Shortly before he became Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Lord Sacks — a life-long Arsenal fan — accepted an invitation from the then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey — another life-long Arsenal fan — to join him watching Arsenal play their great rivals Manchester United at home. Arsenal decided to make a great play of the event. The two prelates were introduced to the team and the management. There were presentations. It was billed rightly as a display of inter faith goodwill, in really human terms, between the dominant faith in this country and its oldest non-Christian minority.
The only problem was that Arsenal lost, and not just a simple defeat but 6-2, the largest home defeat they had suffered in 63 years. After the match, an aggressive reporter, no doubt a Manchester United fan suffering from an excess of schadenfreude, buttonholed the chief rabbi-elect and asked whether this proved that there is no God. Unruffled, Rabbi Sacks replied, ‘To the contrary: There is a God; it’s just that maybe He supports Manchester United’.
I was reminded of this anecdote when I read on the website of Arutz Sheva, the religious nationalist channel on Israeli radio, the story this week of Rabbi David Bazri, a noted Kabbalist, exorcist and reputed miracle worker who has just devised a prayer to bring about the victory of President Trump in the forthcoming election. The headline implied that this was a Kabbalistic procedure rather like the infamous ’pulsa denura’ ceremony effected by some Kabbalists in 1995. That was intended, and was successful indirectly, in bringing about the destruction of Yitzchak Rabin. In fact, Bazri’s prayer was a fairly harmless piece asking God to protect Trump and grant him success rather on the lines of our own prayer, here in the UK, for our royal family. It appears also that Rav Dov Kook, a descendant of the distinguished chief rabbi of Israel of that name, fasted in 2016 to bring about Trump’s victory in that election.
These episodes do raise several questions. One must assume that both these rabbis believed that Trump’s election was and is a good thing and that presumably it was and is God’s wish that he be president. The rabbis must also believe, that God is all powerful and disposed to intervene in history, even in an election just involving human choices, or else what would be the point in asking for His help? But why then should their prayers be needed? If this is God’s wish, why should He need human beings to ask him to fulfil it? But I would like to focus on a different question which concerns both sides. If many of Trump’s supporters see his victory as the will of God, some of his opponents see his defeat in similar terms citing defects in his character and policies.
I would like to cite a far greater person in every sense than these two candidates for POTUS. Abraham Lincoln led the United States through one of the most moral wars in which it has ever been involved. At the end however instead of preening himself on the success of the venture, his second inaugural address is full of honest doubt — acknowledging that both sides had prayed to the same God, read the same Bible and come to opposite conclusions. They could not both have been right they could both have been wrong. In a speech full of allusions to passages in the Bible, he acknowledges that the Almighty has His own purposes which we do not understand.
The same can surely be said of today. Even though, as another Arsenal fan, I find it hard to believe in or even conceive of a deity who could be a Manchester United fan, I think we have to admit ignorance about His intentions and dispositions, as regards our own world. The third of the Ten Commandments is one of the most difficult to understand, but perhaps it can be read as telling us to use God’s name for its own purposes, and to be wary of invoking it in promotion of our own causes. At a time, when politics is becoming increasingly polarised and inflamed by fires of extremism, the last thing we need is to have religious authorities adding fuel to the flames.