How Jewish Wisdom Can Heal A Divided America

Whether priest or prophet, politician or pundit, those who speak to others of morals and lofty ideals are expected not only to live those morals and to achieve those lofty ideals, but to exceed them as well. Failure to do so results – right or wrong — in accusations of hypocrisy.

Throughout the administration of President Donald Trump, Democrats regularly called into question the morality of Mr. Trump’s behavior; they challenged the legality of his policies; and they denigrated him for their perception of his failure to live up to the ideals of the American presidency. As a presidential candidate, Joseph Biden positioned himself as the foil to Mr. Trump: a faithful public servant guided by compassion and experience, faith and science, morality and law.

In his speech on Inauguration Day, President Biden then called upon all Americans and especially our elected officials in Washington to transcend political tribalism in order to unite as a country against the enemies foreign, domestic, and viral that threaten us. He asked them – he asked us – to do better and to be better.

Less than 24 hours later, Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal called out President Biden for hypocrisy. It seems that before the inauguration dais had cleared, the administration already asked Peter Robb, appointed by President Trump as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, to resign or be fired. “The general-counsel position is a Senate-confirmed four-year appointment at an independent agency; Mr. Robb had 10 months left in his term,” Ms. Strassel explains. “No NLRB general counsel had ever been fired, and the Biden White House provided no cause for the action.”

Then she adds “Mr. Biden ran on, and won on, a promise to restore norms to Washington. The Robb firing illustrates the falsehood of both those narratives. For all Mr. Trump’s bad manners,” she purports, “[President Trump’s] administration’s actions were largely by the book.”[1] While I lack the qualifications to judge the legality or appropriateness of the termination of Mr. Robb’s position, Ms. Strassel’s article – and similar articles that have appeared on other matters since — reinforces the notion that those who speak to others of morals and lofty ideals are expected not only to live those morals and to achieve those lofty ideals, but to exceed them as well. For Kimberley Strassel and others, President Biden missed the mark. In turn, she accused him of hypocrisy.

For right and wrong, better and worse, many people are watching and judging the actions of the Biden administration closely, just as others (again: for right and wrong, better and worse), and especially the media, were hyper-attuned to every word and action of the previous administration. In an age of non-stop news coverage, we are a country engaged in hyper-vigilance and ceaseless commentary on our leaders’ decisions, words, and behaviors.

When Others Hold Us to a Higher Standard

We Jews know what it is like to be under the microscope. As the Chosen People destined to bring God’s message of ethics and morals to humanity, we are regularly held to higher standards. Our Sages encourage us not to give a pitchon peh (an opening of the mouth) to an adversary who might then accuse us of wrongdoing, because even the appearance of impropriety becomes an opportunity for castigation.[2] Jewish history too has attested to the importance of this wisdom: our enemies were and are looking for any excuse to attack us with words or with violence and so we had and continue to have to behave in such a way as to avoid any possible accusation.

Thus, our rabbis teach us that we Jews must show compassion to Jews and gentiles alike – not because of the vague notion of Tikkun Olam, but rather mipnei darchei shalom (on account of the ways of peace). That is to say, we Jews know more peace when we care for non-Jews similar to how we care for our own. The Talmud[3] tells us, “One does not protest against poor gentiles who come to take gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and the produce in the corner of the field, which is given to the poor, although they are meant exclusively for the Jewish poor, mipnei darchei shalom … One sustains poor gentiles along with poor Jews, and one visits sick gentiles along with sick Jews, and one buries dead gentiles along with dead Jews.” All this is done mipnei darchei shalom, to foster peaceful relations between Jews and gentiles. We care for our non-Jewish neighbors not only because it is kind to do so, but caring for them in turn helps to protect Jews.

When the United States marked 400,000 losses to Covid-19, I innocently posted the number to my Facebook page followed by the words, “Please God, heal us now!” I attached to the post a recording of our synagogue’s Hazzan offering a prayer for healing. A Facebook user whose name I did not recognize responded,

The Jewish people own the medical business. Let’s hope they don’t treat gentiles getting vaccines the way they avoid them when spending money. Give the gentiles a placebo and others get the real thing. Is that the plan? Succeed where Hitler failed it sounds like.  If it is, shame on you for not being what God wants. No wonder they don’t want to appear. Be true to ownself and live by the golden rule not just into saving your own people.

Perhaps I should have been clearer that my prayer for healing was indeed meant for all; nevertheless, as a Jewish leader the ambiguity of my post created a pitchon peh for someone looking to criticize Jews. Though antisemites will seek any reason to justify their Jew-hatred, the people commanded to be a light unto the nations must strive to operate beyond reproach and must also apply its values universally. After all, those who speak to others of morals and lofty ideals are expected not only to live those morals and to achieve those lofty ideals, but to exceed them as well. Failure to do so results – right or wrong — in accusations of hypocrisy.

Holding Ourselves to a Higher Standard

It is not just fear of violence or accusation, however, that causes Jews to elevate themselves to a higher standard of behavior. In the Torah[4] we read, “Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that the LORD your God has enjoined upon you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that it may go well with you …”. For our rabbis, this means that we ought not only to fulfill the laws exactly as they are written, but rather that we should behave lifnim m’shurat hadin: beyond the letter of the law.[5]

In business ethics, in ritual practice, and in all aspects of life, we Jews are told to go beyond the letter of the law to lead lives of righteousness. “For the upright will inhabit the earth,” Proverbs[6] tells us, “The blameless will remain in it.” It is not good enough for Jews to “merely” operate within the law. We must be “upright” and “blameless” for God’s sake. The Hebrew prophets of old blazed a trail which the rabbis continued, elucidating God’s demands that we pursue justice and offer compassion in our communities and in our relationships.

And while living up to the highest of morals and loftiest of ideals is difficult, it seems to be what God most wants. In a midrash on this week’s Torah portion, Parashat B’shallach, we read that the angels were celebrating God’s defeat of the Egyptians after the Egyptians drowned while pursuing the Israelites into the Red Sea. Though the angels were seemingly justified in celebrating the defeat of such evildoers, God rebuked them, “The works of My hands are drowning in the sea and you recite songs?!”[7] God demanded the angels be better and do better. Likewise, as mentioned earlier, God tells the Israelites, “Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that the LORD your God has enjoined upon you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that it may go well with you …”. We Jews, too, must be better and do better.

If America Is to Heal, Its Leaders Must Strive for the Better Angels of Our Nature

But being better and doing better is a recipe not only for the Jews to prosper; rather, it is a formula for which all Americans should strive today.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yohanan taught regarding the first Jewish commonwealth, “Jerusalem was destroyed [in the days of the Holy Temple] because [its inhabitants] based their judgment solely upon Torah law and did not act lifnim m’shurat hadin.” That is to say, the Jews succumbed to their enemies and our ancestors’ entire way of life was destroyed because the Jews failed to heed their better angels.

Since then, in order (1) to be the kingdom of priests and holy nation that God expects of us and (2) to avoid the wrath of neighbors seeking reasons to attack us, we Jews learned early on that we must not only be fastidious in our observance of law – including and especially laws governing interpersonal relationships as well as the application of civil justice, but we should behave lifnim m’shurat hadin: beyond the letter of the law. In this way, we protected and continue to protect Jewish lives and the Jewish way of life.

American leaders in particular and Americans in general have much to learn from Jewish wisdom. Though politicians of both the left and the right make decisions that might be legal, faith in America’s elected officials continues to decline because the electorate needs greater reassurance. Given the climate of the day, the people’s representatives should not just act within the law, but must transcend the law in order to achieve blamelessness. In fact, the United States would benefit if all its citizens tried even just a little harder to do better and to be better.

As we Jews know, there are paths out of the current climate of distrust and disgust and, among other steps that Americans and our elected officials should take, seeking to operate beyond reproach should become the goal for all Americans — no matter one’s chosen political party. Failure to do so will continue to result in accusations of hypocrisy. Indeed, given the incredibly low opinion many Americans have of elected officials in general – in both political parties – it is in fact incumbent upon all our leaders to strive to act lifnim m’shurat hadin, and it would behoove all Americans to follow suit. In this way among others, faith in the American government can begin to be restored and perhaps an America divided might in the face of enemies foreign, domestic, and viral, approach the unity that so many seek.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” President Lincoln reminded the country in his first inaugural address. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Those who speak to others of morals and lofty ideals are expected not only to live those morals and to achieve those lofty ideals, but to exceed them as well. Failure to do so results – right or wrong — in accusations of hypocrisy. And while living up to the highest of morals and loftiest of ideals is difficult, behaving lifnim m’shurat hadin seems to be what God most wants. It certainly is what the citizens of the United States most need in these difficult times. And in this way, perhaps, Jewish wisdom can help to heal a divided America.

[1] Joe Biden’s Inaugural Purge – WSJ

[2] See BT Brachot 60a, M’nachot 110a, among others.

[3] BT Gittin 61a

[4] Deuteronomy 6:17-18.

[5] See BT Baba Metzia 30b, 83a, 108a, and elsewhere.

[6] Proverbs 2:21.

[7] BT Megillah 10b

About the Author
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. A member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Starr is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly-Michigan Region and the Metropolitan Detroit's Board of Jewish Educators. Rabbi Starr is the author of the book, "Taste of Hebrew," and the article in Conservative Judaism, "Tradition vs. Modernity: The CJLS and Conservative Halakhah."
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