The Conspiracy

Is Voting a Mitzvah?

Millennials, we get a bad rap for a lot of things – many of them undeserved. We know the stereotypes: We’re self-obsessed, we’ve ruined the English language with our lol-worthy emojis and text speech, and we demand intellectual baby blankets in the form of political correctness. Basically, if there’s a venerated institution out there, someone has said we’ve destroyed it. But we do live up to at least one negative stereotype, and it’s time we call ourselves out.

Historically, we don’t vote.

Go out and vote!| By justgrimes [CC BY 2.0], via Creative Commons

Go out and vote!| By justgrimes [CC BY 2.0], via Creative Commons

According to the Pew Research Center, millennials (adults ages 18 through 35) are currently the largest generation in the U.S. electorate. But our clout is only as big as our voter turnout, which tends to be low. Our highest turnout was 50 percent of eligible millennial voters in 2008. In 2012, only 46 percent of our generation voted.

When it comes to electoral participation, WWJLS – or What Would Jewish Law Say?

Spoiler: Sages say, “Nu? Go vote already.”

Rabbinic thinkers valued good government. Pirkei Avot goes so far as to say that Jews must pray for the government because, without it, “man would eat his fellow alive.” While not a cheery sentiment, particularly for Jewish anarchists, the message is clear. We have a pragmatic duty to be spiritually invested in our leadership.

Torah also urges us to act in a way that ensures the welfare of our society because doing so directly impacts us. In the book of Jeremiah, it says, “Seek the peace of the city to which you have been exiled… for through its peace you shall have peace.”

This is Prophet speak for the exact opposite of “sit on your couch, watch Netflix, and wait out the election season.” The verb used for “seek” can also be translated as to “require.” Jeremiah’s statement is a call to action – and arguably a strong Jewish rationale to vote your conscience for policies and leaders that benefit your country.

Modern Jewish scholars agree. In answer to a question about voting, Rav Shlomo Miller, a Toronto Orthodox rabbi, wrote about this verse, “Certainly a successful and truthful democracy is essential for peace.”

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a 20th century Jewish legal authority, took a similarly positive stance on voting. He framed democratic participation as an act of gratitude, a deeply Jewish value. He signed a statement in 1984 saying:

The rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights have allowed us the freedom to practice our religion in safety… A fundamental principle of Judaism is Hakarat HaTov (gratitude)… Therefore it is incumbent upon each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedoms we enjoy.

Ultimately, as Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, an Orthodox social justice activist, recently said, “…the act of voting is a deeply religious act” for Jews. When we have the power to “seek the peace” of our society, our tradition doesn’t shy away from political engagement but encourages us to take part.

Jewish millennials, let’s not be a generational stereotype this election season. Instead, let’s make our grandparents happy and do something wholly traditional – go vote.

Sara Weissman is the editor in chief of New Voices. Kvetch or kvell to her at editor@newvoices.org.

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  1. Are We White Right Now? | New Voices: The National Jewish Student Magazine - December 15, 2016

    […] a reason our synagogue services include a prayer for the government. Sure, we can be patriotic and our sages taught good government is key to peace – but we’ve also prayed for the safety of czars, sultans, […]

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