Like millions of Americans, I woke up on Wednesday, November 9th stunned by the news that Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States. Virtually all major media outlets and political experts across the spectrum had projected a Clinton victory, perhaps even a landslide. Predictably, my own liberal Jewish bubble had felt confident of a Clinton victory. But many of Trump’s own supporters, and even some members of his campaign, also assumed Clinton would win.
In a sense, I felt as though I was Rip van Winkle, waking up after decades of slumber to a world I did not recognize. After all, in the world I thought I knew, a man caught on video boasting of his ability to commit sexual assault without fear of reprisal and then accused by multiple women of doing just that, could never, ever, be elected President of the United States. But, when I awoke on November 9th, I learned that this was indeed my reality, a reality in which millions of people could support a presidential candidate despite (or in some cases because of) xenophobic and Islamophobic policy proposals, a documented history of misogyny and racism, his delight in his own ignorance, an apparent contempt for democratic norms, and his lack of experience in public service.
This, to say the least, was disorienting. I woke up feeling I no longer knew anything about anything. And as I began to re-engage with the rest of the world, with friends and family, congregants and community members, columnists and scholars, it occurred to me that I was not alone in this feeling of profound uncertainty. Not only were people of all political stripes shocked by the election results, virtually no one seemed clear on what a Trump presidency would actually look like.
For the first time in American history, we elected a president with no previous policy experience, no prior record in government or military to point to as indications of how he would lead. Even supporters would admit that the president-elect’s campaign was heavy on style but light on substance, that candidate Trump offered scant few detailed proposals of how, precisely, he would “make America great again.”
The level of uncertainty felt (and, truthfully, still feels) dizzying and disorienting. This is uncharted territory for us all.
Upon coming to this realization, it occurred to me that when one is charting uncharted waters or navigating unfamiliar paths, the most important thing is to orient one’s sense of direction by finding “true north.” When one identifies north, one can more easily, safely, and successfully traverse the unknown and make it through to the other side.
So what is our “true north” for this strange terrain into which we have stumbled? For the Jewish tradition, true north is the principle that humanity – all of humanity – was created in God’s image. This principle is articulated at the very beginning of the Bible (Genesis 1:27), and arguably serves as the foundation for everything else that follows: that all human life is infinitely precious; that the destruction of life is abhorrent; that all human beings are effectively siblings and have a filial responsibility to care for each other; that all forms of oppression and injustice are an outrage; that God always sides with the victimized, marginalized, ostracized, and disenfranchised, and expects us to do so as well; that we are obligated to fashion communities and societies where everyone is treated with equal respect and fairness.
This value becomes the core of rabbinic ethics, in which we are taught that all human beings are fundamentally equal, that to save a life is to save an entire world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5), and that human dignity is so important that we can set aside even biblical prohibitions to preserve it (Babylonian Talmud B’rakhot 19b).
We are, all of us, created in God’s image, according to God’s likeness. That is the true north of the Jewish tradition. A few weeks ago, observant Jews performed a ritual that highlighted this very truth. Each year, we conclude our annual reading of the Torah with a cliffhanger: Moses dies while the Israelites are on the cusp of the Promised Land. We do not know what their fate will be when they conquer Canaan, or if they will even make it over the Jordan. We dwell in this space of uncertainty and disquiet by dancing round and round in circles, reinforcing our sense of disorientation. Then, instead of figuring out what comes next in the narrative, we roll the book back to its beginning. There, we almost immediately reencounter the verse, “God created humanity in God’s image.” We calibrate our compass once again to true north. Only then can we navigate the chaotic unknown of life.
That same true north can similarly orient us in this moment of deep uncertainty and anxiety. If we Jews are serious about our tradition’s values, then that bedrock principle, our true north, must similarly guide us during the course of Trump’s presidency and, indeed, during the course of every presidency. It means that to the extent our incoming government proposes policies that advance the cause of human dignity, that demonstrate respect for every person and that make our society more compassionate and just, then we – liberal, conservative, and everything in between – should be full-throated in our support of them.
And it also means that, if our incoming government pursues policies or makes decisions that diminish the dignity of any person or group of people, we, all of us, regardless of political inclination, should be forceful in our opposition to them.
It means that people on the left take seriously the pain of those whose legitimate feelings of brokenness, degradation, and marginalization led them to support Trump. And it means that people on the right must honor the concerns of those who legitimately feel threatened by an incoming administration and its supporters who have signaled in ways overt and subtle their hostile intentions towards them. It means considering not just who is helped through certain policies and actions, but also caring about who is hurt by them.
And it means standing up in defense of every human being whose dignity, welfare, or life is at risk, especially when they are threatened in the name of the President of the United States. Indeed, we must demand that the President-elect does everything in his power to disavow and condemn hate of all kinds, along with the groups and individuals who espouse it and act upon it. If we were all created in God’s image, then all of our lives matter, and we all have a responsibility to care for and lift up each other.
True, Jewish tradition does not always tell us precisely how to apply the principle that all were created in God’s image. The value does not necessarily lead us to any particular policy conclusions. Liberals and conservatives could plausibly craft agendas that advance that value, and they could both of them propose solutions that violate that value. But so long as we keep ourselves oriented toward this true north, we will be doing all we can to bring about the world that God envisions for us. May it happen speedily in our time.