians and the American Public Square,” in Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence, and Fear of God, pp. 321-347, at pp. 335-336.

[xx] Bleich, pp. 80-85.

[xxi] Stern, “Jews and Public Morality,” p. 172.

[xxii] Bleich, p. 87.

[xxiii] GOP 2008 Platform, available at: http://www.gop.com/2008Platform/2008platform.pdf, p. 54.

[xxiv] Mordechai Breuer, Modernity Within Tradition: The Social Thrusts of Orthodox Jewry in Imperial Germany (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), p. 337.