Since the attack on the Chabad of Poway synagogue, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein has become a heroic figure and exemplary role model. For his courage and leadership at a time of crisis, he has come to embody the qualities of what Jews for generations have called a “mensch.”
Yes, he’s a mensch, but even a certified, honest-to-goodness mensch can make a mistake from time to time. And so, a few days after the attack, at the National Day of Prayer service in Washington, Rabbi Goldstein, in thanking President Trump for his condolence visit to the synagogue, called Trump a “mensch par excellence.”
President Trump is many things, but if there is one thing that he most certainly is not, it’s a “mensch par excellence.”
What is a mensch? No single word or phrase in English can properly encapsulate it’s meaning. To define a mensch as simply a “good person,” as some do, is akin to calling LeBron James a “good basketball player.”
A mensch – man or woman, Jew or non-Jew, is someone bursting with integrity, humor, curiosity and humility; someone who is not perfect but is able to grow from failure. A mensch has the innate ability to maintain civility while never surrendering principle. In Psychology Today, Dr. Saul Levine writes that the traits of a mensch include “decency, wisdom, kindness, honesty, trustworthiness, respect, benevolence, compassion, and altruism.”
There’s much more, but does any of this describe the current President of the United States?
Honesty? Not for the man who just surpassed 10,000th false statement of his presidency, according to the Washington Post.
Respect? Not for the man who tweet-stalks and ridicules his opponents – and calls for their incarceration.
Kind? Compassionate? Some children separated from parents at the border might beg to differ.
Humility? I’m surprised that after Rabbi Goldstein’s salute, Trump didn’t tweet, “I am the Greatest Mensch Ever!” But if you call yourself a mensch, then you aren’t one.
Then there’s fallibility. Being a true mensch means always having to say you’re sorry. That quality is utterly unTrumpian – his administration has practically criminalized remorse. If Trump knew that being a mensch entails constantly apologizing, he might have stood up when Rabbi Goldstein was speaking and said, “Thanks – but no thanks.”
So let’s assume that Rabbi Goldstein was just being a gracious and appreciative guest, who also received some comfort from the President. So why is this such a big deal?
What might seem like quibbling over semantics is really much more than that. The clouding of language is step one leading toward the eradication of all objective truth. Words matter, and this Yiddish word matters a bissel more than most. While the term mensch might mean a whole lot of things, there is a person whom it clearly, objectively and unimpeachably does not describe, and that person is Donald Trump.
If demonstrably false claims are allowed to stand without refutation, they gain credibility. You can bet that Rabbi Goldberg’s “mensch par excellence” line will be repeated mantra-like in 2020 campaign commercials from Broward to Brooklyn. And in this climate of moral relativism and truthiness, some Jews might begin to believe it.
It is perfectly appropriate to give the president credit where it’s due. Visiting grieving congregations in Poway and Pittsburgh was commendable – one might even say menschy – but that does not a mensch make of one who showed little compassion for the burning black churches of Louisiana and hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, and who to this day has not retracted his abominable comments post-Charlottesville.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “In a free society, few are guilty – all are responsible.” If you look at Adam Schiff’s now-famous “I don’t think that’s okay” speech, where he recited a litany of verifiable Trump-Russia related abominations, simply replace that refrain with “I don’t think that’s what a mensch would allow to happen on his watch.” For a true mensch, it’s about collective accountability. For Trump it’s all about personal survival and settling scores.
I’d like to see leaders aim to be humans of exemplary character and rabbis should not give away that high honor frivolously and obsequiously. I use the term “mensch” most often at bar/bat mitzvahs and funerals, when the subject is either too young to care or too dead to notice. It’s much more dangerous to throw it around casually in the presence of politicians. Religious leaders need to be speak truth to power and not be sycophantic.
The term “mensch” needs to remain unsullied and pure. It also needs to be trending. As part of the roll-out of my new book “Mensch-Marks,” I’ve proposed a Million Mensch March. I’d love to see large numbers of Americans set higher moral standards for themselves and their leaders – and pledge to add just a few more mensch-like qualities to their lives.
If Rabbi Goldstein’s words encourage President Trump to embark on a such a journey, we will all be better off. But to this point, “mensch par excellence” is not a title he has come close to earning.