It is not uncommon for a member of a religion to seek the guidance of one particular individual. The concept of a rebbe muvhak, or primary teacher, refers to the person from whom one gains the majority of his knowledge. We also frown upon so called “posek-hopping,” where one may go from rabbinic authority to rabbinic authority until the preferred answer is found. This concept is not exclusively found in Judaism. Evangelical Christians tend to stick to one church and pastor. Gurus serve the same purpose in many Far East religions. When it comes to dealing with spiritual matters, it is often easier and more intellectually honest to tie oneself to someone or a group of people whom you can revere.
There are generally two ways to find this spiritual leader in one’s life. For the purposes of ease, we will look at this from the Jewish perspective. The first is to establish a line of thinking on one’s own and then find a rabbi who most closely resembles that philosophy. Anyone who moved into a community and then proceeded to find a shul in which to daven or rabbi to whom to ask questions would fall into this bucket. The second is to be so inspired by something one hears that the rabbi becomes the spiritual advisor moving forward, and the individual now becomes a “chasid” of that rabbi. This is more commonly found in Chasidic Judaism, but exists with anyone who decided to live in a community in order to be closer to a particular rebbe or yeshivah.
While this concept is true in religion, it is also true in politics. There are two ways to find a politician or party to which to tie oneself, and they are the same two ways as finding a rabbi: determine your individual political philosophy and find a politician who closely resembles it, or be inspired by a politician who moves you to the point of following him or her.
In both religion and politics there is a distinct difference between the two methods of finding your leader. If you are inspired by the words of the leader or the group of leaders, you are more likely to defend them when they do wrong, or at the very least look the other way when they do. You may even attempt to bend your beliefs to explain why what they did is not bad after all, and criticize anyone who dares call them out. However, if you find your leaders by matching them to your already-determined life philosophy, you may find it easier to criticize them when they do something you do not approve of. You will not have to do mental gymnastics in order to defend them.
However, at least here in America, there is a vast difference between doing this with religion and with politics. This country has only two major parties. Therefore, there is generally a “you’re with us or against us” mentality. So not only does picking a side based on inspiration mean that you have to defend or ignore that side even when they mess up, it means criticizing the other side at every opportunity. It becomes an all-or-nothing debate. Since there are so many religions in this country, very rarely do we see that same kind of reaction. Most people do not try to dunk on other religions when something bad happens. Likewise, within Judaism itself, we generally do not badmouth an entire sect because of the bad actions of one individual or a few people. In fact, we are more likely to jump on our own leaders when they step out of line than we are when others do.
This becomes increasingly clear on social media. For those on Facebook or Twitter or any other cesspool of political commentary, you probably have friends who post incessantly about politics (I used to be one of those myself). These people almost always praise the same side and deride the other. The word “almost” in the previous sentence may not even be necessary. Politics is a team game now, so whatever team one finds themselves on is above reproach, and the other side need only have a toe on the sideline for the referee to jump in and yell at them for breaking the rules.
For instance, if you have a liberal friend who spent four years telling you how bad Donald Trump was, and all the harm he caused the American people, and all the corruption from his administration, go back and see how many times that person called out the Biden Administration for Afghanistan, or Andrew Cuomo for the nursing home scandal, or Bill de Blasio for…well…anything. The same goes the other way. If you have that friend who always needs to tell you how Joe Biden is a tyrant who is simultaneously incompetent, and how bad the BLM riots last summer were, go back and see how many times that same friend criticized the January 6 riots, or President Trump as a whole. In fact, go see how many times anyone on either side praised the opponent for doing something right. I bet it is few and far between, if any at all.
And that is where we stand today. People have become more and more likely to blind themselves to their own side in favor of ripping the other side. Whataboutism is no longer a debate tactic; it’s a lifestyle - a lifestyle that completely blinds oneself to the detrimental actions of one’s own side. In a world that has politics gradually taking over the role religion used to play, perhaps it is time we treat politicians as we do our own religious leaders - and not as the demagogues they make themselves out to be.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.