SECURING OUR DEMOCRACY
Congregation Shirat HaYam, Nantucket
a sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor
As never before, our United States democracy is being threatened. And it is being threatened by attacks on one of the most basic rights that sustains a democracy: the right to vote, and the integrity of that vote.
Across the country, politicians continue to rail against the results of the 2020 election. Voting machines are being dissected, paper ballots are being examined, mail-in ballots are being questioned, poll workers are being interrogated, ballot counters are being questioned, polling place security workers are being back-ground checked. The results of numerous elections, in primary races, in local elections, school-board elections, state and federal elections, all are being called into question. Sowing doubt about the integrity of the vote is the surest way of toppling a democracy.
Add to that, imposing restrictions on how, where, and when to vote, deprives many of exercising their most fundamental right in a democracy – having one’s vote count.
Pile on top of these challenges, social media gone wild: Twitter, Instagram, TikTok… they bombard people with crazy theories and unsubstantiated accusations.
And we are left with a democracy in tatters. I don’t care if you are a progressive democrat, a centrist, an independent, a socialist worker, a green party, a Reagan Republican, or even a Conservative – your right to vote is precious and it is the only way that we can maintain our democracy – and ultimately our freedom.
Rabbi Michael G. Holtzman, of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation and the creator of the Rebuilding Democracy Project recently published an article in which he posits several important reasons why we must do everything in our power to secure for all the right to vote, and the need to ensure that vote’s integrity. His thinking should help frame our obligations.
First, protecting the right to vote and the integrity of that vote is in the Jewish community’s own self-interest. In 1780, George Washington wrote to the Newport Hebrew Congregation (now Touro Synagogue) asserting the essential American value that protected human freedom: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government
of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution, no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
We are protected by the rule of law. These promises, enunciated by our first President, declare the essence of our protections in the US. If there is anything that should guard our safety, even when an out-of-control mob shouts, “Jews will not replace us,” it is our faith that the law and its protections should win out. Our ability to vote, enables us to try to put into power those who would fight to assert the rule of law, and continue to uphold the principles first articulated by Washington. Without these protections, our continued safety is threatened.
Further, it is our religious obligation to defend the right to vote. An over-arching rabbinic principle is Dina D’Malchuta Dina – the Law of the Land is the Law. As citizens, the only way that we can influence the creation of, and refinement of, the law, is to elect individuals that represent our point of view. If we want the law of the land to reflect our values, we must support those who embody values that will achieve that goal. While antisemitism has not waned, the laws of the United States recognize that it is a crime to threaten or harm a person or people because of racial or religious bias. In 1984, one of the greatest American poskim (decisors of Jewish Law) Rabbi Moshe Feinstein asserted that American Jews should feel obligated to vote as America is owed “hakarat hatov,” recognition of the good the United States has done for us.
We have benefited from democracy and its protections, and we need to fight to ensure those protections are extended to all who might need them. It would be wrong for us to enjoy those benefits and then walk away when others demand those same benefits and protections. Our struggles as immigrants are not so far away that we can forget them. Many of our ancestors fought to attain the rights we now enjoy. We should vote for those who extend those protections to those who are oppressed and persecuted.
Continuing, we must be able to address those who would move us from a democracy to a theocracy, by asserting the will of a perceived religious majority. In our lifetime we have heard the use of the phrase “The Judeo-Christian tradition.” This phrase is, more often than not, used to defend a particularly Christian point of view, tempered by the embrace of the “predecessor” faith. In his article in the Atlantic (“The Problem With the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’” August 1, 2020) Professor James Loeffler of the University of Virginia, traces the invention and use of the phrase, “Judeo-Christian Tradition” and notes that it was coined by the great liberal Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, a German émigré, who wrote in 1933, “Protestant church in Germany has on the whole fallen under the spell of Hitlerism … [the] Jewish-Christian tradition [must fight] totalitarianism.” Loeffler explains, “Tillich’s comment typified much of the American Christian response to Nazism, which focused less on the concrete anti-Semitic threat to Europe’s Jews than the spiritual and political danger Nazism posed to Western religion as a
whole.” The phrase was used to combat God-less communism, which led Eisenhower, in 1954, to add “In God We Trust” to our money, and “…under God…” to our Pledge of Allegiance. But by the 1970’s the term was embraced by the new Christian right to support attacks against Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQIA+ and others. Loeffler continues, “The incredible religious diversity that has blossomed in the United States since the 1960s has changed our country for good, and for the better. We cannot turn back the clock to a mythical “Judeo-Christian America” in order to chart a new course for America’s moral imagination. Nor can we ignore the fact that the catchphrase has failed to shed its Christian religious residue. Living through an unprecedented era of anti-Semitism, American Jews no longer wish to play the role of guest stars in someone else’s theological drama. An authentically American human-rights vision cannot rest upon a flawed historical reading of how our country first came to imagine rights.” The right to vote offers us the ability to choose those who would best defend our rights while in office and to jettison those whose agenda would lead to our erasure in a scheme to “Christianize” America.
On Yom Kippur morning, our past-President Peter Kahn, will chant the words of the prophet Isaiah, who railed against vacuous ritual, to stir the community to make their world a better place by their actions. The rabbis taught that the greatest prayer is the hope for Shalom – not peace, but completeness – a way for every individual to find one’s place in the world in a way that complements all others. We speak of Tikkun Olam (really l’takein olam b’malchut Shaddai — to repair the world according to the reign of God) – Repairing the World. We Jews are animated by the notion of making the world a better place – don’t we have an obligation to make the country in which we reside a better place (that goes for Canadians as well). We do that by seeking to put into office those who will make it possible.
Finally, Jewish law has at its very essence the need to make the legal system fair, and governance to work for the good of the people. Korach challenged Moses and Aaron’s leadership of the people, but what they wanted to replace it with was the rule of a mob inspired by the idea that they were holy, because everyone should be holy (or at least, everyone who agreed with them). Every subsequent generation struggled to create a better imposition of law, just like the Founders of our country strived to create “a more perfect Union.”
David Leonhart of the New York Times wrote an extensive article (“’A Crisis Coming’: The Twin Threats to American Democracy” Sept. 17, 2022) outlining two threats to our Democracy. The first that there is a substantial number of people within one of our two major parties that refuse to accept defeat in an election – not just in the 2020 Presidential election, but even in a number of recent primary races, in the run up to the mid-term elections this year. The Washington Post just surveyed 19 Republican candidates running for the Senate or to be a Governor. Of the 19 candidates, 12 refused to say whether they would accept the results of their election. The second threat is that the power to set government policy is becoming
increasingly disconnected from the will of the majority. Leonhart notes, “Two of the past four presidents have taken office despite losing the popular vote. Senators representing a majority of Americans are often unable to pass bills, partly because of the increasing use of the filibuster. Even the House, intended as the branch of the government that most reflects the popular will, does not always do so, because of the way districts are drawn.”
So, what is to be done? The answer is a uniquely Jewish answer: Stand Up. Get Involved. Do Something. On Yom Kippur morning, we will read from Torah: Atem Nitzavim Hayom kulchem l’fnei Adonai Elohaychem … l’everacha b’vrit Adonai Elohecha u’va’alato – You are all standing here this day … to enter into a sworn covenant with Adonai, your God. And how is it that we effectuate this covenant? By walking in God’s ways – meaning, by doing things. Entering into covenant is not an act of faith – it is an act of will – the desire to do ”what is good and right in the eyes of the Eternal.”
If we want to pledge allegiance to our country, we do so not by singing an anthem, or even saluting a flag. It is by actively getting involved in securing the right and ability to vote for all who are eligible – and it is doing what is necessary to defend the integrity of that vote. Be a poll watcher, help people get registered, learn about the candidates, and vote. Thomas Jefferson said, “We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”
May we be among those who participate and secure a better future for our children and grandchildren.