Lakewood, New Jersey is the site of Beis Medrash Gevoha, the largest Haredi (fundamentalist Jewish Orthodox) yeshiva in the United States. It also is one of the leading centers in the world for the study of the Talmud, the primary source of Orthodox Jewish Rabbinic law and theology.
The Talmud also contains significant ethical and business guidance. It is not just a religious practice guide. Historically, the contributors to the Talmud were Rabbinic sages who not only possessed incomparable depth of religious knowledge, but also remarkable wisdom of the ways of the world.
In Lakewood, the Lakewood Vaad (Council), an unelected, unofficial group of Orthodox Jewish business and religious leaders is the most significant political factor in the Lakewood Jewish community vote in all elections, federal, state, and local.
If a candidate gets a Lakewood Vaad endorsement, he or she in most cases will get virtually every vote of the thousands of Orthodox Jews in Lakewood. And the endorsement of the Lakewood Vaad will also be a significant factor in getting the votes of Orthodox Haredi Jews living outside of Lakewood as well.
In virtually every federal and state election, candidates and leaders of both political parties, regardless of religion, will make the pilgrimage to Lakewood and literally plead for the Lakewood Vaad endorsement. Very rarely, however, will New Jersey political leaders travel to Beis Medrash Gevoha to seek Talmudic advice on public policy issues.
This evening, there are two major New Jersey political leaders who have suffered a major political defeat which they could have avoided had they sought sound Talmudic advice.
Last night, the leadership of the Democratic-controlled New Jersey State Legislature, to wit, New Jersey State Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin were forced to withdraw their proposed Constitutional amendment regarding legislative redistricting. This measure would have virtually guaranteed indefinite Democratic control over both legislative houses and significantly reduced any input from the governor and state party leaders in the legislative reapportionment process.
At a time when there is rapidly increasing focus on state legislative gerrymandering by both political parties throughout the country, the proposed Sweeney/Coughlin Constitutional amendment was a foolish political overreach. It resulted in major expressions of outraged opposition by public interest groups. Senators and Assembly members of both political parties vigorously dissented. Even former President Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder, who is leading a bipartisan effort against state legislative gerrymandering, registered his opposition.
There is a saying in the Talmud that is directly on point: The Talmud is written in Aramaic. There is an Aramaic idiomatic statement in the Talmud, “Tafasta Meruba Lo Tafasta.” There are various English translations of this statement, but in modern parlance, the translation is, “If you grab too much, you get nothing.”
Isn’t the Sweeney/ Coughlin foolhardy Constitutional amendment a classic validation of the supreme wisdom of this Talmudic maxim?
Now let me go from the sublime to the ridiculous. The sublime is my reference to the wisdom of the Talmud. The ridiculous is my obsession with sports analogies. But it wouldn’t be an Alan Steinberg column without a sports analogy!
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy likes to make baseball analogies. Prior to the Sweeney Coughlin amendment, Murphy was rapidly getting a well-deserved reputation as the most politically unskilled governor in modern New Jersey history. Even the politically maladroit former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine appeared to be a figure of supreme political savvy as compared with Phil Murphy.
In baseball terms, Phil Murphy as a political figure could be compared with Marv Throneberry, the first baseman on the 1962 hapless lovable losers, the New York Mets. Throneberry was such a poor fielder that on his birthday, the other Met players came to him and said, “Marv, we were going to give you a birthday cake, but we were afraid you would drop it!”
The Sweeney/Coughlin Amendment gave Murphy an opportunity to enhance his reputation for political competency. He did so by vigorously opposing the amendment. And this weekend, Phil Murphy is a winner. At least once, he appears to have political savvy at the same level as my all-time favorite baseball manager, Leo Durocher had baseball savvy! But I don’t think that will last long.
As for me, I have learned a lesson as well. Rabbinical friends of mine have gently and tactfully suggested to me that I set aside daily at least some minimum amount of time for the study of Talmud, even at the expense of my passionate devotion to reading secular works of history and political science. After last night, I may take the advice of my rabbis. Who knows – the study of the Talmud may make me a more astute political observer!
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.