It would have been far easier to say “yes.”
As Jews, at this solemn time of Rosh Hashanah, we are encouraged to account for our souls and reflect on the past year. In January, I was approached by the incoming administration to officiate on behalf of American Jews at Washington’s National Cathedral, celebrating the inauguration of Donald Trump. Quite the honor, indeed, to be asked.
When authority speaks, we are taught to listen. But we are also taught to listen to our moral center and inner voice. On the High Holidays, when we read that Abraham was asked by God to take a knife to his son Isaac, Abraham’s inner voice — the book of Genesis tells us that it was that of an angel — ultimately instructed Abraham to put down the knife and free his son. He was told to listen to his love for the boy, weak and helpless to resist. In this story, significantly, the word “love” first appears in the Bible.
Judaism teaches that we love — that we connect to the vulnerable. Judaism also teaches that love also means listening to authority. Arguably, there is no greater secular authority than the president of the United States. Yet having witnessed behaviors and heard language during the presidential campaign that ridiculed the weak and instilled division at the expense of vulnerable populations indispensable to America’s identity, where was I to draw the line between loving the weakest and trying to honor authority?
I said “no.”
Rabbi Robert Marx, a mentor and founder of the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs, has called Jews a “people in between.” Throughout history, we have both had and lacked power. Though being asked to bless the president-elect was an acknowledgment of the political importance of a blessing from America’s Jews, it would also be a mistake to not also see ourselves as vulnerable — to ignore our in-betweenness.
One way for those with real power to take advantage of us is to use our vulnerable position to divide us from other minority groups, making us unresponsive to our prophetic tradition. This further marginalizes Jews from those who would otherwise be allies. Another way is to divide Jews from each other.
For me, it has been alarming during this past year to see Jewish cemeteries desecrated, swastikas painted on seminary grounds, bomb threats disrupting Jewish community centers, and broken glass and gunshots at synagogues. For some other Jews, the answer to increased acts of anti-Semitism has been to seek refuge in power structures — the very power structures that similarly oppress other groups. It creates a divide among us, just as it creates a divide between us and other vulnerable people.
It also makes us turn our backs on our own prophetic tradition. “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice,” says the prophet Amos. As Jews, we must be active participants in the struggle for love and justice. I was convinced at the time, and am more convinced now, that this was a time to say “no” to President Trump. But we must also acknowledge that Judaism believes love involves a willingness to hear the merits of a point of view other than one’s own. When possible, love does challenge us to work together.
As the Talmud’s tractate Eruvin recounts, a voice from heaven once resolved a debate between two rabbis, saying “both these and those” — elu v’elu. Our national motto echoes this: E pluribus unum — “out of many, one.” Differing viewpoints can create space for creativity and solutions as long as civility and respect for “the other” remain cornerstones of love and liberty. Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural speech, said, “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Although I could not affirm rhetoric that seemed to capitalize upon division, I hoped another rabbi might, in good conscience, offer words that the president-elect should hear. I also believed in the teachings from my tradition and from that of Martin Luther King that we must always strive to see the good in every person. Perhaps Mr. Trump was in need of a blessing.
Rabbi Fred Raskin, my predecessor at my synagogue, is my dear friend; we are joined together by a shared loved of a synagogue and a love of the Jewish people. We see things differently, but that didn’t prevent us from being bonded through a story of a national moment of our country, a country we both love. Fred was willing to do what I could not.
I have wondered whether I would still be able to make that call to Fred. Having since seen the Charlottesville protests and American neo-Nazis resurrecting chants from a poisonous past, then hearing unacceptable assertions of the moral equivalence of both sides, I worry about the erosion of love. At what point will Americans not be willing to see the good in one another, despite our differences? What happens when no rabbi is willing to give his blessing? I don’t know. I do see, as an American and as a Jew, that the light of love seems to dim with every new day of division. Still, Jews must not turn our backs on our own prophetic tradition.
A past president of my congregation, observing my dilemma, wisely offered the words of another Abraham, Abraham Lincoln: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” I could never conceive Fred as a foe, or that he would act intentionally to foster further division. But there are those who will.
We remain a “people in between” and we must therefore appeal to those who will put away the knife and sow seeds of life, liberty and love. Somehow, we must not allow love to be replaced by a divisiveness that denies us the ability to see every American as indispensable. We must continue in dialogue with that very Jewish determination and very American hope.
This story "Why I Said ‘No’ To Trump — And ‘Yes’ To Jewish Unity" was written by Ari Plost.