Carry The Right Stick: The American Election, Talmudic Insights, and a Way Forward

When O.J. Simpson was first on trial, I lived in Los Angeles and worked in Brentwood, where his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman, were murdered. I was a senior fellow at The Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, and our main office was in a large commercial building about a mile from the crime scene.

When the jury came back unexpectedly quickly, everyone on my floor gathered in an office with a large anteroom and television set. We all crowded together and wondered aloud at this turn of events, united in our interest, anxiety, and sense of community. When Simpson was found not guilty, every white, Hispanic, and Asian person in the room groaned or gaped in astonishment. Every black person cheered with delight. Then we looked at one another, and there was a long, awkward moment as we all silently acknowledged the divide. I remember thinking to myself as we filed back to our offices, “we are living in two separate realities.”

In some ways, of course, African Americans in fact do inhabit a distinct reality when it comes to policing, criminal justice, and racism. In comparison with whites, they are hassled more, arrested more, convicted more, and imprisoned for longer terms. Those injustices command attention and deserve redress. But when that verdict came in, for that moment, the concern wasn’t race or justice. The concern was: who are we to one another? How can we call ourselves a community when we look at the same information and read the facts so very, very differently? It was surreal and alienating. It was hard to see a united way forward.

With the U.S. Election Day just a few days away, it is, once again, hard to imagine a united way forward. The campaign has been surreal and alienating. We seem to be living in separate realities – not just on the persistent issues of race, policing, and criminal justice but on many – even most – political concerns. What one major party or candidate considers self-evident is often considered skewed or even delusional by the other. Fox News and MSNBC, consecutive channels on my cable box, are light years apart not just in how they assess the candidates, but in how they understand words, deeds, facts.

Many people in both major parties don’t just think that the opposing party’s candidate is uncivil, unlikeable, and unqualified; they think that anyone who could support the other candidate must be unhinged.

I pray that we will have a clear winner and no violence. But even in that scenario, we are sure also to have bitterness, disbelief, shock, anger, and opposition in the face of the outcome.

This election puts me in mind of another bitter contest – one that, I hope, we can learn from.

In the year 80, ten years after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, Rabban Gamliel II was appointed as Nasi, or President, of the Sanhedrin, the highest court of the ancient Rabbis. The same post was held by his father, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, as well as the grandfather after whom he was named. He was regarded by both Jews and Romans alike as the leader of the Jewish people.

Rabban Gamliel II interviewed two witnesses about the timing of the New Moon and found their testimony valid, thereby establishing the date of Rosh Hashanah and, consequently, Yom Kippur. Rabbi Dosa questioned Rabban Gamliel’s judgment and called the witnesses liars, based on the astronomy. Rabbi Joshua concurred with his objection. In response, Rabban Gamliel sent a message to Rabbi Joshua, saying, “I decree upon you that you shall come to me with your walking stick and your money on the day that falls out to be Yom Kippur according to your calculation” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:9).

Rabbi Joshua was in a quandary. Should he honor the authority of the Sanhedrin and its head, even if that meant getting the Jewish calendar wrong and violating Yom Kippur? Among those he consulted before deciding was Rabbi Dosa, who first asserted that Rabban Gamliel was wrong. Rabbi Dosa argued for unity. “If we judge the court of Rabban Gamliel, we must also judge all the courts which have stood, from the days of Moses until now.” In other words, no court is perfect, and if we second-guess this decision, then there will be no calendar and no rule of law.

Rabbi Joshua did in fact travel, with walking stick and money purse in hand, to see Rabban Gamliel on the day that – by his and the Talmud’s reckoning – should have been Yom Kippur. The Sabbath of Sabbaths is the holiest day of the year and its timing is crucial, but an even greater principle was at stake.

When Rabbi Joshua arrived, “Rabban Gamliel stood up and kissed him on his head. He said to him, ‘Come in peace, my teacher and my student! My teacher in wisdom and my student in that you accepted my words.’”

Elections are no more perfect than courts of law; error and fraud are part of every human enterprise. Fair and free elections demand recounts in close cases, and they also demand acceptance of the results. If we question every election, we will have to go all the way back to George Washington, and we won’t be satisfied even then. Sometimes the good of the nation demands – if I may mix American and Talmudic idioms – that you speak words of gracious concession and carry a big (walking) stick.

So the ancient Rabbis supported the proper authority in his exercise of power – even when the authority was, seemingly, wrong. But wait… Not necessarily. Not always. Not even in this case. These are Jews we’re talking about, after all, and more than one opinion is represented in the history of the relationship between Rabban Gamliel II and Rabbi Joshua.

The New Moon episode supports respect for existing power structures, but that support was not unconditional.

At least twice after this incident (Berachot 27b-28a, Bechorot 23a), Rabban Gamliel humiliates Rabbi Joshua for disagreeing with him. Rabban Gamliel proves to be touchy about his own honor and insensible to that of others. He is dictatorial and a bully; he excludes people unnecessarily, sometimes based on their heritage. Eventually, the rabbis get fed up. “Now [Rabban Gamliel] insults [Rabbi Joshua] again. Come, let us depose him.” And so they do, replacing him with an 18-year-old prodigy of impeccable family background.

Among the Rabbis, failing to confer respect will lose you not only respect, in turn, but power, as well. You deserve to lose your authority if you persistently insult and belittle others. The modern-day relevance of this principle is all too obvious.

But even that is not the end of the story. Because, eventually, Rabbi Joshua and Rabban Gamliel debate again, and Rabbi Joshua wins the argument. Rabban Gamliel goes to his colleague’s house to concede and only then realizes that Rabbi Joshua does difficult and dirty menial labor to support himself. Rabbi Joshua upbraids the leader of the Jewish people for being an elitist who doesn’t have genuine interest in or compassion for those whom he is supposed to serve. Rabban Gamliel answers, “I am humbled before you. Forgive me.”

After an initial hesitation, Rabbi Joshua accepts the apology. He then advocates for Rabban Gamliel’s reinstatement. Rabban Gamliel ends up sharing the post with his replacement, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who cannot be demoted because “we have a rule that we ascend in holiness, but do not descend.”

This last principle is also the reason we add more light on each night of Hanukah. It explains why you can forget facts, but can’t unlearn spiritual insight. The rule is: we rise.

This is Rabban Gamliel’s very human pattern: he shows wisdom and humble respect for the office he holds; then he over-reaches, lashing out at opponents, falling out of favor, and thereby gaining a bit more wisdom and humility – until the next time. Hopefully, however, this is not an endless circle, but an ascending spiral. Each “next time,” he rises. Each new ceiling becomes his floor.

We don’t yet know who will win this election and become our next American “Nasi.” And, notwithstanding the evidence until now, we don’t definitively know what kind of winner and colleague the victor will prove to be. Regardless, we as individuals and as a community can choose to rise. Ascend in compassion and in patriotism. Ascend with humility and forgiveness. Ascend with grace – whether in victory or defeat. Carry your walking stick, and climb past the underbrush of this campaign to higher ground.

On November 10 at 7:30 pm, my synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel at 53 Palisade Avenue, in Emerson, NJ, will host a “Torah Town Hall.” It is open to the entire community. The theme of the evening will be “Beyond Winning or Losing: Cultivating Dialogue & Finding Common Ground After the Elections.” Rev. Mark Suriano will be present, among other local faith leaders. We will have a civil conversation about civic society. People with deeply-held, values-based convictions will debate and respect one another. Rabbi Joshua, Rabban Gamliel, and all the worthy but imperfect leaders going back to Moses would be proud.

Questions and topics can be emailed in advance to rabbi@bisrael.com. If you decide to join us, you are welcome, but not required, to bring your walking stick.

About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed scholar-in-residence. She is editor of Lifecycles 1:Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones and Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights). A seventh generation rabbi, she was in the first rabbinical class at The Jewish Theological Seminary to include women.
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