Michael Knopf
Rabbi and editor of 'No Time for Neutrality'

A wake-up call for people of conscience

Those who preach compassion and justice for every human being are rightly disappointed by the Virginia governor's race. We must use it to spur us to do better
Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin speaks at an election night party in Chantilly, Virginia, November 3, 2021, after he defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe. (AP Photo/ Andrew Harnik)
Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin speaks at an election night party in Chantilly, Virginia, November 3, 2021, after he defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe. (AP Photo/ Andrew Harnik)

Last week, candidates who spread misinformation about election integrity, stoked racial divisions, rejected scientific consensus on issues like vaccines and climate change, and disregarded proven measures to protect public health won big in Virginia, my home state. To say the very least, the election was a staggering setback for those of us who have been striving to advance a more equitable and inclusive commonwealth. More importantly, the election’s outcome will have serious negative consequences for historically marginalized and oppressed Virginians. For those reasons and more, this moment must be a wake-up call for people of conscience in Virginia and around the country, especially faith leaders.

Faith leaders have long been among those on the front lines fighting for justice and pluralistic democracy in the US. In particular, clergy played important roles in the surge of moral resistance and spiritual activism in the tumultuous past half decade. I have been inspired by, and honored to partner with, some of those faith leaders. Clergy colleagues and I sought during recent years to marshal our moral voices, mastery of our traditions, and relative privilege to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable, rail against oppression and creeping authoritarianism, and further the cause of social justice. Here in Virginia, recent years have heralded generational progress in fostering equality for people of every race, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Clergy have provided indispensable moral leadership in those efforts, and more.

The second half of the 2010s challenged different people in disparate ways. For rabbis like me, providing spiritual guidance and moral clarity in a faithless and indecent time was often professionally dangerous. The deep, widespread, and highly charged polarization of this era, which was compounded by deliberate and sustained efforts to obscure truth, made issues that were previously matters of broad Jewish communal consensus — inclusive, pluralistic democracy, human rights, and even basic decency — suddenly controversial. And many rabbis felt immense pressure from constituents not to stir up discontent or discord by bringing Torah into conversation with the issues of the day too directly.

While it pales in comparison to the ways vulnerable people were harmed during this era, many rabbis risked their livelihoods in order to preach compassion and justice in the face of cruelty, oppression, and lawlessness. They did so not for profit or prestige, not for commendation or career advancement, but because they were committed to upholding the Jewish axiom that every human being is created in God’s image, equal in value and infinite in dignity, and the core Jewish obligation to perpetually remember our historical experiences of oppression and suffering. They did so, ultimately, because they believed God, Torah, and the Jewish tradition compel us to be responsible to and for each other, that we Jews are obligated to ensure that no person suffers want or oppression, that justice is secured for all, everywhere.

I can say from firsthand experience that while at times this work was exhilarating and rewarding, it was more often difficult, and ultimately exhausting. For those reasons, I know I wasn’t alone in feeling a sense of relief after the 2020 election. As the relentless dramas and daily outrages of the previous administration receded from our field of vision, those of us privileged enough to do so enthusiastically embraced opportunities to focus on other matters, sometimes blissfully going days at a stretch without paying attention to political news.

But we who believe in a just and inclusive America, a country with a compassionate heart, open doors, and unbounded concern for the health and welfare of all people and the planet must not look away or remain silent. Last week’s election ought to remind us — especially those of us who were able to afford stepping away from civic engagement over the past year — that while the previous president may be out of office, threats to pluralistic democracy are still very present, both here in Virginia and across the country. Just as the belligerent, resentful, and openly antidemocratic forces that fueled the previous administration have been a feature of American political life for centuries, those same forces will endure so long as candidates who refuse to disavow the former president, court his most conspiratorial and violent supporters, and echo many of his views continue to win elections.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose example of spiritual activism inspires me and countless other faith leaders, once said that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible. When we remain silent about matters of truth and justice, when we don’t fight hard enough for inclusive and compassionate policies, when we fail to uphold our democratic institutions and the norms that support them, we bear responsibility for the results.

In recent years clergy of many faiths demonstrated exceptional, courageous, and profoundly needed moral leadership during a period of great ethical and spiritual challenge. But the need for moral leadership remains critical now. Without rabbis and other faith leaders persistently reaffirming our values and strengthening our moral reflexes, history will continue to repeat itself in the years to come. Virginia’s election reveals that the menace of recent years has not receded. This is still no time for neutrality.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Knopf is co-editor of 'No Time for Neutrality: American Rabbinic Voices from an Era of Upheaval', now available on Amazon, and spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia. The views expressed in this article are solely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of his congregation.
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