It was a typical week in Washington: Congress and the administration were playing chicken over the budget, Republicans and Democrats were hurling accusations as fast as their fax machines could spew out press releases, and lobbyists were whispering seductive promises and dark threats. In short, it was business as usual in the nation’s capital.
But Abba Cohen had something else in mind when he met with aides to Sen. Don Nichols (R-Okla.), the sponsor of a controversial bill barring assisted suicide.
All over the Senate office building, lobbyists working the issue were wielding their talking points like crowbars. But what Cohen was doing had more to do with Torah than with “Nightline.”
“There are nuances on top of nuances,” Cohen said in a recent interview. “We talked about the sanctity of life vs. the quality of life and how you assess that. We discussed the ever-changing technology that in many cases is moving faster than society can absorb.”
Cohen, Washington representative of Agudath Israel of America, an fervently Orthodox umbrella group, is part of a trend that is changing the character and content of Jewish politics.
More and more, Jewish groups are looking for the connections between Jewish law and tradition and their public policy work. At the same time, religious groups that have never lost that connection are expanding their political involvement at every level — federal, state and local.
The shift reflects both a general shift in American society — part of one of the nation’s periodic swings back toward more religion in public policy — and the return to tradition and spirituality that is cutting across denominational lines inside the Jewish community.
The Orthodox dimension of this shift has been a matter of evolution, not revolution.
“In an earlier era, the thrust of Orthodox involvement with government generally had to do with the security of the Jewish community,” said Cohen, who took over Agudah’s Washington office in 1989 and has since built a huge network of congressional and legislative branch colleagues. “Today we are being invited to the table, we are being asked to participate. That has very much expanded the range of what we do.”
Agudah has not been shy about offering that input on a variety of issues — from assisted suicide and partial birth abortion to technical matters involving Department of Education spending and regulations affecting kashrut.
The bottom line of Agudah’s involvement, he said, is kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name. “Whether or not the issue is one that affects us directly, our job is to express and enunciate what we consider to be the traditional Jewish view in terms of kiddush Hashem. The very expression of the Torah viewpoint is in itself a sanctification of God’s name.”
Americans, increasingly convinced that moral problems underlie some of our most vexing public policy dilemmas, want to examine the religious dimensions of issues, and Cohen says the Jewish community has a responsibility to be a part of the debate.
But there are more concrete reasons for the involvement of Orthodox groups, as well. Agudah is heavily involved in battles over public support for religious schools and other institutions — from school vouchers to programs for special education for disabled kids. With government funding playing a bigger role in education and a host of services provided by voluntary groups, the Orthodox activists want to make sure their own groups get a fair share.
Agudah and other Orthodox groups have also brought a degree of nuance to social issues such as abortion that are too often reduced to simplistic slogans wielded by warring interest groups. Agudah opposes abortion, but also rejects sweeping legislation that would outlaw all abortion — a position shaped by its Council of Torah Sages, not the strident politics surrounding the issue.
Agudah runs a sophisticated public policy operation, but the baseline decisions — which bills to support, what positions to take — are determined by a rabbinical leadership several steps removed from the tumult on Capitol Hill. Cohen said Agudah has been successful “because people in politics value the fact that they know where we stand on an issue. We might be for something or against, but it’s important to be consistent.”
The goal, he said, is to inform public policy, not transform it. “Our purpose, as religious Jews, is not to make the U.S. code a version of the Jewish code of law,” he said. “But at the same time, the law is a teacher, and it is informed by many sources. Those sources include the beliefs, traditions and religious practices that are part of our community.”
Cohen’s resume points to the blend of religious training and political sophistication that has boosted the agenda of his organization. He was raised in Washington, the son of a CIA official. He has both rabbinical ordination and a law degree, with a degree in international relations thrown in for good measure.
The Washington representatives of other organizations generally agree that Cohen has blended the religious and the political with a deftness that sometimes frustrates them, since he is often an adversary.
“He has made a place for himself; people in government listen to him and respect him,” said an official with a liberal Jewish group. “He does his homework, and he’s changed a lot of stereotypes about the Orthodox in the public policy arena.”
The rise of Agudah is not the only example of this trend. Early this year, the Orthodox Union opened its own Washington office, and already the group is having an impact on a wide range of legislation.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the Lubavitch representative on Capitol Hill, said he sees the shift to a more religion-centered view of public policy reflected in the huge increase in the number of administration officials and Capitol Hill staffers attending his religious programs.
“It used to be a struggle to get a handful of staffers to attend,” he said. “Now we get 30 or 40 without advertising. I also see it in the number of congressional and administration people who call me and ask about the Jewish position on the environment, on the budget, on tax cuts. It’s an unbelievable change.”
But the shift is not just a function of the growing Orthodox presence in the halls of government. Reform and Conservative Jews, always active in social justice causes, are giving that activity a more decidedly Jewish cast.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, executive director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said his Reform umbrella group’s public policy activism “has always been immersed in an understanding of tradition and rooted in Jewish sources.”
He did acknowledge that the religious dimension has taken on added importance in recent years.
“We’re aware of the fact that ‘out there,’ in the grassroots congregational world, there are a lot of people who involve themselves in social justice work for reasons that they are never clearly able to articulate,” Rabbi Yoffie said. “They sense that this is the right thing to do, or this is what Jews do, but they don’t necessarily see how it all connected together. They want those connections.”
Activism without roots in Jewish law and tradition, he said, “does not really sustain Jewish life.” He suggested that UAHC’s growing emphasis on religion serves another purpose: “We play a particularly vital role because there’s so much religious activity on the right,” he said.
Increasingly, it’s important for government decision-makers to see that religious people are not all fundamentalists, extremists or right-wingers.
UAHC is redoubling its emphasis on Jewish teaching and tradition as the foundation of its work in the governmental realm — something that is particularly evident at the group’s Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, where interns, students attending seminars and professional activists spend more time than ever exploring the religious roots of their Capitol Hill activism.
Mark Pelavin, the RAC’s associate director, was a late convert to the cause of religion-tinged public advocacy. “When I first got here, plans were in the works for a new ‘social-action blessing,’ ” he said. “The idea was to sanctify and ritualize the kind of activism we have always done.
“I thought this was the dumbest idea I ever heard. What do we need a blessing for? I thought it was a waste of time.”
But after hundreds of thousands of blessing cards were distributed to Reform activists across the country, he changed his mind. “It touched a really profound nerve,” he said.
“This is something people really wanted — they wanted to make explicit the connection between the social justice work they are doing and the Jewish religious tradition. Many of us have taken that connection for granted, but people want it to be more direct.”
And that connection, Pelavin said, “inevitably makes what we do in Washington more effective because it’s rooted in genuine values, not political expediency.”
At the other end of the Jewish political and religious spectrum, Agudah’s Cohen agrees. “Politics and public policy are extraordinarily important to our community’s agenda,” he said. “This shift back to a religious connection gives the community greater credibility.
“Our advocacy will have a greater texture and consistency,” he said, “and therefore a greater impact.”