Is David Greenfield Allowed To Retire From Public Office?

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by R. Gil Student

City Councilman David Greenfield, an Orthodox Jew (and a friend from when he lived in my neighborhood), recently announced that he will not be seeking another term. He will be leaving public office to lead the non-profit organization, the Met Council on Jewish Poverty. Does halakhah, Jewish law, permit this? The community needs talented leaders in order to function. Is someone qualified, with a proven track record of success, morally and religiously allowed to keep his talents from benefiting the public?

A recent Hebrew article by Rav Avishai Ben David on the website of the organization Mechon Ha-Torah Ve-Ha-Aretz explores the parameters of a public official leaving office.

I. Two Opinions

The Gemara (Kiddushin 32b) says that a king may not forgo his honor. Commentaries explain that showing honor to the king is a form of accepting his dominion, thereby fulfilling the commandment of “you shall surely appoint for yourself a king” (Deut. 17:15). Shitah Mekubetzes (Kesubos 17a sv. ve-khasav ha-Ramban) adds that if a king forgoes his honor, effectively he is abdicating his position, even if temporarily. Rav Pinchas Zabichi (Responsa Ateres Paz 1:3:CM:1) deduces that only a king may not abdicate, since the mitzvah of appointment applies only to him. Any other public official, for which there is no mitzvah to appoint, may resign, given appropriate circumstances.

Rav Amram Blum (Responsa Beis She’arim, Yoreh De’ah 334) disagrees regarding Jewish communal positions. Since traditionally those positions are hereditary, a person does not choose those roles. He is chosen by powers greater than he and may not resign in contradiction to those powers. Similarly, even someone who did not inherit the role was likewise chosen by great powers for his position. The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 40:2) teaches that God showed Adam a book listing every generation and its leaders. Apparently, leaders are chosen for their roles at the time of Creation.

II. Historical Precedent

When Hillel came to Israel from Babylonia, the religious leadership was so embarrassed that they resigned from their position. The Gemara (Pesachim 61a) explains that the day before Pesach, when the sacrifice must be brought, fell out on Shabbos. Bnei Beseira, the Israeli religious leaders, were not sure whether the Pesach sacrifice overrides Shabbos. Hillel, the immigrant scholar, proved to them that the Pesach sacrifice must be brought on Shabbos. In deference to his great scholarship, Bnei Beseira resigned so that Hillel could be appointed to the highest position of religious leadership.

Clearly, resignation is permitted. However, the Rivash (Responsa, 171) explains that Bnei Beseira only resigned because of their great humility. They are the exception that proves the rule. They truly believed that they were unworthy for the role. Anyone else for any other reason may not resign.

III. Modern Times

The Chasam Sofer (Responsa 1:206) points out the incongruity between rabbinic contracts and careers. In his day, rabbis were given contracts for a few years but in practice the appointments were for life. He explains that the reason for the limited contracts was to allow the rabbi to resign at any point. If a rabbi accepted a lifetime position, he would be choosing a prison, placing himself into unlimited servitude. Similarly, Rav Ya’akov Ettlinger (Responsa Binyan Tziyon 124) rules that a rabbi may resign for personal reasons. He does not have to suffer for other people’s benefit.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Responsa Orach Mishpat, Choshen Mishpat 21) argues that a rabbi may never resign from his position because doing so could cause great spiritual damage to the community. Rav Ya’akov Epstein (Responsa Chevel Nachalaso 6:26) tells the story that Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer wanted to resign from the rabbinate of Slutzk. He asked Rav Chaim Soloveitchik and the Chofetz Chaim, both of whom told him that he may not.

IV. Elected Officials

Rav Ben David suggests that elected officials are different from Jewish communal officials. They are elected for specifically delineated terms, after which their position is terminated unless they are reelected. (In some cases, there are even term limits forcing the elected official to retire from that position.)

Rav Ben David quotes a halakhic answer provided by Rav Ya’akov Ariel to a member of the governing body of a Moshav who wanted to resign. In this case, the next person in line for this position held the opposing view on a timely issue to the person who wished to resign. Rav Ariel responded that he may resign for two reasons. An elected official is supposed to do what he thinks is best for the community. If he thinks that his resignation is best, then he may do so. Additionally, voters understand that elected officials will sometimes resign. Otherwise, the community will have trouble finding people to take volunteer or low-paid positions.

According to the Chasam Sofer and Rav Ya’akov Ettlinger, a politician may resign if he wants to do so. Even according to Rav Kook who forbids, according Rav Ya’akov Ariel an elected official is different from a rabbi and may resign.

To add to this, I point out that rabbis frequently resign from one community to serve another community. Similarly, a politician should be able to resign from one position serving the public in order to take a different position serving the public.

David Greenfield, who has served his Brooklyn district admirably, will be moving to a non-profit position fighting poverty and hunger. His current position as a city councilman is subject to a term limit, and Mr. Greenfield is not resigning mid-term but refraining from running again (albeit announced late in the primary process). All this adds to permissibility of this decision. As he moves from one position serving the public to another, I join the many people wishing success for him, his family and his constituents.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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