Politics is a make-believe world, and it’s the Almighty Who controls and decides all
Our engagement in the political arena, according to my understanding of the approach of gedolei Torah, is based on several overarching principles:
We’re loyal only to Torah, which provides the sole lens through which we evaluate our policy positions and political preferences. Never ought we to embrace any one party or politico too tightly nor identify with them or their values, which are never those of our unique, G-d-given mesorah.
Nothing is all-or-nothing. We can and do work with politicians on both sides of the aisle on any given issue even if we can’t on others. We value what politicians do for us over what they say and how they make us feel. We must be realistic about who holds the power to help us and on which issues, and national politics should not distract from achieving goals on the often far more relevant state and local level. Blue is often the better color in areas like government benefits, immigration and criminal justice; red is often more favorable on religious freedom, private school aid, and societal values.
We reserve our idealism for Yiddishkeit, which is truth, and use our cynicism for politics, which is transactional. Most politicians live for votes and expediently change or temper their positions accordingly. The balance of power, too, is constantly changing between parties. We must avoid being manipulated by those, whether politicians or talk-show hosts, who profit off of drumming up hyper-partisan frenzies over issues that for us are irrelevant distractions, potentially alienating us from the politicians we need on issues that truly matter.
Above all, politics is a make-believe world, and it’s the Almighty Who controls and decides all. Our advocacy is mere hishtadlus, going through the motions just as we do in the workplace and at the doctor’s office. Despite being Divine puppets, however, politicians, like everyone else, are still responsible for the choices they make on what to say and do.
In this light, consider what happened in Washington a few weeks ago. The New York Times reports:
Tucked into the $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue law is something of a surprise coming from a Democratic Congress and a president long seen as a champion of public education — nearly $3 billion earmarked for private schools.
More surprising is who got it there: Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader whose loyalty to his constituents diverged from the wishes of his party, and Randi Weingarten, the leader of one of the nation’s most powerful teachers’ unions, who acknowledged that the federal government had an obligation to help all schools recover from the pandemic, even those who do not accept her group.
The deal, which came after Mr. Schumer was lobbied by the powerful Orthodox Jewish community in New York City, riled other Democratic leaders and public school advocates who have spent years beating back efforts by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans to funnel federal money to private schools, including in the last two coronavirus relief bills.
Democrats had railed against the push by President Donald J. Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to use pandemic relief bills to aid private schools, only to do it themselves.
And the private school provision materialized even after House Democrats expressly sought to curtail such funding by effectively capping coronavirus relief for private education in the bill at about $200 million. Mr. Schumer, in the 11th hour, struck the House provision and inserted $2.75 billion — about 12 times more funding than the House had allowed.
Looking at this episode through Jewish eyes, with Purim’s lesson — the way Hashgachah Elyonah works to bring about the totally unexpected through an ostensibly natural chain of events — still fresh in our minds, this tale of the highly improbable takes on an entirely new dimension.
The Ribbono shel Olam wanted to bestow the largest-ever grant of federal funds upon frum schools, but harbei shluchim laMakom. He chooses whom He wishes to fulfill His will, whether or not it accords with our logical political calculations.
Just months ago, the Republicans sought to be that messenger, but it was not to be. The Democrats obstructed and He allowed that to stand — but not for long. After all, His will always prevails, whether we mortals agree or not.
In truth, there had been many previous opportunities for Republicans to act. For four years during the George W. Bush administration and for the first two years under Trump, the GOP controlled both chambers of Congress and could have chosen to pass pro-private-school legislation of various sorts, but didn’t.
So what happened? First, the Eibeshter allowed the entire country to be thrown into unprecedented upheaval for two months over assertions of a stolen election. Next, He saw to it that both senatorial races in one state, Georgia — which also figured prominently in the aforementioned claims of electoral fraud — would end up in a runoff.
Third, the president’s effort to overturn the election results collided head-on with his party’s interests in Georgia, as he undermined confidence in the voting process and attacked state Republican officials. This led to depressed Republican turnout and turbocharged Democratic turnout, resulting in a very rare 50-50 Senate tie favoring the Democrats — thanks to a Republican president.
And with that — voila! — the stage had been dramatically set by the ultimate Stage Manager for New York’s longtime senior senator Charles Schumer to ascend to the position of senate majority leader. For the first time in his career, Mr. Schumer, a proudly identifiable Jew whom Agudath Israel’s man in Washington, Abba Cohen, says “has always been a good friend of the frum community and a staunch supporter of its institutions,” was in a position to make the choice to singlehandedly deliver a huge, unprecedented package of funding to Torah schools and thereby gain a zechus for eternity — or not.
It would not be easy, to say the least. Here he was, in his new role for only weeks, and facing implacable opposition from House Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi. House education committee chair Robert C. Scott was “very upset” at him, even “insulted.” The National Education Association, America’s largest teachers’ union and an influential Biden ally, strenuously objected to the White House package.
But again, Hashem has many emissaries, and in this case, an exceedingly unlikely one: Ms. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The Times reports:
Integral to swaying Democrats to go along, particularly Ms. Pelosi, was Ms. Weingarten, several people said. Ms. Weingarten reiterated to the Speaker’s office what she expressed to Mr. Schumer when he made his decision: Not only would she not fight the provision, but it was also the right thing to do.
“All of our children need to survive, and need to recover post-COVID, and it would be a ‘shanda’ if we didn’t actually provide the emotional support and nonreligious supports that all of our children need right now and in the aftermath of this emergency,” she said….
And thus did Midwood’s own Chuck (Yechezkel) Schumer rise to the nation’s second-most powerful political position, where at his first opportunity to be the one to get the zechus to support the Torah learning of countless Jewish children, he did so, at no small sacrifice, as did Ms. Weingarten. (Perhaps his support for including religious entities in the first COVID-relief bill’s Paycheck Protection Program gave him this zechus.) This nearly $3 billion in private school funding comes on top of the many other provisions of the legislation, passed in a party-line vote with no Republican support — stimulus checks, refundable child tax credits, and PPP loans — which together will provide many thousands of dollars directly to large, needy frum families. No wonder a leading frum askan commented to me that this law “represents perhaps the largest federal funding allocation to the frum community in history.” And after four years of out-of-control spending that ran up the ballooning national debt, Republicans aren’t exactly in a position to lecture the 72% of Americans who support the bill about its price tag.
Will we yet fight the Democrats, even Senator Schumer, on other issues? Yes. Do Republicans sometimes fail us and Democrats deliver for us big-time? Yes. And vice versa? Yes.
When you really believe only He’s in charge, it all makes sense. And it’s all good, too, because we’re on His team and no one else’s.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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