In our Long Island community, both Rabbi Billet and Rabbi Hain have written articles publicly expressing their political views regarding the upcoming presidential election. In response, some individuals in the community have taken issue not with the particular candidate each of these Rabbanim endorsed, but with the general practice of Rabbis expressing public support for any one presidential candidate. These individuals have in essence raised the concern that such prominent Rabbis lose their ability to comment on current events as mere private citizens. They would claim that by virtue of their stature within their communities, political viewpoints expressed by such Rabbanim, and in such a public manner, are likely to take on an inappropriate and coercive quality. Perhaps even if a Rabbi writes an article as a private citizen, his reputation and the weight of his pulpit unwittingly create the impression that there is a religious obligation or responsibility to follow his position. If this is indeed the case, then a Rabbi speaking under his own title can never publicly endorse a candidate without blurring the line between church and state.
As a fellow Rabbi of a modern orthodox community, I disagree with such concerns. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, a Torah giant in the modern orthodox world, argued that true leaders in Torah have unique wisdom and, while certainly fallible, should be taken very seriously. He wrote: “A person, and not only the ordinary layman, needs a gavra rabba [great person], to serve in part as a role-model if possible, and in part as a realization of what Whitehead called “the vision of greatness”; to lift one’s sights and aspirations – extending the bounds of what he strives to achieve, and suffusing him with appreciation and admiration for what he senses he cannot achieve; to guide, on the one hand, and inhibit, on the other.” The import of this position is that even in non-halakhic matters, it is important to consult a Rabbi who can provide some guidance when serious religious and moral values are at stake. In other words, Rav Lichtenstein seemed to suggest that decisions as important and value laden as a vote for president are precisely those issues where Rabbinic guidance should be sought.
This election raises a whole host of religious and moral issues, possibly more so than any other election in recent memory. The integrity of Secretary Clinton, the character and temperament of Mr. Trump, and both candidates’ support for the state of Israel have been subjects of much hotly contested debate. In the spirit of Rav Lichtenstein’s view, I think that Rabbanim have an important and unique opportunity to provide their communities with guidance regarding the many questions that have arisen in the current election season. At the same time, a community of modern orthodox thinkers committed to intellectual integrity and independent reasoning is not likely to not blindly follow their Rabbis’ political views. Indeed, serious modern orthodox Rabbis understand that while they may present a compelling argument supporting one candidate, their position is not binding on their congregants. Instead, as Rav Lichtenstein seemed to prescribe, congregants will take their words as guidance, a lens into the “vision of greatness” that only the truest Torah scholars can achieve.
Personally, I do not intend to publicly endorse one candidate over another. I am torn by the two choices presented to the American people, and I am dismayed by the divisiveness and polarization that this election has wrought. I am concerned that any good that might come from my public endorsement would be outweighed by the division in the community that would result from such a statement. Nonetheless, I maintain tremendous respect for Rabbanim in our community who do opt to express their views. I know that they do so with the pure intentions of a “gavra rabba,” endeavoring to provide guidance to those who seek it. And I have faith in our modern orthodox community as well. Faith that our members will maintain the dialectic as we always do, absorbing the guidance and wisdom of our great leaders, while maintaining our ability to question and consider. In doing so, we may reach conclusions that are shaped by our shared morality, but are very much still our own.