Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, November 19, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland
When I was in rabbinical school there was a joke that I believe was borrowed from medical students. It went like this: What do you call a rabbinical student with a C average? Answer: Rabbi. The cynical idea behind it was the same for rabbis or doctors. The title of rabbi accorded its bearer with respect and honor no matter how poor a student he or she may have been. The rabbi was the symbolic exemplar, as the late Rabbi Jack Bloom called the rabbinic role, and at least initially, the quality of the person was secondary; the title was a mantle by which whoever wielded it was acknowledged as harboring wisdom and moral authority and owed deference.
In my own life I have seen this played out especially among Gentiles. I noticed immediately when I first became active in the United Religious Community that though some board members were Christian clergy, non clergy would refer to them by their first name. I was always Rabbi Michael.
But as our South Bend community knows all too well, the title means little if the person who holds it engages in unbecoming behavior. To deserve the respect that comes automatically with the title, one must constantly be vigilant to act in ways that are just and righteous and thoughtful. One must be committed to promoting Judaism and its values and to living those values. Then the title of rav, rabbi, fits.
America has just elected to the Presidency a man whose behavior during the campaign was completely unbecoming of a President, let alone a mensch. A man who mocked a disabled journalist; who made the accusation that Mexico intentionally sends criminals to the United States who sell drugs and rape Americans; who suggested that black people are thugs and destroy the cities they live in; made innumerable misogynist statements; refused to apologize and made light of his admittance of sexually violating women; approved anti – semitic advertisements for his campaign; promised to halt Muslim immigration to America and lied that he saw Muslims celebrating on 9/11; threatened to put his political opponent in jail; and has vowed vengeance against journalists and publishers of newspapers that were critical of him.
And now we are being told in the interest of unity we must let go of all the bluster during the campaign, accept the results of the election and respect the office.
Well of course it is our duty as part of our brit, our covenant, as Americans to accept the results of the election. Our ancestors wisely created the Electoral College as the vehicle for electing Presidents – wisely because such a process rather than popular vote gives minorities in each state a greater weight in the outcome of the election. Jews are barely 3% of the electorate but our votes carry tremendous weight in key states. So while supporters of Hillary Clinton may be disappointed that her majority in the popular vote did not achieve political victory, the fact remains that Donald Trump will be the President.
But Donald Trump will have to earn his respect. You can’t say the grotesque and horrible things he said and then in one election night victory speech wipe it all way. He certainly said the right things in the speech. He spoke of how he intended to be President of all Americans and how he wishes to reach out to those who voted against him for guidance and help “in order to work together and unify our great country.”
And yet he continues to tweet against the New York Times coverage about him. His initial appointments give pause. He chose Steve Bannon, whose internet site traffics in conspiracy theories, anti-semitic, anti-islamic, and misogynistic attacks as his White house chief strategist. His choice for National Security advisor, Michael Flynn, does not accept that Islam is a religion, rather it is a political philosophy. His choice for Attorney General is Senator Jeff Sessions. Senator Sessions was denied a federal judgeship because of statements he made that were deemed racist. In Alabama. If Alabamians consider you too racist, that is a very bad sign. We will need to monitor President elect Trump and demand that he uphold the hopeful rhetoric of his election night speech and not the persistent mocking and hateful comments of his campaign. That is, we want to see if President Trump can do teshuvah for candidate Trump. Because we are Jews we believe in the power to change and transform bad behavior. Let’s hold out hope that Donald Trump can change. But we will need to see it to believe it and shame on us if he can’t and we become complacent.
Now having said that I think it is also important to acknowledge that many of us who are liberal in our political views, and this was pointedly true of the media, were so titillated by his racist, islamophobic and misogynistic statements that we missed the bigger issues that Donald Trump convey to listeners. Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times wrote that, “Experience told (journalists) that Mr. Trump’s misstatements, flaws and gaffes would prove disqualifying, which at times led them to present their journalism with a knowingness that only served to convince a large subset of voters that reporters… didn’t get them.” We misunderstood the deeper connection that Donald Trump was making with voters. A teacher in Hillel’s school who supported Trump referred to his insensitive and hurtful statements as “pottymouth” but did not take them seriously. Rather what she saw as valuable was his sympathy for the losses that many middle income and blue color workers had suffered and her trust that a billionaire businessman had a clue about how to restore that economy.
Joan Williams, professor of law at the University of California, in an article for Harvard Business Review, wrote, “One little-known element of (the class culture gap) is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” … Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.”
There were understandable reasons for the many people who voted for Donald Trump. And those opposed to him have to have an open mind about that. It is too easy and unfair to dismiss Trump voters as racists.
But here is the concern for us as Jews. Steven Bayme, a scholar on American Jewish life, noted that for the last 60 years, openly anti-Semitic rhetoric has been taboo in American politics. That taboo was breached repeatedly by Trump’s supporters and he never reprimanded supporters for doing so. And as Joan Williams pointed out, working class Whites despised professionals – doctors, lawyers, teachers, academics. That is what we Jews do. We are heavily ensconced in positions in the economy that many who supported Trump despise. So there is no doubt that fear is warranted.
What mitigates that fear and what makes the comparisons to Germany in the 1930s over the top is that America not only has a long tradition of democracy, 240 years of developing democracy to give greater and greater numbers of citizens a voice, we are also a nation of immigrants. Our nation is diverse. We acknowledge that our identities are not only hyphenated but they are complex. People who voted for Obama twice, voted for Trump in this election. Superficially, that seems impossible but our identities multifaceted.
So where do we go from here?
First and foremost we need to have faith in our country and its values. They will prove stronger than the authoritarianism and third world populism that Trump expressed during the campaign.
We need to monitor behaviors and make sure that the hateful rhetoric expressed against any vulnerable group – women, Muslims, immigrants, Mexicans and Latinos, Jews, Blacks, LGBTQ – does not turn into action and that the rhetoric itself must not be allowed to become acceptable discourse. That means we have to watch our mouths too. No off hand comments or jokes about any “other”. And when we hear prejudice we have to be courageous enough to tell the speaker that such words are unacceptable.
Creating coalitions with other minority groups is important too. One way that cynical politicians maintain power is to exploit divisions among various minority groups. Building coalitions with other slighted groups keeps a united front against those who would exploit such divisions.
And finally we have to remain united amongst ourselves. In the letter to Sinai this week, I mentioned that what just five years ago used to be a strength of this community – our weekly Shabbat gathering for worship, fellowship and lunch has diminished considerably. If we are not connecting on a consistent basis with each other, it will be very hard for us to link as the Jewish community with other groups to maintain American values of respect, tolerance, and pluralism.
Finally we have to renew our faith in God. For us having faith in God does not mean praying really hard that God makes everything ok in America. To have faith means to have faith in the values that God inspires us to live by and to act on those values.
In our Torah portion, Abraham makes a great effort to welcome strangers into his tent despite his personal distress after circumcision. He insists that God follow God’s own rules about justice, defending the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah. He makes treaties with other chieftains and reprimands them when they break his trust. Abraham is our model of faithfulness. Like him we trust that if we abide by mitzvot that demand we protect the most vulnerable, welcome those who are different from us, work to make sure that justice is done in our communities, America will continue to develop in a positive progressive direction that will make her again a light to the nations of the earth.