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Biden’s rabbi and I debate whether it’s time for the president to step aside

Jewish text reminds us there’s a time to lead, and a time to pass the torch.

The first Jewish text that came to mind watching President Joe Biden’s painful performance in last night’s debate was Ecclesiastes, the scroll we read on Sukkot, which this year falls a few weeks before the most important election in our lifetimes.

Its essential message is: There is a time for everything. The debate made clear that Biden’s time has passed. American Jews should help him find the way to honorably step aside in order to safeguard our democracy.

A time to be silent and a time to speak, reads the ancient text. Last night was clearly not Biden’s time to speak, with his deeply hoarse voice and startling inability to stitch words into coherent sentences.

A time to weep and a time to laugh. Only weeping for anyone who cares care about truth, as President Donald Trump confidently asserted an endless string of falsehoods. Over on Fox News, MAGA Republicans could barely contain their gleeful laughter.

A time to sow and a time to reap. A time for war and a time for peace. A time to search and a time to give up.

The poetry of Ecclesiastes is inspiring, but our tradition also offers a practical framework to help think this through: Pikuach nefesh. The literal meaning of this Hebrew phrase is “saving a soul.” Here, it’s about saving our democracy.

Pikuach nefesh basically says that all but a handful of Judaism’s 613 commandments — including most of the Big Ten that Louisiana now wants posted in every public school classroom — must be suspended if someone’s life is at stake. So you can break the rules of Shabbat during a pandemic, or a war. Many rabbis use pikuach nefesh to justify organ donation. It’s why pregnant women do not generally have to observe fast days.

Last year, I invoked pikuach nefesh in our Bintel Brief advice column in response to a question about how to take the car keys away from aging parents. I noted that this very difficult choice was also a way of fulfilling the commandment of honoring our parents, “by helping them gracefully face the truth about aging rather than risk the psychological and physical trauma of causing an accident involving someone they care about.”

It’s the same now with Biden. He entered the debate dangerously down in the polls in swing states, and with historically low support even among American Jews, one of the most stalwart Democratic constituencies. His disastrous performance Thursday night, as a number of Biden backers are openly admitting, makes it increasingly impossible to imagine his path to reelection in November, though he campaigned today in North Carolina to remind voters, “I know how to do this job.”

The stakes are too high to risk it. Just as pikuach nefesh requires breaking Jewish law to save a life, it must demand the breaking of all political rules to prevent a convicted felon who lies about everything from returning to the Oval Office.

And for those who love and admire Biden for all he has done over decades of public service — including for Israel during this awful year — it’s also about honoring him and his legacy. This is a man who said he only ran in 2020 to save us from a terrifying second Trump term. We must help him gracefully face the truth rather than risk the psychological trauma of causing a crisis for the country he cares so deeply about.

The clear biblical character Biden brings to mind is Moses; as our PJ Grisar wrote last night, both men became great leaders despite having a significant stammer. Moses relied on his brother Aaron to speak on his behalf; Biden diligently worked to overcome the speech disability and used it to powerfully connect with and inspire young people who shared such struggles.

This morning, several rabbis I consulted were thinking about Moses being barred from entering the Promised Land, and ultimately having to pass the torch to a leader of the next generation, Joshua. He did this reluctantly, of course — and I wish Biden had bowed out of this race a year ago — but he did, ultimately, do it.

There are a lot of pundits pondering who close to Biden will be tasked with telling him the hard truth today. Some suggested Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jew in public office. Others said it would have to be his wife, Dr. Jill Biden. My mind went to “his rabbi” — Michael Beals, who first met the future president at a shiva call in their home state of Delaware in 2006.

When Beals wrote to Biden in 2019 urging him to battle through the tough primary campaign, Biden sent a handwritten letter back that began, “You are my rabbi and my friend.” They’ve known each other for 16 years: When Biden was vice president, he invited Beals to annual Rosh Hashanah celebrations at the official residence, and in 2015 he asked the rabbi to represent the Jewish community at the funeral of his son Beau.

Beals gave a benediction at one of Biden’s inauguration events in 2021. Two years later, Biden appointed Beals to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. This spring, Beals joined a Delaware delegation at the Old Executive Office Building and sat three rows from Biden for a briefing about his administration’s accomplishments.

When we spoke on Friday morning, Rabbi Beals was also thinking about Moses, but in a starkly different way. He noted that Moses is said to have lived to 120, and that by the time we get to the last book of the Torah, on the edge of the Promised Land, “he’s a little cranky.”

“In our Jewish tradition, we don’t say we’re going to scrap the five Books of Moses because by the 120th year he’s not the man he was 40 years ago,” Rabbi Beals said.

“We wish people to be 120. Does it mean we want them to be at 120 how they were at 80? No. We value the entire person.”

Sure. But what about passing the torch? Between now and the Democratic Convention in August, could we not find an appropriate Joshua to take the reins, replace Biden on the ballot and have a better shot at beating Trump in November?

Beals turned from that pivotal moment in Deuteronomy where Joshua takes over from Moses back to the chapter in Exodus where Israel is confronting its ultimate enemy, Amalek.

Joshua leads the troops on the ground while Moses ascends a hill “with the rod of God in my hand,” according to the Torah. When Moses holds the rod high, Israel succeeds, and when his arm drops, Amalek advances. So Moses’s aides hold his arms aloft.

Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set. And Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword.

For Rabbi Beals, this means that now is a moment for Biden’s allies to rally around him, to help hold up his arms.

“I think it would be irresponsible to get rid of Moses right now,” he said. “With age comes both wisdom and liabilities. Today, the day after this debate, you’re focused on the liabilities. What I’m arguing to you as a Jew and maybe also as Biden’s rabbi is that with age comes great depth, great wisdom.”

I hope that includes the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. A time to lead, and a time to pass the torch.

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