Can Jewish Wisdom Help Save Democracy?

By Aaron Dorfman and Rabbi Ayalon Eliach

Two out of every three Americans believe democracy is getting weaker. The other third has apparently not watched the news for the past 10 years.

The weakening of democracy should concern all of us irrespective of our political leanings because democracy transcends partisanship. It is the container that allows us to even have debates about how best to govern ourselves, the context that enables us to affiliate politically in the first place, and the venue in which we exercise our citizenship as stakeholders in this country and its future.

Determining if fears about democracy’s future are substantiated is not a spectator sport. Whether we like it or not, each of us plays a central role in determining the fate of American democracy. It is an institution whose very existence is predicated on our participation, or lack thereof.

But what exactly should that participation entail? And how might we foster the kind of democracy that allows us to flourish individually and communally?

There is no single answer to these questions. Democracy relies on a multiplicity of voices; and the means of supporting its future must as well. As an organization committed to applying particular Jewish wisdom to universal human questions, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah wants to ensure that Jewish wisdom is part of this conversation.

To this end, we have committed significant resources to programs that apply Jewish wisdom to strengthening democracy in America. Through these grants, we have had the privilege of partnering with organizations like Pardes, whose Mahloket Matters curriculum employs Jewish text study to increase appreciation for viewpoint diversity; Hillel, whose MitzVote voter-engagement drive adapts the framework of Jews reaching the age of b’nai mitzvah – when Jews traditionally mark and celebrate the assumption of communal responsibilities – to Americans turning 18 – the age at which young people gain the right to vote; and others who are drawing on the ever-accumulating body of Jewish wisdom found in texts, teachings, history, culture, ritual, and practices to offer innovative solutions to the challenges facing democracy today.

We know, however, that our grantmaking just scratches the surface. We have heard about only a fraction of the ways in which people are already applying Jewish wisdom to strengthen democracy and civic engagement. And we are just as eager to learn about all the great ideas that people have not yet had the opportunity to implement.

That is why, in partnership with Democracy Fund, we are excited to announce that the second Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom will celebrate applications of Jewish wisdom to democracy and civic engagement.

Through this prize competition – which will award prizes of $30,000 to established programs that are already engaged in this work, as well as prizes of $15,000 to organizations that have great ideas for programming that needs some help getting started – we hope to expand awareness of and access to applications of Jewish wisdom that support a healthy American democracy.

If you’re already running a program that does this work or have an idea of one that you want to get off the ground, we encourage you to apply.

If this is the first time you’ve entertained the idea that Jewish wisdom may have something to say about democracy and civic engagement, we encourage you to consider how you could bring your unique perspective to this work – and submit your best idea.

No matter how far along you are in thinking about the application of Jewish wisdom to democracy and civic engagement, brainstorm with friends, family, and colleagues. Explore Jewish texts, history, ritual, and art that you think could be brought to bear on this moment. Surprise us. We believe that difficult times hold the potential to give rise to approaches that could never have been imagined previously.

The Talmud (Makkot 24b) relates that Rabbi Akiva was walking with a group of rabbis on the ruins of the Second Temple in Jerusalem when they saw a fox emerge from the Holy of Holies – a site that had previously been accessed only once a year by the High Priest. Upon seeing the desolation of the holiest place in Judaism, the other rabbis began to cry. Rabbi Akiva, however, laughed.

The rabbis asked Rabbi Akiva how he could be joyful at the site of such destruction.

He explained that it was clear that the forecasts of doom had come true. That low point opened the door for redemption to take root – a prospect worth celebrating.

Like Rabbi Akiva, perhaps the third of Americans who believe democracy is doing just fine aren’t oblivious to the erosion that surrounds them. Instead, maybe they trust deeply in our ability to bring humanity’s collective wisdom to bear on this moment in history, to create new ways – some rooted in Jewish wisdom – of strengthening democracy and ushering in a brighter future.

Please join us in proving them right.

Aaron Dorfman is President and Rabbi Ayalon Eliach is Director of Learning and Strategic Communications, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.