Every era has its pivotal where-were-you-when-you-heard-that-x-happened moment. Where were you when you heard that President Kennedy was assassinated? That the Reverend Martin Luther King was murdered? That astronaut Neil Armstrong landed on the moon?
These events are watershed moments that shatter our routine and make us challenge fundamental assumptions about the world around us. They leave their imprint on time itself; we mark time accordingly, talking about life before the altering experience and life after it.
Our generation recently experienced such a moment. In the future, people will ask one another: Where were you when you found out about the “Access Hollywood” tapes in which a presidential candidate was heard repulsively boasting about violating women?
The recorded exchange crystallized for many what they had been feeling ever since the start of the election season: that espousing and fomenting racist, sexist and xenophobic views does not necessarily disqualify one from running for the presidency of the United States. It brought home to a complacent middle-class America what many in the African-American, Latino and Muslim communities have been saying for a while: that such a candidate lacks the moral scruples to be the leader of the free world.
Personally, I will never forget when I found out about the tapes. It was on a late fall Friday afternoon. I was on Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue. I am a congregational rabbi and was walking leisurely, making my way to synagogue.
Fifth Avenue is lined with small restaurants and bodegas. Many of them have large plasma TVs playing all the time. Some broadcast the news, others show soccer matches, and still others display some movie or sitcom. I tend to peek at them as I walk by. They give me a little insight into the variety of tastes among the diverse community of Prospect Heights.
On this particular Friday afternoon, I was peeking at the TV screens as I lazily strolled along. Suddenly I noticed something strange: the broadcast diversity disappeared, and all the TV screens were broadcasting the news. I started paying attention and pretty soon figured out why. They were all reporting on the newly discovered tapes in which the Republican candidate is heard gleefully describing, in graphic language, how he assaults women. The horror and outrage were unbearable; the only way I could cope and go about doing what I had to do was by suppressing what I had just heard and relegating it to the back of my mind.
I continued on to synagogue. The usual Friday night crowd shuffled in. We conducted the prayers. Then everybody went home. The next morning I went back to synagogue hoping to ignore the controversy. It was the weekend between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For rabbis, this is one of the premier weekends, when we get a larger-than-usual audience and we consequently try to inspire alertness and self-reflection. I was prepared to give a classic High Holiday sermon. As soon as I walked into the sanctuary, I realized that I was wrong to think that Friday’s revelation could be suppressed. The collective shock was palpable and obvious. The community was in a lot of pain. People were wondering: Are women and minorities still safe in a country where a self-professed abuser of the vulnerable can run for the highest office?
As I looked at my congregants, I noticed their accusatory eyes. They were demanding comfort. They came to synagogue in search of healing. I was at a loss. Giving my prepared sermon was not an option; it would have come across as ignorant and oblivious. But I also could not talk about the situation because of a pre-existing commitment I had made to myself. When I entered the rabbinate, I vowed to never talk politics from the pulpit. At the time, I felt strongly that politics is best left for the political professionals, and the rabbi’s job is to provide legal instruction and religious guidance.
After thinking about my choices for a minute, I concluded that I had to break that vow. I realized that these times call for a strong religious voice of moral conscience, a responsibility that cannot be entrusted to the pundits.
When your wife is afraid to listen to the news, you have to speak up! When your daughter cries upon hearing the results of the election, you have to speak up! When your LGBTQ friends are terrified about what the future holds, you have to speak up! When your Latina nanny is frightened, afraid that her family will be deported, you have to speak up! Their fears negate the need for fidelity to your vow. Their worries are genuine, personal and immediate.
We need to give voice to those fears — in the sanctuary. That is precisely where the sanctuary gets its name. It is the place we go in order to sanction and sanctify our hopes, fears, desires and aspirations. The sanctuary gives the religious imprimatur to our pursuit of life, liberty, justice and happiness.
Whether Trump is guilty of the things people accuse him of is immaterial at this point. The onus is on him to dispel these perceptions. And until he does, religious leaders, regardless of their political affiliation, need to speak out, forcefully and unequivocally. Making the world a kinder and gentler place is neither a Democratic nor a Republican issue; it’s a human issue.
This election exposed fissures in our social fabric. People across the political spectrum are hurting, socially, communally and economically. We need to recommit ourselves to healing a world that feels broken.
It is not an easy task. We need to validate the fears of the Clinton supporters without impugning the intentions of the Trump voters. We must tread carefully, separating sin from sinner. We have to respect the country’s choice and honor the office of the presidency, but we also need to make it clear that xenophobia and discrimination are unacceptable.
This election is a watershed moment in our history, and religious leaders need to lead the sacred charge of unequivocally condemning those who would pit us against one another. That is our moral duty. Remaining silent is professional malpractice.
Ysoscher Katz is the rabbi of congregation Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn, and the chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.
I Vowed Never To Talk Politics From My Pulpit. Then Trump Came Along.