Next week, Jews in this country and around the world will celebrate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, just 50 days prior to the U.S. Presidential elections. Traditionally, it is a time of introspection about decisions made in the past and of considered resolutions for the future. For many Jews, especially the undecided, it may also be a time to answer the question of which candidate would best serve the community, and reflect Jewish values, earning the congregational vote.
Typically, discussion over a candidate’s reflection of Jewish values, and thereby worthiness of Jewish support has revolved around the mishnaic tikkun olam (repairing the world) concept. Largely co-opted by the Democratic Party, and interpreted in practice to relate to social justice inspired initiatives, the term is referenced on the Obama campaign’s website and is a prominent theme in the literature of the National Jewish Democratic Council. On Dec 16th 2011, The President himself referenced the rabbinic dictum in a speech before members of the Union of Reform Judaism. “American Jews have helped make our union more perfect……They pursued tikkun olam, the hard work of repairing the world,” he said.
Recently, a strong case was made by former George W. Bush speechwriter Noam Neusner, in an article for the Jewish Daily Forward, that in fact Mitt Romney is the real tikkun olam candidate. He writes, “(Mitt Romney) has shown through his own example of voluminous giving of charity….that prosperity and success breed far more tikkun olam than can be achieved through the taxing power of the state.” The insinuation earned him a rebuke from liberal Jewish columnist Bradley Burston, who was of course eager to retain the treasured tikkun olam crown for the liberal camp.
However, whilst perhaps the most highly publicized Jewish tenet, the truth is that students of Jewish law and tradition will be well aware that there is a hierarchy in the precedence of principles, and there is one above all, that in all cases, save three, overrides the others, including tikkun olam.
The concept of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) is inferred from the biblical verse in Leviticus 18:5 which states, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them.” The preservation of life is granted such dominance in Jewish law, that even if there is minimal reason to believe that one’s life may be endangered, such Jewish fundamentals as eating kosher or observing the Sabbath are readily discarded.
Living as we are today in perilous times, surely a candidate’s tikkun olam credentials shouldn’t serve as the primary Judaic principle guiding the Jewish vote. In the days since Obama has led this country, Jews have witnessed unspeakable horrors in places like Toulose, Burgas and Itamar among others. Syrians are being slaughtered daily, and the threat of a nuclear armed Iran carries with it the Ayatollah’s promise of Israel’s attempted annihilation. Shouldn’t pikuach nefesh be the first consideration?
It is true that there are some limitations to the application of the law, which usually must be applied to a specific individual as opposed to an abstract beneficiary, but some of the greatest rabbinic authorities of modern times have applied the concept in a grander, geo-political context.
The Rabbinical Congress for Peace which represents more than 350 prominent Israeli rabbis calls itself the pikuach nefesh committee, and issues recommendations to the Israeli government on the basis of rulings resulting from the application of the law.
Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the late leader of the highly successful Chabad movement which was described by Newsweek as “sprawling and influential”, routinely applied the principle to Israeli political decisions. “I am completely and unequivocally opposed to the surrender of any of the liberated areas currently under negotiation, such as Judea and Samaria,” he wrote in a letter to former United Kingdom Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits in the 1980’s. He continued, “I have repeatedly emphasized that this ruling has nothing to do with the sanctity of Israel……but solely with the rule of pikuach nefesh.”
As Jews stand wrapped in prayer shawls absorbing the piercing sounds of the shofar blasts, it may be time to consider, “who is the pikuach nefesh candidate?”