America: a crisis of faith

I’m an old-fashioned news hound. I can’t start my day without reading the newspaper. The Washington Post is my paper of choice. And I read the hard copy that gets thrown on my lawn every morning around 5am. But then, as I start my workday, I work in a professional bubble of my own creation. I get no news feeds at all. Given how upsetting the news has been for the past four years, putting the news out of sight and out of mind once my day gets going has been an act of self-preservation.

On January 6th, I had a 4pm call with a rabbinic colleague. It started with him asking me: “Have you seen the footage of the U.S. Capitol being overrun by Trump supporters?” I was incredulous. My friend filled in a few more details, we agreed to proceed with our business and, when the call ended around 5pm, I left my study to watch TV for the next few hours.

It has taken a few days for some of the details to get filled in. The colossal failure of the Capitol Police to heed the warnings from the FBI about the threat posed by those who came to Washington to stop Congress from ratifying the election of Joe Biden as our next President. The heroism of many police who, badly outnumbered, tried to protect the Capitol and the legislators inside from an angry mob. The complicity of other police who aided and abetted the insurgents. The courage of members of Congress to come back that same evening to finish the business of certifying Joe Biden’s victory. The craven actions of other legislators who, even after living through an attempt to sabotage a democratic election through violence that cost five lives but could have taken many more, still voted to reverse the outcome of the election.

Donald Trump’s culpability for, what can only be called, an insurrection, is beneath contempt. From the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017 to the sacking of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, he has given Presidential sanction to White Nationalists, Neo-Nazis, racists, anti-Semites and other purveyors of violence and hate. What has long lurked on the peripheries of American society has now been given a national spotlight. Who would have ever thought that these dark and evil forces would be championed by a sitting U.S. President?

I, like many Americans, find myself deeply rattled by the events of January 6th.  Is America a land of equal opportunity for all? Does the American justice system treat all people the same? Do we welcome to our shores, (in the words of Emma Lazarus, carved on the Statue of Liberty) “the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free?” Black Americans, living a totally different reality than White Americans, have long despaired of these American myths. For the rest of us, this new consciousness creates a crisis of faith.

The Talmud tells the story of Elisha ben Abuyah. Born to a prominent Jerusalem family, Elisha earned a reputation as a most promising, young, rabbinic scholar. It is told that he witnessed a young boy climbing a tree to take some eggs from a bird’s next. Following Jewish law, the boy chased away the mother bird before taking the eggs, showing a concern for the feelings of the mother bird. And yet, when coming off the tree, the boy was bitten by a snake and died. Having fulfilled a mitzvah for which the Torah promises a long life, Elisha witnessed the opposite and he suffers from a crisis of faith. Elisha abandons Judaism, becomes an apostate and from that time forth, is only referred to in the Talmud as Acher, “the other one”.

So much of our faith in America has been shaken. It is easy to despair. We could take Elisha’s path—by becoming cynical; by disengaging from politics; by demonizing all those who don’t agree with us. And each of those options will accelerate the erosion of America’s democratic fabric. No. Despair is not an option.

The Jewish community has a large stake in what is unfolding in Washington D.C. A significant number of Jews turned a blind eye to manifold examples of Donald Trump’s assault on truth and alleged criminal behavior because he was “good for Israel”. It is no different than Evangelical Christians who ignored the many ways that Donald Trump’s ethical behavior violated core teachings of the Church just because he could deliver a few, reliable conservative justices for the Supreme Court. The Jewish people paid a heavy price when a previously democratic country came up with all kinds reasons to allow a demagogue called Adolf Hitler to take over Germany. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s powerful video this week draws the obvious parallels between the rise of Nazism in Europe, which his family lived through, and the behavior of Donald Trump.

After four years of Trump’s Presidency, we have suffered tremendous damage to our country’s democratic institutions and principles. Within days of this writing, we will have a new President and a Democratic-led Congress. What is certain, is that the road back to an America that is worthy of cherishing, will require the commitment and energies of every person who cares about liberty, tolerance and justice.  May we be equal to the challenge.

About the Author
Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a senior fellow at Hazon where he directs Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network as well as the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), a program that trains rabbis to be visionary spiritual leaders. He is the author of several books, most recently, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. He is the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD.
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