My daughter had me read her college paper on Abraham Joshua Heschel recently. The focus of her paper was one of the essays in Heschel’s Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Pikuach Neshama: To Save a Soul. Reading her paper crystalized for me all of the disappointment, anguish, and yes, rage I have felt toward those in the Jewish community in America who have not spoken out against the abomination that is the Trump administration and all it stands for.
To be reminded of Heschel’s commitment not only to a robust, serious, engaged, lived Judaism, is to mourn what we seem not to have among our religious leaders these days. Heschel recognized the fight for civil rights for black Americans as a human fight, as one he was obligated to join. His stance against the Vietnam War was again another stance for humanity and against the carnage wrought by an unjust, unnecessary war.
Where is our Heschel today? Where is the rabbi who commands our moral attention, who calls us as a community to do better, to be better, to fight for a country worth saving, for its very soul? Where are the rabbis who can call our community’s attention to the abuses against immigrants, against black Americans, against Hispanic Americans, against Muslim Americans and yes, against Jewish Americans who are included among those vilified and scapegoated by Trump and his supporters? Where are the rabbis decrying the moral rot that defines Trump and his administration? Where are the rabbis willing to pray with their feet, willing to form alliances with those in other communities who are bearing the brunt of abuses leveled at them through cruel policies and through the cynical unleashing of a rabid racism that is the diseased core of America’s body politic?
Where are the rabbis willing to put something at risk to challenge their congregants to demand better, to call out the hideous abuses of power and the assaults on truth and human decency that are at the heart of Trump’s enterprise? Where are the rabbis willing to tell their congregants that support for Israel does not, cannot, must not take precedence over the unraveling and undermining of everything that has made America not only a place of aspirational hopes and dreams, but a source of strength and support to other nations, including Israel. Where are the rabbis to remind us that no amount of upward mobility and success in our community can restore a rotted soul, or eyes blinded to suffering and abuse by the prizes of status and access to power?
There are some voices here and there, some stepping up to remind us that we are a people of action, a people for whom justice is and always must be a defining feature. Yet those voices, at a moment of desperate need, seem too small, too diffuse, too insignificant, for the task at hand.
As division, hatred, and cruelty rule from inside the White House, gutting a house meant to symbolize the promise of democracy in a chaotic world, I mourn what might have been, what we should have done, and the leaders we needed to have.
Judaism is a de-centralized faith, one without a Pope to mandate our practices. That is a great thing, in many respects. It invites the wrestling with tradition that is a strength of the religion, reminding us that our job in this world is not to be passive receptacles of religious wisdom, but active participants in completing and perfecting God’s creation. But if we sit idly by as that creation is torn asunder, are we not desecrating God’s name, defiling his creation, and squandering our capacity to be the very agents of perfecting creation that God put us on earth to be?
If not now, when? If not us, then who? While we have feet, we must use them to pray. While we have voices, we must raise them up to defend what needs defending, and to call out what must be called out. If complacency, comfort, and determination not to offend are the guiding principles of our religious leaders, then religious leadership might be the greatest con of all.