Posts Tagged ‘politics and morality’

The first time I was criticized for a sermon commenting on politics was in the fall of 1998. I was the new student rabbi in Fredericksburg, VA, during the middle of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. The weekly haftarah portion contained King David’s confession to Natan the prophet that he had “lied before God.” In the sermon I condemned President Clinton’s lying about his involvement with Lewinsky, as well as his misuse of Presidential power to take advantage of a 22 year old female intern. To me, his lying and abuse of his position of power were obvious moral issues, not political issues. So I was shocked at the response of congregants, who hated my criticism of the Democratic president they loved. I was dumbfounded by liberal and feminist justifications for President Clinton’s actions. It became clear to me that morality did not matter, if the immoral character represented your favored political views.

That is not how I operate. Yes, I think that Bill Clinton was a skilled politician who generally moved the country in a better direction. In the end, however, his presidency was a disappointment because of his immoral behavior. A president is not just a political leader, but needs to be a model for how Americans should behave, especially towards each other. That is not to say a president needs to be perfect. We are all human, so perfection is impossible. More important, I feel we, as American citizens, need to make our priority in judging any individual, political or otherwise, first by their moral character, based on their behavior, before judging by political policies. Jimmy Carter is considered a poor president. We can debate that another time. However, he may have modeled the finest post presidency of anyone in my lifetime. Over the past 4 decades, Carter has created numerous initiatives to help the underprivileged. He raised the profile of Habitat for Humanity. He is a devout Christian, who still conducts Sunday school classes at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, GA. George H. W. Bush has also proven his decency of character during and after his presidency, as has his son George W. Bush. Did I agree with most of both President Bush’s policies? No, but each has provided moral leadership which I deeply appreciate.

Tonight I predict I will anger almost everyone in this room. Why? Because you will consider what I say to be about politics, not morality. You will be upset by the examples I give, as they will insult liberals and conservatives alike. You will likely only hear what you expect to hear. Let me be blunt. I am fine with you being ticked off at me. I have lived long enough and witnessed enough history to tell you I cannot stand the current direction of our country. We are allowing the moral beliefs we claim to embrace, to be undermined by our political preferences. We are refusing to face facts, to accept realities that prove our desires and instincts wrong. In that process, we are adding to the atmosphere of hatred instead of working to find ways to embrace each other.

Let me begin by outlining 3 basic moral principles that I am positive all Jews, if you claim to be a serious Jew, must embrace.

The first is accepting the stranger. The number of references in the Torah to this, which often add “remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” is amazing – generally counted as 36 times. These references range from the person not born into the community, to those brought as servants or slaves, to the orphans, widows and poor. The point is that we must accept those who are not like ourselves, the person we see as an outsider. Torah teaches that the stranger is entitled to most of the same legal protection as the citizen. Even more is this teaching, “Rabbi Johanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai: verbal wrongdoing is worse than monetary wrongdoing, because of the first it is written “And you shall fear your God” but not of the second. Rabbi Eleazar said: one affects the person, the other only his money. Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said: for one restoration is possible, but not for the other.” The point is clear. A monetary wrong can be corrected. A verbal abuse cannot. Despite an apology, the feelings caused by verbal abuse linger. Look at the expressions of prejudice and hate by so many today. Those memories linger. They hurt even after an apology. The bottom line of this basic principle – be open, accepting and sensitive to those unlike yourself.

The second overarching moral principle is to not accept the existence of poverty. This is made very clear by Deuteronomy chapter 15. We are commanded to not allow poverty to exist. We must provide for the poor what they need to raise themselves up. This is often in the form of a loan that is forgiven every 7th year. The chapter stresses that as long as there are people, there will be those who are poor. We must extend them our help. Those of you with strictly political orientation will read the passage as a green light for your conservative or liberal policies. That is not the point. Torah does not specify if the aid is by government programs or individual charity. We must simply help the poor. Further, we must not judge the poor as deserving of their fate. Rather, we should accept that any of us can fall into hard times, needing aid. Jews do not take the perspective that praying to God to help those in need is enough. We must act as though there is no God, and work to relieve the suffering of others.

Third is the respect for alternate points of view. This is illustrated by Talmudic excerpts about the disagreements between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, who represent different interpretations of the law. Here is how the Talmud characterizes their disputes, Rabbi Abba said in the name of Samuel, “For 3 years there was a dispute between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel, each one asserting “the law is according to our view.” Then a divine voice went forth and said, ‘These and these are both the words of the living God, but the law is according to the school of Hillel.” Since both are the words of the living God, what entitled the school of Hillel to have the law fixed according to their rulings? Because they were kindly and humble. They taught their own rulings as well as those of the school of Shammai. And even more, they taught the rulings of the school of Shammai before their own. This should teach you that he who humbles himself is exalted by the Holy One, and he who exalts himself is humbled by the Holy One.”

I love this teaching. Despite strong disagreement, we must see the divinity of the person arguing the other side. Further, it is not the logic or force of your argument that decides if you are correct, rather humility and moral behavior.

Are there many other Jewish morals important to embrace? Of course. I just see these 3 as general encompassing ideas of most the other morals you will find in our sacred texts. I will be blunt. Following these 3 moral generalities indicates a true embracing of your Judaism. Your political leaning does not.

Now I will get into the weeds. On the radical left is a concept known as intersectionality. What is that, you ask? It is seeing the connections between all kinds of oppressions.  But intersectionality has become the belief that anyone who does not share ALL of your beliefs over who are oppressed victims cannot be an ally in a particular protest or movement. One example is tying the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank to the suffering of African Americans in the United States. A leftist who believes in intersectionality does not believe you can support Black Lives Matter, for example, if your support the State of Israel in any way, because Israel is judged to be oppressive of Palestinians. Some of my colleagues were banned from participating in demonstrations protesting the killing of Michael Brown and its impact on the black community of Ferguson, MO. The assumption was, because they were rabbis who supported the existence of Israel, they could not honestly understand black oppression, as they did not understand Palestinian oppression. The problems here are obvious. You can totally understand the difficulties facing Palestinians and still support the existence of Israel. Further, your position on Israel has nothing to do with understanding the plight of African Americans. When a Jew is excluded from a protest on injustice in America because they support Israel, that is politics overcoming morality.

Condemnation of Zionism as oppression reflects a lack of understanding Jewish and Israeli history. Assumptions about Jews who utilize a symbol some connect to Israel is anti-Semitism. This happened at the Dyke march in Chicago on June 24, 3 Jewish lesbians came with rainbow flags, symbols of the LGBTQ community, but with Jewish stars on them.  They were asked to leave the event by the organizers who claimed their flags represented a threat to Palestinian participants. These Jewish women were not there to advocate for Israel, but to express their pride as Jewish lesbians.

Intersectionalism is very strong on college campuses, exemplified by intolerance for conservative speakers or those who even question certain activities on campuses. An example of this occurred in the fall of 2015 at Yale, when a letter went out to students telling them to be sensitive over the kinds of Halloween costumes they wore so as not to offend anyone. Erika Christakis, a professor of early childhood education who also presided over a residence hall, sent a letter, very thoughtfully and civilly written, inviting the students to think about this issue intellectually, and discuss what is offensive and what is not. If you see the video of how she and her husband were cursed at by students, calling her racist, swearing at them, denigrating them for insensitivity, you will see a scary example of closed thought. The students’ politics overrode their morality on how to treat people and have a thoughtful conversation.

Linda Sarsour, is a very controversial figure in left wing politics. She is a Palestinian American and one of the organizers of the woman’s march that took place shortly after President Trump’s inauguration. That march was a seminal moment for many concerned about women’s rights. It was a peaceful, powerful event with a huge turnout around the nation. Indeed, Sarsour is an advocate for many who are downtrodden. She seems, however, to be an intersectionalist. She helped organize the events in Ferguson that banned some rabbis. She regularly condemns Zionism as oppressive, vocalizing it in troubling ways that feel anti-Semitic. An example of this occurred in August, during a protest at NFL offices supporting the right of quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem. During that rally, Sarsour stated, “We will not be silenced by blue lives matter, by white supremacists, by neo Nazis, by right wing Zionists.”

I must be completely fair, however. Linda Sarsour, you should know, is a complicated figure that I do not fully condemn. When the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was vandalized earlier this year, Sarsour helped to initiate a fundraising drive in the Muslim community that brought in close to 130 thousand dollars. She worked with a classmate of mine in St. Louis who thought her work was wonderful. Sarsour also urged folks who follow her to donate to various sites that provided aid to victims of Hurricane Harvey.

My questioning of a leftist is this. Do you dismiss or ignore anti-Semitism from activists who represent political stands you endorse? Do you cling so hard to political correctness that you condemn anyone disagreeing with an aspect of left wing perspectives? Do you believe that free speech should be limited to liberal values and perspectives? If yes, then politics are subverting your morals.

In truth, however, left wing activists are currently only minor players in the political arena. The centerpiece of immorality in today’s politics is, unfortunately, the President of the United States, Donald Trump. I want to share with you the words of Peter Wehner, an evangelical Christian who served in the Reagan and both Bush administrations. I have met and spoken with Peter, and while he and I will disagree on the details of numerous issues, we are both frustrated with the corruption of morality at the expense of political perspective. In an article published on August 11, he wrote:

The same qualities that Mr. Trump showed during the campaign have continued in his presidency. He lies pathologically. Mr. Trump exhibits crude and cruel behavior, relishes humiliating those over whom he has power and dehumanizes his political opponents, women and the weak. He is indifferent to objective truth, trades in conspiracy theories and exploits the darker impulses of the public. His style of politics is characterized by stoking anger and grievances rather than demonstrating empathy and justice.

Now comes the hard part of what I am trying to do – to separate the areas of policy and morality. It is difficult because for many issues, we, whether liberal or conservative, see policy as representing our morality.

Remember the first moral principle I described, to be open and sensitive to those not like yourself? Trump, first as a candidate and now as president fails at this; miserably. His campaign began with an indictment of Mexican immigrants, claiming their presence raises the crime rate. As president, Trump continues to claim his policy is meant to reduce the crime rate. Facts, however, contradict this claim. There is no statistical evidence that immigrants, whether undocumented or legal, increase the crime rate. Indeed, there are many studies that confirm the opposite. The repeal of DACA, which places innocent people who arrived as children, and raised in the United States; is seen by many across the political aisle as immoral. Immigration, however, is mostly about policy. We can all disagree over the number of immigrants that should be allowed into the US or whether DACA should have been a law passed by congress. Trump’s immoral view of people unlike himself is confirmed by numerous other examples, not just immigration policy.

The most obvious is his responses to the demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA in August, which were criticized by many across the political spectrum. One moment he condemned the presence of neo-Nazis, but then asserted that there were fine people on both sides of the demonstrations. It should be morally clear, no one marching with white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, or anti-Semites can in any way be “fine.” Further, in trying to defend the original intent of the protesters, the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee, he inappropriately asked if we should now take down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, since they were slave owners. Lee’s statue represents the rebellion of traitors against the United States. Washington and Jefferson were founding fathers who were key contributors to establishing the early greatness of our country. There is no appropriate comparison.

Further, figures like former KKK head David Duke and white nationalist Richard Spencer, confirmed that the ultra right wing protests were in support of Trump and his positions. They felt affirmed by him. If you look at the content of many of Trump’s campaign rallies along with his speeches, his focus against non whites and non Christians, his tweets and insults of other candidates; all gave a green light to racist, white supremacist and anti-Semitic believers.

You could legitimately argue that Trump is not himself racist or anti-Semitic, since his own daughter and all of his grandchildren are Jewish. I would then assert he is a heartless, narcissistic manipulator of people, playing upon a particular constituency’s prejudice to inspire and gain support from a bigoted group of supporters. It is a fact that proven white supremacists and anti-Semites are part of his constituency. If your politics drives your feelings, then you find ways to explain or justify this – and that is plainly immoral. Trump’s immorality is absolutely confirmed by his history of embracing birtherism – the belief that President Obama was not born in the United States and therefore was not qualified to be president. This was completely false, yet, since 2011 Trump embraced this claiming to be investigating Obama’s origins. This lie catered to those who hated Obama because of his race, not necessarily because of his policies. Birtherism placed Trump in opposition to Obama in a way that appealed to the most bigoted segment of America. On September 16, 2016 Trump held a press conference in which he finally acknowledged Obama was born in Hawaii. There was no apology for 5 years of lying. Rather, he continued to insist that the Hillary Clinton campaign of 2008 initiated the birther controversy. A fact check proves that completely wrong.

There are many aspects of Obama’s policies and programs about which we might disagree. My purpose is not to defend any of his political positions. However, the proliferation of birtherism and all of its related bigoted activities by Donald Trump is outright immoral. His use of this to motivate supporters is immoral. If you fail to see this, or if you justify it because you support Trump, then your political leanings have overcome your moral sense. Further, if you fail to see that Barak and Michelle Obama, no matter what you think of their politics, have a loving 25+ year marriage and conduct themselves as a model for all American families in the way they act as a family, your moral sense has been overcome by your politics. That is true especially if you overlook Trump’s mistreatment of women, his failed marriages, his clear disrespect for non-whites and non Christians, and his continually growing list of outright lies.

Most disturbingly, the domination of our morality by politics has killed the potential for dialogue across the divide of beliefs. This process has been going on for years. It has been fed by certain cable news channels, who act as propaganda mouthpieces for their favored political party. It has been fed by interactions on social media, in which our trend is to only read feeds that affirm our political beliefs in spite of proven fact. It has been fed by the leftist belief in intersectionality that has led to the squashing of freedom of speech on numerous university campuses. But currently, it is mostly fed by a president who, using cowardly tweets, denigrates anyone with whom he disagrees. His base loves his aggressive chest thumping, but know this, that level of narcissism is destroying the moral base of our country. I see the result every day on FaceBook. I see liberals and conservatives mocking each other, claiming that the other is a threat to our society. Nonsense! Our country thrives on the interactions between different political views, as long as we embrace the basic moral principle of seeing our opponent as another one of God’s creations, not as someone evil, but who intends goodness for our country even if we disagree on policy.

We began tonight’s service with the chanting of the prayer, Kol Nidrei. That is actually a rather odd prayer. It asks God to allow us to break vows we have made in the last year. Its origin lies in a time when Jews were being forced to convert to other religions, and they wanted God to forgive their breaking of that vow in order to stay Jewish. Tonight I ask you to break another vow in order to stay Jewish. I ask you to break your vow to submit to a political perspective. If we can free ourselves from subservience to political loyalty and embrace morality as our priority, we can create a different reality. Then Democrats, Republicans, independents, liberals, conservatives and moderates will have a foundation to disagree civilly, but work together to move America to a higher plain.

Kein yehi ratzon – may that be God’s and our will.



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