Obama and Rev. Wright Again

As I write, a fierce debate is raging among my colleagues, and indeed among Americans, about the relationship between Barack Obama and his minister/mentor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Americans of all creeds are disturbed by Rev. Wright’s comments- played on what seems like a continuous loop on YouTube- that essentially blame 9/11 on America, and reveal a huge reservoir of toxic anger against insults both real and imagined perpetrated by White America against Black people.

Jews are understandably disturbed by his warped understanding of the Middle East, seeing Israel as the source of all problems and the impediment to all solutions. And, of course, there is Reverend Wright’s unabashed admiration for Louis Farrakhan, whom he regards as a great man and a hero. From where I sit, it’s hard to be more wrong than that, and most Jews see it the same way.

In the middle of it all is Barack Obama, who happens to be a member of Reverend Wright’s congregation and, of course, a serious contender to become President of the United States. Compounding the complexity is the fact that Rev. Wright is not merely Senator Obama’s pastor, but also a vitally important figure in his life. He introduced the Senator to the serious practice of Christianity, officiated at his wedding, baptized his children… theirs is a serious and long-time friendship, forged through connection at the most critical times in Obama’s life.

As a rabbi, I understand those kinds of connections, because I have them with members of my own community. I respect what lies behind them, and never minimize their importance. When you’ve officiated at a couple’s wedding, or named their children, or buried a member of their family, you in essence become a part of their family. As I see it, that’s the nature of the relationship between the Reverent Wright and Barack Obama.

So here’s my first question.

Given that Rev. Wright is such a significant figure in Senator Obama’s life, virtually family, isn’t it still fair to ask whether or not, at a certain point, one is obliged to say “Enough?”

I wondered aloud with my own congregation this past Shabbat morning what it would take for me, were I sitting in the pews instead of on the bimah, to say that the opinions being espoused by the rabbi were so distasteful to me that I could not in good conscience continue to be a member of that congregation. After all, Jews leaving one synagogue for another is a common enough phenomenon to have spawned countless jokes about desert islands and multiple synagogues. I’m sure I’d have a tolerance threshold, even for a rabbi who meant a lot to me. What is Senator Obama’s threshold? And why hasn’t it been reached yet?

It may well be that large numbers of Jews will find it hard to vote for Senator Obama because of his disinclination to sever his connection to his church and its pastor. I understand that, just as I understand the antipathy for Reverend Wright.

But having said all that, I would be dishonest to myself and to you if I didn’t share the other side of this issue as I see it, just as I did from the pulpit yesterday. The eloquent speech that Senator Obama delivered in Philadelphia last week, on the nature of race relations in America, obliges us to look in the mirror. And when I do, what I find myself thinking is “When you live in a glass house, be very careful before you throw stones.”

I have been a part of the professional Jewish community for almost three decades. During that time, I have heard respected- even revered- teachers of Torah say the most strikingly insensitive, insulting, and inappropriate things. Have their followers left them in protest? Did they even notice that what their teachers were saying was horrific?

When the late Lubavitcher Rebbe said that Israeli soldiers were dying in Lebanon (during the first Lebanon war in the 80’s) because Jews in Israel had failed to check their mezuzahs carefully, was there a fall-off in the Chabad ranks? When a Chief Rabbi of Israel blamed the Shoah on the rise of non-Orthodox Judaism in post-Emancipation Europe, or a revered Rosh Yeshiva here in New York only recently said to students that an Israeli Prime Minister who advocated giving back parts of Jerusalem should be shot (twelve years after the Rabin assassination!), did they lose followers, or, for that matter, their jobs? I don’t think so.

You can quibble with me about quantity and degree of outrageousness, and none of them are running for President of the United States. But the point is the point. We have our loose-lipped teachers and preachers too, don’t we? What are our standards? What is our threshold, beyond which we say, “You can’t be my teacher, or my rabbi?”

And further still… I am deeply concerned that the real issue that Senator Obama raised in his Philadelphia speech- about Black anger, and its pervasiveness in even “mainstream” Black communities- is one that we Jews all too easily decide not to hear, or are incapable of hearing.

Yes indeed, Black anti-Semitism after the civil rights movement has made many in our community understandably disillusioned. And yes- the unique nature of Jewish suffering in the Shoah has forever placed us on a different playing field when it comes to historical injustice. I could never argue other. But that surely doesn’t mean that others haven’t suffered also, and have reasonable grievances and justifiable anger.

Who other than we Jews, who have such a large reservoir of historical anger at what was done to us- are better positioned to understand the residual reservoir of anger in the African-American community? Of course steps have been take to ameliorate the injustices perpetrated against them in the aftermath of slavery, just as steps were taken to ameliorate the injustices perpetrated against us. Just last week, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel was in the Knesset to continue that process. Here in America, we enjoy freedoms and privilege that we once could only dream of. But does that delete the anger, so to speak, from our communal hard disk? Hardly. And does it come out in ways both toxic and non-toxic in the ways we relate to both Jew and non-Jew? Absolutely.

So why is it so difficult for us to understand this phenomenon in the Black community?

This question, like so many different aspects of the issue of race relations in America, is difficult to answer. Altogether, the topic is a difficult one to address, because it takes but a moment for someone in the conversation to become insulted. For taking the conversation to a higher level, I think Senator Obama is to be congratulated, whether one votes for him or not.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.