Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Day After the Election: A Postmortem

To blog or not to blog today, that was the question. As this unusual election became more divisive and, well, bizarre, I found myself blogging less. I didn't want to write about politics and everything else that I typically blog about just seemed inconsequential. Last night, the unimaginable happened. Okay, to be fair, like many I did consider the unlikely political earthquake that would happen if Donald Trump won.

Today, the day after the 2016 presidential election happens to be the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Upon seeing the posts of friends and colleagues on Facebook and Twitter making stark comparisons between this horrific night in 1938 in Berlin and modern day America, I felt this was completely inappropriate. However, last night there were anti-Semitic incidents in celebration of Donald Trump's victory (see the graffiti below in Philadelphia). Certainly, this was not a Kristallnacht -- not even close -- but, we should all be concerned about the hateful cadre among Trump's supporters.

This past Rosh Hashanah I wanted to speak out about the dangerous rhetoric of this election season. I knew that I had to do this without endorsing one candidate over the other. My goal was to express my outrage at the pomposity of Donald Trump, but also encourage all of us to be more tolerant of others and to listen to those who felt their voices had not historically been heard. I think that if we were to point to one reason so many of us were surprised by the outcome of the 2016 election it would be that we live in a bubble. The Facebook feed of the liberal elite is an echo chamber. As I recognized as the results came in last night, 99% of my Facebook connections were in the Hillary Clinton camp and so the sentiments I heard for the better part of the past two years were fully in sync with my own. I warned of this Facebook echo chamber in my Rosh Hashanah sermon and I too fell victim to it.

What follows is a selection of my 2016 Rosh Hashanah sermon from the first day of the holiday:
This is a different Rosh Hashanah... a different situation. Rabbis all over this great nation of ours have been struggling -- more than normal -- to gently articulate what is on so many of our minds this High Holiday season. The holidays have come a little late this year -- beginning in October as the presidential race enters its final month. Its final month... after several difficult, frustrating, okay, maybe entertaining, years. The stakes are high. There's much to say. And yet, it's not easy to say what needs to be said without risk of offending some, of angering others, and likely frustrating yet others among you.

I know I'm not alone in struggling with how to address the presidential election from the pulpit on these High Holidays. Over the past month I've participated in Webinars with colleagues to study texts and to learn the most appropriate way to speak on this topic without saying too much or the wrong thing. I've engaged in discussion groups on social media, through email lists, conference calls and in real-live face to face conversations. The other day I received a call from a reporter at a large newspaper calling to ask how I would tackle this topic and I mention the names of the candidates?
There are three types of sermons that rabbis across our nation will deliver on this Rosh Hashanah morning --

1. They’ll talk about the political situation in our nation -- the fierce election period that leads the news cycle and has significant implications for us all.

2. They will want to talk about the presidential election, but knowing how divisive a topic it is, they will back off and speak in euphemisms about how we must come together as one nation and how we should just be grateful as Jews -- a minority in a Christian nation -- to be able to exercise our democratic right to vote.

3. And then there are those rabbis who will use their sermon time to talk about anything -- ANYTHING -- other than politics. “And so this morning, I’d like to talk to you about why YouTube videos of kittens are just so darn cute.”

I'm just kidding. Of course, I'm kidding. I couldn't do that. The race for president is just too much on our minds for me to ignore it on these High Holy Days. I know, we are over consumed with it. The 24 hour new cycle, the op-eds in the paper, the water cooler discussions, our kids asking questions. So, I ask your indulgence. This morning I want to look at how we can all get through this election cycle without losing our cool. How we can discuss the issues with each other even if we don't see eye to eye. How we can -- to borrow a term from every kindergarten teacher in America -- use our listening skills. And perhaps most importantly, how we can let our Jewish values inform how we exercise our democratic right to vote on November 8.

I'm not here to endorse a candidate -- that is both inappropriate in this forum in my opinion, and also could jeopardize the synagogue's tax status with the IRS. But I am also not here to insult your intelligence and pretend there are not serious issues that affect us -- our children and our grandchildren. It sounds trite to say that this, but it really is the most important presidential election of our lives. And here in this swing state of Ohio, even more so.

There's been a lot of arguing and a lot of bickering over the past few years of this unprecedented presidential election. There's been strife from both sides. In the Mishnah, there's a famous teaching: "Kol Machloket sh’hee l’shem shamayim, sofa lehitkayem, v’she’eyna l’shem shamayim, ein sofa lehitkayem. Eizo hee machloket sh’hee leshem shamayim? Zo machloket Hillel v’Shammai; v’sh’eina l’shem shamayim? Zo machloket Korach vechol adato."

Translated: “Every argument, every dispute, that is pursued for the sake of heaven is destined to endure; and that which is not pursued for the sake of heaven is not destined to endure. Which can be considered a controversy pursued for the sake of heaven? This is the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And that not pursued for the sake of heaven? This is the controversy of Korach and his followers.”

So, what made the disputes between Hillel and Shammai for the sake of heaven? The commentator Bartenura explains: "In an argument for the sake of heaven, the ultimate goal of the argument is to achieve the truth, which endures, as the Sages taught, through the dispute the truth is clarified -- as it revealed that in most of the arguments between Hillel and Shammai, the law follows the position of the House of Hillel. But in an argument that is not for the sake of heaven, the desired goal is the quest for authority and a love of victory, and this end cannot endure. This we saw in the case of Korach -- why did Korach want to be the leader of the Israelites? His ultimate aim was to achieve honor and authority -- and the opposite happened to them. Hillel and Shammai cared not for their own honor and status, but instead debated the truth of Jewish law and values. Korach and his followers, on the other hand, cared not for idealism or altruism, but fought for power and control. This is not the Jewish way!

Unfortunately, today, the machlakot, the disputes among us in our nation and not l'shem shamayim -- they are not for the sake of heaven. There is no love at the center of these arguments over who is more fit to be the leader of our nation. Unlike the disputes among Hillel and Shammai, there is no peace, there is no mutual respect.

Arthur Brooks is politically conservative and the president of the American Enterprise Institute. Earlier this year, Brooks delivered a TED talk in which he argued that Conservatives and liberals both believe that they alone are motivated by love while their opponents are motivated by hate. He asked, "How can we solve problems with so much polarization?" In his talk, the social scientist shared ideas for what we can each do as individuals to break the gridlock. He said, "We might just be able to take the ghastly holy war of ideology that we're suffering under and turn it into a competition of ideas."
In his talk, Brooks quoted a 2014 article in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on what's called "political motive assymmetry."

"That's what psychologists call the phenomenon of assuming that your ideology is based in love, but your opponent's ideology is based in hate. Now it's common in world conflict. You expect to see this between Palestinians and Israelis, for example. What the authors of this article found is that in America today, a majority of Republicans and Democrats suffer from political motive asymmetry. A majority of our people in our country today who are politically active believe that they are motivated by love, but the other side is motivated by hate. Think about it. Think about it. Most people are walking around saying, you know, my ideology is based on basic benevolence. I want to help people. But the other guys, they're evil and out to get me. You can't progress as a society when you have this kind of asymmetry.

Brooks goes on to explain that the differences between the Right and the Left are immense, but we both need each other. Each side, he argues, is passionate about different ideas and values, but when we combine those passions, we can accomplish great things. As a nation, we must find a way to turn down the vitriol. While we certainly do -- and should -- disagree about issues that speak to our core values, we must nevertheless find the tools to value those with whom we disagree. We must understand that even when we argue, we need one another to maintain the balance.

Right now, there's a debate in our nation over the athletes -- professional and collegiate -- who have chosen, as a protest, to kneel and not stand during the National Anthem. This display of civil disobedience -- if you can call it that -- began with Colin Kaepernick, a backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football League. As most of you likely know, Kaepernick chose to not stand as a way to show his disapproval of how African Americans are being treated in our nation.

In my opinion, it's sort of a circuitous message actually. This millionaire football player should be grateful he lives in a democratic country like the U.S. where he has the opportunity to make a great living playing a sport and where he is free to stand or sit as he chooses, especially if it is to make his opinion known in a protest manner, but to pay proper respect to the nation that grants him that entitlement of freedom he should stand during our National Anthem.

This news story is ongoing and it has been a very divisive story for our country. Some might say it's just another example of how our nation is becoming more and more divided politically based on race. For me, I compare it to the story I've shared from this pulpit in the past. It's the story Alan Dershowitz writes about in his book Chutzpah. There is a story about a synagogue that hired a new rabbi following the retirement of the old rabbi who had led the congregation for many years. After the first time the new rabbi led Shabbat prayers, when the congregation reached the Shema Yisrael, half of them stood up and half of them sat down. So the half that stood up screamed at the half that sat down, and the half that sat down screamed at the half that stood up. "Stand up!" "Sit down!" The rabbi was frustrated. He went to pay a visit to his predecessor, the rabbi emeritus. So tell me, he asked the old rabbi, "Is it not the tradition to sit down for Shema Yisrael?"

The rabbi emeritus responded, "No, that is not the tradition."
So he said, "Aha, the tradition must be to stand up!"
The rabbi emeritus said, "No, that is not the tradition."
"Well," said the new rabbi, "it is ridiculous for half of them to sit down and half of them to stand up. All they do is shout over one another."
The rabbi emeritus answered, "Yes, my son, that is the tradition."

The tradition is that Americans stand for the National Anthem out of respect. And the tradition is that we argue when some don't stand to protest as is their right.

Friends, it's certainly about the issues this election and it's about the future of our nation too. It's about how our leader will see our nation's place in the rest of the world -- how we as a nation care for refugees and minorities -- how we help the downtrodden and the destitute. How we ensure the rights of workers and women, the health of the sick, the young and the elderly. But it is also about the rhetoric. It's about how we talk to each other. How we fail to listen to each other. Words matter. We all spend so much time talking about the issues with those whom we mostly agree.

Our social networks, like Facebook for example, have become echo chambers -- we literally don't see the positions different from our own. We fail to see the value in another's argument, which isn't only wrong and dangerous, but also against the core values of our Jewish tradition. We are a culture of debate. This is the foundation for our Talmud. The Sages understood argumentation not as a means to divide, but rather as a means to understand each other and grow closer together. May our debates and disagreements all be for the sake of the betterment of our great country. May they all be l'shem shamayim -- for the sake of Heaven.

On November 8th, you’ll make your choice in the voting booth. You'll fulfill your American right to vote and you'll let your voice be heard. Your vote counts. Your vote is your voice!
No matter our disagreements and the loud noise of debate in our nation, I know you all join me in praying for a Shanah Tovah and a Shanah Shel Shalom -- may it be a good and peaceful year filled with the blessings of Shleymut -- wholeness, contentment.

Shanah Tovah Tikateivu - may we all be inscribed in the book of life.

1 comment:

Rabbi Sandy Press said...

What a beautiful blog!!!! You say all need to said, and "preached!"

Sandy Press

(By the way, I appreciated your tech advice a long time ago. I did get ring!)