A recent article in the New York Times discussed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ statement that his father was a “Polish immigrant” without noting that his father was specifically a Polish Jewish immigrant. My friend Rabbi Michael Paley, who knew Sen. Sanders while serving as the Hillel Rabbi at Dartmouth College, stated that “nobody in Poland would have considered Bernie a Pole.” This is precisely so; my paternal grandmother was born in Warsaw but she was not Polish in any meaningful sense. She was not so much a Polish Jew as a Jew who lived in Poland.
American Jews, however, are American in ways that diaspora Jews have historically not been. This is not unique to the United States; it applies to Jewish community in other democracies as well but the American Jewish community is much larger both numerically and as a percentage of population than any other diaspora community. We have a significant impact on public policy. There are currently ten Jewish senators and 19 Jewish members of the House of Representatives. Three of the eight current Supreme Court members are Jewish, as are two of President Obama’s former Chiefs of Staff and the current and previous chairs of the Federal Reserve.
While Jews as individuals take all kinds of positions on issues of the day, I have always been intrigued by how to determine what Judaism per se has to say about a particular issue. I think this is not always a simple task, because the Jewish tradition never anticipated that Jews would be equal citizens in a pluralistic democracy. Jewish texts were written either for Jewish polities which were of course governed by Jewish norms; or for Jews who lived as at best a tolerated minority in a non-Jewish polity and had no voice in how they were governed. So the situation of American Jews is something which heretofore was unknown.
Our recent Kiddush Konversation about “Assisted Suicide in Jewish Law” was very interesting in light of the above. It is clear to me that halacha does not allow a Jew to commit suicide nor does it allow a Jew to assist another Jew to perform a forbidden act -- so that a Jewish physician could not assist a patient to commit suicide. But I went on to say that while I was quite certain that Jewish law forbids assisted suicide, it was not at all clear to me that it necessarily follows that Jews were obligated to oppose the so-called “Death with Dignity Act” now being considered by the Maryland legislature. After all, we Jews consistently tell our Roman Catholic friends that just because their religion forbids abortion is no reason for the state to enshrine their particular view as law for those of other religions or of none. That being the case, why should we ask the General Assembly to enshrine our particular view as law? How is this any different?
One of the things which I love about our Kiddush Konversations is that they are truly conversations. It is not a lecture or a sermon, there is real give-and-take. And in our discussion, I think we arrived at a methodology that might help sort some of these questions out.
While Judaism is clear that non-Jews are not required to observe halacha, there are certain values which Judaism posits are valid for all human beings, not just Jews. So it seems to me that a first step in arriving at a legitimately Jewish position on an issue is to ask, first: what are the values at stake. And second: are these values for everyone or just for Jews?
Let’s take a less controversial example than Assisted Suicide. No one doubts that Judaism permits non-Jews to eat non-kosher meat. But one of the values associated with keeping kosher is tza’ar ba’alel hayyim, avoiding cruelty to animals -- and thus the requirements of kosher slaughter which is designed to be quick and relatively pain-free. And this value is not just for Jews, so that while we would never seek to require non-Jews to keep kosher, it seems perfectly legitimate for Jews as Jews to back legislation which seeks to ameliorate the suffering of animals.
This methodology doesn’t solve all our dilemmas, of course, but I believe it is the start of some clearer thinking about the role of Jewish values in our public lives.