Even before Monday afternoon’s solar eclipse we experienced another eclipse: “a loss of significance, power, or prominence” in the White House. It is as if the heavens wanted to emphasize what our television screens and newspaper headlines have been telling us for weeks. The “light” is being obscured. The basic values of our country are under attack not by enemies from outside, but from the office of the President of the United States. In a solar eclipse we experience day as night, and as the Bible says “darkness covered the face of the earth.” The metaphor does not end there, for the temptation to gaze unprotected into the darkness above can permanently damage our vision…our “vision.”
I have spent the last half-century as an educator. I have worked almost exclusively with young Jewish people and their families, but with an increasing sense of interrelationship to the many religious and cultural traditions of the world. In the unique Jewish educational setting of KIVUNIM we study about and travel into the worlds of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism in order to encourage and inspire a sense of hopefulness and optimism in our students – ingredients critical to the building of a future for our planet.
But our work may not survive the assault upon the distinction between right and wrong now taking place. The moral equivocation that we have heard from the President and his many advisors and followers over the past weeks sounds the death knell to the lessons of the United States Constitution. Commitment to the principle of basic human dignity requires equality, justice and peace for all. Nazism, white (or any other) supremacy, and unmasked ku klux klanism is a threat not just to Jews and African-Americans and people of color. It is an assault upon the very fabric of American democracy and as such is an attack upon democratic values around the world. Those siding with the President and who consider these voices to be simply a “protest-movement” about historical monuments that includes “good people,” misunderstand the power of the word. These words of ultimate bigotry and seething hatred have the power to take us all down.
The insidious quality of this confrontation is most disturbingly revealed in the capacity of some members of the Jewish community, including the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, to be able to overlook the resurgence of swastikas and storm troopers marching to the beat of violent anti-Semitic chants. This is not an issue of Republican or Democrat. This is a choice between good and evil, right and wrong.
The solar eclipse might offer hope. For its darkness is never absolute. Around its edge we saw a corona that looked like a wreath. In the midst of the daytime darkness that stunned us we were simultaneously reminded of the power and the beauty of light. We cannot allow darkness to overtake us. We share a DNA that is between 99.0 and 99.9% exactly the same for every human being on this earth for all of time. Our cultural and religious sources: biblical, philosophical, literary and even scientific make clear that whatever we perceive as different – gender, skin color, hair, build, everything that makes us feel so diverse, is never more than 1% of our actual makeup.
The Bible tells us “love your neighbor as yourself.” But what does that mean? Is it a platitude, is it naïve? Or is it a scientific insight that offers a road to a future of the best that the human being is capable of? The President, aided or guided by the Bannons and Gorkas surrounding him has made clear that we are in an ultimate battle of contending ideas.
Peter A. Geffen is the Founder and Executive Director of KIVUNIM and the Founder of The Abraham Joshua Heschel School, NYC.