Editor’s note: The upset victory by Donald Trump in the 2016 elections stunned a Jewish activist and leadership class that is at times as divided as the electorate at large. JTA asked some of those leaders to describe their concerns and expectations in a series of brief essays titled “Worst fears, best hopes,” that will appear regularly between now and Inauguration Day.
(JTA) — I fear that the Donald Trump we saw in the campaign will be the person who serves as our next president.
We are just now starting to see what the incoming administration will look like, but already the choice of Stephen Bannon as chief strategist is a clear indication that concerns about Trump — among Jews and people of all faiths and no faith — are well-founded. The earnest discussions of my younger days about hypothetical changes to civil rights laws and protections are no longer intellectual exercises.
Time is of the essence. We cannot afford to wait and see if President Trump makes good on his campaign promises to roll back religious freedom protections, LGBT rights, protections against discrimination, the rights of Muslim Americans and so much more. And we have already seen that the “religious right” is willing to be complicit in the face of bullying and bigotry if its agenda of legislating love and intimacy is supported.
The Interfaith Alliance and others are working to unite diverse voices to challenge extremism and build common ground. The country is in desperate need of reconciliation and healing even as we stand guard against efforts to undermine precious rights and freedoms. My firm belief is that what unites us is far more powerful than what divides us, and no president is powerful enough to change that fact.
For that to remain a reliable truth, we must listen to and protect each other.
Your vote matters more in this presidential election than in any other since 1868. That was the first national election since the Civil War, an electoral contest to determine whether this nation, so conceived and so dedicated, could endure. The winner was Republican Ulysses Grant by a wide margin. He was a war hero (to the northern voters and southern freed slaves) and did not carry the burden of being in the party of Andrew Johnson, the first chief executive to be impeached.
Grant turned out to be a decent if not exceptional president, at least when he was sober, and Horatio Seymour, his opponent, had to be satisfied with his legacy as former New York governor. But the importance of voting in 1868 was not as much about the candidates as it was about the vote itself. The Reconstruction was underway, a tumultuous and controversial time in America. Three states had yet to be readmitted to the Union. The former slaveholders of the south were resentful and disenfranchised.
We all know the cliché about winning the battle but losing the war. In 1868, our country might very well have won the war but lost the battle. In that election, a vote for president was also a vote for the United States. It was more than a vote for a candidate. It was a vote of confidence.
Certainly, the reasons to cast such a vote in 2016 are very different, even if there are some similarities of attitude among those who feel disenfranchised. I will cast an enthusiastic vote for my candidates; I am not holding my nose or voting against the other person. But I know how fatigued I am by this awful campaign season in which the issues facing our nation have been completely obscured by personal issues of tax returns and emails, foundations and investigations. One candidate started it and made it the cornerstone of a cesspool of a campaign. The other candidate did precious little to redefine the terms of the contest.
At the core of this slugfest is really the only issue that has been debated, and indirectly at that. Do we believe in the inherent goodness of our government? There are all sorts of ways to understand my question, and I intend every one of them. Do we have a good form of government? Does government do good things? Is it good to have government? Are the elected representatives, appointed officials and civil servants who make up government good people? Are the purposes of government admirably good?
The continual message of the contrarians in this campaign has been a resounding “no.” The government wants your money, your rights, your religion, your guns, your security, your privacy. In fact, the government wants your very freedom. What may have started as a revolutionary idea in 1776 and 1789 now requires a revolution of its own. Throw out the whole lot of them because they are interested only in preserving their illegitimate power for themselves. Lest you be tempted to pin this on libertarians, don’t be simplistic. Libertarians are principled. The contrarians are just angry --and probably afraid.
This missing response from the opponents has been genuine patriotism. A few voices have been raised – Gold Star parents, a local candidate who is obsessed with his responsibilities, a smattering of party dissenters. But I am embarrassed by my previous beliefs that so much was at stake in earlier elections; as deeply as I may have disagreed with policy proposals by some candidates, they were all committed to a more perfect union.
Let me be explicit: I believe in the goodness of government. And I believe it not just because government is necessary, but because I believe in the goodness of the people who make up the government. Oh, not all of them and not all the time, but almost all of them and almost all the time. I am one of those folks who can be fooled some of the time, but not for the 43 years I have been voting.
Your vote is a repudiation of the idea that our very system is rigged, crooked or unreliable. Your vote makes crystal clear that there is a distinct difference between imperfect and evil. Your vote is an insistence that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
No excuses. Vote.
Save this column because it applies to every federal election. And you can probably figure out how to use at the state and local levels as well.
The responsibility of every citizen at election time is to cast a vote for the candidate who, in the voter’s opinion, can best pursue the mission of the United States. And what exactly is that mission? Fortunately, our founders left us with two documents that make it clear: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Both speak broadly and both provide plenty of weeds to get into. But if you want to know why we are America, you need only look to the preambles of each.
In the Declaration, these words declare the purpose of the endeavor: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
And the Constitution is even clearer: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
That’s the job every candidate is applying for – to advance the mission statement. There is plenty of debate about how to accomplish the mission, but the mission itself is indisputable. A candidate who proposes eliminating liberty, or who encourages insurrection, or who wishes to throw open our borders to hostile forces is patently unqualified to hold office. Moreover, such a candidate does not understand that the oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution precludes opposing the Constitution.
So it is simple, right? Just vote for the candidate who pledges life, fortune and sacred honor (that’s the end of the Declaration) to the Constitution!
Would that it was so simple. Here is the essence of a conversation I had with a very wise elected official. I am tempted to drop a name here, but the individual is “in cycle” as they say and maybe this would be perceived as electioneering.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration, was careful to say that we held certain truths to be self-evident, including that all men are created equal. But that truth never found its way into the Constitution. Women, African-Americans and others found themselves excluded from the rights and privileges afforded to white men. And that truth never found its way into the life of the man who declared it. Jefferson was a slave owner and sexually active outside of marriage with women who dared not refuse him.
It took three generations of the American experiment before the President of the United States could state that our nation was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Abraham Lincoln might very well have been accused of violating the three-fifths rule in the Constitution, but history validates that a commitment to anything less than full equality would not long endure. He went about implementing the proposition.
The larger values – the founding values – might rightly be used to advocate for correctives to the details. Does gun ownership provide for the common defense or disrupt domestic tranquility? That’s a better question than “how do we protect the Second Amendment?” Does profiling promote the general welfare or disestablish justice? It is on such a question the debate should center rather than on fear and indignation.
But some things don’t fit so neatly into the broad categories of the mission statement. Perhaps I believe that certain economic policies are dangerous to me and my posterity. It could be that I see the unalienable right to life as superseding all others. Maybe I am convinced that a particular foreign alliance has an extra-constitutional claim on my vote. What do I do?
A person who does not vote his interests is a fool. And a person who votes only his interests is a scoundrel. The balancing act can sometimes be uncomfortable, but, in the end, you must evaluate your vote by the same standard as the candidate. Am I advancing the blessings of liberty that are to be vouchsafed to us and the generations to come?
Agree with me? Then get out there and vote. Disagree with me? Then get out there and vote. In other words, vote, dammit.
The brilliant word in Donald Trump’s campaign slogan is “again.” “Make America great again” is a different statement than “make America great.” The shorter suggests that we have never been as great as the candidate could make us. The longer suggests that we have fallen from a prior greatness.
I am not going to litigate the campaign. Like you, I imagine, I am pretty sick of it. Like you, I imagine, I have my theories of how we came to this moment. Like you, I imagine, I am hopeful but not convinced that we have seen the worst of the behavior by the candidates.
But I keep circling back to the word “again.” In my determination to understand how so many people could overlook the documented falsehoods and history of bad behavior that have sunk so many political careers before now, I have been looking for the mitigating factors.
Secretary Clinton has her long-time admirers and a record of public service that enthuses some and satisfies others. For some, I am sure, the potential to live during the administration of the first woman president is animating. And for many, and that includes me, the transgressions of which she is accused seem without compelling evidence of malice aforethought or afterthought. I get it.
Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has admitted to being a serial philanderer, a tax manipulator and a predator in both business and interpersonal relations. His lies have been documented, which is not disqualifying for a politician, but his insistence that the documentation is what is false rather than his statements is astonishing. And he has no record of competence in public service on any issue that has not provided a direct benefit to himself (see: tax code for real estate holdings). I don’t get it.
I think it all comes back to that word “again.” Mr. Trump landed on a word that affirmed what many Americans – maybe as many as 45%, according to the latest polls – are feeling. Our best days are behind us, and we want them back.
And depending on how you measure “best days,” he has a point. I will avoid the trigger terms “privilege” and “politically correct,” but I have to mention them if I am going to be honest. For a long time, which includes almost the entire life of anyone who remembers the 20th century, things were a certain way. Yes, there was unrest over wars and civil rights. But America had it both ways – the old structures sustained us while new and overdue ideas that were more consistent with our values took root.
Take a silly example: the situation comedy on television. The generation that was raised on “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Father Knows Best” gave way to “All in the Family” and “Maude.” So-called traditional values may have been challenged by Ricky and Bud, but they ended with a hug each week. When Archie and Maude confronted race and reproductive choice and human sexuality and faith, they did so in the same 26 minutes and most weeks ended with the same hug.
Sitcoms were never real, and still are not. But they have been supplanted by reality television that makes entertainment out of body issues, sexual predation, “real wives” who struggle with each other and, let us not forget, attempts to get a foot in the door of Trump Tower.
Argue escapism versus realism another time. Ignore the fact that the actor who “knew best” succumbed to his own hand out of depression, or that America’s favorite TV bigot lost a child to drugs, or that too many of the children who lived that fantasy life on our screens spent later years in personal nightmares. And never mind Dr. Huxtable.
In the mind’s eye of so many, those were the good old days when the whole family could guess together if Rob would trip over the ottoman. And they want them back. Again.
For a segment of America, there was some modicum of truth to the fantasy. But for the rest of America, now pretty close to the majority, (to quote Carly Simon) these are the good old days. You can’t have an “again” for a “never was.”
And what is true about trifles like sitcoms is also true about larger matters like the environment and hunger and global conflict. Challenges yet face us, but nobody wants a time “again” when the Cuban missile crisis and Biafra and DDT dominate the headlines.
My cousin Adam is as smart as he is conservative, and that says a lot. I asked him about Mr. Trump’s appeal and he said replied, “Donald Trump is a poor person’s idea of what a rich person is like.” It would take another page of typing to unpack that critique, but it helps me to understand the appeal of “again.”
Living in this world is hard. Old typologies don’t work. Maybe they never did, but some folks seem to remember that they did, and that’s enough to go on. How much better would life be if some sugar daddy to the nation could return us to those days of “Honey, I’m home!” and “Holy mackerel dere, Sapphire!” and “Hillary, get me a cup of coffee.”
There is no “again.” So if we try to go there, it is a sure thing that we will be lost.
The official-sounding Loudoun Crime Commission is actually a small nonprofit in exurban Loudoun County, Virginia, about an hour outside the nation’s capital. Their motto is “Fighting crime is every citizen’s business,” and their primary activity seems to be holding a series of luncheons at a local country club, located inside a gated community, to which speakers on crime prevention are invited.
I attended their recent luncheon as part of an interfaith group organized by the All-Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) out of concern over the message of the scheduled speaker, Frank Gaffney. Gaffney founded his own nonprofit, the Center for Security Policy, and has devoted his career to labeling Islam and Muslims as an existential threat to Western civilization. He claims that Islam is not really a religion, but a plan for the totalitarian takeover of the world through jihad, essentially “Communism with God.” And that was all in the first five minutes.
It won’t surprise you that I found him outrageous and specious. To counter his arguments point-by-point would require repeating those arguments, as if there were some credibility to them. Gaffney is a cold warrior, a former Reagan aide, who cast about for a new enemy when the Soviet Union collapsed. He found it in extremist interpretations of Islam, which he deems to be representative of a faith with over 1.7 billion adherents around the world. It is akin to defining Judaism by the actions of the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his supporters, or Christianity by the actions of guys in hoods who burn crosses.
Let me anticipate one of the possible responses to my analogy. Gaffney did not say what so many others put forward: not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslim (BTW, not true). What he said was that any Muslim who observes sharia law has the ultimate objective of replacing the United States government with an Islamic theocratic dictatorship in which non-Muslims are subjugated, women are sex slaves, criminals are maimed and Our Way Of Life disappears.
I am not overstating his position. He made this argument and then connected it to Imam Mohammed Magid of ADAMS, who was not in the room.
The presentation of about forty minutes leaned heavily on Gaffney’s hero, President Reagan. Gaffney is a believer in what Mr. Reagan said in 1961, when he was cooperating with the House Un-American Affairs Committee: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Gaffney was pretty direct about his belief that Islam aims to extinguish freedom.
Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy is designated by the government as a 501(c)(3) organization. It therefore pays no federal taxes, and supporters can deduct contributions from their taxes. In other words, like a synagogue or church, the government subsidizes the group.
There is one requirement that such an organization must follow in the public square: neither it nor those representing it may “directly or indirectly participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” That’s from the IRS.
Gaffney announced that he was prohibited from endorsing anyone, but then insisted that eight years of “Obama-Clinton malfeasance” had put the country at risk from Muslims and that only one candidate, Donald Trump, had proposed measures to uphold the oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic. Those measures included restricting immigration, excluding refugees, investigating places Muslims gather and naming the enemy: radical Islam.
Gaffney isn’t the problem here. He is well-known for his dark vision of the world and his carefully crafted depiction of the dangers of Islam. But seated around me at the luncheon were members of the Loudoun County community who forked over $25 or so to be enlightened. Many of them — I won’t say “most” because I can’t say for sure – seemed to be believers before they walked in.
They nodded vigorously at Gaffney’s every claim of danger. They laughed too loudly at his mild sarcasm about the current administration. They vocally agreed with the criticism of our Presidents Obama and Bush for calling Islam a “religion of peace” and for saying “we are not at war with Islam.” They clapped as if they were saving Tinkerbell’s life.
Sitting among their white neighbors in a country club in a gated community in semi-rural Virginia, these citizens in the business of fighting crime were convinced that their Muslim neighbors – even the ones born and raised in the United States – were engaged in sedition (Gaffney’s word) and a stealth infiltration of America with the purpose of conquest (Gaffney’s claim). The local law enforcement officers, there at the invitation of the LCC, listened politely. The deputy who left the dining room with me was unimpressed — I had the impression he was there to witness, not learn.
But the members of the Loudoun Crime Commission gathered to reaffirm the kind of America that guarantees the civil rights of people just like them and to cheer on a return to a time when Americans named one another as subversives. These are the small minds that came to see big hate.
How’s that for clickbait?
I am the old man and I tripped myself on my new pannier (saddle bags) as I dismounted at a busy intersection in DC on my way to work. My injury is a huge booboo on my knee, one that more than a week later is still weeping the gunk that will eventually harden into a scab.
The blow seems to have temporarily, at least, blocked the pain from the mild arthritis in my knee joint. It is not an arthritis treatment I recommend, though it seems to have fewer potential side-effects than the pharmaceuticals that are advertised on television.
In the process, I have found a metaphor for the current presidential campaign, which itself is a sort of oozing wound.
I imagine that a lot of Americans, particularly of the white persuasion, have been feeling the ache of anger and disappointment increase over the last number of years, finally catching up just a little to the people of color who know those aches like a family member. On the right (Donald Trump) and on the left (Bernie Sanders), candidates for president tapped into that anger and named the cause – Wall Street, Mexico, the one percent, Muslims, just to suggest a few. The rhetoric of outrage brought pain to the surface, like a knee scraping the pavement, and propelled one of those men to a nomination and the other to a position of influence.
We can decry the approach and, after the entertainment value of escalations subside, object to the further coarsening of public debate, but we cannot deny the pain. Come November 9, there will be no more candidates for the office, but the pain will not disappear. In fact, while it will take some time for the scrapes to scab over, the underlying pain, the arthritic pain, will come back.
So now is the time to start thinking about how we will deal with the wounds that have formed from the raucous contest to be President. How will we treat the pain we now know is there? Current polls suggest that the people who are newest to this discomfort will be further disappointed in the outcome of the election, but what brings them to the polls will be waiting for them when they emerge. And the people whose choice will likely triumph are already too cynical to believe that there is anything but more years of limping ahead of them.
This much is certain, even if the polls are wrong. Victory dances will not help, and neither will the continuation of the bad behavior that brought us to this point. The candidates and their surrogates will have some responsibility to heal the breach when the dust settles, but those of us who have a higher horizon than self-interest will be doing the heavy lifting.
Will we acknowledge the authenticity of the source of the raw anger? A loss at the polls is a repudiation only of a candidacy; a victory is the affirmation only of the majority. The people who have been stirred to action must not be told to go back to their homes and pretend it never happened any more than they should be promised that every little thing is going to be all right. If nobody is listening to anything but the noise of the campaign now, come November 9 it will be time to listen to each other for the good of the people and the good of the nation.
Now is the time to begin rehearsing the vocabulary of reconciliation so that we are ready to deploy it in every corner of the land. Much as we might like to believe otherwise, the work is not all in the hands of supporters of the Republican nominee, but it is no less in their hands than anyone else. The changes in our society – changes mostly for good, I believe – have made people used to privilege feel disenfranchised. It is irrelevant if they are correct, let alone deserving. They are no less part of the beloved community. And the targets of gratuitous campaign threats need to be reassured that they will not be chased away, isolated or taken from their families. They will not be subjected to special scrutiny. They will not be forced back into a time when the greatness of America was in a part of the bus where they had no seats.
Two months is not a lot of time to get ready. The faith communities of this country have a head start, in my humble opinion. Except for the minority who have locked the doors of their churches, synagogues and mosques to the self-evident truths of America, people of faith have been practicing the language of reconciliation for a long time. They have begun to practice it with their own faithful who have challenged the norms of love and doctrinal fidelity, and they have made steps, some of them tentative, toward those they define as non-believers.
But you need not be part of a people of faith to have faith in people. And you need not love God – or even believe in God – to love your neighbor. The person who votes for that man or that woman will be your neighbor still when the polls close.
That, then, is the analgesic. That is the bandage that will shelter the surface wound from becoming infected and festering. That is anti-inflammatory that will ease the underlying pain without the need to pick off the scab.
As for the old man on the bike, he now has a new mantra: “Don’t swing your leg back – slide forward and step over.” Next time: 27 Celebrities You Never Heard Of!!!
Sometimes a person offers an insight that is more profound than intended, even if it pretty remarkable on its own. My favorite example is from the Declaration of Independence. When Thomas Jefferson held this truth to be self-evident, “all men are created equal,” he could not have been aware that eventually it would do away with slavery, give women the vote, lead to the Voting Rights Act, result in the Americans with Disabilities Act and underpin the Lilly Ledbetter Act. But it did.
On the other hand, sometimes a profound insight has a limiting effect. In 1996, James Carville encouraged the members of the (Bill)) Clinton campaign team to stay focused on three basic messages. One of them was “The economy, stupid,” later to become “It’s the economy, stupid.” The emphasis on economic concerns, usually reduced to jobs and taxes, has gotten in the way of more nuanced and sophisticated discussions of complicated issues in subsequent campaigns.
This 2016 presidential campaign is no different in that respect. The contest to capture disaffected voters has focused from the beginning on jobs and taxes. Immigrants are taking our jobs. Wall Street is not paying its fair share of taxes. Globalization has destroyed formerly dependable employment. The infamous 1% controls it all. Many is the time I looked for a phrase that would capture my discomfort with placing a dollar value on what constitutes the United States and its blessings.
And then I discovered it. The phrase is this: A country is more than an economy.
I will leave it to you in the end to decide whether the context is profound or limiting. I guess it depends on how it is applied.
There is no economic value to many of our freedoms. Yes, a clever advocate can make the case that the long-term neglect of certain kinds of regulation would a negative impact down the road, but most of the basic freedoms in the Bill of Rights that undergird our civil society are not economic in nature. An unfettered press does not necessarily create more jobs than a controlled one, even if “free” in this case does not mean without cost.
But people have not immigrated to America seeking easy prosperity. Go to Hong Kong or a country moving from communism to free market for that. Go to Sweden or England for social welfare. Housing, food, transportation, higher education – all of them are cheaper somewhere else.
It is the context of America that people are seeking when they come here. When my Jewish ancestors came from Eastern Europe, they were indeed seeking the “goldene medinah,” the Golden Land. Maybe they thought the streets were paved with gold, but they discovered what the 17th-century European migrants accidentally created: the land of the free. They discovered that a country is more than an economy.
In spite of their initial poverty, in spite of the resident bigotry they encountered, they mostly never decided they made a mistake. No one in my family ever went back.
And that’s the America they bequeathed down the generations to me. It is the one that measures the goodness of a societal trend by how many more kinds of individuals are welcomed into the tent of civil rights derived from self-evident truths and unalienable human rights that formed the foundation on which rest the blessings of liberty. A country is more than an economy.
So it is a little frightening to know where I discovered this phrase. It comes from Stephen Bannon who was, until last week, running Breitbart (a very right-wing media company) and hosting a morning radio talk show for them. Since last week, he is charge of Donald Trump’s campaign for President. And this conversation reportedly took place on his morning show during the primary season:
Last year, in a November interview with Bannon, Trump regretted the loss of a worker who took his skills back to his native India.
“We’ve got to be able to keep great people in the country,” Trump said. “We have to be careful of that, Steve. I think you agree with that, Steve?”
Bannon did not. “A country is more than an economy,” he retorted. “We are a civic society.”
In a nut shell, Mr. Bannon’s comment sums up both the ethos of the campaign he hopes to run and the decision each voter has to make. The last word in the Trump campaign slogan – again – casts a longing glance back to a time when presumably white Protestant men were in charge. You could be any race, religion or ethnicity, as long as it (at least seemed) white and Protestant. And you could be either sex, except one.
In fairness, that’s the goldene medinah in which my great-grandparents landed. It worked pretty well for many white Protestant men, like Mr. Trump. Until that tent expanded (and still in many ways) it didn’t work quite as well for anyone else. Promising people the chance to earn more money, the vocabulary of business people looking for investors, has nothing to do with expanding the tent. A country is more than an economy.
If there is a continuing lesson for me in this political season it is how much “traditional Republicans” love this country and what it must become. The disruptors on the left, as much as on the right, hold to a fantasy that serves themselves to the disadvantage of others. The America that is a zero-sum game is one that preserves or bestows privilege. The civic society that operates, as some Republican once said, with malice toward none and charity toward all, is the one that expands the opportunities that keep us moving forward. Some of that has to do with jobs and taxes.
But a country is more than an economy.
It was close to thirty years ago when I first faced an almost unbearable emotional pivot as a rabbi. A legacy family in our congregation had scheduled a naming ceremony for the first child of the next generation for late Sunday morning. And just a few days before, a brilliant, beloved and very young father died suddenly, leaving behind a devastated wife, two little children and a stunned community.
I can still recall the feelings as I walked from the exquisite joy of the celebration to the crushing sorrow of the funeral. Perhaps I walked fifty steps. My insides were in turmoil; the tragedy of the death could not dampen the joy of the birth, and the giddiness of the celebration could not mitigate the catastrophic loss.
I have had those experiences since. I can see now how the need to be fully present for others in each circumstance took its toll on my own inner life. But, hey – that’s the role of the rabbi. And, after all, though I am no less entitled to my feelings than anyone else, neither that naming nor that funeral had anything to do with my feelings. There were parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles awash in the miracle of life, and there were parents, children, siblings and a spouse for whom normal would never again be normal. They gathered within earshot of each other, but the tears they shed were from different wells. My role (I can’t really call it a job) was to take care of them.
Those pivots certainly did not happen daily, and rarely were they between such extremes. The space around them was filled with responsibilities of my position. There were worship services to conduct, lessons to prepare and teach, meetings to attend, programs to run, staff with whom to collaborate. A hundred small decisions had to be made for every large judgment call. The long-term health of our community depended on the aggregated actions of the people with whom I worked, but the defining moments were the ones in which my voice, my words helped people make sense of the extraordinary of their lives.
Other types of clergy know how I feel. School principals and teachers likewise mark their days by the regularity of the school bell and the punctuation of the unexpected.
But nobody knows this better than people in public office.
If the polls are right, you probably look at that last statement with a jaundiced eye. Recent rhetoric has been focused on the unreliability of “politicians” to do their jobs and uphold our values. An incredible amount of energy has been put into denigrating the motives of anyone who has spent time in public service – legislators, jurists, responders, military leaders. There is a candidate in the heartland of America whose campaign ads show him firing automatic weapons and pledging to “take dead aim” at politics as usual. And at least one candidate in this bizarre election year has sustained a campaign that ignores policy in favor of personal insults. The day-to-day aspects of the job are indeed critical.
But I want you to consider what you need from the people who represent you.
Consider the judge who was outraged at the treatment received by an admitted shoplifter: she was denied pants for her trip from the jail to the courthouse. The judge fined her for the crime, but apologized to her and reprimanded the inhumanity of those who mistreated her.
Consider the police officer who responded to the call about teenagers disrupting a quiet neighborhood with a raucous basketball game. He called for backup. The backup was Shaquille O’Neill.
Consider the presidential nominee who looked at the devastation of Hurricane Gustav and decided human suffering needed more attention than his campaign just as his nominating convention was set to convene.
Consider the president who participated in the silliness of a correspondents’ dinner that interrupted the deadly seriousness of covering the events of the day. The event of his day was a high-risk operation to bring a murderous terrorist to his end. It wasn’t mentioned at all during the frivolities.
Those are the pivots a leader must be able to make. To be a leader means to put aside the self-indulgent considerations to which everyone else is entitled. The leader must not turn away from the challenge. The leader must turn into it.
When everyone else averts their eyes, the leader looks directly. When everyone else hands off to the next guy, the leader takes hold. When everyone else asks, “what about me,” the leader asks instead, “what about you; what do you need; how can I help.”
I have had the unlikely privilege to meet many people in public service -- legislators, jurists, responders, military leaders. They are far from perfect, but the better they are at their mission, the more likely they are to acknowledge their flaws. Conservative or liberal, Republican or Democratic, faithful to a religion or devoutly secular, they accept that the needs of the people supersede their own. They have been entrusted with authority and sometimes with power and they want to use it well. They fall short and they see others fall short. The good ones respond with compassion. The selfish ones respond with attacks.
As I write this, Phoenix, Arizona is washing away. Southern California is burning again. Hundreds of thousands of displaced persons have fled from wars in which they have no stake. African American parents are pleading with their children not to act like normal teenagers. Jews are feeling betrayed by old allies. Muslims and Hispanics are concerned about keeping their families intact.
Leaders will pivot into the problems.
Others will worry about their own injured feelings.
Thanks to A.M.
Many times in my 35+ years as a rabbi I have been asked to "pray over" some sort of public convocation. I admit to being of two minds. On the one hand, this very Protestant tradition is ensconced in American life, and so it behooves those of us in the clergy to learn how to do it in an inclusive and appropriate way -- one that reflects our own religious integrity but does not deliver the message to segments of our increasingly diverse society that some of you just don't belong. On the other hand, I agree with a friend who is a federal judge -- public prayer has no place in the proceedings of government. A partisan political convention is a peculiar hybrid. It is technically a private affair, but it seeks to steer the course of government.
I have volunteered many times to be a part of the invoking and benedicting of occasions such as the conventions. I like to think I do it pretty well. I have been privileged to receive invitations to participate numerous times (my first time in Washington was for a gathering of Jewish Republicans; I shared the bill with Henry Kissinger, Jean Kirkpatrick and Haley Barbour -- just us four. The treat of the day was hearing Chairman Barbour correctly pronounce "Agudas Achim" after much coaching.)
In spite of many attempts over many months, I did not secure an invitation to attend, let alone participate in, the Republican National Convention this year. If I had, I would have said something very similar to the prayer I offered at the interfaith gathering the day before the Democratic National Convention (with language from the Republican platform, of course). The theme, by the way, was "pursuing love and kindness."
In the spirit of this gathering, I invite you to join me in reflection. Those of us who profess a faith in community call upon our Creator by many names. Those of us who profess an individual faith seek a name upon which to call. Those of us whose faith is in the better nature of humanity call upon those internal resources that inspire them. In the end, every call is issued in the hope that we are made vastly stronger and richer by faith in many forms and the countless acts of justice, mercy, and tolerance that faith inspires. Those words appear in the platform to be considered in the hours ahead, but they are true independent of any vote or acclamation.
My tradition, the Jewish tradition, instructs us to pray for the welfare of the government, explaining that the authority it wields keeps us from consuming each other alive. Where there is no respect for government, where the rule of law is replaced by the anger of the mob, our opponents become our enemies, our enemies become our demons, our demons become our leaders. And instead of e pluribus unum, instead of a unity out of the many, we become suspicious of any difference, turning on each other and fleeing in fear at the sound of a driven leaf.
But a good government, that is a government which IS good and which DOES good, a government envisioned by our Founders and established by we, the people of the United States, a good government deserves respect, demands respect, inspires respect. How, then, shall we ensure a good government, one for whose welfare we continually pray?
First and foremost, by the pursuit of love and kindness. Those are qualities that create a beloved community, one that cherishes every life. Love and kindness create togetherness when they bring our collective strength in support of those who need it most.
Good government, for whose welfare we continually pray, is one that seeks peace and pursues it. The Torah, our sacred Scripture, demands we call for peace even in wartime, that diplomacy is always the first option to create togetherness even with those we oppose.
Good government, for whose welfare we continually pray, is one that does not claim that any group holds privilege over another. My tradition, the Jewish tradition, shares the teaching with Islam that humanity is descended from a single set of parents so that no one may say “my ancestors were greater than yours.” Creating togetherness honors every member of the human family.
So as we move forward into this second set of political deliberations, let me offer words of prayer I hold for those of every faith and no faith, of every party affiliation and no party affiliation, for those who will vote their principles and those who will vote their interests:
May it be the will of the one who gives of the divine glory to mere flesh and blood to bless us with good leaders – leaders who ARE good and who DO good – who honor every member of our diverse family, who are strong enough to seek the peace, and who, through love and kindness, will guide us in creating togetherness. May we, the American people, thus be inspired always to pray for the welfare of our government.
I recently attended the Democratic National Convention (after many unsuccessful attempts also to get an invitation to the Republican National Convention). As with every political convention, this one was a mix of soaring rhetoric, inspiring vision, nonsense and earnest theatrics. In fact, somehow I was identified as representing part of the tapestry of American life and invited onstage to stand in a tableau of ethnicity. I believe I was “old Jew.”
If you weren’t paying attention, there was some controversy. Some supporters of the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders were vocally and visually disappointed that he failed to capture the nomination for president. Throughout the four days, they erupted into chants in an attempt to over-shout the speakers at the podium. The sentiments were admirable – after all, who would disagree generically with “No More War?” – but the behavior provoked the supporters of Sec. Hillary Clinton to respond with their own chants of “USA” or “Hill-a-ry” to drown out the oratorical interlopers in canary-yellow tee shirts.
My college roommate and I have been active in various causes together, but I know he will head for the exit at any protest or demonstration if people start to chant. He does not argue that chanting is not protected by the First Amendment. He just thinks it is obnoxious and annoying. He got smarter about this situation fifty years earlier than I did.
I have come to object (in my heart only) to any behavior that makes me regret the Bill of Rights. And just to be clear, it is not the content of speech or the reason for peaceful assembly or the particular grievance for which redress is being sought. It is the behavior of those willing to spend down to nothing the accumulated capital of mutual respect that makes those rights so meaningful – like the yellow-breasted saps who believed they would bring an end to war by attempting to deny a speaker the floor.
Politics has always been something of a contact sport. I guess it comes with the territory. But the fusing of politics and entertainment, which appears to be as thorough as two molecules of hydrogen to one of oxygen, has produced an acceptability of bad behavior in the name of gaining attention. And it ought to stop.
I devote my professional life to the protection of true religious freedom. Most of the reason I do so flows from the religious right. That segment of the American population consists mostly of people who call themselves conservative Evangelical Christians and believe that the values they identify with their religious beliefs are the foundational values of the United States. They are, of course, wrong. And, by the way, they are objectively wrong, not just wrong in my opinion. Read a book (that is not written by a member of the religious right).
These activists have forced court after court to rule on their manipulation of existing laws as they attempt to pervert legislation designed to ensure religious freedom for minorities. The most famous of these attempts include the county clerk whose deeply held religious beliefs prevented her from issuing marriage licenses to couples with legal entitlement and the family business whose owners’ deeply held religious beliefs prevented them from providing certain kinds of health care insurance to employees who are legally entitled to them. Civil disobedience is a time-honored tradition in the United States, but these folks are claiming that it is the law which is disobedient and they, Bible-believers they claim to be, who are being disobeyed.
Maryland politico Jamie Raskin said that public servants swear on the Bible to uphold the Constitution, they do not swear on the Constitution to uphold the Bible.
But now we have people on the secular left attempting to do the same thing. The sweet satire of the Pastafarians, adherents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, made the point widely that no one need subscribe to any established religion – or any religion whatsoever – until they sued to be recognized as an actual religion. And now we have Satanists (well, not really, but they use the name for identification purposes) laying claim to the leisure hours of schoolchildren to object to the use of public buildings by rent-paying religious groups.
(I went to Sunday school in a local public school, for which our synagogue paid rent, because we didn’t have a building and the school sat otherwise unused and empty. Sheesh!)
Both the right and the left seem to have no argument to make other than “you’re not the boss of me.” Those arguments were always a colossal waste of recess, and they remain so now, especially since the casualty of this bad behavior is the mutual respect that holds a diverse population together. The effect is not to persuade, but to offend. In the process, more and more Americans who have in the past celebrated a wide center have fled to the margins and pledged allegiance to practitioners of crude and low-class protected speech. These are people who, knowing they may not shout “fire” in a crowded theater, merely yell, “Does anybody smell smoke? I don’t know, you tell me.”
Jewish tradition, which at this writing is still protected by the First Amendment, includes a strong encouragement to go beyond the letter of the law. That means, I believe, to live life not trying to get away with as much as possible, rather trying to live up to the ideals the law tries to protect. I have certainly been obnoxious and annoying in my time (even participating in the occasional chant), and I am glad to be protected from anything more dangerous than my friend’s eye-rolling.
My mother-in-law, of blessed memory, was the arbiter of a quality she called “class.” It had nothing to do with economic status or even pretensions to royalty. It had to do with comporting one’s self, even in disagreement, with a sense of respect and a willingness to be self-effacing even when convinced you are entirely right. So take off those shirts, stop pounding those Bibles, eat your linguini and learn some adjectives other than “stupid” and “great.” Try going beyond the letter of the law.