Sermon: Why I will not be telling you how to vote

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 2 November 2019

“Labour’s campaign in chaos as senior rabbi urges congregation to vote against the party”.  So proclaimed the Mail Online this week with some delight.
Equally thrilled was the Jewish Chronicle, the front page of which quotes liberally from the letter of my wonderful colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Romain, to his community in which he encourages members of his congregation to vote tactically against the Labour Party.

To the disappointment of some, I’m sure, I shall not be doing the same.
I will not be telling you how I think you should vote.
This morning I’d like to explain why.

In part it is because of what I know about Alyth.
We are a community of thoughtful, engaged people, who can be relied upon to make decisions with integrity for ourselves.  There is great wisdom and knowledge among us.  My views do not, and should not, have some greater weight simply because of my s’michah or the position that you have entrusted to me.  In the words of midrash Tanchuma on Nitzavim:  “Af al pi she-miniti lachem rashim… kulchem shavin l’fanav – Although I have appointed for you leaders, you are all equal before me”.  You do not need me to tell you how I think you should vote.  It would be self-aggrandizing of me to claim otherwise.

Which is not to say that we don’t do politics from this bimah.
Of course we do politics.  Religion and politics are interwoven.  Synagogue is a place of politics.  To misquote Desmond Tutu, people who say that religion and politics don’t mix are reading a different bible, Talmud, and midrash to me.  Judaism has a deep concern for the nature of our society, the core values and principles that underpin the communities that we build.  And we speak about these often.  Indeed, it feels that on most Shabbatot over the last few years I have spoken politics.  Judaism has something to say on most questions of policy, and to deny that would be to deny a part of our religious, moral and spiritual inheritance.

In the JC article, there is a reference to a “negative reaction from colleagues who worried that it was too political”.  I think this is a reference to a particular meeting of rabbis, and this was not my impression of the occasion.  It was deeply political, probably the most political meeting of rabbis that I have sat in.  There were long-standing Labour party activists bemoaning entryism into their local communities; there were passionate anti-Brexit campaigners articulating their concerns about the potential impact of Brexit on their communities; there were conservatives – mainly these days with a small c – concerned by the possible economic policies of a future Labour government.  Colleagues come from across the political spectrum – mainly Liberal left leaning, it won’t surprise anyone to know – but not exclusively so.  None are unconcerned about anti-Semitism in the Labour party.
Colleagues who disagreed with the letter did so not because it was ‘too political’ but because they disagreed with what was being said; or not because it was ‘too political’ but because of what the very sending of the letter said about the nature of the communities that we build.

For many of us – me included – this is the point.  Judaism is inherently political, but the shared values we hold can and do find expression in multiple ways.  Perhaps the defining feature of Jewish tradition is that it cannot ever be univocal –complexity and polyvocality are at its heart.  We are a community of multiple voices, engaged in a tradition of multiple voices.  We should not unnecessarily seek to diminish that multiplicity of voices, but to live within the reality of disagreement, of argument.

This is the ideal articulated by a text that I have spoken about many times from this bimah, which is the formative text in my religious world view.  It is a text from Tosefta – a collection of rabbinic traditions from the earliest layer of rabbinic literature, prior to about 200CE. The text begins with a dilemma from Rabbinic Judaism:  “The house of Shammai declares something unclean, the House of Hillel declares it clean.  This one prohibits, that one permits”, the text tells us, “How then can I learn Torah?”  In other words, if there are two contradictory voices within our tradition, and both are authoritative, how can we ever know we are right, ever conclude anything about Torah with certainty?

The answer is extraordinary: “All the words have been given by a single Shepherd… make yourself a heart of many rooms. Bring into it the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.”

The text does not conclude that one of Hillel or Shammai is correct and one is wrong; or that we even need one opinion to be right and the other wrong.  Rather, it says that there are a variety of views and voices within our tradition.  The ideal is to live with the disagreement.  This is a hugely important statement of religious principle, a defining statement about the nature of Jewish life.  Judaism has always been a polyvocal tradition, one capable of including conflicting voices, even opinions that utterly contradict one another.  To be a Jew, the text says, is to inherit a tradition which is comfortable with disagreement, which embraces it and always has.  What really matters is how we engage in the discussion.

The role of a rabbi is to allow that diversity of voice to flourish.
I will not be telling you how I think you should vote because that is incompatible with the Judaism I cherish.

The Talmud – a later text – brings this tradition with a slightly different version.  It asks the same question but gives a variant answer: “make yourself ears like an afarcheset – a grain funnel, the grain receiver on a mill stone.  The response to diversity of opinion is not to close ourselves off, to narrow opinion, but to have ears that are open, that catch the grains, are accepting.  And, the Talmud adds, “acquire for yourself an understanding heart” capable of holding complexity.

This means that we have to be able in community to express what we think and hear the voices of the other.  As a diverse collection of politically engaged people there are many issues that concern members of this community.  This is true however important, real and pressing a particular issue certainly is.
In no way should what I say – or choose not to say – be seen as ignoring the very real problem that Jonathan highlights.  But it is to recognise that it is one of many problems that make this election so challenging for many of us.   We have to hear that diversity of concern and priority and opinion.

And only if we do so, only if we are open to conversation and debate, can we also probe opinions, challenge falsehood, demand decency and respect from others – for that is the value of this community.

Over the coming six weeks there will be opportunities to hear one another, to share our concerns.  Prominent among them will be – provisionally on Wednesday 4 December – our hustings that we hold every election.  Ours is a hustings which does not presume that we all have the same opinion, nor that we will all vote the same way.  A hustings in which we will welcome our multi-faith partners, reflecting a belief that not only our concerns matter in the world.  A hustings in which we will welcome every candidate able to join us so that we hear the voices of all before we each make up our minds.

So, I’m sorry to those who would like me to, but I will not be telling you how I think you should vote.
In part because you really don’t need me to.

But also – and much more importantly – because of a vision of Judaism and community.  A vision which reflects the polyvocality of our tradition, which makes space for diversity of view.

Even in this election, with all the division and challenge it presents, our job as Jews is the same.  To make ourselves hearts of many rooms, to have understanding hearts and ears like mill hoppers; to be able to hear one another even where we disagree.
It is not for any of us, whatever our position in community, to make that fundamental Jewish task harder.