Dear Mr. President,
Mazel tov on your victory this election Day. This was definitely a hard-fought contest and you have done well to have prevailed. I know you must have a lot of work ahead of you as you prepare for your transition so you will be fully prepared to take over the White House on January 20. As you look forward, I wanted to take this opportunity not only to congratulate you, but to share some thoughts with you about what we can do in the next few years as a nation.
I know I am not the only one to tell you that you face a challenging time. The most recent economic crisis is but the latest in a string of challenges to face you as president and the country as a whole. We do not even know at this point what the full effects of that crisis will be, nor do we know what effect the bailout plan will have. We also face a protracted war abroad, and other serious domestic issues such as health care, income gaps, lagging educational achievements and so on.
I write to you as a member of the Jewish community and as a rabbi. We have an interesting precept in our Jewish legal tradition — dina demalchuta dina, or literally, the law of the kingdom is the law. While we are in a representative democracy and not a kingdom, the same principle applies. Essentially, it means that we in the Jewish community need to honor and obey the civil authorities. Usually this plays out in issues of private status such as death and divorce — while we have our own practices and customs, we need to obey the civil law when it comes to these issues.
Leading up to this election, I thought of this principle often, and how in a representative democracy (as opposed to the originally intended “kingdom”) we have a say in what the law of the land is. Therefore in our current political situation, the principle — and obligation — works both ways: We must obey the civil authority, but at the same time we must do our part in shaping that civil authority. In my opinion, as I have told my congregants, we have an obligation to vote, to make our voices heard, to pursue our values in the public arena. While I haven’t polled them yet, I hope that my congregants heeded my call.
I will assume most of them have because of where I live. I serve a congregation in Olympia, the capital of the State of Washington. Because of that, many of my congregants work in the state government and are therefore very politically aware. I have a good appreciation and understanding of the important work that they do, and can see how, at its best, government is ultimately a force for good in our society — guaranteeing, not restricting, individual rights; ensuring, not denying, the basic needs of all of us; building, not severing, the bonds that unite us.
In my view, government is a means to carry out in practical ways the values which we hold. We Jews have as a primary notion the value of tikkun olam, of repair of the world. Judaism essentially teaches that we must look upon the world as broken, and then do what we can to repair it. This goes beyond simple tzedakah — righteous giving, or charity. Tikkun olam compels us to work to create the conditions that tzedakah is not needed. In our society, this is a role government can play.
We do a great many things in our congregation to aid in this effort. We run food drives, host homeless shelters in our building, raise thousands of dollars for local charitable organizations, compost our food waste, and many other things to address those issues which plague us as a community. But there is a limit to what we can do on our own, and thus I write this letter. I urge you to do what you can to help address these issues as well. I urge you to use your office as a means to pursue tikkun olam.
The Jewish vote is seen as an important constituency. Indeed, we do vote in high levels and our population can be found in some key swing states. And we are one of the subgroups pundits examine in determining voting patterns and predicting elections. One of the questions which invariably arises is, what issues are important to Jewish voters?
I know you understand that U.S. support for Israel is an important concern for the Jewish community. Indeed, in your and your opponent’s position papers for Jewish voters, that topped the list. As an individual member of the Jewish community, I agree that it is important, and I urge you to use your power to pursue a just and secure peace for Israelis and Palestinians.
But I want to remind you that this is not the only issue the Jewish community cares about. We have opinions on many domestic issues as well, not only because we are Americans, but because we are Jews. Israel is a Jewish issue, but health care is also a Jewish issue; fair wages are a Jewish issue; poverty is a Jewish issue; hunger is a Jewish issue; climate change is a Jewish issue. Our obligation to tikkun olam in general, and to address these issues in specific, is deeply rooted in our tradition. (I could touch on each one from a Jewish perspective, but I know your time is limited.)
It is based on this understanding of what is a Jewish issue that I cast my ballot. In making my decision as to who to vote for, these issues were just as — if not more — important than policy regarding Israel.
I understand you need to prioritize, and perhaps I ask too much. I not only write to offer suggestions as to what issues are important to me, but to let you know I will work with you to make this happen. Our civic engagement as Jews should not end on Election Day. Indeed, that is only the beginning.
Again, mazel tov. May you have strength and courage as you prepare to face the future.