The values of voting

Jewish Family Identity Forum

With Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Candace R. Kwiatek

Abraham. Moses. Joshua. Solomon. Larger-than-life heroes of the Bible, they embody many of the traits we seek in our leaders today. A dedication to truth and justice, like Abraham destroying idols and arguing with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. An attitude of humility, like Moses when called upon to face Pharaoh and lead the Israelites.

Traits of conviction and fortitude, like Joshua who never doubted the promise of a land filled with milk and honey, and fought for it when necessary. A reverence for wisdom, like Solomon whose discernment solved a dispute over an infant’s rightful mother and forged peace among a multitude of nations.

Yet none of these ancient luminaries — not even Moses — was a conglomerate of all the qualities of a “perfect leader.”

Each had characteristics that served him well at one time, but not so well at another.

This raises an important and timely question: If our biblical superstars — who were chosen by God — didn’t always measure up, how can we possibly choose a good leader for ourselves?

We’ve all adopted a strategy for selecting political candidates. Some choose based on past history, staying with a personal, familial, or communal party affiliation. A few decide according to a candidate’s stance on a single issue. Many vote to advance the social agenda of a peer group. Significant numbers pick based on their emotions: what feels good or who looks or sounds the best.

Most of us want to be informed voters, studying the candidates’ positions on myriad issues, but are stymied by “choice overload.”

How can we avoid voter paralysis brought on by the choice overload of endless issues on the one hand and reflexive voting based on past, party, peers, or passion on the other? I believe the answer lies in values, foundational ideals shared by both Jewish and American traditions. A values-perspective brings clarity to the candidates, parties, and issues, allowing each of us to more readily and thoughtfully choose good leaders. Here are six fundamental shared ideals to get you started. You may find others.

Liberty Equals Freedom Plus Responsibility. The liberation of the Jews from Egypt was not complete until Sinai, where the Law identified the individual’s responsibilities to God and to others. While beginning with freedom, liberty depended upon individuals living up to high standards of moral and interpersonal behavior. The American founders adopted this perspective, expressed in the terms political liberty and civic virtue.

How do we foster freedom but avoid anarchy? How do we promote civic virtue with the least impact on freedom? How does political decision-making foster liberty?

Individual Equality. Genesis teaches that all humans are made in God’s image, a sentiment echoed in the Declaration’s famous preamble, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Both Jewish and American traditions embody universal equality of opportunity as well, but neither suggests there is a guarantee of equal outcome.

How do liberty and equality impact each other? How should political decision making and social policy reinforce the notion of human equality and maximize equal opportunity?

Obligations versus Rights. The Bible speaks in the language of obligations: honor your father and your mother, return a lost object, and do not oppress a stranger. America’s founding documents speak in the language of rights: “unalienable Rights” and the Bill of Rights. Yet, despite their wording, America’s documents are also about the obligations of individuals and governments: treat all humans as equals, protect liberty, be productive, and act justly.

In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy captured this sense of obligation: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” What is the significance of a focus on obligations versus rights?  What is their connection to responsibility? What impact do they have on political and social policy?

Contract. The Torah, a covenant between God and the Jewish people, and the Constitution, a compact among the American people, are both legal contracts. Both documents define the structure of their societies, embody their values, and obligate their people to certain behaviors. Biblical kings had to copy the Torah for themselves and read it every day, and the president swears to preserve, defend, and uphold the Constitution.

What is the balance between a Constitution that functions as a contract — enduring, dependable, and not easily modified — and one that functions as a living document, adaptable and changing with the times? How does that balance reflect our motto, E Pluribus Unum, from many one?

Actions versus Intentions. Through its emphasis on behaviors, the Bible teaches that actions, not intentions count in creating goodness. History shows that both Jews and Americans live by this adage, constantly seeking to create goodness across time and place. Yet, leading economist and intellectual Thomas Sowell cautions that not all actions with positive initial consequences ultimately result in goodness. You have to go beyond stage one thinking and keep asking, “And then what happens?” In Sowell’s terms, what is the “chain of events set in motion” by a particular choice or policy? Does it ultimately lead to goodness, beyond stage one?

Dor l’Dor: Generation to Generation. In each generation, our biblical ancestors blessed their children with the divine promise. American parents similarly bless their children and grandchildren with a promise, the American Dream.

What does the American Dream mean? What choices, what policies are more likely to bring about the promise of the American Dream to future generations?

In the Bible we learn that humans have free will, the ability to think and choose. In story after story in the Bible and in America we see that the choices our ancestors made determined the kind of individuals they became and the character of the societies they created. Now it’s your turn. Think with your values. Choose. Vote.

Family Discussion: How will a shared-values perspective help you be a more thoughtful voter?


Literature to share

Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph by Dennis Prager — Intensively researched and well supported with examples, Prager’s piece-de-resistance examines the thesis that today’s world is confronted by three incompatible paths: Americanism, Leftism, and Democratic Socialism. He explains their appeal, worthy intentions and possibilities, and why the American values system is the most viable to produce a good society and “doing good” in the world.

The Vanishing Gourds: A Sukkot Mystery by Susan Axe-Bronk — Through the mystery of disappearing sukkah decorations, the traditions of Sukkot are introduced to preschoolers. The simple language and colorful illustrations of this fanciful tale invite conversation, making it a perfect choice for sharing on a parent’s lap or during circle time at preschool.

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