Arnold D. Samlan
Jewish Educational Leader, South Florida

Lessons on Civility, Israeli Elections and President Obama from a Bad Food Experience

I recently participated in a conference that brought together some really great people involved in Jewish life for some wonderful learning. The only real problem was the food. Some of the time, the food was great quality and served poorly, with lines stretching out well out of the dining room and into the hall. Some of the time, the food was terrible, such as beginning the day with cold hard omelettes that were left unharmed on a buffet area. Some of the time, the wait staff just cleared the food too quickly, not realizing that attendees were in sessions and might arrive a little late. At the end of the event, the dining room was half empty, as many participants decided to go out for the meal, understandably. I sat next to a gentleman who I did not know and we got acquainted. And he spoke with me about his work which, among other things, supports “traditional marriage”. Realizing that I was going to strongly disagree with him, I was all primed to not like the guy and even to not respect him. As we were leaving the dinner table, he turned to the African-American waitress for our table, addressed her by the name that was on her name tag, and proceeded to thank her for serving us dinner.

And there you have it. Hakarat Hatov, the incredibly Jewish value of recognizing when another human being has done something good for you. And kavod, honoring the image of God, wherever you find it. And I apologize to you, my new friend. Because even though your opinions and mine do not align, you have taught me an object lesson in kavod haberiot, respect for God’s creatures. And you reminded me that, even though our opinions might be different, I should never believe for a moment that I don’t have something to learn from you. Because now that I have learned from you, you are my teacher and therefore are always to be treated with respect.

Which bring us to the Israeli elections and American politics. Very few of my fellow Jews are neutrals when it comes to the recent Israeli elections or to President Obama. I have my opinions, too. But here’s the thing: At the end of a conference with poor food, a colleague showed me how to treat another human being with respect, despite her connection to the food. Same here: Whether you like President Obama or not, he is the president of the United States. And he is deserving of the kavod, the honor, that a president of the United States gets. That’s why the rabbis in ancient times wrote a berecha, a blessing to be recited when seeing a great secular ruler, regardless of whether we like his politics. And most every synagogue in the United States recites a prayer for the government that specifically asks God’s blessings for the president, whoever it may be. That kavod must carry into the very public arena of the Jewish press and of social media. Treating the president of the United States with anything less than honor, even when disagreeing, is nothing less than a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

In the same way, the Israeli public has voted and will retain Prime Minister Netanyahu. Some love his views, some hate them. But he is the leader of the Jewish (albeit secular) state of Israel, and that earns him kavod. To denigrate him, or those who ran against him, is also shameful and a chillul Hashem.

Let’s hate bad food. And let’s disagree over our politics. But let’s never let it get in the way of treating people with the honor due them for their role in life, the leadership they exhibit and their creation as humans in the image of God.

About the Author
Rabbi Arnie Samlan, Chief Jewish Education Officer of the Jewish Federation Broward County, Florida, Is a rabbi and Jewish educator whose work has impacted Jewish learners, community leaders and professionals across North America. All blog posts are his personal opinions and are not meant to reflect viewpoints of the Jewish Federation.