Dear President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Members of the 117th Congress:
Please ask more of us.
The challenges facing our divided country right now are immense; and you display great courage in seeking public office to address them. I know that for many of you this work is an act of service.
It is commonplace to think as government principally as “for the people.” But in the rabbinic tradition, citizenship is understood as a framework for individuals to take responsibility for the welfare of their society. The Mishnah, an early 3rd century book of law, defines for us that either long-term residency or property ownership creates a sense of belonging to the town. According to Tractate Bava Batra 1:5, residents of a town may compel their neighbors to contribute to the building of a gate-house for the settlement and a door to the courtyard.
“…great leadership requires creating cultures of collective responsibility for the greater good.”
This rabbinic vision of citizenship is rooted in service to the common good. The Mishnah is not aware of a language of “rights” that are bestowed by the society on citizens except those benefits earned through collective responsibility. If all of us pay for the town to have a proper gate, we gain security; if all of us maintain the upkeep of the courtyard doors, we have privacy. As Robert Cover wrote, Judaism’s language of obligations as the glue of a healthy society stands in contrast to America’s fixation on rights.
Even as we love and cherish our rights, we Americans are losing our grasp on the covenantal relationship between rights and obligations. At pivotal moments in American history in the past, when our country faced extraordinary crises, our greatest leaders turned to us and made demands. Even as it was their responsibility to provide for our physical safety and our economic well-being, they also understood that great leadership requires creating cultures of collective responsibility for the greater good.
So I implore you to remind us of our obligations. Our society will only repair itself when we as its citizens participate collectively in that work. I hope you will not just ask what you can do for us, but start asking us what we can do for our fellow Americans. Good citizenship is rooted in obligation. We are ready to step up.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer
The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America