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Light through the cracks

Taking comfort in Jewish resilience, human empathy, and community, as her beloved liberal landscape shifts underfoot
Demonstrators protest President Donald Trump's executive immigration ban, at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, January 29, 2017. (AFP/Joshua LOTT)
Demonstrators protest President Donald Trump's executive immigration ban, at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, January 29, 2017. (AFP/Joshua LOTT)

Recently on the radio, I listened to the new president vigorously assert his belief in the effectiveness of torture. This is not news: he had made his views on the topic clear as a candidate. But this radio report was further evidence, piled onto President Trump’s intimidation of the media and his assertions that falsehoods are truths and truths falsehoods, that we are living in a new reality, where the leader of the free world champions the practices of despots and dictators.

I am very much a product of the post-World War II liberal consensus. I was born in 1967, so I missed being a baby boomer by a few years. Yet like the boomers, my worldview and life experience was equally shaped by expectations that chauvinism and oppression could and should be rolled back through legislation and changes in cultural behavior. This was, I was taught, part of the American promise, that all individuals are entitled to freedom and the pursuit of happiness. I understood clearly that these changes would occur not as a passive evolution, but rather the combination of ideology and effort. As Martin Luther King, Jr., observed: “Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively…Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of [human beings] willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

And we know that, even with such activism, social change doesn’t occur in a straight line, but rather in fits and starts, with many steps backward alongside forward progress. Over the last decade, I watched the rise of the right in Europe and Israel with apprehension, yet, until November 9 of last year, I believed, with so many others, that America was continuing on a trajectory of equality and opportunity and inclusion. With Donald Trump’s election, my worldview — and the language I use to narrate and bring it to life — has been shattered.

As a rabbi and the leader of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, I have sometimes described Reconstructionism as “optimistic Judaism.” Reconstructionists are defined by a forthright willingness to examine the challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish community. Our movement demonstrates the relevance of Jewish living and learning through an activism born out of our awareness of the ongoing evolution of the Jewish civilization. We have the utmost commitment to finding the richest possible balance between the well-being of the community and the aspirations of its individual members. I have ended this list of characteristics by championing an intentional optimism emerging out of the recognition that we Jews are an empowered and accepted group in America’s open society, that we have the resources and opportunities to create the Jewish community we want to live in, one that is so vital and interesting that our children will want to be a part of it even as they are exposed to the richness of the wider world.

I can’t use the language of optimism any longer. My heart is constricted with grief and tinges of fear. My voice catches in my throat. I am groping for new language to more accurately speak to this new, unfamiliar landscape in which I find myself.

Here are my initial efforts.

The Jewish people and the Jewish civilization have survived over 3,500 years and in ever-changing circumstances. We have a deep capacity for resilience in the face of setbacks and even catastrophe. We can and should draw deeply on this rich treasure house of resilience and renewal.

The Jewish ecological movement has demonstrated that we are deeply interconnected with all human life, as well as the planet on which we make our home. Moving forward, we must emphasize the cultivation of empathy, the building of relationships and coalitions, finding ways to foster our interdependence. This will require practice and self-scrutiny and a willingness to be vulnerable. Again, Judaism has much to teach us and much that will support us in this work.

As others define (and abuse) us as Jews, we have the opportunity to gather together in communities of support and celebration, across generations and “market niches.” We must strive to welcome everyone who is curious about Jewish living and learning. This ongoing work of joyful inclusion can be transformative and full of deep meaning.

The global shift to the right is taking place due to many factors, including the rise of religious fundamentalism. Liberal religion is an essential counter-narrative, offering spiritual nourishment and social rationale. We are in a battle for our lives and for our planet. We must articulate the values and the practices that make it clear what we are fighting for and that will sustain us in the struggle. We progressive Jews must do this for ourselves, and we must partner with and learn from progressive colleagues across faith traditions.

Though our landscape has shifted, there are still many familiar features, including the opportunity to affirmatively build Jewish communities and express Jewish values. We must recover the shards of our broken worldview and piece them together into new coherences and new connections. There will surely be cracks, but, as Leonard Cohen, of blessed memory, who died the week of the election, taught us:

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College & Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.

About the Author
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D. is the president of Reconstructing Judaism.
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