Is Voting a Mitzvah? The Wisdom of Jewish Law in Modern Times

As a religious Jew living in America, must I participate in the democratic process, including the U.S. elections?

There are several moments in each of our lives that could aptly be described as “coming of age” experiences. Sometimes these moments are directly related to our Jewish tradition and its rituals: Becoming a Bar Mitzvah, reciting Birkat Yeladim, the blessing over your children for the first time, or saying Mourners Kaddish for a loved one. But other times these “coming of age” experiences occur within our secular world: getting your driver’s license, going off to college, and yes, voting for the first time.

My earliest memories of the civic process are of accompanying my mother to the voting booth in Philadelphia when I was a child. Looking back on those memories I can’t help but draw comparisons to The Wizard of Oz. A pull of the lever closes the red velvet curtain behind us, ensuring privacy in this intimate encounter with democracy. There, from behind the protective curtain, I gazed up at the massive, mechanical contraption, which somehow magically reifies the democratic process. My mother used to let me flip the metal switches locking in her vote; and suddenly, and for the first time in my life, I understood what it means to feel responsibility.

My own personal history as a voter in the United States is far more complicated. My first presidential election in which I voted was the election of 2000; and in it, I cast an absentee ballot, which was likely never counted. As a resident of Palm Beach County, Florida who was studying in college, I sent in my vote feeling confident that I had just participated in a moment of history – and as it turns out, I guess I had.

The record of the election of 2000 is well known, and in the end, the United States Supreme Court ordered an end to the recount in the State of Florida, turning my ballot and thousands like it, into scrap paper.

Walking away from that election was another coming of age moment. Instead of the Wizard, this time I was Dorothy, uncovering the cynicism and partisanship that lies behind our most sacred civic process.

I must admit that my disillusionment led me to “skip” the next several election days, resigning myself to the countless “un-counted” in our county who apathetically opt-out of the election process. I am not proud of this fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. In that infamous election of 2000, the one that ended up having profound implications upon our world, only 51.3 percent of voting age Americans cast a ballot. In other words, almost half of our population made a choice to not choose.

What I want to ask is, as a religious Jew living in America, does my Jewish tradition, its values and yes, its halakhah, or Jewish law, mandate my participation in the democratic process?

When I ask questions such as this, questions that blend the timelessness of our tradition with the timeliness of our modern world, I now turn to The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, recently published by the Rabbinical Assembly. This book examines halakhic issues spanning the vast array of Jewish life in our modern world. In a chapter titled ‘Citizenship’, my colleague Rabbi Jane Kanarek deals with just such a question: What does our Judaism teach us about our responsibilities vis-à-vis participating in our democratic societies?

Rabbi Kanarek correctly points out that when it comes to a “Democratic Ideal” the Bible comes up short of conceptualizing democracy as we know it today. In the Torah there is a clearly defined caste system of leadership, with Kohanim, Leviim, and everyone else as part of Yisrael. Of course, the Books of the Prophets describe the famous Kings of Israel, and while there were many righteous kings, clearly the bulk of the narrative describes monarchy as an immensely imperfect form of government.

When we look to rabbinic literature we come to understand more about the Jewish-democratic ideal. Rabbi Kanarek points out that in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 55a we learn:

Rabbi Isaac said: “One who does not appoint a leader for a community without consulting the community; as it says in the Torah: ‘See the Eternal One has singled out by name Betzalel’ (Exodus 35:30). Said the Blessed Holy One to Moses, ‘Moses, is Betzalel worthy in your opinion?’ Moses answered God, ‘Ruler of the Universe, if he is worthy before You, how could he possibly not be worthy before me?’ God said to him, ‘Even so, go and ask them [the people]…’”

What is abundantly clear from this text is that appointing a leader for our communities is not an act of Divine fiat; rather, it is a process in which all are called to participate, and more profoundly still, in which God demands our participation!

In Judaism we do a lot of counting. We count our 100 blessings each day, we count the Omer, we count the Shofar blasts, we count the candles in our Hanukkiah, and we are counted among the minyan, the prayer quorum. And perhaps this last item is the most important: In Judaism, counting is not the essence of the matter, but rather it is the act of “being counted” that matters the most. So even if voting is not one of the 613 Mitzvot, then perhaps participating in the democratic process, the act of being counted, should be considered number 614.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the Director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish Summer Camp experience under the educational auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary.