How far should a politician's character count when I vote?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi debate contemporary Jewish issues


Question: When I vote in an election, should I only decide on the basis of  policies, or is there a point when Judaism says I should  take into account a politician’s personal conduct and character?

Rabbi Brawer: In recent years, in the political realm, two somewhat contradictory tends have emerged. The first is the shift from party policy to personality. Voters have become more interested in a candidate’s personality than in the policies they espouse.That America voted four years ago for a former reality TV star with shallow roots in his political party speaks volumes to this transition. 

At the same time there has been an emphasis on political purity. Pragmatic compromise, once the hallmark of effective politics, is seen as a sell-out as voters demand of their politicians zealous and unbending commitment to their party’s stated aims.

Against this backdrop, it can be challenging to decide who to vote for. I would look for three qualities.

Firstly, what polices does the candidate or party seek to implement? I would want to make sure that such policies are consistent with my values as a human being, a citizen and a Jew.

Secondly, I am interested in candidates who can gets things done. I am not interested in one who grandstands cloaked in ideological purity. Politics is messy and compromises need to be made all the time. Give me a dealmaker over an ideologue.

Thirdly, I don’t expect politicians to be moral giants. But at the bare minimum they ought to at least try to tell the truth, to have the humility to apologise when they make a mistake and to behave as a public servant by centring others and decentring themselves. If they can’t achieve this relatively low ethical bar, I would have very serious reservations about their effective leadership.

The most fleshed-out character in the Bible is King David. We first meet him as an inexperienced and provincial young shepherd and we follow his progression, personal and political, through meteoric highs and crushing lows to his old age and eventual demise.

David was no saint. He was ambitious, opportunistic and calculating. He could display great warmth and love, but also aloofness and cruelty. He unified a nation but was also responsible for much suffering. What set David apart as a great leader in the pantheon of Jewish leaders was not his purity, but his ability to honestly acknowledge his shortcomings. 

For politics to work there must be trust. Trust is earned when those in power are courageous enough to be honest about the mistakes they will inevitable make.  Policies are important and before an election one should do their best to dispassionately assess which party or candidate is most likely to deliver on the policies you value. I would add an important caveat that prioritises pragmatism over purity. In a democracy, no one gets everything they want.  

Naftali Brawer is Neubeuer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Romain: Personally, I reckon that whereas policies can change, character does not. So we should always pay as much attention to the latter as to the former.

The danger is that a politician’s limited or even amoral outlook can lead him or her to go on to adopt policies that you feel are detrimental to your own interests, if not the health of the country as a whole.

You may like someone’s policies now because they suit you, but need to take a wider view. Once you elect politicians, they are in office for several years. How do you know they will wield that power wisely? Their character may be one of the few reliable guides.

An obvious case in recent times is that of Donald Trump, who, astonishingly, was elected partly thanks to the support in great numbers by members of the “Christian right”, even though he lacked the beliefs they held, while his personal life was in sharp contrast to their values.

What had motivated them was that, among other policies, they liked his stand on abortion. Eventually, however, they came to rue his character failings, including his inability to handle the repercussions of coronavirus.

Not that this is a new problem. The Psalmist long ago warned listeners that, “It is better to trust in the Eternal than to rely on leaders” (118.9).

Herod may have appealed to people initially because his strong-man approach compared well to the weak line of previous rulers, but he turned into a murderous monarch. 

David, by contrast, had plenty of flaws, but his core moral compass made him an idealised king.

Perhaps Pirkei Avot had this in mind when it warned, “Do not get too familiar with a corrupt power” (1.10), which was echoed by Rabban Gamliel when he declared “Be careful of those in power. For they draw no one close to them except in their own interest” (2.3).

Similar trends could be seen within the rabbinic leadership of talmudic times. No one doubted Eliezer ben Hyrcanus’s outstanding brilliance, but his inability to work with others and achieve consensus led him to be excommunicated by his colleagues (Talmud, Baba 
Metzia 59b).

It is certainly true that an ethically sound politician can end up a poor leader, while a very unpleasant person can be a great one, but character traits such as honesty, integrity, resilience and effectiveness (or the opposites) should never be ignored.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue

If you have a problem to put to our rabbis, please email srocker@thejc

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive