Prophets, Pastors, or Pariahs

So here we are, three weeks after the presidential election, and it ain’t an easy time to be a Jewish communal leader. From rabbis to federation CEOs and heads of other Jewish institutions, we are being called upon to choose how to respond to the election results in very public and profound ways. From where I sit, and the (countless) conversations I have had with colleagues in recent days, there are two primary ways to react: as prophets or as pastors.

Those who don the prophetic role feel compelled to speak out against the bigotry, discrimination, and hate that the Trump candidacy used as a political bludgeon. From the racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic rhetoric that Trump uttered from the very get-go of his campaign to the tolerance (and perhaps tacit approval) of David Duke and the alt-right, many see in Trump and his most ardent supporters (deplorables?) an alarming challenge not only to Jewish values but a harrowing reenactment of 1930s Germany. The appointment of Stephen Bannon as chief White House strategist and counselor confirmed the worst fears of many. As executive chairman of Breitbart News Network from 2012 to 2016, Bannon oversaw the online publication’s shift to the alt-right and its promotion of anti-Semitic, racist, Islamophobic, extremist and misogynistic voices.

READ: Breitbart’s Jerusalem Chief Explains Site’s “Nationalist” Appeal

Bannon has publicly stated that he views Breitbart, under his leadership, as a platform for the alt-right. In addition to supporting anti-Semitic content, Bannon’s Breitbart has actualized this alt-right perspective through numerous racist, misogynist, xenophophobic, and Islamaphobic articles. If you think this is hyberbole, then check out these examples of articles that ran under his leadership. In short, if the ADL, the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, and numerous other Jewish organizations are willing to call for Bannon’s appointment to be rescinded, shouldn’t individual rabbis and local community leaders as well?

On the other hand, the pastoral approach argues that we must be inclusive and welcoming to all Jews, regardless of political persuasion. Synagogues and other Jewish institutions should be places for tolerance and openness, not partisanship. After all, don’t the 24% of Jews who voted for Trump deserve a place too? Plus, how can we talk about the need for pluralism and open-mindedness in our civic discourse if we can’t abide by these same principals in our own Jewish homes? The pastoral approach urges us to cater to the emotional needs of members of our community who may be upset about or celebrating Trump’s election, and urges a cautious, wait-and-see approach when it comes to Trump’s policy agenda.

READ: Jewish Trump Voters Are Ready for Their Party to Get Started

But now those articulating the pastoral approach are being targeted and attacked as pariahs. A group called If Not Now, which previously had focused on agitating for pro-Palestinian causes, is organizing a #Jewishresistancemovement campaign of national protests against Jewish federations that have not condemned Bannon’s appointment. They already held protests in Philadelphia and Chicago and plan multiple more on November 30.

In a brilliant column, Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute castigated those who disparage Jewish leaders for failing to participate in “the ‘correct’ campaigns of indignation.” He argues that there can be a moral veracity in tentativeness during turbulent times and that we harm ourselves as a Jewish community by persecuting those who choose not to act. Instead, he asserts that we should “incentivize the good leadership that we want by amplifying the voices of the good and courageous, rather than maligning and lamenting those we think are falling short.” He adds that we should “invest in developing the particular characteristics in our leaders of humility, temperance, and discretion,” and that we need to make the case for precision in the subtle distinctions between moral, political, and partisan forms of leadership.”

So where do we go from here? Do we smash our idols of complacency and go forth in protest and political mobilization, as my colleagues Rabbis Seth Goldstein and Melinda Mersack argued?  Or do we hold our tongues and resist the prophetic urge, either out of humility or a privileging of inclusiveness?

I, for one, reject the pariah approach of organizations such as If Not Now. I say this as someone who helped write and co-signed a public condemnation of Bannon’s appointment by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven and its Jewish Community Relations Council. We have enough sinat hinam (senseless hate), internal strife, within the Jewish community without adding to it now. Plus, if you believe that Bannon’s appointment is morally wrong, why try to bully others into agreeing with you? Why not argue on the merits?

The harder question, though, is the prophet versus pastor question. I sympathize with those who have significant numbers of Trump supporters within their synagogues or other institutions. I do believe in a big tent approach to Judaism and would not readily welcome the return of public excommunications.

But I also am moved by the lyric from the hit play Hamilton: “If you stand for nothing, what’ll you fall for?”
I can’t even begin to enumerate the values that are central to my (and I hope others’) sense of Judaism that Trump has trampled upon, gleefully and exploitatively, throughout his campaign. This was not an election about liberal versus conservative ideas, as it was 4 or 8 years ago. The American people (or at least a slight minority of them) just elected an openly racist, sexist, xenophobic, nativist caricature to the highest office in the land! And many of them did so either in support of or with callous disregard for his bigotry. To avoid responding to all this, not to mention the imminent policy implications and tacit approval of hate groups who have no love for Jews, with a “let’s come together as one America” rings insufficient to me.  So for now, I think it is time to privilege the prophetic spirit, to join in solidarity with other groups experiencing marginalization in the wake of the election, and to stand firm and assertively for the values and principles we hold dear.

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