Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Informed Voting As A Religious Obligation.

Nov 21, 2013

I eagerly anticipate elections, because for the few moments that I fill in my ballot then scan it into the vote counter, I feel liberated from the fashionable yet depressing cynicism about the ebbing life of American democracy. The corruption, gridlock, and stupid selfishness that taint the system seem to be briefly washed away, and I actually imagine my vote joining a sea of others that might shift the direction of the ship of state.

Except, of course, when I have no clue about whom or what I am voting for. Our most recent election offered up mayoral contests, along with votes for our school board, judicial positions, and six dry, complex propositions for changes in the state constitution. I have barely enough time and energy to attend to the fine details that keep me informed in my rabbinic duties, let alone constitutional propositions. Exhausted from work the night before the election, I perused our local voter guide. I turned to my wife, commenting with deep sophistication, “I have no idea what any of this means.”

I steeled myself for next day’s voting with two default options: simply vote yes to all the proposed constitutional changes or just skip that part of the ballot. Conscience stricken that I would treat democracy so cavalierly, I committed to figuring out what I was voting for, as quickly and thoughtfully as possible. My first meeting that next morning was Bible study with a good friend who has many years of experience in state government. Apprehensively, I asked him, “Would you mind if instead of studying Bible, we looked closely at the propositions on the ballot?” He was happy to oblige my quest to be better informed.

For the next half hour or so, we closely read the fine print of three of the propositions, parsing their language, asking each other questions, and arguing about the meaning of details as well as the potential global significance of each law. Obviously, what we did was not technically religious study, but in the broadest sense it helped me to act in accordance with the best spirit of my Jewish values. Voting fulfills at least the spirit, if not the letter, of Moses’ biblical commandment to the Israelites to appoint a king upon entering the promised land. This commandment is remarkable, because it asserts that the people, with God's help, were active participants in the selection of their leader who would be subject to significant checks and balances of power.

A very narrow reading of this law would restrict its mandate to the Jewish religious community of the past, or of some messianic future, exclusively. My much broader, symbolic interpretation sees it as a call to everyone to be informed about and engaged with the democracies in which we live. Democracy is a very safe and healthy political and physical home for my people, the Jews, and for all people, and it promotes peace that allows all its citizens to thrive. We do not want to treat it lightly, thus the critical importance of carefully studying its secular brand of scripture before we make critical electoral decisions about its welfare.

Religion teaches us to serve God and to respect religious authority, but it never tells us to serve blindly. In my tradition, every religious text challenges us to become informed students who think critically and independently, and who argue ideas robustly. Similarly, democracies offer citizens real opportunities to make informed electoral judgments. Religious and political leaders with tyrannical impulses want nothing more than for us to become unthinking and apathetic when issues and positions become complex and demanding. The Jewish book of wisdom, Ethics of the Sages, warns us not to go down that road. “Study scripture with extreme thoughtfulness, for everything is in it,” the book insists. To which I would add, “Study the words and values of democracy with extreme thoughtfulness, or risk having them stolen from you.”

Dan Ornstein is Rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany. http://www.timesofisreal.com/ops-and-blogs/