2008 elections

Archive for the ‘2008 elections’ Category

Talking About Difficult Issues and ‘Gratuitous Interdenominational Bickering’

Friday, November 14th, 2008

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In response to the blog that I posted immediately after the presidential election, in which I called on the carpet those Jews who had spread malicious and untrue rumors about Barack Obama all over the internet, someone posted an online response accusing me of “Ortho(dox)-bashing.”  I found the charge to be too glib, since there were certainly members of my own (Conservative) congregation who were both ready and willing to believe the worst about Obama, regardless of where it came from.  Also, interestingly, the editor of this paper, himself an Orthodox Jew, expressed very similar sentiments to me in his weekly column.  I doubt he intended to be bashing anyone.

The issue of whether or how one criticizes another Jew or another movement in the Jewish community is a serious one.  The gratuitous interdenominational bickering that too often passes for “dialogue” or conversation among Jews of different ideological stripes is a plague, and it requires no sacrifice of principles to recognize how much that kind of discourse hurts us, and our interests.  It is to be avoided at all costs.

The only question is, what does “gratuitous interdenominational bickering” mean?  I suspect it means very different things to different Jews.

Learning not to respond to every perceived slight or insult is a life skill, not just a Jewish communal issue.  People who are so thin-skinned that they cannot suffer even the gentlest or best-intentioned critique can themselves be insufferable.  We all know people like that, and it’s painful to try to have any meaningful kind of conversation with them about almost anything.

But there are those moments when the insults or slights are not gratuitous, and the comments or attitudes being passed off as legitimate cross that slippery but nonetheless real line from the banal to the blatantly offensive.  The ancient rabbis taught that, under certain circumstances, shtikah k’hoda’ah damei… silence may fairly be understood as acceptance, or concurrence.  What is one to do then?

I told my own congregation last Shabbat that if, indeed, there were rabbis (as there definitely were) telling their followers in no uncertain terms that they must not vote for Obama because he will bring about the downfall of Israel, or, as I heard, usher in the pre-messianic battle of Gog and Magog, then I as their rabbi, was telling them in equally certain terms that that kind of talk is a hillul Hashem of the highest order, a desecration of God’s name.  And if that meant that I was criticizing a certain fringe sector of the Jewish community, well, so be it.  Shtikah k’hoda’ah damei. And I’m just not prepared to be silent when it comes to slander like this.

Yes We Can… We Hope

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

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The election is over, and President-elect Obama has won his race in a landslide.   Clearly, American voters, across all lines, were sending a message that the last eight years were essentially a train wreck, and that they saw in Senator Obama the promise of a better future for themselves and for our country.  On the former, I think they’re right.  On the latter, I hope they’re right; I hope I was right- I hope we’re right- because I voted for him as well.

Voting for someone- anyone- to lead our country at a time of crisis like this requires a leap of faith.  No mortal man or woman will be able to solve the myriad problems that we face at home and abroad by sheer force of will.  Those problems are too deep-rooted and systemic.  It will require enormous strength and resolve, and wisdom, and time, and the cooperation of other forces that, as often as not, might well be out of our control.

But the other thing that the new president will require is the capacity to make us believe that our recovery is possible, and that we are capable of doing what it takes to get there.  In that regard, Barack Obama has already proven himself to be a leader of almost mythical proportions.  He has not painted a sugarcoated version of what ails us, but he has also, through the power of his ideas, allowed us to believe in ourselves and in a better future.  I firmly believe that, in no small measure, that is why he won by such a remarkable margin.

And yet…

A congregant told me the other day of a cousin in the devoutly Orthodox community who had been told by his rabbi that, if Barack Obama were to win the presidential election, this would usher in the biblical “end of days.”  And he wasn’t kidding or speaking metaphorically.

My sister, who has lived in Israel for the past thirty years, writes that her right-wing-leaning friends there are “shivering” with fear of what it now to come in the America-Israel relationship.

As late as Monday, I was receiving chain e-mails from friends- good, rational people- implying that Barack Obama was a Muslim, and trotting out all of the other urban legends that have been used to cast fear and doubt in the minds of Jewish voters.

What’s wrong with us?  Why are so many of us in the Jewish community incapable of believing that President-elect Obama can be a good, if not great, and effective leader?

The answer to this question obviously roots in our deep and abiding concern for Israel, and a lingering perception that some of the President-elect’s friends and attitudes are not in lock step with Israel’s best interests- as they see them.  The long-term membership in Jeremiah Wright’s church, the friendship with certain Palestinian figures… these concern us, as they should.

But there is a line between legitimate concerns on the one hand, and the kind of paranoid fantasies that see in Obama the end of days, or the need to circulate irrational and untrue accusations whose only goal is to scare Jews.  We Jews are historically and existentially conditioned to believe the worst about anyone and anything.  It is, I think, one of the most underappreciated and under-acknowledged long-term after-effects of the Shoah.  Just tell us something to worry about, and we’ll worry, regardless of whether or not it’s true.  Getting a Jew to worry that someone’s out to harm him is not a hard thing to do.  We will tend to believe the worst, because we have known it.

I have no doubt that President-elect Obama has a much broader range of friends and acquaintances than President Bush.  He is a more complex person, a thinker.  He struggles with issues, and tends to see them in all of their complexities.  He doesn’t shy away from alternate narratives, but rather sees them as a part of the greater whole.

Most of the world’s epic conflicts- including the experience of African-Americans in this country, and the Arab-Israeli conflict- have multiple narratives.  I, for one, have always believed that there will never- can never-be any real reconciliation between the two sides unless they are both willing and able to empathize with the other’s narrative.  To be sure, regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, I am a devout believer in our own narrative.  I am a Zionist, a passionate Zionist.  But I also recognize that there are those who see that conflict through other eyes.  Having a president who understands this is not the beginning of the end of days for Israel, not by a long shot.  It is the beginning of a new and different day, but not of the end of days.  It might even be better for Israel.

It does not, in either the short or long term, serve the best interests of the Jewish community or of Israel to label as a threat anyone who doesn’t buy into our own sometimes myopic view of Israel’s best interests.  And when that person is the newly elected President of the United States, someone who was elected by an historic margin, it is an even more ill advised tactic.

These are difficult times for America for reasons that are far greater than our own parochial concerns.  America has spoken, and has rendered a clear and unambiguous message.  The message is, yes we can.  I, for one, hope we can.  And I think we just might be able to.

Choosing Sides: The Search for Perfection in Politics

Friday, October 31st, 2008

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We are, thank God, drawing closer to that glorious day when this election campaign will be over.  It has been the longest and most intensive battering of our collective consciousnesses that I can recall, and if I feel this way, I can’t even begin to imagine how the candidates must feel.  Surely we have enough information with which to make an informed decision.

Most of the people whom I know made up their minds a long time ago whom to vote for; relatively few are undecided.  But those who are- at least from my perspective- are looking for the perfect candidate.  They want someone who represents their views on just about everything.  It seems as if they want some idealized, air-brushed version of a candidate, and reminds me of the comedy piece that makes the rounds among rabbis from time to time about the “perfect rabbi.”   He/she gives all his money to charity, but wears Armani suits, gives all his time to the synagogue and community, but is a great family person.

If the perfect paradigm of a candidate is our goal, we might as well give up now, because said person does not exist.  Yes, it would be nice to have someone who had the wisdom and experience of advanced years and the freshness and creativity of youth, but these kinds of syntheses are fantasy constructs that we make up to describe what we would want in a president.  I, personally, am still waiting to find out that Jed Bartlett really is the president, and his cast of amazing support personnel is hard at work in the West Wing.  But alas…

Funny to be reading about Noah this week… he whom God chooses to be the progenitor of the world’s population, take two.  Noah is not a paradigm of perfection.  He is flawed.  And God chooses him anyway.  Dare we speculate that, in recognition of a flawed world and a flawed humanity, God picks the best person available?  Genesis is replete with flawed characters, most of whom- the men and the women- are those whose names we invoke constantly in our prayers.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah… No angels are they.  And yet we revere them in all of their messiness and imperfection.

My own opinions aside, the one choice that we can all make and feel good about is to vote.  With all the chaos in the world, and all the repression, our very flawed country is still one heck of a great place to live.  There is no better way to honor that recognition than to exercise our right to help steer it in the direction of our choosing.

What Will We Talk About? The Conventions and the State of American Politics

Friday, September 5th, 2008

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Let’s see… the Olympics are over.  The political conventions are over.  Other than what sounds like endless hurricanes making their way towards the east coast, we’ve run out of the big topics!

Well, not quite.  The conventions may be over, but now comes two solid months of unending bombardment with commercials, debates, op-eds, blogs (can’t complain too much there, I guess), and what Seinfeld would undoubtedly refer to as just so much yadda.  It’s time to hunker down.

Somewhere beneath all the mountains of excess verbiage that we are about to experience, there are some serious issues to be discussed.  For all the excesses of both conventions, all the hyperbole and all the demonization of the other that makes up political discourse in this country, I still have the vaguely positive feeling that two thoughtful people are running for president, two people capable of reflection and possessed of admirable qualities.  This is not a time for a president of the United States to govern from the gut- something that President Bush raised to a not-so-fine art.  From  a country of some three hundred million people considered to be among the most powerful in the world, we have a right to expect that our president be someone endowed with intellectual curiosity and broadness of vision, and an appreciation of subtle areas of gray as much as of absolutes.  I think- I hope- that both Senators Obama and McCain fit that qualification.

But both conventions left me with questions- serious questions- that I hope the next two months will help me answer.  I’d like to know what in the world qualifies Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat away from the presidency other than her obvious folksy appeal to the “average American” and her ability to deliver a well-written speech (well-written by someone else).  

Aside from her policy positions, many of which I find deeply disturbing, I’m still stuck on the fact that she didn’t have a passport until two years ago!  Am I missing something here??  She didn’t have a passport??  She hadn’t been abroad?  

And am I really supposed to be impressed by the fact that she hunts moose?  Not much moose hunting involved in the executive branch of government.

Just to be fair, I’m not so convinced that Senator Obama has the kind of experience that justifies his meteoric rise, either.  He wrote his own speech, and there are few better speakers out there.  He’s obviously a cerebral man, and an impressive one.  But in terms of pure experience and expertise, Joe Biden’s credentials are far more impressive than his.  And what exactly is “change that we can believe in?”  

And while we’re on the change issue, how can John McCain warn the powers that be in Washington that “change is coming” when his own party has run the government for the last eight years?   If a Republican candidate adopts the mantra of change, isn’t that a virtual admission that the last eight years were deeply troubling- in itself a justification for a democratic victory?  

Fasten your seatbelts… it’s going to be a bumpy ride.