Timely Thoughts

Advocacy of the Faithful: A View from Washington, DC

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NATHAN J. DIAMENT

Introduction

In 2012, President Barack Obama was aggressively pursuing a policy with which many members of the Orthodox Jewish community vehemently disagreed; it was the nuclear deal with Iran. The impending deal was seen by the OU’s leaders as running counter to the security interests of the United States as well as Israel. The challenge facing the OU was how to respond to the President’s effort. While some Orthodox (and other) Jewish organizations issued press releases stating harsh critiques of the President and those in his cabinet pursuing the policy, the Orthodox Union took a different path.

Having carefully cultivated relationships with senior Administration officials, and even the President himself, the OU leaders sought and held meetings with the President and senior Cabinet members wherein we attempted to persuade the President and his team to change course. The meetings were cordial; they focused on the substance of the matter and the Orthodox Union leaders made their case on the basis of an assessment of American interests as well as an appeal to values taught by Judaism and incorporated into the American ethos.

The meeting with the President concluded with the OU leaders wishing the President well and taking a photo with him. The meeting was reported in the press (both mainstream and Jewish) and, among other things, sparked some members of the OU community to telephone and e-mail the organization to express their criticism that the OU did not denounce the President for his actions but, they said, seemed to give this politician who was acting contrary to the community’s interests, in their words “the OU’s hekhsher.”

This dynamic was not new then,[1] has occurred since,[2] and no doubt will occur again.[3] No organization dedicated to political advocacy could ever achieve any success if it only engaged with policymakers with whom they agree all the time; you have to advocate to those in power. Nonetheless, political advocacy and engagement – especially by a religious organization representing a community that is not monolithic – presents challenges and opportunities worth contemplating.

Why the Faithful Must Engage

Politics, as noted by political philosopher Michael Sandel, should be thought of as “applied philosophy.” Politics is the arena in which people put forward their competing visions of what constitutes a good society. Decisions are made about the share of resources that will be allocated to support the poor, provide healthcare to the ill, educate the young, how the justice system will function, and more.

Viewed from this perspective, it’s obvious that people of faith and their denominational organizations will be compelled to engage in politics, for religion certainly prescribes the vision of a good society and we know well that the Torah (upon which America’s Judeo-Christian values are based) as well as Christianity and other faith traditions have plenty to say. Indeed, over the last half-century, as the scope and impact of the federal government has grown, more religious organizations have opened representative advocacy offices in Washington, DC than ever before.[4]

The recognition of an obligation to engage in advocacy for the welfare of society[5] has been articulated by leading rabbis of the last generation. In his seminal essay “Confrontation,” Rav Joseph Soloveitchik posited an obligation upon Jews – on the basis of their humanity – to engage in the struggles that all people are involved in. He insisted that we must act as “human beings committed to the general welfare and progress of mankind….interested in combating disease, alleviating human suffering, in protecting man’s rights, in helping the needy, etcetera.”[6] Following in this vein, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein interpreted a passage in Talmud Shabbat (54b) to impose responsibility upon those with the ability to influence society at large to take action to do so,[7] while Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits derives the “Jewish mission to the Nations” from verses in the book of Genesis.[8]

Moreover, in the context of public policy advocacy in the United States, it is worth considering whether Orthodox Judaism brings a set of values unique among faiths to the endeavor. While Torah Judaism, like other religious traditions, believes in the absolute truth of its creed, we are unlike other religions in that we do not have as a fundamental tenet that all people must come to embrace Yahadut in order to fulfill what God asks of them. We are a non-proselytizing religion that believes all people possess human dignity by virtue of being created in the image of God, and believe people of other faiths can achieve righteousness in the eyes of God.[9] The view of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe that Jews ought to actively exert whatever influence they have to compel non-Jews to observe the sheva mitzvot b’nei Noach is arguably the exception that proves the rule; in a secular state we do not seek to have the provisions of the Shulkhan Arukh incorporated into the U.S. Code.

This is a different philosophy than those of the majority, traditionalist faiths (Evangelical Christianity, Catholicism, and others) in the United States; and it is uniquely suited for a pluralistic constitutional democracy which guarantees, among other fundamental rights, an expansive freedom of religion for people of all faiths. American Orthodox Jews can uniquely articulate our religiously informed values in the great debates of the public square without religious coercion in mind. We can ally ourselves with others who believe in the “Judeo-Christian ethic” while advocating for the benefit of similarly situated minorities.

In addition to these noble reasons for engagement, there are very practical ones.[10] Government decisions will impact – either positively or negatively – how religious people and how religious institutions function. Civil rights laws can protect the ability of Orthodox Jews to take off time from work for Shabbat or Yom Kippur or could permit an employer to fire a Jew for that reason and leave that individual without recourse. Tax law can support religious institutions by treating them favorably or not.[11] Legislators can decide to allocate funds to support Jewish (and other nonpublic) schools or not. There are countless examples, all of which compel religious communities and their representatives to engage with political leaders for the same purposes of self-preservation and self-interest as all other constituency groups and, what the Federalist Papers called, “factions” that exist in society.[12]

Balancing the Parochial and the General

Even with the imperative to engage – whether on the basis of social responsibility or self-interest – there are significant challenges the OU must navigate in its advocacy work. One question often raised to the Orthodox Union (and I presume other parallel organizations) is how we balance the imperative to advocate for the parochial needs of the Orthodox Jewish community with the responsibility to advocate for the welfare of broader society.

First, one is hard pressed to find an issue of interest to the Orthodox community whose defense or advancement of does not benefit other segments of society. In a highly impactful, but little known incident, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s interest in serving the poor people of Brooklyn was credited by Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm as the genesis for the creation of an expanded United States food stamp program that serves millions of women and children.[13]  In another arena, in 2005, the OU spearheaded the creation of a federal grant program to assist non-profit organizations make their buildings more secure in the face of potential threats.[14]  While we primarily had in mind threats against Jewish institutions — a threat tragically realized in the recent assault upon a Pittsburgh synagogue — we have also advocated for this program to help all houses of worship be safe; something we highlighted in the wake of the attack on a church in Charleston, S. Carolina.[15]

Similarly, expanding the legal protections for religious exercise benefits people of all faiths; increasing the funding government allocates to support parental choice in education benefits countless families beyond our own community. Even issues that seem highly parochial – protecting the practices of male circumcision and ritual animal slaughter – benefit our fellow citizens in the Muslim community. The Orthodox Union conducts virtually all of its advocacy work through coalitions as either a member or a leader.

Of course, it is true that the positions the OU takes and the coalitions we join put us on the opposite side from some organizations or other segments within the broader Jewish community. Liberal groups such as the ADL and Union for Reform Judaism consistently oppose our efforts to increase government funding for Jewish and other nonpublic schools. But that does not define our advocacy as purely “parochial” when we have Catholics, Muslims, and Evangelicals on our side.

Beyond the issues that obviously impact the Orthodox Jewish community’s parochial interests (and those of other aligned faith groups), there are issues with broader impact on which the OU might choose to advocate. The issues where it makes the most sense for the OU to do so is where there is a prospect of meaningful impact. While there may be a temptation to weigh in on all sorts of issues, what our experience has shown is that the further away from issues which most Americans intuitively sense carry a moral/ethical dimension a religious entity gets, the less influential the religious advocate will be. Thus, rabbis expressing a view about the merits of ethanol subsidies won’t have much sway on the matter. On the other hand, in 2002 the debate over government funding for embryonic stem cell research was on the front burner and Americans were keenly interested in the views of various faith traditions on this matter because of its moral dimensions. The OU announcing its support for the funding of this research, counter to the Bush Administration policy, was front-page news in The Washington Post.

Maintaining Integrity

For religious leaders and organizations to have impact and influence on policy they must speak with a voice of integrity. Their advocacy must be authentically anchored in the teachings and values of (in our case) Judaism and this must be translated into the public domain in a manner that demonstrates that connection in a way that’s understandable by all. In the American political context, it is also important for a religious organization to work as hard as it can to operate in a bipartisan or nonpartisan manner. On the array of issues which implicate the interests and values of the Orthodox community, some will find us more aligned with Republicans while others with Democrats. Our principles must remain our polestar throughout our advocacy work.

There is also a critical need for the religious to not be seduced by access to the powerful. There is a long, checkered history of clerics becoming corrupted by proximity to the powerful. Religious leaders who are able to engage with presidents and senators and the like must remain rooted in their religious principles and ability to challenge those in office. At the same time, the Jewish history and legacy of the communal leader who is the karov l’malchut, the shtadlan, is a noble one.

Neither rabbis and ministers, nor knowledgeable lay leaders, are policy experts (certainly not in specialized areas), nor should they pretend to be. Moreover, centuries of diaspora life in which Jews could only hope not to be persecuted, forget about bringing Torah-based values into the public sphere, means that there a few explicit halakhic sources to turn to for guidance on such matters. But rabbis and other religious community leaders do have the standing to defend the concept of human dignity; of the principle that every person was created in the image of God, and they can speak out against policies that dehumanize people. This can be applied to immigration, health care, criminal justice policy and more – endeavors that are central to the OU’s advocacy work.

Conclusion

In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis famously expressed conflicting views about engagement with the ruling government. R. Hanina exhorts us to pray for the welfare of the government, while R. Gamliel cautioned us to be wary of those in power.

Over the centuries, we know the wisest of Jewish leaders engaged with rulers to protect the community. In the United States of America, Jews enjoy a level of freedom and security unprecedented in Jewish history – not only do we not fear persecution, but we are invited and empowered to advocate for our interests and values and to do so explicitly on those terms. We are further invited to be part of the chorus of voices that shapes American society at large. This is a great privilege and opportunity.

In January, a new Congress will convene in Washington, which will contain a near-record number of new members. We can expect some legislation will be proposed that we agree with and some with which we will disagree, and the very same legislators might support both. We will work with all of them when and how we can. Our community – and American society at large – is best served when we engage in political advocacy in a principled and civil manner, focused on the issues, not personas. This is the kind of advocacy that is worthy of our effort and of being understood as advancing the common good. This is the kind of advocacy in which the Orthodox Jewish community should happily engage.


[1] OU leaders met with George H.W. Bush despite his opposition to providing loan guarantees to Israel, and with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush despite their refusal to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

[2] In June, 2018, OU leaders hosted then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the OU’s annual Mission to Washington at which Mr. Sessions delivered an important address on the topic of religious liberty. See https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-sessions-delivers-remarks-orthodox-union-advocacy-centers-annual This meeting occurred despite the OU’s objection to his enforcement of the “zero tolerance policy” at the U.S.-Mexico border. For more on the controversy surrounding that event, see my essay in Mishpacha Magazine http://www.mishpacha.com/Browse/Article/10534/The-Way-I-See-It.

[3] Indeed, OU leaders were the only Orthodox organizational leaders who met with President Obama and his cabinet secretaries to press our concerns about the nuclear deal with Iran. Similarly, OU leaders were the only Jewish organizational leaders to meet (twice) last summer with then-Attorney General Sessions to raise our concerns about the policy of separating parents and children illegally crossing the US-Mexico border. Those who call for religious leaders and organizations to “speak truth to power” must learn to recognize it when they see it.

[4] See Lobbying for the Faithful, available at http://www.pewforum.org/2011/11/21/lobbying-for-the-faithful-exec/.

[5] See the many essays in the Orthodox Forum volume edited by Shatz, Waxman, and Diament, Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law (Maryland: Aronson, 1997).

[6] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Confrontation,” Tradition 6:2 (1964): 5-29. Recently republished in Confrontation and Other Essays (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2015).

[7] See Diament, “A Comment on Tikkun Olam and Political Activity, 220-221, in Tikkun Olam.

[8] See Immanuel Jakobovits, “The Jewish Mission to the Nations,” Jewish Action Magazine (Fall 5751/1990): 29-30.

[9] See Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (Continuum, 2003), Chapter 3.

[10] For a broad survey of issues and accomplishments OU Advocacy focuses on, see our most recent Annual Report at https://advocacy.ou.org/https-issuu-com-jp948-docs-ou_advocacy_2018-5778__annual_repor/

[11]  As this essay is being written, we are confronting an unprecedented situation – shuls, day schools and the religious non-profit entities of other communities may have a new tax liability imposed upon them for providing certain fringe benefits to their employees. We are working in coalition with the broad spectrum of the non-profit sector to address this matter. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/06/26/republican-tax-law-churches-employees-670362.

[12]  See The Federalist, No.10, available online at  https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/The+Federalist+Papers#TheFederalistPapers-10.

[13] See Joseph Telushkin, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, The Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History (Harper Wave, 2014), 13-15.

[14]   https://www.fema.gov/nonprofit-security-grant-program

[15]   See https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/06/24/if-we-want-freedom-of-worship-then-we-need-freedom-from-fear/?utm_term=.9d9adc9b9f7d

Nathan Diament
Nathan J. Diament is the Executive Director for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, where he develops and coordinates public policy research and initiatives on behalf of the Orthodox Jewish community. Nathan has testified before congressional committees and works closely with members of both political parties to craft legislation addressing religious liberty issues, education reform, support for Israel and more. In 2009, Nathan was appointed by President Obama to serve as one of 25 members of the President’s Faith Advisory Council. He is the author of articles and essays on issues including religion and state, constitutional law, social policy and international affairs. His writing has been featured in law journals as well as publications including The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Times, The Forward, and The Jewish Week and he has been a guest on CNN, FOX News, NPR and other broadcast media. He is an honors graduate of Yeshiva University and the Harvard Law School.