It may surprise a few people that “Democracy” is not a Jewish value (but “freedom” is). That doesn’t make democracy anything less than a significant addition to the Jewish tradition—one of the gifts of America to the Jewish tradition. In this year of the 350th anniversary of Jewish in America, we get a chance to understand two things: (1) what Jews brought to America and (2) what America brought to Judaism.
Judaism gave America (1) the sense of the holiness of every individual, (2) the need of people to take care of each other, (3) the wrongness of prejudice and the like. We were the ones we contributed “proclaim liberty throughout the land.” America added the commentary, “one person, one vote.” Civil rights in many ways are an idea rooted in Judaism, elections aren’t. Traditional Jewish communities actually used “money” as a governing principle—calling the board of the synagogue or a community, the funders (those who made the biggest contributions). But Jewish values on taking care of the poor and those in need were very strong—selfishness less accepted.
So we are facing an election, and an election is a chance to teach Jewish values. Truth is a Jewish value and there is a sadness that after every debate the news media has to unpack the lies and distortions that were told. Each of the big issues here, defense, war, medical care, education, Israel, and the like have Jewish components and Jewish insights. Free of endorsing any candidate, elections give us a chance as citizens to clarify our values and to explore our priorities.
Here is a great opportunity for some Jewish learning. But, most of all, here in year 350, there is a chance to show something that Jews got because they came to America—democracy—something that forever shifted the face of the Jewish community. Voting is now the way that virtually all Jewish organizations and Jewish institutions run. Roberts Rules of Order have become almost a volume of the Mishnah and the Jewish people are richer because of it. As Jews, as Jewish teachers, we all have an obligation to vote —and to share with our students the way voting is an extension of our values, and all of that can be free from partisan choice.