Would The Real Jewish Moral Leaders Please Stand Up?
In this, our season of social discontent and political disgrace, I am looking for a prophet.
I am especially looking for a prophet who will speak out as a Jew.
Not someone who will speak out against anti-Semitism. We are fortunate to have plenty of those already.
Nor someone who will decry eorts to isolate and demonize Israel. Plenty of those, too.
The United States is blessed these days with rabbis who sermonize and galvanize against injustice, racism, sexism, Islamophobia. Not enough, true, but still, there are men and women who bravely speak truth from the pulpit and carry that truth into the streets.
No, what I’m searching for are Jewish leaders with the courage to call out the ethical and moral rot emanating from our nation’s capital and eating away at the fabric of civic life the way an insidious fungus can threaten a mighty tree.
This isn’t a call to join the Resistance; the subject here is not administrative policies (though many are immoral) but the behavior of Jews in positions of enormous power and influence.
So when Michael Cohen, President Trump’s onetime lawyer and consigliere, pleads guilty to eight criminal counts and implicates his former boss in a federal crime, where is the prophetic outrage?
Here is a man embodying the worst in Jewish stereotypes — the grasping, bullying fixer; the sleazy, conniving businessman; the grating court Jew. He makes us cringe. He is an embarrassment.
And so, despite the pedigree of his last name, we pretend he’s not really one of us. But it doesn’t work that way. “We can’t have pride in a Jew’s success merely for the fact of their Jewishness without having to have shame in a Jew’s nastiness merely for the fact of their Jewishness,” Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, told me. “Pride and shame are polarities, and therefore you can’t have one without the other.
“So if we are going to take pride in Nobel Prize winners who are Jewish in name only and are going to attribute their brilliance to some essentialized Jewish quality — and send around lists to evoke that pride — then we will wind up having to be ashamed of a fixer-bully-crook who is Jewish in name only and attribute his nastiness to some essentialized Jewish quality,” he added. “You see, we can’t have it both ways.”
Here’s what I don’t understand: American Jews say they believe that their tradition is imbued with ethical and moral values, that their experience as an oppressed minority gives them a special sensitivity to wrongdoing and injustice.
The extreme polarization o American discourse makes it harder or prophetic voices to rise above the ray.
When the Pew Research Center survey of American Jews asked what it means to be Jewish, the top two answers were remembering the Holocaust (%) and leading an ethical and moral life (%) Only ¢% of the respondents said it meant caring about Israel. Only % said observing Jewish law.
Our self-image is carefully crafted around this constellation of ethical and moral beliefs, yet I don’t hear Jewish political leaders in Washington. D.C., speaking out when prominent Jewish men and women violate those beliefs, sometimes with impunity. And, unfortunately, the few religious leaders who do so aren’t being heard above the political din.
What am I looking for? Twenty years ago, the nation was also gripped by scandal in the Oval Oce. That time it was a Democrat, President Clinton, who was caught in an entirely inappropriate sexual relationship with a White House intern and lied about it under oath. On September of that year, a fellow Democrat, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, took to the Senate floor to condemn the president’s behavior.
He spoke of his personal dismay over Clinton’s actions, but also of “a larger, graver sense of loss for our country, a reckoning of the damage that the president’s conduct has done to the proud legacy of his presidency and, ultimately, an accounting of the impact of his actions on our democracy and its moral foundations.”
Lieberman was an observant Jew who was known to walk miles to the Capitol on Shabbat to cast an important vote, who had worried aloud about the coarsening of public culture by an entertainment industry that he believed had weakened common values. So his words carried enormous weight. There was a consistent moral authority behind them.
Do we have a Joe Lieberman in Congress today?
Or a Gabrielle Gi£ords? In ¤¥ , the then-Democratic Congresswoman was nearly assassinated by a gunman in a shooting spree that left many dead and injured, and left her body and brain damaged for life. Once a supporter of gun rights in her home state of Arizona, her brush with death transformed her into an ardent advocate for sensible gun control.
Who else is putting her life on the line against the most powerful, dangerous lobby in the country?
In , Elie Wiesel was in the White House to receive the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Still, he did not flinch in criticizing President Ronald Reagan and imploring him to cancel a visit to a German cemetery where Nazi SS ocers were buried.
“That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” Wiesel said, standing right next to Reagan. “Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
Do we have an Elie Wiesel willing to say that in the White House today?
Twenty years earlier, in , Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel locked arms with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders as they marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. “In a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible,” Heschel would go on to say when the two men, at great risk, spoke out against the Vietnam War.
Where is our Abraham Joshua Heschel today?
The extreme polarization characterizing contemporary American discourse makes it that much harder for prophetic voices, especially religious ones, to rise above the fray and actually be heard. “If Heschel were alive today, I have no doubt that parts of the Jewish right would regard him as despicable,” said Shai Held, author of “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence.” “He was not a hero to many people of his time.”
Prophets rarely are. But they have a clear vision that in retrospect seems clairvoyant, and the conviction to say the things that, once said, seem obvious. That is why they are so resisted, and yet, in the end, so right.
Who is filling that role today?
Lieberman’s words carried enormous weight. There was a consistent moral authority behind them.