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Lessons for Jews from the Republican Presidential Debate

Rabbi at Republican Presidential Debates

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Sometimes we venture into a new situation because we believe the experience will lead to personal growth. We sign up for a pottery class having never touched clay before, we start dating again after a long time “out of the game,” we take a risk and apply for a job in a field we’ve never worked in. It was with that sentiment in mind, and on the invitation of dear friends and congregants Dr. Jeffrey and Julie Glaser, that I went to the Ronald Reagan Library last week for the Republican National Presidential debates. It was intense, thought provoking, and for someone continuously fascinated by presidential politics, exceedingly exciting.

Together in a room overlooking Air Force One sat a host of Republican leaders and donors, a bunch of CNN newscasters and their crews, a few closet Democrats, and me. I was captivated, especially because, as many of you might surmise, I am not … part of the CNN crew.

Sitting through both the main debate and the undercard, with only a few brief stretching breaks, I had plenty of time to absorb the energy in the room. After posting the obligatory Facebook and Instagram selfies, I listened to every word, watching for break out moments, unique position statements, and shrewd jabs. Each candidate attempted to make an impression and stay in the race – and I got to bear witness to his or her efforts. I came away with very specific ideas about who should be America’s next president, and if you will stick with me for a few minutes, I will gladly share those thoughts with you.

But first, let me share with you five general impressions that have direct bearing on Jews and the Jewish future. I happened to be at the Republican debates, but I sense that whichever debate I attended, many of these impressions would hold up still.

First, Israel

Significantly, all the candidates at the debate mentioned Israel as a major US ally, which proved to me that the secure future of the Jewish state will continue to be a significant topic of conversation and a major strategic goal of our American leaders. We may sha’alu shalom lirushalayim (pray for the peace of Jerusalem, Israel and the whole Mideast), but I came away convinced that America will continue to have Israel’s back.

Second, Iran

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran Nuclear Agreement, featured prominently in the debate. Discussion focused on whether to repeal it post-election or to wait and see how it is being implemented. Now I have made no secret about my opposition to the accord, as a bad deal, especially given America’s recent experiences with North Korea, and especially because I am not sure that the Iranians can be trusted to uphold their end of the bargain. I am also deeply concerned about the difficulty of enforcing the accord.

But I remain committed to the belief that most all of us – Jews and non-Jews alike – desire a nuclear free Iran, with differing views of how to arrive at that point. And as the rabbi of a congregation comprised of congregants with a wide range of opinions, and as a person who prefers open dialogue and abhors political diatribe, I am proud that Congregation Or Ami embraces Jewish individuals and Jewish families, with their myriad of opinions and perspectives. And we will continue to do so.

Third, a few words on open debate

Our Talmud, that compendium of Jewish law compiled until 800 CE, teaches, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim. These and these are the ways of the living God (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b). Jewish tradition, and especially Jewish legal writings, always reference both majority and minority opinions. In fact, the Talmud enshrines open debate by preserving perspectives that veer from the currently accepted majority decision. It expects, even requires, that opposing sides – even in the most contentious debates – must abide by the proposition that we are all working toward a just and compassionate resolution to the matter at hand. If only our own discussions in America today, would similarly accept this truth.

We Jews are a small part of the population of the United States, but our values run deep and our commitment to this nation is strong. Yet we sometimes seem to be our own worst enemies, especially when we argue with each other about Israel, shutting down open debate, or verbally attack Jews of differing opinions about the Iran Nuclear agreement.

When we call each those who opposed us spiteful names – self-hating Jew, anti-Semite, war-monger, Hitler’s henchmen – we harm ourselves and we harm our people. And we give non-Jews permission to hurl similar insults at us. When we disagree, even on the most difficult and divisive issues, we should not pursue a no-holds-barred policy, defaming each other. While it might help win an issue battle in the short term, defamation irrevocably harms us in the long run.

Israel must not become a partisan issue, and one’s position in the Iran debate should not become the litmus test for commitment to Judaism or Jewish community. History has shown us that we need Jewish support on both sides of the aisle to ensure deep support. And Israel needs to captivate the support of older Jews and younger Jews, religious Jews and secular Jews, Republican, Democratic and independent Jews.

That can only happen when we Jews stop verbally attacking each other, and focus instead on the issues. So given that there is a diversity of opinion within our community, the most important issue at the moment for me is: How do we ensure that our Jewish values guide America toward compassion for the vulnerable, even as we ensure that Israel is safe, secure, and socially just?

Fourth: Politics are Brutal

…and primary politics are even more so. The need for a candidate to make his or her mark with likely party voters means that they will say increasingly outrageous and often mean-spirited things about opposing candidates, the other party, and various groups of Americans. And we, good people committed to ethical living, sometimes fall into the same trap of calling candidates and their supporters terrible names.

We need to be careful with our words. In Genesis, we read, Vayomer Elohim yehi or, vay’hi or – And God said, let there be light and there was light (Genesis 1:3). With words, God created the universe. Our words have great power to create… and to destroy. The Talmud explains that hateful speech is even worse than the sword, since it kills many people, even at great distance (BT Arachin 15b).

There’s a Jewish folktale about a person who spent inordinate amounts of time spreading horrible rumors about the townspeople and even the rabbi. When he finally realized the error of his ways and tried to apologize, no one would listen. Having hurt so many people, he was now being ostracized. He approached the rabbi for guidance. The rabbi instructed him to meet on a local hilltop and bring a feather pillow. The Rabbi ripped the pillow open so that the wind scattered the feathers far and wide. Then the rabbi asked, “You want to take your words back? First you must gather up all those feathers.” The man replied quietly, “But that is impossible!” To which the Rabbi responded, “Thus it is with apologies. You cannot easily take harmful words back. Instead, with patience and humility, approach all you have castigated. Do it repeatedly and sincerely. In time, they may see that you are serious about your teshuvah (repentance) and perhaps, God willing, they will come around to forgive you.”

With the election season upon us, we should commit ourselves to seyag lid’varav (creating a fence around our words), guarding our speech. As the great moralist Rabbi Israel Salanter taught, “Just because you think it, does not mean you need to share it outloud.” Let us discuss issues, not skew personalities; let us engage ideas, not in character assassination.

Congregation Or Ami is a belligerency-free zone where we will not tolerate hateful words, even about political candidates. I encourage you to declare similarly, as a belligerency-free zone, your homes, your workplaces, the soccer fields and the local Starbucks. And let’s transform our social media channels into places to discuss, debate and support issues, without defaming another’s character if he or she disagrees with you. Our Jewish tradition takes this very seriously, warning that a habitual slanderer is unworthy of receiving God’s blessing in Olam HaBa, the World-to-Come (BT Arakhin 15b).

Let us model for our children and grandchildren upstanding civic mindedness, and constructive and consistent engagement with our local and national elected officials. Let future generations be reminded that whether our candidate won or lost, we American Jews and Jewish families have the good fortune to live in a vibrant democracy characterized by lawful disagreement, and respectful discourse.

One last reflection

It is more important now than ever to deepen our connections to our Jewish past and present. For our vibrant American democracy, we need an equally vibrant Jewish community. We need Jews who know our history, our values and our traditions. Multiple studies show that the synagogue is the gateway to the Jewish future. If you are not connected elsewhere, become part of this congregation. We welcome non-congregants worshipping with us today to apply the cost of your immediate family tickets toward an Or Ami partnership.

We also know that travel to holy places and significant historical locations bind us to our tradition and our community. Or Ami will travel to two exciting destinations this summer. Come join Cantor Doug and me, and our wives. We travel to Israel in July 2016 on a multigenerational adventure. With opportunities for B’nai Mitzvah celebrations too. Or if enjoy an adult-only experience, consider traveling through Jewish Europe – Budapest, Vienna, Prague and Berlin – in late June 2016. Both are open to non-congregants too. Information on both trips are on our website www.orami.org.

Who Should be the Next President?

So, having attended the debate, listened to the candidates, and researched many from the other party too, who do I think needs to be the next president of the United States?

There are so many candidates, representing so many different perspectives. While the IRS states that a religious organization cannot endorse a candidate without jeopardizing our non-profit, tax-exempt status, with forewarning already given to our current and past presidents, I just cannot hold back. The future of our country is too important. The future of our economy, the social justice safety net. Peace in the world and in Israel. Too much is at stake. We must elect someone who shares our values.

In Exodus chapter 18, we learn about two individuals who could not be more different but both led our people in important ways. Rabbi Sharon Sobel explains that Jethro, a wise Midianite priest who is also Moses’ father in law, is an impartial observer who shares his knowledge and wisdom with Moses. Moses, still in the first stages of his career as the leader of the Jewish people, is humble with an ego that does not get in the way. Jethro is able to communicate a vision without denigrating others. Moses is able to listen to and learn from others. One of the Torah’s greatest moments of “bi-partisanship” occurs when Moses listens carefully to Jethro’s wise advice and integrates that advice into the plan to move forward.

What are the other characteristics of a great leader? Rabbi Sobel extrapolates six from this Exodus story:

  1. A great leader shows concern for the well-being of others, not just one’s own group (Ex. 18:7).
  2. A great leader offers critique in a way that can be understood and that leads to moving forward (Ex. 18:13-23).
  3. In a nonjudgmental manner, a great leader helps devise a plan for improving the situation (Ex. 18:19-23).
  4. A leader Empowers others by sharing the responsibilities (Ex. 18:13-18; 21-23).
  5. A great leader delegates responsibility and authority wisely (Ex. 18:21-22).
  6. A great leader celebrates the accomplishments of others. (Ex. 18:9-12).

Torah counsels us to seek leaders committed to ethical living, caring for the vulnerable, economic prosperity, and, God-willing, peace.

Which Candidate Should be President?

So whom do I think, amongst the candidates of the right or left, from the Republican or Democratic parties, and the others, best fits that description? Who, as the prophet Micah says, will do what God demands, that we “pursue justice, love mercy and walk humbly”?

Oh, you want a name?

I leave that up to you to decide. That’s the right of an American citizen.

But I will be thrilled and proud if after the election, we can say that Congregation Or Ami was a haven of open conversation, an oasis of thoughtful debate, and a place of kindness and compassion. Then we will truly be responding to Leviticus 19, where God says, Kedoshim Tehiyu (You shall be holy). May this election season be thought-provoking, and may it be filled with holiness too.
Deepest thanks to my top editor Michelle November (my co-author for Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness, Jewish Lights Publishing) whose editing pen slices the superfluous and leaves only the significant. Rabbi  Julia Weisz and Rabbinic Intern Dusty Klass provided meaningful modifications which helped transform this into a lesson worthy of preaching. This sermon, its insights and lessons, were possible because of the gracious invitation from Dr. Jeffrey and Julie Glaser, and Ronald Reagan Foundation Executive Director John Heubusch  to attend this poignant debate. 

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