There is a well-known reference in the 42nd chapter of the book of Isaiah, verse six, that states:
אֲנִ֧י ה’ קְרָאתִ֥יךָֽ בְצֶ֖דֶק וְאַחְזֵ֣ק בְּיָדֶ֑ךָ וְאֶצָּרְךָ֗ וְאֶתֶּנְךָ֛ לִבְרִ֥ית עָ֖ם לְא֥וֹר גּוֹיִֽם
“I the Lord have called unto you in righteousness, and have taken hold of your hand, and submitted you as the people’s covenant, as a light unto the nations”
What does that mean to us in today’s society? How can we Jews fulfill the mandate to be a light unto the nations given the state of social intercourse in the society of today? Can we deduce a practical message from this goal that is applicable to our lives today? I believe we can. Permit me to suggest an approach and why I believe it is critical to the survival of humanity to fully understand Isaiah’s 2,700 year old message!
Two recent examples of individual behavior by very public people, together illustrate an opportunity for the practical implementation of this mandate and which, if applied, could aid us in the understanding of this directive to our lives today.
Example 1: Over the past few weeks, there has been a huge hullabaloo in reaction to the less than sensitive remarks about the Holocaust by well-known media personality, Whoopi Goldberg. No doubt, she should have been much more nuanced in her approach and much more aware of the simple fact that the Holocaust was a singular event in modern history that simply has no parallel to which it can be legitimately compared. While she did apologize for that insensitivity, endless comments in the press have roundly castigated her for those remarks with almost none seeking to find any path to turn this into a teaching moment rather than simply expressing anger and revulsion.
Example 2: Last week’s US Senate confirmation hearing of Dr. Deborah Lipstadt’s ambassadorial level appointment as the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism was held up for months because a member of the committee, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, was angry that she had termed him a racist in an earlier tweet of hers. He blocked the start of the hearing for months (pretty immature on his part for sure) until he was assured that she would apologize, which is what did occur during his questioning of her. His demeanor at the hearing was calm, respectful, accepting of her apology and appreciative that she offered it although he stated at the end that he will still vote against her confirmation, which is his right of course. Thankfully, it will not matter, as she is assured of a majority vote of the committee and will receive this much deserved honor. Here, too, the press generally continued to criticize Sen. Johnson for delaying the hearing and give him little credit for the manner in which he conducted himself, which was quite in contrast to how even he himself had behaved in other similar forums.
I prefer not to enter here into the substance of what Whoopi Goldberg said, nor whether Sen. Johnson deserved to be called a racist or not. Let it be noted that I found their behavior that lead to all of this to be disrespectful and in bad taste. Instead, I believe we should look at Isaiah’s words and determine how to implement them for our benefit in re both of these situations and others that will surely surface as time moves on.
In the Whoopi Goldberg case, here is a woman who chose to use the last name “Goldberg” because of a stated affinity for the Jewish people (sure, it might be anecdotal but there is some truth in every piece of fiction) and has a history of support and involvement with the Jewish community. Recognizing that, would it not have been better if some of our media personalities who strongly identify with the Jewish community (e.g. Mayim Bialik or Bari Weiss) would have chosen to spearhead a move to convert this into a teaching moment?
I am not a Jewish educator, but there could have been so many ways to do this. It could have been a simple public webinar where the community would have a chance to interface with Whoopi in a constructive and well-modulated dialogue. Alternatively, a national tour of Jewish communities around the US for town hall type meetings in 8-10 locations. That would have been more constructive than the dozens of critical articles that may make us feel better at best, but may create an enemy out of a friend at worst.
In the Sen. Johnson situation, here, too, rather than point to remarks made in the past or (sadly) his continued support for the blatant lie that the Washington insurrection of January 6th of last year was simply legitimate political protest, this can also be converted to a teaching moment. I wrote to him earlier this week complimenting him on how he handled himself at the Lipstadt hearing, and suggested that more than ever the US Congress & Senate needs to re-learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.
I actually went one step further and suggested that (in keeping with trying to turn this into a teaching moment) a program on this topic offered by Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies called machloket matters, loosely translated as “dispute matters” in the finest of Jewish traditions, could be a useful tool for legislators in Washington. Pardes has, since early 2021 when this program was initiated, already trained dozens of American Jewish community leaders and professionals in the techniques of agreeable disagreement based on biblical sources. I have no doubt that it could be useful here as well.
We very much need to learn how to turn negativity into a learning opportunity for our own benefit as well as for the benefit of the community at large. We do ourselves a great disservice when the only thing we can do when we see people do us damage is to complain. The charge given to us 2,700 years ago by the prophet has applicability today; perhaps even more than when it was first uttered.
Experience tells us that in life bad things will happen all on their own, we do not need to do much about that. What we can do something about is to make the good things happen. Those opportunities are in our hands. Choosing not to do so makes us less human, less Jewish and less worthy of the capabilities we have been given by the God who inspired Isaiah. We dare not waste that strength.