Every four years, the intersection appears: The Days of Awe cross paths with the final weeks of the presidential campaign. The debate grows more heated. Talk of policy may dominate the conversation as we dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah or as we break the fast on Yom Kippur.
Perhaps most prominently, especially for people of faith, we will hear discussion of values. What are American values? Who are “values voters” and what do they believe? What role should Jewish values play in how we choose to vote?
In this Jewish season of awe and remembrance, of judgment and renewal, in this American season of electoral politics, our community bears a solemn burden in our public discourse. We must ask ourselves: How must we, as Jews, understand and tackle the great issues of our day? In politics and in the new year, what guidance can we glean from the pages of our tradition, from the lessons of our history, from the values of our people?
With the aseret yemei teshuvah, or 10 days of repentance, upon us, Jews can turn to our liturgy for instruction and answers. Here, in our sacred texts, Jews can find a roadmap for action. Here we can find the wisdom of our forebears — to inform our lives as Jews, as Americans, as engaged citizens. Here we can find our deepest values and apply them to the great political challenges of our time.
The prayers of these pages reflect our wishes for the future. So, too, must they be demands of ourselves: to perfect the world, to love peace, to pursue justice, to never stand idly by in the face of intolerance.
Consider the “Avinu Malkeinu,” our prayer asking God for understanding, for compassion, for redemption.
This prayer asks God to heal those who are ill, connecting us today to the debate over Medicare and Soc-ial Security, to the need for an inclusive policy for the care of our fellow Americans. We ask God to end disease and war, with celebration for our exit from Iraq and with hope for swift conclusion to the conflict in Afghanistan.
We request to be inscribed for livelihood and sustenance, and to fill our storehouses with plenty, reflecting our debate on how to create jobs, how to build an economy of fairness and opportunity, how to protect our environment and preserve God’s creation.
We beseech God to annul the designs of our enemies and to raise up the glory of Israel — a clarion call for a principled foreign policy founded on both diplomatic strength and military might. It is a call to maintain our support for the State of that the Establishment Clause be immediately followed by the Free Exercise Clause. Separation of church and state meant only that government was not to dictate any specific creed, or empower one sect over another. But Madison and the founders took it for granted that American democracy would be enriched by religion and its teachings.
Nothing is more normal than the invocation of God in our public life. “In God We Trust” appears on all U.S. currency. The Almighty is acknowledged in every state constitution. Every president adds, “So help me God” on taking the oath of office, and each has mentioned God in his inaugural address. Religious language in politics is as American as a Fourth of July parade.
And as bipartisan. Even before the G-word was restored at the convention, the Democrats’ platform had included a respectful plank about faith. Many who took to the podium in Charlotte made a point of mentioning religion.
Religious Americans these days may be more likely to vote Republican, but no ideology has a monopoly on the moral authority religion can supply. From abolition to the antiwar movement, religion has played an indispensable role in liberalism’s great causes too.
Would those who tweet their support for a wall between political and religious expression have made the same demand of the Rev. Martin Luther King, and the clergy who stood with him in the fight for racial equality? Would they want left-of-center “God-talk” silenced in the debates over budget cuts or gay marriage or immigration? Should Matthew 25:40 really be off-limits when Democrats talk about the poor?
In America, politics and religion are not strangers. Here faith and freedom go together, as we aspire, however imperfectly, to be one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.
Rabbi Burton Visotzky is the Appleman Professor of midrash and interreligious studies at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.