Election Special: The Religious Duty to Vote

Two or three times a year the Reform and Liberal Rabbis get together, for learning and discussion on a pressing issue of the day. In the summer, we held a special debate on our role as Rabbis in any upcoming election. One of our colleagues informed us of his intention to write to every member of his community, to instruct them to vote in whichever way would ensure keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of Downing Street. This breaks with the established convention that the role of Rabbis is NOT to wade in to party politics from the pulpit. Last week, a leading Orthodox Rabbi saw fit to do the same.

At our debate in the summer, there was uproar from rabbinic colleagues, with many expressing their greater fears for society, after 10 years of austerity, should the election result bring another Tory government to Westminster. Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, a passionate Climate Change Campaigner in his 70s protested that, if he were to advise congregants which party to vote for, which he would never do, it would have to be for the Greens – the only party addressing THE most pressing issue we face today – climate emergency. Rabbi Newman was subsequently arrested in his tallit, clutching his Lulav and Etrog, at the Extinction Rebellion protests during Sukkot.

This morning I will not use the pulpit to advise you which party to vote for on Thursday. But I will highlight the Jewish values associated with just three of the most pressing policy issues that any future government will need to address. These are set out with great clarity in Reform Judaism’s Election Manifesto 2019, which you can find on the website for Reform Judaism.

First: Jewish tradition places great value on tolerance, respect for multiple and opposing views, and of maintaining unity. On any one page of Talmud we find 5, 8, even 22 different opinions preserved, demonstrating how the rabbis went to enormous lengths to preserve the spectrum of perspective and practice amongst its communities.

Today in Britain, the language we use face to face and online is becoming more violent and extreme; the number of hate crimes in the UK is rising; trust in our institutions is low, and society is becoming more and more polarised.

The issue of polarisation is an increasing danger threatening our very democracy.

The Reform Manifesto encourages voting for policies that:

·       Safeguard the independent and accountable nature of democratic and civil institutions and

·       Address the underlying causes of isolation and disenfranchisement felt within some communities.

Just a few weeks ago, at the beginning of our reading of Bereishit, the Book of Genesis, God places Adam and Eve, the first human beings, into the beautiful Garden of Eden. God commands us ‘le’ovdah u’le’shomrah’ to tend and to protect, entrusting us with stewardship over the Earth, with responsibility for maintaining the carefully balanced ecosystem in the web of all life on Earth.

We have betrayed that trust. The 2018 IPPC Report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) suggests that, if we are to prevent a temperature rise of more that 1.5 degrees C – think melting icebergs in Antarctica, the likely flooding of coastal cities like London -  then significant action must be taken before 2030 in order to limit the worst damage of climate change.

The Reform Manifesto encourages voting for policies that will

·       Work towards the UK achieving net zero carbon emissions and

·       Substantially increase investment into the production of and research into green energy.

·       Prevent the decimation of lower income groups across the planet, which are disproportionately impacted by climate emergency.

Finally: The highest value in Judaism is Pikuach Nefesh, saving a life.

Last Sunday night we were privileged to have Mental Health campaigner Jonny Benjamin here to speak to us. Diagnosed with schizoaffective and bipolar disorder in his early 20s, he ran away from the psychiatric hospital where he had been admitted and found himself on Waterloo Bridge, determined to take his own life. A passer-by stopped to talk to him, and managed to persuade him to come down, saving his life. 6 years later a media campaign was launched to find The Stranger on the Bridge. Now Jonny and Neil campaign together all over the world, and have partnered with Prince William and Katherine in raising awareness of mental health issues. Mental illness can be a matter of life and death.

Rates of mental ill health in the UK are worsening, and mental health services lack the resources to deal with this – as Josh, working for CAHMS, knows only too well. Suicide is the leading cause of death among males aged 18-50.

The Reform Manifesto encourages voting for policies that will achieve parity for mental and physical health in the NHS.

These are only some of the Jewish values associated with Policy areas of this election. Further Jewish values are expressed in policies on LGBT+ Issues, Homelessness, Racism and Intolerance, Refugees and of course Israel-Palestine.

In this morning’s sedra, VaYeitzei,  our ancestor Jacob demonstrates a distinctive feature of the Jewish outlook on Life: hope.

Alone in the dark of night, lost on the road after his escape from home, Jacob must have felt despair. But he has a dream. Jacob sees bands of angels going up and coming down a ladder that reaches to heaven. In the morning, he is filled with wonder and humility: ‘Surely God was in this place, and I, I did not know,’ he exclaims. This moment of enlightenment fills Jacob with hope. The poor fugitive, fleeing from home in the dark of night, goes on to build a family, a fortune, eventually, to wrestle with an Angel and to become the father of the 12 Tribes of Israel. The Rabbis teach that every place is a gateway to God’s presence.

As a People, we have never ceased to dream. In the face of despair, in the face of challenge, we have continued to Hope. Hope empowers. Hope gives us the courage to act. Hope strengthens our belief that we can transform ourselves and our world for the better, as expressed in the Aleynu prayer at the close of our morning prayer. Hope has brought Jews to the forefront of radical revolutions in thought and social change throughout human history – from the declaration of the belief in One God in ancient times, to Freud, Marx, and Einstein; from our active role in the Civil Rights movement in America, to being at the cutting edge of Campaigning for the rights of Refugees, the Homeless and LGBT+ people today.

In this final Shabbat before the Election, I urge everyone eligible here this morning, to exercise your democratic right as British citizens, to go to the polling booth on Thursday, and to place your cross. Voting is a religious duty, a mitzvah that empowers us to shape the future. May we all fulfil this religious duty, and may we each help to restore unity, justice, peace and understanding in our country.

Ken yehi ratzon