While most of the Jewish world generally considers Yom Kippur as being a time for setting aside grudges and petty dislikes and undertaking a little personal introspection, a bizarre series of events seems to have unfolded around a non-Orthodox congregation in Chicago, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and the Yom Kippur Kol Nidrei service.
The former Republican Presidential candidate and long time supporter of Israel had reportedly taken up the invite of the President of AIPAC to accompany him to the Kol Nidrei service at Anshe Emet Synagogue. However, when the protocol was followed of announcing Michelle Bachmann’s presence at the service a murmur of disapproval was heard amidst the congregation and a number of congregants even walked out of the service. Later, several members of the community registered their strong opposition to Bachmann’s presence at their service, with one same sex couple claiming that they would refuse to attend services the following day, presumably on account of the Congresswoman’s views on same sex marriage. One has to wonder if they threaten never to return every time a reading from the Torah takes place, given its position on the subject.
Of all those whipped up in the outrage, the most vocal opposition seems to have come from a young man called Gary Sircus who by all accounts found the demonic forces of Michelle Bachmann so overpowering that in his own words “The holiness of the room and the holiness of the evening was greatly diminished for me, if not completely destroyed”. Indeed, it seems that for Sircus the holiness of the day had been rendered so tarnished that he evidently felt compelled to forgo several of the religious prohibitions associated with the day and promptly went out and donated funds to Michelle Bachmann’s Democrat opponent that very same evening.
Yet, perhaps it is unfair to question Mr Sircus’ talk of holiness, for it appears he saw his mission against Michelle Bachmann in quasi-religious terms, claiming “Bachmann actively campaigns against virtually every principle on which my faith is grounded.” Even more startlingly, in an email he sent out as part of the campaign he has launched to win funding for Bachmann’s opponent in the wake of her synagogue visit, Sircus stated: “Even though I do not vote in Minnesota, please do everything in your power to take away this evil woman’s soapbox.” The assertion that Bachmann should be considered ‘evil’ does not go completely unsubstantiated, however, for as Sircus explains “Our congregation values and embodies tolerance, compassion, respect for individual rights, intelligence, science — all of the things that I think Michele Bachmann stands against”.
Just on a side, it would be fascinating to hear from Gary how exactly he squares these allegations of Bachmann’s mission against her twin enemies; ‘compassion’ and ‘intelligence’, with her having fostered 23 children and her tireless campaigning to ensure that schools give a genuinely academic education, against attempts to reduce them to places of mere vocational training.
Anyway, what is so striking about these comments is that having identified Michele Bachmann as a force for absolute evil in the world, the more familiar relativist sentiments also clearly raise their head. The fashionable talk of tolerance often suggests the possibility for allowing for all viewpoints, all identities and all people. Except, that is, for those individuals who will not likewise commit to this same worldview; those such as Michele Bachmann, who has as a believing Christian and opponent of radical Islam made clear that there are some things that should not be tolerated so lightly. And so the tolerance professed by communities such as Anshe Emet, with its prominent LGBT population, appears to be rather a sham tolerance, a tolerance that extends only so far as to those individuals who share the values of the community, as Sircus makes so clear in his remarks. He may talk of tolerance and compassion as being values embodied by the community, yet it seems that in practice Congresswoman Bachmann was deemed worthy of being afforded neither of these sentiments. Similarly, while he spoke of the community’s purported support for individual rights, when it came to the right of freedom of religious and political conviction, clearly Michele Bachmann could not expect to enjoy such rights and still have her presence at the synagogue tolerated.
Gary Sircus could not have been clearer than when he qualified his actions with the statement that “she is not simply someone with whom I disagree, but symbolizes and promotes a brand of politics that is in tolerable.” And clearly many others felt the same when they put their money where this rather intolerant mouth is and joined in donating to Bachamann’s Democrat rival as an apparent act of punishment for her having visited their community (with donations from the Chicago area to the Democrat candidate in Minnesota reportedly having increased 400%).
The idea that tolerance means allowing for those who have a view that runs counter to and even offends your own would seem to be an anathema to so many self-titled liberal Jews. That is not liberalism. Not in any meaningful sense as most people would understand it, certainly not as the liberal thinker John Stuart Mill would have understood it. Going on a witch hunt against those who dare to show their face at your community while holding opinions different to your own is not liberalism, its fanaticism.
It is curious that having reached out in this way to another faith group and to a community that is so actively supportive of LGBT groups, Michelle Bachmann is not cheered but is instead chastised by this supposedly liberal community. Were Michelle Bachmann to never visit other faith groups or were she to have visited a deeply conservative Orthodox congregation instead, she would doubtless have been criticised by the very same Anshe Emet types. It is as if there is nothing that Bachmann can be allowed to do that might risk redeeming her somewhat in the eyes of progressives. As an evangelical, Tea Party, Republican woman she must remain perpetually vilified and accept the likes of the ever compassionately tolerant Gary Sircus branding her as evil.
What is certainly not the least troubling aspect of this whole affair are the comments made by the congregation’s Rabbi, Rabbi Michael Seigel, who explained without any apparent tone of irony; “I am aware of the fact that our congregation’s policy in regards to public officials clearly caused pain to some members of our community on the most precious day of reconciliation on the Jewish calendar…That we regret deeply.” Yes indeed, Yom Kippur is a day of reconciliation. But why was it that Michelle Bachmann, an evangelical Christian, seized on this opportunity for reconciliation with another faith group and a community associated with LGBT, while ‘progressive’ Jews used this as a chance for rapprochement, hostility and launching a further attack.