A liberal Israeli rabbi in a red US state

SYRIAN REFUGEES Baraa and her husband Abdulmajeed Haj Khalaf smile after arriving at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, on Tuesday (photo credit: REUTERS)
SYRIAN REFUGEES Baraa and her husband Abdulmajeed Haj Khalaf smile after arriving at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, on Tuesday
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Judaism does not have a figure parallel to the “anti-Christ.”
If we did have such a thing – an “anti-Moses” – the new president of the United States, Donald Trump, could be his embodiment.
In less than a month in office, Trump has launched several initiatives and made a number of appointments that are completely at odds with “Moses,” with Jewish values. A few examples: • Saving lives is the ultimate value in Judaism. Universal healthcare, as we have in Israel and in most of the economically developed world, is very much a reflection of that value. One of Trump’s first moves in office was to work to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare,” which could cause the loss of health insurance for millions of people, resulting in thousands of untimely deaths.
• Education is a central value in Judaism. Shimon ben Shetach (circa 120-40 CE), brother of Queen Alexandra (Shlomzion Hamalka) established universal education for the first time in Jewish history. Trump’s appointee to head the US Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, was called “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee” ever by the head of American Federation of Teachers.
The voucher programs she supports are widely considered to harm public schools (by reducing their funding), benefiting upper middle class families who can afford to send their kids to private schools (that would now get state funding) and harming lower income families who can’t afford private schools.
• Protecting the environment is an important Jewish value. The Midrash tells us that when God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden he said, “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world – for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.” Trump’s appointee to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is famed for working with the oil and gas industry to undermine environmental regulations. Republicans in Congress, sensing an opportunity, have already started working on a bill to dismantle the EPA. Trump has called climate change, widely regarded by scientists as the greatest threat to face mankind since the dawn of the nuclear age, a “Chinese hoax.”
• The Torah commands us “do not curse a judge.” Ibn Ezra explains: “Even though you may feel the judge judged you unfairly, you must not curse him. The reason is no individual can judge his own guilt or innocence objectively.” President Trump recently criticized a judge who blocked his executive order on refugees and immigrants, calling him a “so-called judge,” and in other ways acting disrespectful toward the judiciary, also criticizing the appeals court hearing the case. This is contrary not only to Torah and Jewish values, but challenges the fundamentals of the basis of America’s government, the separation of powers of the different branches of government.
• And then there’s that order barring all refugees as well as all citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US. While the Torah does allow us to protect ourselves from danger, we are also called upon to be kind and compassionate to the stranger, and to protect the widow and the orphan (also among non-Jews). Jewish history makes us particularly sensitive to this issue: In May 1939, the US turned away the St. Louis ocean liner with 935 people on board, almost all of them German Jews fleeing Hitler. A total of 254 of them eventually perished in the Holocaust. And on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Trump pointedly did not mention the Jews, in an extremely rare instance of “inclusiveness” from a president who is anything but. There’s also the question of what’s the great danger: Not a single terrorist act has been committed on US soil by citizens of those seven countries.
I’m an Israeli-American rabbi temporarily serving a congregation far from my home in Jerusalem, in Alabama, which is the reddest of the red (Republican) states. What do I do? Do I act like a prophet, calling my people to action, encouraging the congregants who feel distressed by what’s happening in America? At the same time, such a course would anger my congregants who, in a fashion that mystifies me, continue to support the new president. Do I keep my mouth shut for the sake of “shalom bayit,” peace in the community, and feel like I’m failing in one of the most vital portions of my job, bringing the values of Torah to contemporary issues, helping guide my congregants’ moral calculations? The Israeli in me wants to speak out. To be a prophet. To be willing to withstand the criticism, because to fail to speak out would be an act of moral cowardice. We Israelis are not shy about sharing our opinions, and are not afraid of taking flak over them.
On the other hand, I came to my current posting partly as a peacemaker, to help a community get past a tumultuous period in its history. The last thing the community needs is more conflict and turmoil.
One congregant said, “I don’t come to shul to talk about politics. I come to shul for a break from all that, for some peace.” I get that. Shabbat is supposed to be 1/60 of the world to come, a taste of perfection, a sanctuary in time.
Who wants some wild-eyed prophet ranting at you on the holy day of rest that the world is ending? And, frankly, acting like a prophet would be ineffective. Battle lines in America are drawn, and the sides are much more clearly demarcated in America than they are in Israel.
A head-on assault from the pulpit on President Trump would backfire.
It would accomplish nothing except to raise everyone’s blood pressure, cause a few members to quit, and let me feel a little better about myself because I had the courage to speak out. And me feeling better about myself at the congregations’ expense is not appropriate.
So I’m taking a middle course. I feel that if I don’t do something to try and deepen my congregation’s understanding of the Jewish perspective on these important issues, I wouldn’t be doing my job. But to get many people upset and cause turmoil would also not be right. So I’ll share Jewish teachings on the above issues, and others as they come up, and allow people to come to their own conclusions regarding whether or not the new administration’s policies and actions are in line with those teachings, and what to do about it if they’re not.
There’s probably a reason none of our prophets had a day job as a congregational rabbi! The writer, a rabbi and businessman who normally makes his home in Jerusalem, is on an interim assignment as a congregational rabbi in Birmingham, Alabama.