Shtadlanus Vis-à-Vis Jewish Values: Time for a Communal Cheshbon Hanefesh

I never thought I would have to say this, but I am increasingly worried that in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we may not be able to keep Yiddishkeit in freedom.

It sounds crazy. After all, America has been the most benevolent golus in our history and it still is. Nevertheless, the last period, and specifically the corona pandemic and the George Floyd riots, have revealed certain fault lines that should fill every Torah Jew with great trepidation.

They may call for an internal communal and personal cheshbon hanefesh as to how we interact with government and politicians, and how we prioritize competing Jewish values.

At the outset, let us say that the fact that the overwhelming majority of Torah-observant Jews live in states throughout America that can be considered “blue states,” many of which are ultra-progressive blue states, poses a tremendous challenge for us as Torah-observant Jews.

On the one hand, it is extremely important to have a say in government. If you have people with access to the powers that be in Albany, Trenton, and city and town halls in the various cities where you live, you have influence – budgetary influence and influence with law enforcement, school boards, and myriad other areas.

That is why our communities have overwhelmingly voted as a bloc. Votes equal influence, and influence equals power, money and a seat at the table. It is as simple as that.

At What Point Are the Gains Not Worth the Losses?

At this point, however, I think that the question that we, as a community, must be asking is: How much influence do we really have? Also, at what point does achieving that influence compromise our core values? At what point do we say that yes, there is much to be gained by holding our proverbial noses and taking a seat at a table that is increasingly deeply at odds with our cherished values? At what point do we say, “Ain hatzaar shoveh b’nezek hamelech,” that the advantages, as real as they are, are simply not worth it?

Chazal teach us that we must always make a cost-benefit analysis and weigh hefsed against s’char.

The Scourge of Leftism

Let us try with large brushstrokes to encapsulate at least one component of the question.

Leftism is a disease that is overtaking the politics of the Democrat Party. It is also having an influence – although far less pronounced – on the Republican Party.

Call it Progressive, call it Leftist, call it whatever you want, but not only are its core values not compatible with Torah values, but they are contradictory, and there will be no way to avoid a collision course that is already on the way and, al pi derech hateva, will only get worse in the next few years.

The totalitarian instincts of today’s leftism and the blunt instruments that are increasingly being used to enforce its ethos on society should serve as flashing red lights and screaming red flags to any Yid who wants to be able to live in this society and educate their children according to Torah values.

Whether it is moral issues; whether it is issues of curriculum and who is in charge of setting the secular studies curriculum in our schools; whether it is matters of race, class warfare, shechitah, bris milah and the government’s stance on matters relative to the State of Israel that affect Jews in Eretz Yisroel, the Leftist, Progressive agenda is anti-Torah in the extreme.

Yes, shtadlanus has always been a precarious, careful balancing act, but we must ask ourselves: Is there a point where you can no longer dance? Is there a time when, as a community, we must make hard decisions?

These questions, I think, became especially evident during the pandemic and the subsequent George Floyd riots, when we realized how the decisions, many regarding our core values, were totally arbitrary and were guided by politics or disdain for religion rather than “science.”

The Unanswered Questions

For example, the fact that hundreds of thousands of tinokos shel bais rabbon, bochurim and girls are still home is an issue that must bother us. Why are they still home? Is it a decision based on public health, which would be understandable? Or are their political considerations at play? Why are big box stores allowed to open and small businesses not?

Why are hundreds of thousands of people allowed to go out and protest in close proximity to each other, many without masks, but we are not allowed to go to shul?

Why are Jews being singled out for censure in communities throughout New York and New Jersey in a way that no other community is?

Why, when Jews are murdered in cold blood, is lip service given to unity and brotherhood, but when others are killed, the entire world order must be turned over?

Yes, we know that these questions are mentioned elsewhere in this paper and in other forums, but now they must be looked at through the lens of the cost-benefit of our current “heimishe shtadlanus” structure.

What are we giving up and what are we getting?

Are we allowed to ask that question?

The Funding Conundrum

There may be some who say that maintaining the current structure keeps government funding to many mosdos and individuals in our community flowing freely. That is certainly not a cheshbon to take lightly, but that reason similarly warrants a new look with a fresh pair of eyes.

Firstly, is it really true? In other words, how much funding will be lost if we don’t all but serve as the rubber stamp for reprehensible governing policies that are against so many values that we hold dear?

Perhaps, we should be turning to courts for recourse when we are not being treated equally, instead of to politicians with dubious records of protecting what is near, dear and holy to us.

Secondly, even if some of the funding we receive will be lost, perhaps we have to sacrifice money for our deeply held values. (Yes, it sounds quaint and old-fashioned. Who does that today? But maybe?)

Thirdly, perhaps in the long run, we, as a community, will be better off if we rely more on our own initiative and less on government. Despite the tremendous economic toll of Covid-19, there is still a tremendous amount of money in our collective communities that could support our local mosdos.

Perhaps our mosdos will be better run, and our lives as individuals will be much better, richer in spirit and more real if we rely less on the government for so many different goodies that all come with a hidden price – sometimes a steep hidden price.

A Springboard for a Discussion on Leadership

I am not proposing answers to these questions. They must be answered by those qualified to make extremely weighty decisions such as this one.

I hope that this article will serve as a springboard for discussion about our shtadlanus in these changing times, both on a national level and on a state, city and town level.

The definition of leadership is not just doing what has been done in the past. Rather, effective leaders analyze change, anticipate change, and try to apply the timeless lessons of Torah to the changing playing field. This has been true throughout our history.

Let us take newspapers as an example. In some generations, gedolim were against newspapers, even Jewish ones. Just one generation later, gedolei hador said that it was a great mitzvah to support the establishment of frum newspapers. What happened? The facts on the ground changed, so the p’sak changed. That is leadership. Leadership is anticipating or at least responding to change on the ground.

Perhaps, over the next little while in these pages, I will devote several articles to exploring some of these questions in greater depth.

What is kosher shtadlanus and what is the opposite?

Does significant government funding of our educational institutions or related government services to our educational institutions come with strings attached that may not be kosher or good for us?

How do large amounts of government funding for rent and food affect the open market for those who are not eligible for funding? Does it artificially raise prices for everyone else? If yes, is that tradeoff worth it?

Does government funding, as important and critical as it is for some, also ensure long-term dependency and inhibit growth initiative for others?

Does generous government funding in the tri-state area prevent some of our brightest and best from taking the initiative of moving beyond their comfort zone, and moving out and bringing/sharing their spiritual wealth to/with other communities across the United States and Canada? A related question, are there states where perhaps many in our community should contemplate moving to because they are more hospitable financially and spiritually to our lifestyle?

Finally, when is it time, or is there ever a time, to cut one’s losses and decide that sitting at the table with those who have no respect for our values and are willing to throw us under the bus very quickly in a time of crisis is simply no longer sufficiently productive and therefore not a viable option?

It is high time that this conversation begins.