Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Go Vote! It’s an American and Jewish Value!

Voting in free and fair elections is one of the most profound privileges Americans and citizens of other democratic countries enjoy. Almost 700,000 American soldiers* have died in wars to protect the American way of life, whose bedrock value is a citizenship who votes its leaders into office. But, even in the United States, suffrage was not initially granted to all citizens.

For most of human history, Jews did not live in democratic societies where citizens’ votes selected leaders. As such, halachic literature on the responsibility of voting in democratic elections is relatively recent.

An Israeli citizen approached the Chazon Ish (1878-1953), asking the rabbi’s opinion regarding the fact that he had been prevented from voting because he had not paid his municipal taxes. The Chazon Ish instructed the Jew to sell his tefillin, in order to pay his taxes, which would enable him to vote in upcoming elections. “You can fulfill the mitzvah with borrowed tefillin, but the privilege of voting cannot be borrowed from someone else,” argued the Chazon Ish. (“Lectures for the Book of Genesis” by Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, pg. 156.) He clearly viewed voting as a significant mitzvah!

Rabbi Eliezer Shach, (1899-2001), a leader of Israeli Orthodox Jewry after the passing of the Chazon Ish, argued that if Jews do not vote, their influence cannot be taken seriously. “Voting is what enables us to make our voices be heard, and that is of value in itself… The more people vote, the more we will be able to accomplish” (“Rav Shach Speaks,” pages 52-53, based on a letter written in April, 1977).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading halachic (Jewish legal) decider in the United States in the late 20th century, in a letter dated October 3, 1984, wrote the following patriotic words.

“On reaching the shores of the United States, Jews found a safe haven. The rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights have allowed us the freedom to practice our religion without interference and to live in this republic in safety. A fundamental principal of Judaism is hakarat hatov, recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent on each individual is to register and to vote. By this, we can express our appreciation and contribute to the continued security of our community.” Rabbi Feinstein was known to vote in every single election, whether determining the presidency or the local school board.

*this figure does not include the over 500,000 Americans who died during the U.S. Civil War.

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