Right to vote

These High Holy Days, preach democracy, please

The full sanctuaries of the High Holy Days have long been a platform for American rabbinic leadership. Certain topics are regulars — the latest news from Israel, spiritual guidance for a healthy life or family, the ever-present nudge to get more “involved” in synagogue life and the reliable social justice sermon to fire up the crowd. I have given many of these sermons, as their messages emerge naturally from the themes and texts of this season.

This year, I ask my colleagues to add a neglected topic to the list — democracy — and I would like to go beyond the critical work of expanding voting rights. That topic deserves its own sermon, as leaders in many state capitals are doing everything they can to reduce access to the polls. We should continue the tradition of American Jews who have been at the vanguard of the fight for voting fairness. 

But the right to vote, and the impulse to block others from the polls, is rooted in something deeper–a complex, imperfect, interconnected system. True enfranchisement requires standard rules for vote-counting as well as institutions who respect them. This is dependent upon the legislators who created those institutions, whose authority, in turn, relies on the public that elected them. The public, in its infinite and often-flawed wisdom, makes decisions based on attitudes shaped by something deep in the soil about what it means to be an American. So I ask my colleagues to direct their sermons there, in that deep place, where the roots of our system of self-governance are watered by attitudes, ideas and narrative. To me, this provides a profound and perfectly appropriate target for preaching. 

Sermons offer long-form thinking, nuance, analysis and complexity. As Jonathan Haidt and others have pointed out, our democracy suffers from the simple binaries and algorithms of social media. Synagogues, as spiritual containers, can shake people out of echo chambers and self-fulfilling narratives.

If the High Holy Days are about t’shuvah, the desire to change directions and get on the right path, then our country needs our help. It seems the only thing uniting reds and blues right now is a belief that the country is indeed on the wrong path. The most extreme partisans now argue for, essentially, rebellion should they not get their way. Whether one believes that liberal democracy has failed because it is perverted by the power of elite liberals or racist nationalists, some on both sides now preach the once unthinkable conclusion that the system itself should be scrapped. 

So I ask you, colleagues, to consider a sermon about the virtues of the democratic system itself. Yes, yes, tell people to go vote, to be poll-workers, to get friends and neighbors to vote, to march and advocate for voting fairness, but keep going, because the votes will not matter if the system beneath it disappears. Use your pulpit to preach broad and stable democracy, which continues after elections conclude. Here’s why:

  1. Self-interest: for American Jews the disappearance of liberal democracy would be a disaster. Since Washington wrote a letter to the Touro synagogue, we have flourished under the shelter of the principles behind the First Amendment, and we have been protected by the absolute belief in the rule of law. Without these, Jews, start packing suitcases.
  2. Religious obligation: In 1984 Rabbi Moshe Feinstein argued that American Jews are obligated to vote because we owe America hakarat hatov, recognition of the good that this country has done for us. We should preach democracy because what it has done for the American Jewish community as a whole, it can do for other Americans, including many Jews, who continue to be disenfranchised. Just as we are grateful for the American system, it would be wrong to reap its benefits and then give up when others are asking for those benefits. 
  3. Facing the anti-democrats in our own community: At this moment, the ideological pillar of the conservative movement against democracy is Yoram Hazony, an American Israeli Orthodox Jew. Hazony argues that the American Christian majority should use the power of government to promote its religious values. In his world, minority groups like Jews exist with a protected status granted by the more authentically Christian American power structure. Even as bona fide conservative thinkers thoroughly debunk his analysis, we need to point out how Hazony is projecting his solution to the demographic realities in Israel. As American Jews and Zionists, we should rail against the idea that a state’s religious identity should trump its commitment to things like equality, representation and fair voting. 
  4. Reimagining the future: At least since Isaiah, we have envisioned a better tomorrow. Even if the details diverge dramatically, our messianic yearnings converge with the core American vision of “A city on a hill.” Since the founding, America has promised true inclusive democracy, and for many, President Obama symbolized fulfillment of that promise. Resurgent white nationalism demonstrates, as Amanda Gorman put it, we still have hills to climb. Our sermons can point toward a future American democracy that confronts the inertia of established power by promoting fairness for all.
  5. Our values: Judaism has been meditating on fair systems of governance since Moses confronted Korach. America needs Jewish values like viewpoint diversity, covenantal obligation, institutional stewardship, including dissent, prophetic leadership and the fundamental dignity of all humans as created in God’s image. Sermons are a time to argue for freedom, provable truth and national unity over fear, accusations and partisanship. The liturgy, theology, texts and themes of this season speak directly to our values (topic suggestions can be found here). 

So, colleagues, as you write, ask what themes and messages of these Holy Days can help our country. Individual policies, even ones related to voting, are crucial and deserve our attention, but if we do not speak up for the system as a whole, I ask you: Who will? 

Rabbi Michael G. Holzman is the spiritual leader of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, the creator of the Rebuilding Democracy Project, a winner of the 2019 Lippman Kanfer Award for Applied Jewish Wisdom, and a faculty member of the Hartman Institute.