It is good to be back!
Rarely (if ever) do I speak partisan politics from the pulpit or from within this column. It is ill advised and even dangerous for spiritual leaders to quote sacred texts in support of political officials or policies. By doing so we abuse not only those texts, but our authority as spiritual leaders who represent people of all political persuasions. God is not a political partisan. In addition, I am a strong supporter of the Johnson Amendment; which restricts non-profits (like religious institutions) from advocating for or against political candidates in church/synagogue settings.
There are times however, when national issues demand an urgent and candid clergy response to ethical and existential concerns; concerns which transcend political partisanship. For example, during the previous administration I spoke out against the agreement with Iran and against the US abstention over a Security Council resolution against Israel. Likewise, my column today will focus on another ethical concern: The tragedy in Charlottesville and our President’s subsequent response.
I recognize that individuals on the left and right respond violently to people who disagree with them. However, there is no moral equivalence when juxtaposing neo-Nazi demonstrators with pro-human rights advocates who oppose them. The neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville were nothing but hate mongers; thugs who shout out anti-Jewish and anti-minority epithets with conviction and clear conscience. The human rights responders were people like Heather Heyer; standing up to bigotry in all of its ugly manifestations. When the President spoke about moral equivalence he equated anti-Semites and bigots with people who generally represent the best of American ideals. He not only placed equal blame on everyone, but spoke about very fine people being among the neo-Nazi sympathizers who marched. Such an outrageous comment should never emanate from the mouth of an American President.
One of the glorious features of our democracy is that we can freely support candidates and politicians representing all sides of the spectrum. We may detest an elected official, but we respect the office as well as our system of government. Most of the time, we object to leaders who espouse views we believe are contrary to our personal, communal or national interests. However, as reflected in the Torah statement above (from this week’s portion of Shofteem), we expect our leaders to act fairly and justly regardless of their perspective. We may disagree with them and maintain the right to peacefully assemble in protest. Consequently, even hate mongers are guaranteed the right of assembly, as long as their demonstration is peaceful and will not endanger the public welfare. Suggesting however, that among the neo-Nazis are virtuous people; and that counter protesters-like Heather Heyer- are no better is unconscionable. When the Torah addresses the subject of leaders who are fair and just; David Duke does not come to mind. Yet, miscreants like David Duke were emboldened by the President’s remarks about moral equivalency.
President Trump should have condemned the hatred of the neo- Nazis and memorialized Heather Heyer-without launching into a lengthy statement about moral equivalency. He should have been a statesman; not countering one message about healing with another message which served as a diatribe against those who have the chutzpah to oppose him. He could have stood alongside opponents of bigotry and not relapsed into his campaign style rhetoric as he subsequently did in Arizona. Instead, he used his post-Charlottesville platform to both besmirch a free press and to vilify anyone with a conflicting view. Such is not characteristic of the leader detailed in Shofteem .
America demands a leader who represents all of us; even the people he finds loathsome. That type of President would do honor to the words of Shofteem and bring distinction to both his office and to the American people. I hope Mr. Trump can still become that type of leader.
For your information, President Obama initiated an annual conference call with American rabbis. Although President Trump expects to do likewise, my organization of Conservative rabbis (along with the Reform rabbinic movement) will not participate. Our leadership believes that after the President spoke about there being very fine people from within the neo-Nazi demonstrators; our refusal to participate is a moral imperative.
The Torah does not advocate for any political perspective; it explicitly and objectively details the central characteristics of a responsible leader or judge. The President we witnessed after Charlottesville stands contrary to the Torah’s notion of fairness and justice. Advocates of human rights can never be compared with those who shout slogans about Jews and disgrace the memories of any victim of the Shoah; both those who perished and those who survived. The President’s post-Charlottesville remarks demand strong condemnation: Not because of politics but because they encourage evil doers to pursue their path of hate. The people who marched in Charlottesville will never measure up to the lofty and honorable standards of leadership as expressed in Shofteem. Our President needs to be mindful of those standards and act accordingly.