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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Politics, Family Values and the Jewish Tradition


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Nothing depresses me quite as much as the “values debate” now raging between the political parties. The carefully crafted, poll-driven oratory that we hear so frequently from candidates of both parties seems intended more to gain political advantage than to tell us what values are really important to our country. Fortunately, we Jews need not rely on politicians for our ethical vision. In this sacred season, we can turn to our traditional texts for guidance on the timeless values by which we lead our lives and instruct our children.

No other period in the Jewish calendar possesses the high drama of the High Holy Days. The self-examination that our tradition demands of us and the judgment that God promises leave us soberly introspective, carefully reviewing our personal conduct. The culmination of this process comes on Yom Kippur. As we struggle to acknowledge our errors and repent for our sins, our rich liturgy prods us to engage in an inner search that most of us instinctively resist.

Aware that we are reluctant to admit our shortcomings, the rabbis did not wait for us to volunteer this information; they provided a list of 54 sins that, in their view, were the temptations to which we are most likely to fall prey. The Al Het prayer, a confession of sins (“For the sin that we have committed before you”), is repeated ten times during the Yom Kippur service. Since it deals only with ethical duties to our fellow human beings and makes no mention of ritual obligations, this prayer serves as a kind of popular ethics manual; by telling us what we should not do, it educates us in the central values of Judaism.

What is most striking about the list is its concrete, down-to-earth nature. These sins are the stuff of everyday life, a catalog of specific ways in which we mortals go astray. And so we ask forgiveness for the sin of being disrespectful to parents and teachers, of engaging in lewd conduct, of using offensive speech, and of engaging in violent acts. The list of sins is long, and as we recite them we accept full responsibility for our errors. There is not the slightest suggestion that our fate is determined by forces beyond our control, or that we can blame others by pointing to “root causes” that justify anti-social behavior. Lest there be any misunderstanding on this point, the liturgy specifies the sin of prikat ol, which means throwing off societal restraints for one’s own purposes, or, more simply, “casting off responsibility.” To cast off responsibility is a sin and our own fault. Period.

When Bill Cosby recently insisted that black teenagers take responsibility for their own lives by staying in school, doing their homework, learning standard English and stopping having babies, much of the ensuing outcry came from politicians. Black parents – like parents of other racial, ethnic and religious groups – understand full well that teaching values has no meaning if it does not include accepting responsibility in these areas.

But accepting responsibility for our own actions does not mean that we as a community have no obligation to provide for the less fortunate among us. Among the first sins listed in the Al Het is “acting cruelly” – and the Hebrew makes clear that the meaning here is lack of kindness to the needy. We also ask forgiveness for “haughty airs” and “sordid selfishness,” and for sins committed by oppressing others and by using “usury and interest” – all terminology that refers to exploitation of the weak. We are thus reminded that in Jewish tradition, successful businessmen and women are always expected to set an example of public generosity and communal leadership. And reading these passages, we cannot help but think of the breakdown in social solidarity that afflicts our country, as the wealthy are increasingly segregated from the poor and indifferent to their fate.

In short, despite the sometimes polarizing rhetoric of our political leaders, Judaism demands that respect and responsibility be demonstrated both in our personal lives and in our communal life. We cannot excuse our sins by pointing to the “structural” defects of society, and we do the poor no favor when we pretend that they cannot do more to help themselves. But neither can we forget our obligation to the community around us. Torah teaches that the poor are rarely a problem to the rich; it is generally the rich who are a problem to the poor. The responsibility of the established classes is therefore to provide justice for the less fortunate and to display kinship and compassion to all. Politicians take note: only when “values” are understood in this way can they advance the common good and provide a foundation for a shared American morality.

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