Is It a Mitzvah to Vote?
Erev Yom Kippur, 5777
Temple Beth Israel
Rabbi Rick Winer
This is the political sermon. Every bit of this message will be very clearly political… but not partisan. I’m not going to tell you how to vote. I repeat, this will be non-partisan but I deeply believe that engagement in our democratic process is a mitzvah, a patriotic mitzvah.
On Rosh Hashanah, I reminded us of the importance of doing mitzvot and argued that mitzvot are not restricted to traditional interpretation. In fact, while we so often hear about the 613 mitzvot, there really isn’t an official list and what is and is not a mitzvah is, as with so many other religious concepts, a matter of interpretation.
Over and over, our tradition tells us to do the right thing, to care for the needy, the widow, the orphan the stranger, to seek justice and pursue it. When Torah arrived on the scene, thousands of years ago, the protections it offered for the vulnerable were relatively revolutionary. Our Tradition teaches that the ultimate authority over humanity, over the world, rests with God and not with human leaders. As tyrants rose and fell throughout the history of the world, Torah lifted up the concerns of the vulnerable. Torah gives voice to the voiceless… and several additional voices have spoken powerfully and inspired me in this realm and I would like to share some of their words.
First, I would again like to describe some context. I would like to take us on a journey back a couple generations and a couple thousand miles for an illustration of mitzvah in American civil life.
I knew a man named Elmer. Elmer was the mayor of Salem, Illinois from 1967 to 1971. It’s a small southern town with a southern mentality, not a lot of diversity. There was one black family in town. The father’s name was Slim. He worked for an Orthodox Jewish man, also a very small minority there and it happened that Elmer, too, was Jewish, though not Orthodox.
While Elmer was mayor, Slim’s daughter reached the age to attend school, Salem Elementary school which is still the only elementary in town. Several of the locals came to Elmer at that time and said, “You’re not going to let Slim’s kid go to our school.” To which, Elmer replied, “She’s going to school” and, with those four words, he integrated the schools of Salem, Illinois.
Elmer wasn’t an activist. He believed in justice. He believed in doing the right thing.
He wasn’t a showman. I don’t think you would even describe him as a politician. I don’t remember him talking about mitzvot. He was an honest businessman. He passed the values of justice and honesty on to his son who was further inspired by the deeply Jewish civil rights engagement of Rabbi Leonard Beerman, an amazing leader in social justice work.
With that inspiration, Elmer’s son Mark ran for congress in 1972. Unfortunately, the incumbent had significant name recognition. Mark managed 43% of the vote against Barry Goldwater Jr. in California’s 27th congressional district. Some years later, I missed one of the elections during college and Mark clearly, calmly, yet passionately drove home the message that we can never shirk our responsibility to vote. I will never forget that conversation. While he did not achieve congressional office, Mark and his wife Marsha have worked tirelessly for decades in the pursuit of justice, in bringing voices to the voiceless.
They certainly passed that value on to their children, including Rabbi Laura and I hope we have made it clear to our children.
We are not all going to be activists. There are many ways to do mitzvot but we must fulfill our civic responsibility. Okay, but technically, is it a mitzvah to vote?
In this year’s May/June edition of Moment Magazine, the ask the rabbi column asked that very question, "Are We Commanded to Vote?"“ Remember, a mitzvah is a commandment, so when we ask ‘are we commanded to vote, we are definitely asking whether it’s a mitzvah.
Moment asks each question to a variety of rabbis across the Jewish spectrum, Independent, Humanist, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Orthodox and Chabad.
I am unabashedly biased on this subject, but I think the most cogent response came from the Reform rabbinic author who just happens to be with us this evening and, therefore, for this portion of our message, I would like to ask this rabbi with such significant roots in civic engagement, the granddaughter of Elmer Novak, daughter of Mark & Marsha Novak, our own Rabbi Laura Novak Winer to share her response to Moment’s question…
A man once came before the Chazon Ish (a Russian-born Orthodox rabbi, 1878-1953) and explained that he didn’t have enough money to pay his taxes and, therefore, would not be allowed to vote in an upcoming election. The Chazon Ish responded: “You should sell your tefillin and pay the taxes… tefillin, you can borrow from another, but the right to vote you cannot get from someone else.”
As this story illustrates, there have been times when Jews faced barriers to voting, or, though allowed to vote in theory, were unable to do so. (Of course, there were far worse times when legislation affirmatively stripped Jews of their rights, such as the Nuremberg Laws in 1930s Germany.) Thankfully, in the United States, the 24th Amendment protects one’s right to vote regardless of taxpayer status.
The Chazon Ish story tells us that voting is so important that one should sell one’s tefillin—a symbol of one’s commitment to observing the mitzvot, or commandments—in order to do so. I would suggest that for us, today, voting is more than a right or a privilege. It is an obligation incumbent upon us as equal citizens in a democratic society.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
It’s interesting and important to note, that this is the one column in the years that Rabbi Laura has participated in which the rabbis all basically agreed on the imperative to vote. Some wouldn’t quite call it a mitzvah, but still agreed on the obligation to do so.
The other rabbinic commentators added some additional details that I would like to share… The Humanist rabbi reminded us that “in the original American colonies under British rule, the right to vote and the right to hold office were restricted to white, Protestant, land-owning men,” and Rabbi Schweitzer goes on to point out that “Even now, a number of states, including Maryland and Mississippi, still prohibit any person who “denies the existence of a Supreme Being” from holding state office.
The Reconstructionist rabbi quoted Deuteronomy 16, “Pursue Justice,” for part of his case for the imperative to vote.
Rabbi Amy Katz, from the Conservative movement brought forth a quote from the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 55a) that furthers the discussion, “Rabbi Isaac said: “One does not appoint a leader for a community without consulting the community. How do we know this? It says in the Torah: ‘See, the Eternal One has singled out by name Bezalel’ (Exodus 35:30). God said to Moses, ‘Moses, is Bezalel worthy in your opinion?’ Moses answered God, ‘Ruler of the Universe, if he is worthy before You, how could he possibly not be worthy before me?’ God said to him, ‘Even so, go and ask [the people]…”
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, an Orthodox rabbi with Loyola Law School quotes Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in a missive from 1984… Rabbi Alderstein says…
“…the preeminent halachist of the late 20th century, wrote in a letter that all observant Jewish citizens of this country are obligated to vote. He wrote this during an election season in which many people felt the outcome was a foregone conclusion and any individual vote would have no value. Nonetheless, Rabbi Feinstein wrote… that there are always people scrutinizing the voting habits of different communities, and that Jews have an obligation to vote in such a way that they will do the most good for their community… the rabbis command one not only not to shirk community responsibility, but to seek out ways in which one may help ease the community’s burdens. …all Jews should vote,” wrote Feinstein.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, identified as Modern Orthodox, reminds us that it does not say in Torah, “Thou shalt vote: I am the Lord,” and reminds us that the context in which Torah was delivered was not egalitarian or democratic so voting was not an option. However, Rabbi Greenberg does bring in the words of the prophet Jeremiah who said that we should ‘join in the country where we live, build it, seek its welfare and pray for it.’ Ultimately, and I really like this, Rabbi Greenberg concludes that “the mitzvah to vote will have to be written in by the Oral Law—the unfolding tradition.”
Rabbis across the country have been struggling with what to say this High Holy Day season about our political situation.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism wrote a powerful piece articulating the wrestlings of pulpit rabbis at this time, as to whether or not one should break with both tradition and IRS regulations to come out with a specific political endorsement this year. Ultimately, Rabbi Yoffie concludes…
…if I were on the bimah on the High Holidays, there are many things I would say. I would talk of my love for Israel, and the need for America to be the leader of the free world if Israel is to be safe. I would remind my congregants that Jews do not bash immigrants or tolerate bigotry and extremism. And I would express my belief that, despite the tensions of the moment, Americans still aspire to be united in a high sense of national purpose and common cause.
We Jews are an eternal people and a blessing, I would say. And American Jews care not only for their own country and their own people, but for the injured of other countries, other tribes, and other races. And we need leaders who offer us ethical leadership and who summon America to its highest calling as a champion of liberty, humanity, and decency. And I would mention no names and make no endorsements, but there would be no need to. My message would be clear. (Clinton vs. Trump: What Should Rabbis Say on Rosh Hashanah?)
I agree with every word Rabbi Yoffie wrote and I really appreciated the helpful observations from the rabbis in Moment Magazine and I learned this year after the death of Elie Wiesel that he had helped found Moment. I find a few of his words especially powerful today.
Wiesel wrote: “We must take sides. neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” When it comes to lifting up our voice, these words of Wiesel seem especially powerful, he said, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Our votes give us a voice, though I know that we cannot stop speaking on November 8th. The democratic process does not end on November 8th. We call our local officials representatives because it is their responsibility to represent us. This is why we brought together 1500 people from across the Central Valley under the banner of Faith in the Valley to not only lift up our voices but to remind those elected officials that we will continue to be a part of the process. We will continue to make our voices heard.
One of the challenges in the political process is insuring accessibility for voters and, it turns out, there was a lack of polling places right here in our own neighborhood. So, when the Fresno County Registrar of Voters office called to ask if we would be willing to serve as a polling place, we did not hesitate. I am very pleased to inform you that Temple Beth Israel was selected and we now have the honor and privilege of hosting the vote. Imagine our ancestors arriving on these shores after escaping the pogroms of Russia, after fleeing the Holocaust, not only stripped of power but of almost every last bit of human dignity and then being able to walk into a synagogue and have their voice heard.
So, as I’ve been thinking about voices, this biblical episode spoke to me. The prophet Elijah has just been through quite a battle. He took on 450 priests of Baal and whooped ‘em pretty good but Jezebel, who had killed the rest of God’s prophets was still chasing after Elijah. He walked forty days and forty nights to mount Chorev and he was utterly spent. He collapsed in a cave where an angel gave him food and drink and then God called him out to stand on the mountain. Let’s pick it up in I Kings 19…
I Kings 19:11…
11And lo, the Eternal One passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of God; but God was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. 12After the earthquake—fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire—a still small voice.
God was in that voice.
There have been many loud voices in recent weeks, voices blowing lots of wind, rumbling like earthquakes and spitting fire… and God was not in those voices.
I do believe that God was in Martin Luther King’s voice when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., as he spoke of the right and responsibility to vote. Dr. King said…
MLK: I Have A Dream speech, August 28, 1963
We cannot be satisfied so long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
It is clear that there are many voices in our country that are not being heard and it is our responsibility to lift them up. This is why I participate in the work of Faith in the Valley and I encourage you to join me. Let the still, small voice be heard over the din.
In the quiet of the voting booth, let the still, small voice rumble for justice.
A silent voice
with silent lips
Speaking for the huddled masses yearning to be free,
Speaking for all those of us whose grandparents, parents or ourselves
were welcomed by Lady Liberty
Speaking for Slim and his daughter
and all the black and brown lives for whom justice has yet to flow
It’s quiet in that booth but together our voices are as powerful as the mighty wind that splits the mountains and shatters the rocks…
Ultimately, I realized the answer to the question was staring at right at me… is this part of our political process one of the mitzvot… it’s right there in the word… mitz… vote… mitz… vote.
The California voter registration deadline is October 24th. If you are not yet registered, do it and make sure to participate in this important mitzvah.
Let the rumbling of the still, small voices ring out.