When Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination, New York Times Magazine writer Emily Bazelon described her as a member of the “Moses Generation” of the women’s movement, having been around from its beginning with a career clearly defined by its generational twists and turns. Clinton has faced her long record during the campaign and, at times, struggles to reconcile older positions and statements with her current platform and the contemporary political climate.
Bazelon believes that Clinton’s long and often turbulent career works against her, and that a younger, fresher candidate from the “Joshua Generation” might have brought a greater level of excitement — like Barack Obama in 2008. In contrast, I do not think that what is commonly referred to as Clinton’s “baggage” renders her a flawed candidate. Instead, the many years she has spent in public service are actually the stuff of a deep, ongoing relationship with the American people. In fact, a lesson developed by the Talmudic rabbis and encoded into Rosh Hashanah demonstrates how they provide the opportunity to forge a new, “covenantal” model for the presidency based on accountability, humility and dialogue.
Clinton would be far from the first world leader to bring an inconsistent, checkered track record into office. In his recently published “Pious Irreverence,” Professor Dov Weiss demonstrates how the rabbis of the Midrash level this very critique against God! In one Midrashic text, the rabbis elaborate on God’s response to Job’s protests against the misfortunes that befell him. In particular, God cites a litany of biblical heroes who all seem to have endured some Divine injustice and notes that they did not complain — so why should Job?
Weiss notes that while this Midrash concludes that it is wrong to protest God’s actions, the rabbis are also subtly reminding us — and God — that there are plenty of biblical characters who could have justifiably done so. The effect of collecting several instances in which God’s actions are legitimately open to criticism might be analogous to a Democratic Party ad urging voters to support Clinton despite her Iraq War vote, paid speeches and “super-predators” comment. The ad’s message would be undercut by its content, and that is exactly what happens in the Midrash.
For Weiss, these texts mark the beginning of a rich rabbinic tradition encouraging protest directed toward God, and, necessarily, a conception of a God who is sometimes deserving of that protest. As this tradition developed, some texts even describe God engaging in wide-ranging debates about Divine policies and actions with human beings. Sometimes, these stories even end with God admitting defeat and conceding the argument.
A dramatic expression of this tradition is implied by the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, which repeatedly invokes the Binding of Isaac and how Abraham submitted to God’s incomprehensible command to sacrifice his son. In “Pious Irreverence,” Weiss produces another Midrashic text in which Abraham daringly tells God how he could have successfully challenged the Binding of Isaac, as God’s command to slaughter Isaac contradicted his earlier promise that Isaac would be his heir. Rather, Abraham argued, he would not formally protest, even in the face of this grave injustice done to him, so that God would be morally bound to be similarly silent in the face of Israel’s future offenses. Abraham is doing more here than just protesting God’s actions — he feels empowered to make a moral demand of God, and then to hold God accountable.
As Weiss explains, the rabbis within this tradition saw their relationship with God as partners who generally mean to do the right thing by each other, often fall short, but have developed the trust to be completely honest with each other. Instead of an infallible God dictating moral perfection for humanity to emulate, God and man, each bound by covenant to the other and humbled by the awareness of their own fallibility, find ever more complexity and potential in their relationship as they move forward together.
Bazelon calls on women to recognize Clinton “for the unending work and breathtaking determination and sheer stubbornness that got the country to this moment.” On the other hand, Bazelon also notes that “with more years in the public eye, she has more to apologize for.” But rather than sins in need of atonement, perhaps Clinton’s past is really something more akin to that same sort of long-running conversation with America. After all, after the ups and downs of her half-century career, there are no illusions left, either about Clinton or about us.
Clinton is well-regarded for being one of the best listeners in politics, and has shown a remarkable capacity for introspection and thoughtful reflection on the campaign trail. Along these lines, a Clinton presidency could broadly empower vast swaths of the country to speak and be heard, but also challenge them to listen and empathize, in a way that we have not experienced in recent history. Creating a true sense of covenant would be difficult given the high levels of distrust that exist today, but perhaps it is the most critical work we can do.
The rabbis, according to Weiss, rejected an imperial conception of a God who is always correct and rules dictatorially, in favor of a God with whom we might experience the depth and power of an intimate covenantal relationship. A month after Rosh Hashanah, we should do the same when we choose our president.
Rabbi Avraham Bronstein has served at The Hampton Synagogue and Great Neck Synagogue and is a frequent writer and speaker on contemporary issues in Jewish thought. He lives with his family in Scranton, PA.