Finding Political Guidance in the Torah

Naso By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Jun 7, 2008 / 5768 | Torah Commentary | Israel

I write this column in a week when Jewish political involvement in both America and Israel is literally front-page news. The New York Times reports that Jewish voters in Florida are queasy about supporting Obama for president and so may swing that state to McCain, which may in turn help swing the entire country. In Israel, the Times reports, the government has announced the start of serious negotiations with Syria—a move that, if it goes anywhere, is sure to engender a wrenching national debate about the costs of peace and the nature of the national interest. We Jews are up to our necks in political concern these days, in part because power and influence are ours to an unprecedented degree. How shall we think about these matters? Is there a Jewish approach to politics in general, and to these sorts of issues in particular? Is the Jewish situation in America and Israel today totally without precedent, or can we derive political guidance and even direction from Jewish texts of past generations, and especially from Torah?

The Book of Numbers responds to those questions with a clear yes and no; it becomes apparent, from the opening verses onwards, that concern with politics is as old as the Jewish people—and as complex as the rest of Jewish tradition. We cannot look to this or any other text for simple or straightforward answers to contemporary issues. Such answers have never been available. But Numbers does provide several guidelines that can and should influence our political thinking today as always.

First: Jewish concern with politics is and must be rooted both in covenant and in normalcy. There are things we must try to accomplish in this world, norms we must live up to, principles to which we must adhere. Widows and orphans have to be fed and justice vigorously pursued. Covenant demands this. On the other hand, now as ever we wander “in the wilderness” (“bemidbar”: the Hebrew title for this fourth book of the Torah). We live among human beings, not angels. Survival had to be the first concern of the Israelites as they made their way to the Promised Land. Vital interests had to be protected. Hence the census of potential warriors that begins the Book of Numbers and the spatial ordering of the tribes’ encampment during the march; hence, too, the struggles over leadership and the people’s incessant but understandable anxiety—and complaining—about food. The demands of normalcy had to be heeded. It is the same for us.

Second: covenant cannot not be in tension with normalcy. You can’t do any good in the world or for the world if you don’t exist. You also cannot help matters if you lack the necessary resources. Communal well-being must be secured and defended. We know from sad experience that we dare not purchase virtue at the expense of our existence or our well-being. Neither can we pursue survival at the expense of principle. Covenant has time and again proven a key to Jewish survival. The fact that we stand for something—for ultimate goods and truths—has enabled us to withstand pressures that caused many other peoples over the centuries to disappear.

Third: though we cannot use Torah to buttress this or that political stance—Democrat or Republican, Labor or Likud, yes or no on withdrawal from the Golan—there are things we can learn from Torah and from Numbers in particular. For example:

Are American Jews justified in taking Israel’s interest and survival into account when casting their votes for President? Absolutely. It would be wrong not to do so. My Zionism is born and sustained in both covenant and normalcy. Sovereignty in the Land of Israel gives Jews the opportunity to apply the Torah’s vision in every area of life: politics and the economy, education and health care, relations with Arab and other minorities, and relations with foreign states. Israel offers unparalleled opportunities for the service of covenant in our day. It is also home to nearly half the world’s Jews—about six million at the moment, a number that to contemporary Jewish consciousness carries with it clear moral and political imperatives.

I believe that our survival as Jews in America is linked directly to Israel’s; the survival and thriving of the Jewish people in every part of the world requires that Israel live and be strong. America’s role in defending Israel’s existence as a sovereign state with a Jewish majority imposes a special obligation on American Jews to worry profoundly about Israel. We cannot permit the legitimacy of Israel’s existence to be made dependent on evaluations of the State’s perceived virtue. When Israel and no other state is held up to the standard of moral perfection, we are right to call this anti-Semitism; when the president of a neighboring state calls repeatedly for Israel’s destruction, we are right to use all our political weight to be sure that America and other nations take notice and respond appropriately.

But Israel cannot be the only issue on our political agenda. Both covenant and normalcy require that we also be concerned about persons other than ourselves. For American Jews, this demand takes the form of worrying about what is good for America, and not only about what is good for Jews. The welfare of our diaspora minority demands this every bit as much as the venerable Jewish mitzvah that we watch out for the stranger and the weak. Health care, education, poverty, civil liberties: if we heed the prophets and the sages, we cannot not care about all of these matters, and about their impact on all Americans, and not just Jews. Israeli Jews also know that their national security depends on more than the balance of power vis-a-vis external enemies. Treatment of minorities, economic success, Jewish morale—these too are crucial. Local politics now as always is key to national survival.

In both cases, then, the headlines of the day recall Jews to responsibilities and conundrums first explored in depth thousands of years ago in the Book of Numbers. Can a people of jealous husbands, ambitious cousins, and competing but cooperating tribes (the stuff of Parashat Naso) manage in any time or any wilderness to enjoy the blessing of having God “bless us and keep us,” “shine upon us and be gracious to us,” and give us what it takes of the divine light to achieve real peace (compare Num. 6:24)? We cannot know for sure, but we can hope, must hope. We can think as clearly as we can, calculate risks as best we can, try as hard as we can to follow our minds and not our stomachs. We can strive to use our power and influence wisely as we make our way through wilderness towards promise.

Now more than ever, it’s time for politics. The point of being Israel, the Book of Numbers reminds us, is to stand up and be counted.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possibly by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.