You say you care about the Israeli election? Me too, but how much do you know? How many political parties are represented in the Israeli election? Which party best represents your views?(You can take this quiz if you are curious to see if your assumptions about yourself line up).
First, let me say that I love America. I love America in a way that is statistically consistent with the majority of Americans (only 15% of Americans said they were following elections ‘very closely’ just one month prior to the 2014 mid-term election, only 36% of Americans actually voted).
Politics is a strange thing; we say we care, but do we really? Of the 561 bills passed by last year’s Congress, how many can you name? Me, I can’t name even one. I remember the spectacle of Washington the past few years; Republicans blocked Obama; Obama snubbed John Boehner by not inviting him to golf. It was all very House of Cards – great theater. D.C. is rightfully called Hollywood on the Hudson because Washington politics are as entertaining, and as forgettable as a Netflix series. Who is running for president in 2016? That’s pretty far in the future, but someone named Bush or Clinton is always a safe bet. I love America and I think the laws we live by are very important, just not important enough to capture my full attention.
Let me also say that I love Israel, but I couldn’t tell you which 13 political parties are currently represented in the Knesset without Googling it. Today is election day in Israel and either Bibi will win or ‘Not Bibi’ will win (His real name is Isaac ‘Boujie’ Herzog of the Zionist Union Party). But, winning doesn’t mean that either one will necessarily take over. It just means that the ‘winner’ will be given 40 some days to see if he can build a coalition of 51% by making pacts with other smaller parties. [For more, check out JTA’s Who’s who in the Israel’s elections or 5 things you need to know about today’s election.
I know that Herzog is willing to work closer with the Arabs and that Bibi no longer supports a two state solution, but where do they stand on religious equality, the cost of housing in Tel Aviv, or on health care? I don’t actually know. It isn’t too hard to find out more about what is going on in Congress, or in the Knesset for that matter, so why don’t I?
In my defense, not investing significant energy in something that I purport to care about is not a new issue, nor am I alone. Rabbenu Bachya ibn Pakuda (11th Century Spain) said that people fail to pay greater attention to vital things (for him, God) because we become so enamored with the most immediate cause and effect, that we fail to look at the larger picture. He said that we either grow so comfortable with our present situation that we fail to look beyond simply preserving our personal station. Or, he said, we become so downtrodden, that we again fail to look beyond our own discomfort.
Our focus day-to-day is on ourselves. Which means that we are capable of deeply caring about something larger, say God, America, Israel, without feeling obligated to pay a commiserate balance of attention, even to these vital, greater-than-self ideals and values.
The 2006 Time Magazine Person of the Year was “You.” The internet, and specifically YouTube, were recognized for the powerful reflection of society that was then just exploding. The picture on the cover was a reflective mylar mirror. Just last week, ten years latter, the National Academy of Sciences published a study linking a rise in narcissism with a rise in aggression and violence. Other studies found a connection between narcissism and another growing plague, loneliness.
If I love America and I love Israel, why don’t I invest more time in learning and studying the minutiae of every bill and every election that shape my two home countries?
Hey, that’s a good question for my Facebook friends.
Pope Benedict says that he’ll be stepping down at the end of February. It’s been 600 years since a sitting pontiff has taken such an action, usually you die in service. There were days on the bima, in front of the congregation, when I thought the same might happen to me. Alas, a story for another day.
I remember when this pope was elected, the plume of smoke that rose from a Vatican chimney signified that the Cardinals had made their secret selection. Such ceremony!
The opportunity to elect a new pope reminds of a recent article written by my dear colleague, Brad Hirschfield, on the ordination this past November of the Coptic Pope, of Egyptian christians, Pope Tawadros II (Washington Post):
“The 60-year-old, English-trained pharmacist born as Wagih Sobi Baqi Suleiman, became the head of the Coptic Church when a blindfolded child picked his name out of a bowl…Following three days of fasting and chanting, a child is selected to reach into the bowl and draw out the name of the person who will serve as the new leader.”
We Jews do not have such an elaborate process in choosing our rabbis. Instead, we are taught lessons such as “Make for yourself a rabbi (teacher), and earn for yourself a friend.” (Avot 1:6).
What a crazy teaching? You mean, unlike the Coptic church or the Vatican, the religious leaders we get are not chosen by God, however understood by the Cardinals in the case of the Rome or by the young boy in the case of the Copts? Instead, we choose? We, fallible, imperfects choose our own leaders. So we’ll choose a rabbi who already agrees with us, who won’t push us where we don’t want to be pushed. And this is indeed the case. Where given a choice of synagogues, the number one reason for choosing a synagogue is “like the rabbi.” This is a problem and blessing.
One the one hand, congregants in most synagogues have an unusual power over their religious leader. So how cutting edge can your rabbi be, if the threat of disapproval and the threat of an unrenewed contract looms over his or her head?
On the other hand, there is a lesson here as well. Judaism seems to prize a relationship with a teacher who can also be your friend over one who hold religious, moral, perhaps Godly authority over you. In this complicated relationship, that of rabbi-friend, is a religious secret:
You already know everything you need to know about God and how to be a good and happy person in the world. You don’t need a higher authority to tell you this. What you need is a friend to support you as you take what you know into your heart and out to the world.
Is your rabbi also your friend? If not why not? Is it him or her? Or, is your expectations that keep your rabbi at arms length?
I think that it would be wrong to let the day go by without saying something about the election. But I don’t really want to talk about the candidates or their platforms, or what they should have done differently or better, or why this one won or lost. Instead, since a lot of the struggle was over how our government should spend its money, I think it would be worthwhile to ask what kinds of competing economic visions we have for our country, and what Judaism might say about them.
In very general terms, one group has concentrated on the idea of personal responsibility – that each of us ought to be able to stand on our own two feet and not depend upon others, and that if someone works hard enough, they will succeed; the other group, also in very general terms, considers the government to be the external structure for community, and (sometimes) tries to implement programs that will serve to strengthen individuals who are having trouble helping themselves and to create safety nets for them and considers success to often be a matter of luck.
Both of these approaches are valued in Judaism. Our sages tell us unequivocally that “just as shabbat is a covenant, so is work a covenant” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan). And Maimonides criticizes strongly someone who chooses not to work, instead taking charity, even “anyone who decides to study Torah and not work, making his living from charity, desecrates Gods name and disgraces the Torah. Any Torah that is not accompanied by work will lead to its own undoing and cause sin.” In other words, supporting oneself and one’s family is very important, and work is not simply a means for support, but in itself can be a holy task.
At the same time, Judaism also unequivocally states that we are obligated to care for others who have less than we do. Our sages have told us – in numerous and varied places- that we have an obligation to support the poor. Unlike the root of the word “charity” (from “caritas”) tzedakah is not given because one is moved to give, but – as with so many things in Judaism- because we are commanded to give, and we have an obligation to do so. The word itself comes from the word “tzedek” – justice.
It is unfair to label either of the groups “coldhearted,” or “irresponsible,” as I have seen some do: there is plenty of charitable individual giving from the “personal responsibility” group. Nevertheless, Judaism is fairly clear that it doesn’t see individual giving as a sufficient (although it is a necessary) response to poverty. This is for two reasons. First, the tendency to see one’s wealth as something that one has earned out of one’s own sweat, and with no help from others is noted by the Torah itself: Continue reading
It’s not over until…
When the Simpsons go to see Carmen at the Springfield Opera House Homer asked Bart when the show will end. Bart replied, ‘it’s not over till the fat lady sings.’ To which Homer then points to a zoftig soprano on stage and says, ‘is that one fat enough for you, son?’
If you are glad that it is finally Election Day because you think that ‘it will finally be over’, then you’re wrong. “It” being the mind-numbing, ping-ponging Romeny-said-then-Obama-said twenty-four hour news cycle and the billion dollar ad campaigns. And the idea of it being over is wrong. As it stands right now, even in a country where 25% of us are clinically obese there isn’t a fat lady large enough to end this show. The Infotainment industry will not allow it.
My fear is that regardless of who is elected the division created and divisiveness employed in the last two elections have created a powerful schism in the fabric of our country. Regardless of the results of this election, we will remain a country divided. See Thomas Friedman’s piece, ‘The morning after the morning after,’ in the Sunday NYTimes.
Rabbi A. J. Heschel taught, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
Rabbi Heschel’s insight should remind us that we must put pressure on our elected leaders, in control of government or in opposition, that we demand action on the 99% of issues where there is agreement. We will not tolerate inaction for the sake of political point scoring or posturing for the next round. As a nation we are above that.
In the Talmudic academy of old, as hot and contentious a place as the US Congress can be, rabbis of diametrically opposed view rallied hard against the other’s position. But there are rules for such a machloket, such a disagreement. First and foremost, the two sides must list everything regarding the issue at hand on which they agree. The Talmud might use the term “chulei alma” – ‘the entire world agrees’, even these two seemingly opposing rabbis about 99% of the issue at hand. Than, ‘mai benaihu’- ‘what is between them’. It is on the minutia of the tiny 1% of a problem that rabbis might agree to disagree.
Regardless of my fear that the battle is done but the war that divides us politically will continue, I pray and hold out hope.
Based on the wisdom of the Talmud understanding of how we go about disagreeing, we must demand two things after this election, regardless who wins the Presidency and who controls Congress: A) Left and Right must publicly and honestly debate the 1% of issues upon which they disagree. B) Right and Left must not use the 1% of issues upon which they disagree as hostage to acting upon the 99% that they do agree upon.