The decision most mainstream American rabbinic organizations made after Charlottesville not to join President Donald Trump for a conference call ahead of the Jewish New Year is a dangerous precedent that plays into the hands of our Disruptor in Chief.
Rather than take the opportunity to speak truth to power before Rosh Hashanah begins our high holy days Wednesday evening, many of my rabbinic colleagues have sidelined themselves on the moral high ground and ceded the battlefield to a bigoted bully who deserves direct rebuke. This serves no one.
A recent example bears this out. Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had left vacant the State Department position of special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. Only after the ADL submitted thousands of signatures calling for an appointment and the Washington Post ran an oped co-authored by Jonathan Greenblatt, Ira Forman and Hannah Rosenthal (the latter two having held the position) calling for the position to be filled did the White House finally relent. At a time of rising anti-Semitism at home and abroad, it’s about time.
From his alliances to his racist and xenophobic rhetoric on the campaign trail to his botched memorialization of the Holocaust and “even-handed” condemnation of the violence in Charlottesville, Trump has signaled that he has no interest in hearing from those who proclaim that America ought to remain the “land of liberty and justice for all.”
This is precisely why the rabbinic organizations should reverse their decision, get on the phone with the President before our high holy days begin and tell this grandparent of Jewish grandchildren how they really feel. To date, only the Orthodox Union, which represents at most 10% of American Jewry, has accepted the President’s invitation. This is hardly an accurate sample of American Jewish opinion. In fact, a recent poll by the American Jewish Committee shows a remarkable 77% of American Jews disapprove of Trump’s performance in office.
I suggest that the rabbinic leaders consider one of their important and now largely forgotten peers from the bloody dawn of the progressive era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the height of Jim Crow and a period of heightened political violence including the assassination of President McKinley and of furious battles between capitalists, industrialists and labor.
The voice belonged to Emil G. Hirsch, the prominent Chicago rabbi whose rousing sermons and essays pressed his faithful and his nation to do their part to create social and economic equality for all Americans.
Hirsch believed fervently in speaking truth to power and was unafraid to address his own wealthy congregants who were attempting to break up the formation of labor unions in industrial Chicago. “To own the fruit of one’s labor is an inalienable right,” he told his synagogue in 1897. “God in heaven and Judaism protest that he that works shall eat and eat sufficiently, and not be robbed of his manhood… Ye Jewish merchants, profit or loss, what are these considerations? Do ye, at least, whatever others may devise, your duty to stamp out this barbarous system. It is a blot upon the face of civilization.”
Three years earlier, he argued that the need for “duty and obligation” to all Americans was “sacramental.” He told his congregants, “Justice we need. Social justice everywhere.” He called Adam Smith’s individualistic philosophy of capitalism “Chronos devouring his own offspring… We are not made to be individualistic. We are human beings that live in and with others and through others. History has spoken!”
Hirsch, it was reported, stood on the pulpit on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, to tell the story of the prophet Nathan reproving the rich and powerful King David for his treatment of poor Uriah the Hittite, whom David had killed so he could marry Bathsheba. Hirsch equated a Jewish factory owner known for breaking unions with King David. The rabbi pointed to the owner in the pews and, like Nathan, proclaimed: “You are that man!”
That is the kind of moral courage and civic engagement we need from our leaders today. Other’s disruptions only work against us if we allow ourselves to be knocked off our game. Events in Charlottesville, the revocation of DACA, ongoing threats to health care coverage, a weakening of voter protections, the domination of money in politics, a stalled economic agenda which celebrates a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and job stagnation for the masses—it seems to me that the American Jewish leadership has plenty of its own disrupting to do.
Both Jewish and Christian preachers have picked up the formulation, sometimes credited to Chicago journalist and humorist Finley Peter Dunne, that one must “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” With that in mind, I encourage my colleagues to pick up the phone and afflict President Trump with some hard and necessary truths which ought to come in the form of a civil but necessary rebuke for his demonization of the most vulnerable in American society.
America has long depended upon the moral heroism of such figures Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as Wise, Brandeis and Prinz. As Hirsch said, “My religion—the religion of Jeremiah and Isaiah, the religion of the best among all men—has everything to urge.”
There is no greater urgency, of course, than the fierce urgency of now.