The rabbinic guide to good electioneering

Politicians could do some with tips from the Ethics of the Fathers, says Rabbi Steven Katz.

April 15, 2010
David Cameron and Gordon Brown — could the Mishnah help them to restore faith in politics?

David Cameron and Gordon Brown — could the Mishnah help them to restore faith in politics?

A general election campaign is one of the vital signs and expressions of a healthy democracy, but it can become a form of blood sport in which some 3,000 men and women participate while the rest of the nation waits and watches for one side or the other to attack. None of the 3,000 plus candidates will want for sufficient advice. It will be generously provided by the media, PR consultants, researchers, acolytes and sycophants. Wise, constructive and impartial advice, however, may prove to be frustratingly elusive unless they turn to rabbinic guidance.

From the Shabbat after Pesach to the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, Ashkenazi Jews - and from Pesach to Shavuot, Sephardi Jews - traditionally turn for sound moral counsel to Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, a treasured part of the Mishnah, rich in golden nuggets of wisdom on the pursuit of righteous conduct. Politicians of all parties would help themselves and the electorate if they were to discover just some of these pithily expressed pearls of wholesome counsel.

For example Hillel's "Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death" emphasises that none should be so presumptuous as to think that their beliefs or behaviour are beyond reproach, for none is immune to intellectual error or moral frailty. Again and again, Pirkei Avot demands that we embrace the quality of humility. "Do not say, You must accept my view" or "Hold no one insignificant and nothing improbable for there is no one person who does not have his/her hour and nothing that has not its place." And very bluntly, the words and warning of Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh: "Be very humble for the hope of mortals is the worm."

Humility, however, is not a quality in which politicians overindulge because they sense it may be perceived by the electorate to be proof of weakness. Paradoxically however, humility may indicate conviction because those who recognise the validity and worth of another's argument are usually quite confident and secure in their own beliefs. The Talmud records some 316 debates between the rival rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai in which Hillel usually emerges triumphant. Among the reasons given by the Talmud for the school of Hillel's success, is its readiness to present with deference the views of the school of Shammai before their own.

A way to humility for politicians lies in the sage advice offered by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who recommends that one "go out and see the right course a person should adopt". Only by going out and listening to the people can the politician grasp the totality and immensity of the challenges and difficulties confronting some in this country.

Television gives the impression that it is only during an election campaign that politicians make a genuine attempt to go out and listen to the people whose votes they seek. For a brief period, party battlebusses crisscross the country in search of votes. Some politicians who do stomp the streets in search of votes are more keen to speak than to listen. Again, Pirkei Avot offers excellent advice. Avtalion cautions, "Wise men, watch your words." Shimon ben Gamliel is more forthright, "All my life I grew up among the wise and have found nothing but silence."

Ultimately, politicians must account to the almighty for their deeds

Another pithy and pertinent comment urges, "Where there are no men strive to be a man". A sexist comment, perhaps, yet its intent is transparently clear. The British people have always warmed to politicians who carry their hearts on their sleeves, their consciences in their mouths and hands, not those who still their hearts, silence their mouths, quieten their consciences in order to climb the greasy pole of political promotion.

Successful candidates in the election campaign should heed Akavia ben Mahalalel's advice: "Know where you come from: where you are going to and before whom you stand." "Know where you come from" - remember the people, their needs and concerns, whose votes elected you to Parliament. "Know where you are going to" - know that you must return to these people within the next five years to seek a fresh mandate of trust and confidence, "and before whom you must stand" - that ultimately you the politician, like each one of us, must account to the Almighty for your deeds, or lack of deeds, on earth.

One of the most urgent tasks of the successful candidates will be to restore integrity and moral rectitude to the reputation of the Palace of Westminster. In the last parliament, the reputation of all parties, and therefore politics in general, was besmirched by allegations of tax evasion and fraudulent expense claims made against some members of both houses.

Rabban Gamliel warns "do not get used to guessing your taxes", while Antigonos of Socho counselled, "Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to get a reward. Instead be like servants who serve their master with no thought of reward, and let the awe of heaven be upon you."

Rabbi Tarfon does offer some reassurance to the members of new parliament: "It is not your duty to finish the work but you are not free to neglect it."

No reasonable voter will expect the new government to succeed in resolving all our country's problems and difficulties. The new government's urgent task is to ensure that when it reaches the end of its term of office, there is general perception that it has made a serious and sincere effort to improve the security and wellbeing of our country.

Steven Katz is rabbi of Hendon Reform Synagogue

Last updated: 11:41am, April 15 2010