Election Day: Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community
When I turned 18, I was overjoyed to have the right to vote. I distinctly remember registering to vote as part of a high school government class. In college, I always voted by absentee ballot, deeply committed to the idea that exercising my right to vote is not only important for me, but also vital to our democracy.
Indeed, the value of the vote has deep roots in Jewish tradition. We frequently cite a line from Pirkei Avot, in which Hillel teaches, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” We are also instructed that “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a).
A well-functioning representative government requires political leaders to remain engaged in and accountable to the communities that elect them. Without that crucial connection, leaders lack credibility, and we citizens lose our ability to shape the policies that will determine the future of our nation.
In the United States, there is no more powerful mechanism to foster strong relationships between policymakers and their constituents than elections. Each election cycle requires officials to go to the community to make the case that they be returned to city hall, the state house or Washington. And elected officials know that if they move too far from the values and opinions of the communities they represent, they likely will not win re-election.
Such a highly idealized view of American democracy is, of course, one that we should work to meet, while also acknowledging that we live in a post-Citizens United age in which super PACs and corporations can dominate electoral politics, and when the concept of government accountability to the public can feel increasingly distant or irrelevant.
In fact, according to a recent CBS News poll, 84% of Americans now believe that money has too much influence in political campaigns, while a Gallup poll indicates that only 14% of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job. Public discontent with the political status quo also expresses itself as increasingly low voter turnout. By some estimates, the 2014 midterm elections had the lowest participation since World War II.
Disengagement is an entirely rational and understandable response to disillusionment with the political system. But faced with such widespread ill feeling, perhaps we can reinterpret the meaning of Hillel’s instruction in Pirkei Avot. “Do not separate yourself from the community” need not only apply to our leaders. It also suggests a responsibility that each of us has to remain actively involved in communal affairs. As American Jews, we cannot forego our right to vote and thus isolate ourselves from collective decision-making.
Exercising the right to vote is especially important at this critical political juncture. New federal and state proposals to enact comprehensive sentencing reform may make dramatic changes to our criminal justice system possible. Recent events in Alabama and elsewhere raise questions about voter registration and access to the ballot box. And efforts to defund Planned Parenthood have once again brought the reproductive rights debate to the forefront. These policy decisions are just a few our communities will face in the coming year. Regardless of where we stand on these issues, we should make our voices heard in the most powerful way we can – by voting.
Today, Election Day, is our opportunity not only to use the privilege we have been granted under the Constitution, but also to adhere to the democratic values set before us by Jewish tradition and teaching.
I’ll be voting.