As a rabbi watching President Trump standing, Bible in hand, in front of Washington DC’s St. John’s Episcopal Church, I wondered what scriptural verse the President could draw on for inspiration. We were, as we remain, in the midst of a national crisis. A double pandemic, Covid-19 and the virus of systemic racism. The moment called for leadership, clarity of message and action. In the hand of the president was the oldest, most sacred and most effective tool of communication known to humanity – the Bible. What passage would he quote?
Perhaps start with Genesis. “And God created humanity in the divine image, in the image of God humanity was created.” It is the founding principle of biblical theology — the belief that every human being contains the divine image and is therefore to be accorded equal and infinite dignity. Young or old, rich or poor, whatever your gender, whatever your sexual orientation, certainly whatever the color of your skin — we are all equal and deserving of respect.
The second chapter of Genesis explains that when humanity was created God blew in the breath of life. When George Floyd uttered the desperate words “I can’t breathe,” it was the last gasp of his God-given soul. Genesis would have been the obvious place to start.
If the role of the President is also to be comforter-in-chief, then perhaps in this grief-stricken hour, our country needed to hear the rhetoric of solace – like President Reagan following the Challenger disaster, President Bush following 9-11, or President Obama years later at the 9-11 memorial site.
“The Lord is our refuge and strength, our help in times of trouble.” Psalm 46 was chosen by President Obama as an allusion to 8:46 am, the time the hijacked jet hit the North Tower. It is,ironically, the same psalm President Trump could have used — 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the time the police officer’s knee was on George Floyd’s neck. Psalms do not lessen our pain, but they do make us feel less alone, reminding us that the Lord is near the broken-hearted. A well-chosen psalm would have at least given America the shared vocabulary to cope with our pain.
On many Americans’ minds is the uncomfortable question of figuring out our place in this time of crisis. This is actually the very first question God asks of Adam in the Bible: “Where are you?” All of biblical ethics is arguably a rejoinder to Cain’s brazen “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
With the blood of our brother crying out, we dare not give a complicit shrug of our shoulders. Leviticus’ obligation to love our neighbors has nothing to do with whether that neighbor looks like us, prays like us or speaks like us. Was it not Moses himself, who, from the comfort of Pharaoh’s palace, heard the cry of the Hebrew slave being struck by his Egyptian taskmaster? Not only did Moses realize then that he shared a bond of kinship with that man, but also that if he didn’t take action, nobody else would. This is the calling card of the Bible – the reminder that we were once strangers in a strange land and thus must always empathize and respond to the cry of the oppressed.
Sometimes the Bible challenges us and, if nothing else, these past days have been challenging to sort out. As a Manhattan rabbi, I was concerned for the physical safety of my synagogue as looters roamed the streets. What is the difference between legitimate and illegitimate social protest? What is the line between the just and unjust exercise of authority? To what degree is one generation obliged to right the wrongs of past generations? These are tough conversations that must allow for texture – not soundbites or shame-facing shouting matches.
Here too the Bible can help. Isaiah knew the difference between good and evil when he preached, “I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong.” The book of Exodus states that children are to be held accountable for the sins of their fathers, while the book of Ezekiel states the opposite. Imagine if the President had announced a national conversation on the subject of “Intergenerational Sin,” or perhaps “Sincere and Insincere Confession?” For any society to be sustained, it must make space for conversations about accountability, confession, forgiveness and restorative justice. The Bible is a great platform for all these necessary and thorny conversations our country needs to have.
There are so many biblical verses the President could have quoted. Want to talk about the need for leadership? Quote the Book of Esther. Want to talk about building bridges between historic enemies ? Quote the Book of Ruth. Want to send a message on the need for public safety? Remind us that “Every man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.” The pitfalls of a society that is all swagger and no substance? Teach me about Samson. How societies house dissent in order to form a more just society? Pretty much anything from the prophets. Courage – take me to Daniel in the lion’s den. Contrition — put me in the belly of the whale with Jonah. There was so much that sacred scripture could have taught us on Monday — to heal us, to challenge us, to prompt us to dialogue and action.
But that is not what happened. On Monday the Bible remained sealed shut in the President’s hand; our most sacred text — literally turned upside down — was made into a cheap prop for political gain.
As clergy we dare not abdicate our right to speak in the name of our sacred texts — certainly not when others are arrogating that right for themselves. The Bible is too sacred, the stakes are too high and our country is too fragile to let people lay claim to a book who don’t even bother opening it in order to use — or misuse — its power. Instead, we must use it ourselves to bring healing to our souls in such desperate need of repair.
Elliot Cosgrove is the rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.