Note: This column has been changed to include the full quote from the Talmud and clarify that the interpretation refers to the specific pairing of Jephthah and Samuel
Donald Trump has posed a serious dilemma for religious Christians and Jews supportive of his policies but dismayed by his character. As The New York Times reported last month, this dilemma has fractured evangelical Christianity, with some conservative Christians even abandoning evangelicalism because they view evangelical support for Trump as morally untenable. In contrast, Orthodox Jews, at least in my experience, seem willing to agree to disagree over Trump. And perhaps that’s partly because Jewish tradition grapples with this very dilemma and offers some guidance for how to approach it.
The key source is the biblical story of Jephthah. In the book of Judges, Jephthah assumes leadership of the Israelites after the neighboring Ammonites have ravaged six of the 12 tribes virtually unhindered for 18 years. His character flaws are evident almost immediately: When the elders beg him to lead a war against Ammon, he agrees only on condition that he also become the nation’s political leader, indicating that he sees his people’s well-being as secondary to his own aggrandizement. Yet he initially proves a successful leader. After trying and failing to negotiate peace with Ammon, he leads a brilliant military campaign that produces a swift, decisive victory.
But then, his character flaws come to the fore. On the eve of the battle against Ammon, he vows that if he wins, he will offer “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me” as a burnt-offering to God. And what comes forth is his own daughter, running to welcome him home.
Even if, as some commentators say, he never dreamed that the first creature out of his house might be a person rather than an animal, this was a rash, ill-considered vow. Jewish law has strict rules about which animals are and aren’t valid sacrifices, and the first animal to emerge might well have been completely unsuitable. But other commentators don’t give him even this much credit. They say he knew from the start that this vow could result in human sacrifice, which is anathema to Judaism.
Moreover, rather than repenting his vow once he sees the result, Jephthah announces that he indeed intends to sacrifice his daughter (though commentators are divided on whether he actually kills her). He sticks to this decision even after the two-month cooling-off period his daughter provides by requesting that amount of time to mourn her fate. He never considers trying to get his vow annulled, which Jewish law permits under certain circumstances (this would certainly qualify). He doesn’t even accept responsibility for his own rashness, instead blaming his daughter, at whom he rails, “Thou hast brought me very low, and thou art become my troubler” (Judges 11:35).
The next chapter shows that Jephthah’s flawed character has deadly consequences for the nation as well. When the tribe of Ephraim threatens for no good reason to burn his house over his head, he doesn’t try to make peace. Instead, he launches a civil war that kills 42,000 Ephraimites. Even those who flee are mercilessly hunted down and slain.
Given this track record, one would expect the verdict on Jephthah to be unequivocally negative. Instead, the Talmud takes the astonishing step of comparing him to one of the Bible’s most revered figures—the prophet Samuel, who was both a successful political leader and a moral exemplar. “Jephthah in his generation is like Samuel in his generation,” the Talmud declares (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 25b).
The full statement reads, “Jerubaal [Gideon] in his generation is like Moses in his generation, Bedan [Samson] in his generation is like Aaron in his generation, Jephthah in his generation is like Samuel in his generation, to teach you that the most worthless, once he has been appointed a leader of the community, is to be accounted like the mightiest of the mighty.” While there are varying interpretations of why these specific pairings are chosen, one is particularly relevant to the modern-day dilemma: Just as Samuel represented the best of his generation, Jephthah, despite his horrific flaws, was actually the best leader his generation had to offer. In an age devoid of anyone of Samuel’s stature—it’s noteworthy that the Bible records no effort to save Jephthah’s daughter by any of the priests or elders of the day—Jephthah was the least bad of many bad options.
This verdict is possible because Judaism isn’t concerned solely with an individual’s moral life; it also recognizes the nation’s physical welfare as a positive value that leaders are obliged to pursue. Thus, even Ahab, one of the wickedest kings in the Bible, receives credit for his care of Israel’s physical well-being. Some of Jephthah’s peers may have been less immoral, but there was clearly nobody else capable of saving the Israelites from physical destruction at Ammon’s hands. And Judaism recognizes saving Jewish lives and preserving the nation’s physical integrity as moral goods in and of themselves.
Thus Jewish tradition acknowledges “realpolitik” national concerns as morally valid even as it warns of the dangers of ignoring individual morality. The ideal, obviously, is a leader who shines both morally and politically. And the Jephthah story warns us that a morally flawed leader will always have negative consequences for the nation. But it also tells us that when no ideal leader is available, even a morally repugnant leader can still accomplish some good—and may even be the lesser evil.
None of this provides any tools for determining in advance whether any specific politician will be the lesser evil. Nor does it imply that there are no moral red lines. It merely says that certain realpolitik concerns carry moral weight in and of themselves, and can therefore legitimately be included in the calculus.
Religious Trump supporters cite precisely such concerns. For instance, both Jews and Christians who believe that Israel vitally needs American help in coping with enemies ranging from Iran to the BDS movement often cite Trump’s pro-Israel positions as a justification for supporting him. Christians who genuinely believe abortion is murder (a position Jewish law rejects) also frequently cite his anti-abortion policies, arguing that they could save the lives of countless unborn children.
All of them could be wrong in believing that, considering Trump’s character and his policies as a whole, he is a lesser evil than Hillary Clinton. But they aren’t guilty of religious hypocrisy. For at least in Jewish tradition, such calculations aren’t morally illegitimate. On the contrary, they’re a moral necessity in a world where political policy can have real moral consequences, for good or for ill.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on June 7, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org