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If the White House invites you, Judaism says go

The baseball World Series champions who stayed away from the ceremony because they don't like Trump missed the point
President Donald Trump, left, reacts as Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki walks to a podium during an event to honor the 2019 World Series champion Nationals at the White House, Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in Washington. Standing alongside Suzuki are manager Dave Martinez, second from right, and general manager Mike Rizzo. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Donald Trump, left, reacts as Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki walks to a podium during an event to honor the 2019 World Series champion Nationals at the White House, Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in Washington. Standing alongside Suzuki are manager Dave Martinez, second from right, and general manager Mike Rizzo. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

It was a beautiful, exciting and wonderful World Series.

The Washington Nationals defeated the Houston Astros in game 7 to win the team’s first franchise title. And, because baseball still lays claim to being America’s national pastime, the champions were granted a moving tribute – an invitation to the White House to be officially honored by the nation’s commander-in-chief.

And sure enough it happened again.

Not as badly as the players’ response to the invite to last year’s World Series winners, when a significant number of the Boston Red Sox as well as their manager pointedly boycotted the similar honor last May in order, as they claimed, to make a political statement. This time, thankfully, only seven players cited the president’s “divisive rhetoric” as justification for their absence.

But once more it seemed logical to the boycotters as well as to a goodly number of the press – who not only agreed with the stayaways but loudly congratulated them “for their courage” – that political partisanship overrides any and every national and collective feel-good moment.

Aren’t there any tranquil areas in our civil life left where we can lay aside the hatreds of political difference for collective appreciation of those things that bring us together and have made us beneficiaries of the beauties of the American way of life? Is it so hard to understand that participating in a White House ceremony does not constitute an endorsement of a president, much less agreement with all his policies?

There is something profoundly relevant to our contemporary attitude in a Talmudic maxim found in the Mishnah portion of Ethics of the Fathers:

Rabbi Hanina, the vice-high priest said: pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive. (Ethics of the Fathers 3:2)

This is the text which for countless centuries served the Jewish people as source for a special prayer recited in every synagogue. No matter where our ancestors lived or how poorly they were treated by the local government they still insisted on acknowledging the gratitude they owed to the rulership simply because it was preferable to anarchy.

Highly significant is the fact that this dictum, translated into law, is expressly stated by Rabbi Hanina, a man identified as “vice high priest.” Many others might have offered the opinion that even an imperfect government is better than none. None of them would have been as meaningful as the one coming from the vice high priest. Rabbi Hanina had every qualification for the high priesthood. He, perhaps more than any other Kohen at the time, was worthy of this position. Yet it was never to be. The Roman authorities of the time, whose approval for the post was required, were corrupt. Tragically, bribes proved more powerful than talent, money spoke louder than personal worth.

It is hard to imagine how devastated Rabbi Hanina must have been. His life’s dream was never realized. All because of an immoral government. Yet he is the source of the rabbinic ruling that recognizes that there are times when we need to respect kingship even when we do not respect the king, to maintain deference to government while opposed to the governor.

I don’t wish to equate the extent to which Jewish law mandates respect for rulership with the present situation. I leave it to others to question whether we are in a comparable situation to the one specifically addressed by Rabbi Hanina.

But one thing I know: Participating in a White House ceremony is an honor which speaks not to its present occupant but to its history. I do not want to make any judgment on the man who today occupies this position. My point is that with regards to the issue at hand, it is simply irrelevant.

What has made America great is the willingness of its citizens to live together as “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Even when we do not all agree with each other. Even when we think the opinions of others are wrong, evil, unjust.

In a democracy we have the right to express our views by our votes. But no matter what we must respect our national institutions. Surely the entire club could have all come together in the White House, home of our national government, for a moment meant only to give well-deserved tribute to a baseball team that at long last proved that even Washington can finally do something right.

About the Author
Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and an internationally recognized educator, religious leader, and lecturer.
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