Torah’s different take on key issue of ‘Citizens United’

Rabbi Ryan Dulkin

By Rabbi Ryan S. Dulkin

When it comes to politics, does money talk, and if it does, is that a good thing?

In the relatively recent landmark decision of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court’s majority answered affirmatively, arguing that money is speech, and the more speech, the better. Thanks to this ruling, our airwaves and internet search engines will be flooded with political advertisements sponsored by innocuous sounding organizations such as “Citizens for a Better Tomorrow,” which are in fact front groups for unknown parties pushing particular political positions and causes.

The question of the relationship between money and politics is not a contemporary dilemma. In fact, the issue is at the heart of the opening of Shoftim, this week’s Torah reading. The portion begins, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” Here Torah commands Israel to establish a system of self-governance grounded in the rule of law. In the very next verse, Torah specifies that which is meant by “due justice,” saying, “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” Torah then concludes this passage with one of its most well-known and elegant calls to the consciences of all human beings: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

Sandwiched between the general precept to establish an ordered, governed society and a clarion call to make justice the foundation of this polity is the concern for the corrupting influence of money, even upon the sight of the wise.

Now, one could argue that Torah speaks here about quid pro quo bribery and not the kind of speech that passes for political discourse in contemporary American society. However, such a woefully myopic reading of this central passage from Shoftim does no justice to the grandeur of its sentiments.

Rather, Torah establishes a general principle, making a clear distinction between the power of money on the one hand and the words of the righteous on the other. Thus, from a Torah perspective, money is antithetical to speech, not its equivalent.

Over the coming months, we will be involved in many public and private debates over the future direction of the country. No matter which side of the aisle we find ourselves, let our own speech pursue after the just and the right. Let us persuade and be persuaded by means of due justice and not by the volume of the voice speaking.

Rabbi Ryan Dulkin is Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at Eden Theological Seminary and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.