Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Voting is a Mitzvah

We had the chance to hear from Stamford's two outstanding mayoral candidates this week.

There is one incumbent running in this election, and I have no problem making that incumbent the subject of a personal endorsement: it is incumbent upon all of us to vote!

Yes, I believe that voting is not only an American privilege, it is a Jewish value. The following is adapted from Koach’s guide to elections put together a few years ago:

We never hear about the rabbis of the Talmud voting. And Moses certainly didn’t take a vote before leading the people out of slavery. Still, the democratic value inherent to voting does find expression in Jewish tradition:

Not long after the Israelites leave Egypt, God calls for a census. This count of the population reminds us of the significance of every individual. In the nation being created, each person must be accounted for, as each person plays a vital role in the viability of the whole. In the same way, each person in the United States plays some role in determining the future of the country as a whole.

The principle “you should go after the majority (Exodus 23:2) is understood by the rabbis to mean that the majority rules in legal disputes. In one famous Talmudic story, a group of rabbis argue over a legal point. Even though a divine voice supports the lone opinion of one rabbi, the majority opinion wins. Once the Torah has been transmitted to the Jewish people, the will of the people—understood as the majority opinion of the decision makers—determines the law. (Talmud Bava Metzia 59b)

The concept of hiyyuv, or personal obligation, is the central theme of Jewish law. We have obligations toward ourselves, toward God and toward others. Living with this sense of obligation means approaching the world with a feeling of responsibility for what happens. Voting is one way of acting on each of our individual obligations to make our part of the world a more just place.

Jews were deeply involved in both the women’s suffrage movement of the 1920s and in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, which, among other accomplishments, achieved the extension of the right to vote to African Americans. Some early Jewish voting-rights advocates included Clara Lemlich who, in 1909, following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, organized one of the most important strikes in American history and who then turned her energies to creating a working class women’s suffrage organization; and Gertrude Weil, a leader of the North Carolina Equal Suffrage League beginning in 1915 and a crusader for voting rights and election reform.

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