Holiday Spirit: A Political Perspective

The East Village Mamele

By Marjorie Ingall

Published September 18, 2008, issue of September 26, 2008.
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My 6-year-old is officially obsessed with this election. She keeps exclaiming about how significant it was to have both a black man and a woman as serious candidates for highest office. (“I love history,” she breathed to me this morning. Please remind me of this when she’s in 10th grade, nodding out as a teacher drones on about the fertile crescent and the fascinating origins of threshing.) After John McCain couldn’t remember how many houses he had, we had a great discussion: Does that make McCain a bad guy? Who should be called rich, and who should be called middle class? How much tax should we all pay? Does the government have a responsibility to help out its most struggling citizens, or should that be up to individuals? And when McCain named Sarah Palin his pick for VP, we talked about whether women who were disappointed at Hillary’s loss would vote for her.

Josie was impressed at Palin’s ability to juggle a handful of kids with a demanding job. “Elizabeth Cady Stanton couldn’t do as much work for suffrage as she wanted because she had little children,” she told me. “That was why she needed Susan B. Anthony.” And then I officially died of happiness, because I did not know that, and ohmigod, my little feminist! And then I officially came back to life and died again because my daughter just compared Sarah Palin to Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Of course, if my daughter grows up to be anti-choice and chooses to support Pat Buchanan’s 2032 presidential bid — he’ll still be around and running, what with being undead — I will still love her. But as Rosh Hashanah nears, it feels like a good time to talk about Jewish values and how the election season can make us ponder them.

Palin, Josie knows, wants to teach creationism in schools. Maybe this shouldn’t be a problem for Jews. After all, don’t we say in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, “Today is the day the world was created”? Hayom harat olam? Doesn’t Genesis say the world was created in six days?

It does. But we are a storytelling, narrative-loving, nuance-embracing people. The sage Maimonides said, essentially, that there’s human time and God’s time. Who knows how long a day is in God’s calendar? Who knows how God works? Therefore science and religion need not be in conflict.

We’re hardly the first generation to struggle with the issue of creationism as science. Josie and I just read a wonderful young adult novel called “Ringside, 1925” by Jen Bryant (Knopf, 2008). Josie didn’t entirely understand it, with its complex themes and monologic, poetic structure, but I was transported. It’s about the Scopes Monkey Trial — the characters are kids and adults in the small Southern community where the trial took place. One is a thoughtful Methodist minister, who comes to town searching for inspiration for his own sermons, and describes Clarence Darrow’s closing argument:

He spoke for several minutes,
his voice starting slow and calm
then picking up speed like a train
rushing down a steep river valley.
“I doubt if there is a person in Tennessee,”
he proclaimed “who does not know
that the God in which they believe did not
finish creation on the first day, but that he is still
working to make something better and higher…
out of human beings.”

Not only is this a beautiful definition of tikkun olam, our collective responsibility to heal the world, it also encourages us to embrace progress. As the Conservative Rabbi David Fine wrote in a responsum, “It is a mitzvah to learn about the world and the way it works to the best of our abilities, since that is to marvel with awe at God’s handiwork.” There’s no reason to be afraid of scientific study, because it only illuminates faith.

I tell Josie that it’s fine for us all to have different beliefs. Variety makes the world interesting. But it’s not okay to expect schools, which exist in the reality-based community, to teach beliefs that are incompatible with science.

And getting back to that Tikkun Olam idea, Rosh Hashanah and election season are both a fine opportunity to talk about how we can help heal our planet. Little kids love environmentalism, because it appeals to their preachiness (they are by nature even more shrill and drone-y than Al Gore) and it gives them a sense of control when they have so little in their daily worlds. (They are forced to ingest things that contain chlorophyll; they cannot reach the glitter and poster paint; they are heartlessly prevented from going to school without pants.)

Environmentalism is a big part of Judaism. The Torah tells us that we were given the world to work and protect, l’avodah u’lishomrah. We’re planetary custodians. Judaism has laws that tell us to rest our fields every seven years to let them recuperate; even during a war you’re not supposed to destroy your enemy’s fruit trees. For our family, at least, these values don’t jibe with voting for someone who wants to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and who doesn’t believe humans have any role in global warming.

But the big point of Rosh Hashanah has nothing to do with the election. It’s about admitting one’s flaws and asking for forgiveness, acts no politician would engage in unless they had a career deathwish. (Or got caught by the National Enquirer with Rielle Hunter. Same difference.)

Rosh Hashanah is a time to be compassionate, a time to repent, a time to admit that you don’t have all the answers. I know I don’t, as a parent. I talk a good game, because Josie and her little sister Max are at the age when they drink in my beliefs and values like cute little vampires. But in a few years, they may be wearing “drill, baby, drill” tee shirts with their conflict diamonds and mink shrugs. (Don’t mind me, I’ll just go put my head in the oven.)

So I know I’m imperfect, and I yell too much, and I’m impatient, and I half-listen far too often, and I can be self-righteous (you think?) and I need to work harder to be a good parent and a good person. Again, with my lack of literalism, I don’t think any decree is sealed on Yom Kippur. I believe, and choose to teach my kids, that intention, action, involvement — and yes, hope — matter, right here and right now.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.


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