By Avrohom Birnbaum
I will never forget a conversation I had with Rebbetzin Zlata Ginsburg a”h. We were discussing the differences between the yeshiva world in the 1990s and the yeshiva world of pre-war Europe, where she was born and raised. Rebbetzin Ginsburg was a daughter of Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l, famed mashigach of Mir and Ponovezh, and the wife of Rav Efraim Mordechai Ginsburg zt”l, rosh yeshiva at Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn and a close talmid of the Brisker Rov. She was born in Kelm and was raised in Mir and Kletzk in the heart of the pre-war yeshiva world.
She told me that one fundamental difference was that bnei Torah of the pre-war era were far more confident in their own abilities to think, analyze something, and make a conclusion based on their own seichel than people are today.
She told me that so many people don’t seem to have confidence in their ability to think and draw conclusions based on what they see. They are constantly running to ask others to think for them.
I asked her, “So people shouldn’t consult with their roshei yeshiva, rabbonim and mentors?”
She replied, “Of course, there are times when you have to ask a question to ah kluger Yid (a clever Jew).” [“Not every talmid chochom is ah kluger Yid,” she added parenthetically.] “But that is only after you have thought the entire thing through on your own and broken the question down to its essence.”
She felt that the lack of ability to think for oneself was a combination of intellectual laziness and lack of confidence in one’s own abilities. The bnei Torah of pre-war Europe were far more secure in their ability to think for themselves, she would say.
An Insult to Our Intelligence?
That conversation, which took place nearly twenty years ago, came to mind this week as I watched the propaganda for the various elections throughout the country and also in numerous frum communities.
At the outset, let me make clear that I am not referring to any specific campaign. This column talks about issues, not people, and since virtually every community is having national and local elections this week, most of the issues I mention will apply to all of them.
Reading the propaganda, the ads, the articles, and the posts gave me the distinct feeling that the publicists who fabricated all of this marketing must really think that we are fools.
Most of them said the exact same thing last time around and nothing changed. Often, things got worse. Why do both the incumbent, who has not fulfilled campaign promises from last time, and the challenger, who promises us so many things that are impossible to actually deliver, think that we are foolish and gullible enough to believe what they say as opposed to what they do?
Perhaps even more insulting to our intelligence is the development in numerous frum communities over the past years of people telling us whom we should vote for. Often, there are competing lists of representatives in various communities, with each one telling us that the sky will literally fall if we don’t vote for the candidate for whom they are advocating.
They make these recommendations, and invest enormous amount of time and astronomic sums of money in advertising, because the propaganda works. People are influenced by what they are fed.
To me, the biggest wonder is why. Does not the average person know that some of those who are telling us for whom to vote stand to gain if their candidate gets in?
Taking Our Civic Responsibility So Lightly
Why in the world do we take our civic responsibility of voting in this medinah shel chesed so lightly that we can’t devote a few minutes to familiarizing ourselves with the issues in order to make our own informed decision? Even if we don’t understand the issues sufficiently, the least we can do is try to ascertain whether the people telling us for whom to vote are doing so out of personal motive and not necessarily for our benefit.
There is nothing wrong with a person promoting his personal agenda if the individual doing so is honest and conveys that this is what is being done. If, however, we are told that it is our interests that are being promoted when the truth is far from that, that is a terrible thing.
The Root Cause
The root cause of this abuse is that we have ceased to think independently. We must sharpen our critical thinking skills and look at what is happening in our communities. We must look at the major issues that plague us, whether it is the eroding of the moral fabric of society, taxes, tuition, quality of life, crime, or anything else, and decide, based on our knowledge of the those seeking office and their supporters, whether they are worthy of our vote. That is what the voting process is all about. When we suspend our own seichel and allow others to think for us, the only thing that happens is that we get abused and our interests are taken less seriously.
Indeed, there is an interesting phenomenon transpiring in Europe today. Many of Western Europe’s most vaunted liberal democracies have, over the past two years, elected new, untested, younger leaders, almost all from the center-right or right-wing of the political spectrum. This has replaced decades of left-leaning social democratic voting trends in those countries. What happened? Did they suddenly become flaming right-wing conservatives?
All polls show that most European voters still ascribe to the more left-leaning views on social issues and even on most economic issues. The primary reason these people are winning is because the promises of their opponents have not panned out. They promised that immigration from Arab countries wouldn’t hurt the social fabric of the country. They promised economic prosperity. The people realized that the politicians weren’t representing them. So what did they do? They threw them out.
Will the new ones be better? Only time will tell. But if they aren’t, they will probably be voted out as well.
Voting…to Trust Yourself
So, my dear friends, as elections approach, perhaps it is time to emulate the alter Mirrers. Look closely at the issues, familiarize yourself with them, see what the politicians and their enablers are promising, determine if the promises have a ring of truth to it, analyze past conduct, and then make the best decision you can. If you still have a shailah even after all that, then by all means ask. But don’t suspend your seichel or use intellectual laziness to absolve yourself from the responsibility of doing the best that you can for yourself, for the community, and for the country in which you live.
This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman.