by: Jay Lavine, M.D.
How is the Jewish vote different from all other votes? Before we answer that, perhaps we should look at the way people in general vote.
Traditionally, experience and integrity have been considered the top two criteria. In recent years, experience appears to have become less of an issue. So has integrity. There seems to be the feeling that no one truly honest could ever rise to high political office, and there is a great deal of truth in that assessment. So how do we vote then? With our wallets, that is to say, with an eye to how the election of a particular candidate may enhance our economic standing? Or from an ideological standpoint, seeking self-validation by voting for someone whose world view mirrors our own? Either way, we’re talking about voting in terms of how the election of particular individuals may benefit us.
What’s wrong with voting from the standpoint of personal gain? It comes down to what we mean by democracy. Democracy means more than rule of the majority. When it assumes that limited definition and when people vote mainly out of self-interest, then we have what has been termed “tyranny of the majority.” Tyranny of the majority is not much different from an authoritarian state; the main difference is that the majority, rather than an individual or a small group of individuals, becomes the dictator. But true democracy incorporates democratic values that assure that the rights of people in the minority are not trampled on.
A society composed of people with shared values is most likely to exhibit true democracy, but even there abuses can occur. Jewish communities in Talmudic times had a way of dealing with this issue. Each community had a democratically elected council for which both Jews and non-Jews residing in the community were eligible. A rabbinic authority was appointed to each community, and he acted like a Supreme Court, voiding any legislation he deemed “unconstitutional,” with the Torah acting as the “constitution” in this case. This provided the “checks and balances” to assure that Torah standards of social justice were not perverted.
The lack of integrity among candidates for high political office takes the form of both lying and deception. Deception refers to statements that, in themselves, are not untrue but are meant to deceive. For example, if one piece of evidence supports a person’s contention and ten pieces of evidence refute that contention, and if that person cites only the one piece of supportive evidence and suppresses the ten pieces of evidence to the contrary, that is deception. In Judaism, the Sages considered deception (geneivat da’at) to be the worst form of theft.
A positive trend is that some political reporters have begun doing “fact-checking.” This means they try to determine how close a candidate sticks to the facts. The definition of a fact, by the way, is a true statement. Fact-checking is the kind of process each of us should be doing in our own minds if integrity is important to us.
Why should we as Jews be prioritizing integrity? First, the Torah commands, “Distance yourself from a false matter.” This means that not only should we not lie ourselves but we should also distance ourselves from those who are prevaricating and deceiving. As the Israeli bumper stickers scream, “shmor merchak” — “keep your distance!”
But what if candidates who are not so honest are advocating a position we support? First, if they are not so honest, can we be sure they will uphold their promises after they’re elected? Second, Judaism never condones the philosophy that the ends justify the means. The path to the ends must be marked by honesty and transparency.
Finally, consider the role model effect of our leaders. We tend to rise or sink to their level. When they respect educated opinion and legitimate authority, we do, too. When they act in uneducated ways, we tend to accept erroneous thinking, to our detriment. When they show high ethical standards, we strive to reach the same standards. But when they show lack of a moral compass, we begin to think that the ends justify the means, that deceiving others is acceptable, and that it is okay to enrich ourselves at the expense of others. Judaism has always stressed the importance of choosing the kinds of spiritual leaders whose behavior we can and should emulate.
How, then, does the Jewish vote differ from so many other votes these days? It places democratic values and integrity high on its list of priorities when evaluating a political candidate’s qualifications.