Politicians and Jews: The Great Divide

By Jay Lavine, M.D.


Are childhood vaccines safe? Is global warming occurring and, if so, is mankind contributing to its development? Is evolution a fact, a theory, or a fallacy? When it comes to science, everyone has an opinion, it seems, especially politicians. But we’re all entitled to our own opinions, aren’t we? Certainly we are, but are all opinions created equal? Or is one educated opinion worth more than a thousand uneducated ones?

Being opinionated in scientific matters is nothing new for politicians. I remember well the Republican bigwig who trumpeted his doubts that tobacco was addictive. Apparently, he felt his opinion was as valid as those of addiction researchers. Then there was the Democratic U.S. president who told a tobacco state audience that he would like to see smoking made “even more safe than it is today” and later went on to fire his Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare because of the latter’s anti-smoking initiatives.

More recently, we’ve heard opponents of the administration’s proposals for health care reform say that they wanted to preserve the quality of the health care system, while the administration itself continued to talk about the excellence of the health care system whose reach it wanted to extend. Do any of them, either the antis or the pros, have the capacity to judge medical quality? Can we even expect the kind of health care reform we need from someone who enters office smoking cigarettes and eating cheeseburgers? Look at what was going on for so long in the Veterans Administration hospitals before it all hit the fan. Look at what continues to go on in the current U.S. health care system.

Some politicians, like their constituents, may ask whether “they teach evolution” in certain schools. Their conception of science education is that it is akin to learning a trade, such as how to be a bricklayer. To them, teaching science means reciting “facts” that are then memorized by students as they would a catechism. They have no conception of the scientific method, which involves evaluating evidence in an evenhanded way and arriving at hypotheses and theories in a logical manner.

From the recent interviews, speeches, and debates we’ve been subjected to, it is clear that uneducated thinking is a malady common to politicians. But wait, these are all educated people, aren’t they? They’ve been to college, law school, or other institutions. Yes, they’ve had much schooling, but being educated is not synonymous with level of schooling; that would be an uneducated definition of “educated.” Rather, becoming educated involves nurturing a state of mind not necessarily or invariably produced by formal schooling. Specifically, one of the characteristics that distinguishes educated people from others is their respect for educated opinion and legitimate authority that enables them to avoid erroneous thinking.

Such respect for expertise and for demonstrated knowledge has been intrinsic to Judaism for thousands of years. With regard to religious matters, Jews follow and consult with rabbinic authorities and try to learn from them. This mindset carries over to all fields of endeavor. When called upon to proffer an opinion on a topic about which they are lacking in expertise, they say, “I don’t know but let’s check with those who do.” In contrast, people who act as if they know everything have been compared to idolators: they set themselves up like an idol that impersonates the One who is truly omniscient.

The importance of wisdom and knowledge is underscored by the first of the petitionary prayers that constitute the middle section of the weekday Shemoneh Esrei, which, along with the Shema, are the prayers central to the daily services. That first petitionary prayer and blessing states, “You grant mankind knowledge and teach humans understanding. Grant us knowledge, understanding, and educated thinking. Blessed are you, Lord, who grants wisdom.” Why is it the first of the blessings? Because everything follows from knowledge and discernment. Without developing these qualities, we cannot come to repentance, we cannot extricate ourselves from the crises we face, we cannot heal our wounds, and on and on.

Jewish thinking is educated thinking. When we hear the uneducated utterances of those who would lead the country, it reminds us of the large disconnect between Jewish thinking and the predominant secular pattern. Is the world ready for a Jewish president, someone who engages in educated thinking, always respecting legitimate authority and always discussing issues in an honest and evenhanded way? Maybe not. Many people only listen to what they want to hear.

In Western civilizations, the drawbacks of participatory democracy were to be mitigated by representational democracy, but the latter succeeds only when those chosen to represent the people operate at a high level. Serving as exemplars for educated thinking is one of the major contributions Jews can make to the world, but, as always, perfecting the imperfect world (tikkun olam) begins with perfecting our own inner worlds.