The first couple weeks of the Trump administration have been eventful.
Mass post-election protests have been succeeded by even broader protests across the country and the globe against the immigration ban. Condemnation from most religious groups, including my own Conservative movement in Judaism, was levied against the president’s order. The debate over its appropriateness and legality will probably continue for a while, and the result will set constitutional precedents whose influence will be felt beyond the issue at hand.
As a congregational rabbi who, like most rabbis, serves a community of very principled and intelligent people who fall on either side of just about any political issue, and as an American who loves his country, I always have respected the president. I have sought to instill a respect for the office, even as I believe that engaged debate and protest ought to be encouraged and protected. I do believe that our religious tradition teaches us certain values that will intersect with American values, values that at times come into conflict, or are, at least, at play in a democracy that has the right to redefine its statutes continuously. Protecting the stranger, lifting up the underprivileged, providing universal education and health care, and establishing the priority of a mother’s health over that of her unborn offspring are among the values that are informed by my reading of the Jewish tradition, and as such affect my politics. And while the executive order on immigration and refugees may pose the greatest challenge to my Jewishly informed values, it is not different in kind from any disagreement about any the other values I hold. As with all of these issues, I recognize there may be room for disagreement on both the value itself, as well as its application to American society.
I assert unequivocally that my reading of Jewish tradition, and all the more so of American society, is not infallible. Debate on values that we care about is the fabric of an open society, and the only way that a democracy can function and flourish.
But something different happened in the immediate aftermath of President Trump’s inauguration. One of the White House’s very first directives was to instruct the National Park Service to stop releasing aerial photos of the Washington Mall. People were using those images to compare the size of the crowd that came to see President Trump to the crowd that came for President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The White House press secretary’s first statement was that President’s Trump’s inauguration was met by the largest crowd in the history of U.S. presidential inaugurations, and the president himself, in his first public remarks after the inauguration on the following day, excoriated the media for claiming, falsely in his view, that his crowd was significantly smaller than the 2008 crowd.
That the president chose to offer those remarks at the CIA, standing in front of the wall commemorating fallen agents, was particularly striking, and for many, myself included, it was painful. Then the president hosted a bipartisan meeting of congressional leaders at the White House, where he claimed that were it not for mass election fraud, he would have won the popular vote against Hillary Clinton. These actions and claims, which the president continues to affirm, ought to be cause for alarm.
I understand the president’s logic. He has proven himself a master of reading the political landscape. At the CIA, where he needed to mend fences and establish his credentials as commander-in-chief, he aimed to deflect the tension onto the media — tension that until then had been between himself and the intelligence community. At the meeting with congressional leaders, he had to establish his authority to speak for the populist will in pushing a legislative agenda, so he affirmed that he does represent the majority of the electorate. And yet, his statements and assertions do damage to the prestige of the presidency, and ultimately to the republic.
I do not need to spill any more ink than continues to be spilled on the veracity of these claims. I write here about the effects. I am mindful of the precedent of King Herod, the king of Judea at the start of the first millennium. Herod sometimes is called “the Great”— and that is because he was a great builder. His great accomplishments include not only Masada and Herodium and Caesaria and other structures throughout Israel, but also and especially the extraordinary expansion of the Temple in Jerusalem.
But Herod’s legacy is tarnished by his vanity and insecurity, which was driven by his inability to move beyond the questions of his legitimacy as king. The Temple — today the massive stones of the Western Wall are all of it that remains — was a palace of the people. But Herod also built massive palaces for himself. Any visitor to Masada will note the overly luxurious regal suite on the northern end of the mountain. The king was used to golden, over-the-top luxury, and wasted no expense in procuring the best architects and the best materials to build his palaces, even if that meant taking on unprecedented debt. He managed to increase his leverage by continued investment in more and more building projects. The Jewish War that broke out in 66 CE, resulting in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, while a half century after Herod’s death, most likely was triggered by the crash of the construction bubble that hit both the capital market and the massive labor force that was idle once the Temple, Herod’s principal building project, was completed. But Herod’s legacy is tarnished not only by his polices, which set the groundwork for the most traumatic event in Jewish history before the Holocaust. He also became a monstrous tyrant, ordering the murder of relatives and rivals, of any one who posed a threat to his legitimacy, real or imagined.
Herod had become king of Judea through a surprise election in the Roman Senate. He came into power through the cold machinations of his father, an Idumean strongman who taught his son how to use patronage to political advantage. Herod’s Idumean heritage was cause for the lingering question of whether he really was Jewish. He certainly was not of priestly descent, as the Hasmoneans before him had been. The Jewish aristocratic establishment never fully accepted him as one of them. He never was able to shake the asterisk that clung to his title. The question of whether he was a legitimate Jewish king forever remains.
The irony of the history of King Herod is that it was the imprudent actions that he took against his enemies, the insecurity driven by his obsession with the question of his legitimacy, that ultimately steered him to secure a legacy of horror. No Jewish child dresses as King Herod for Purim.
My plea to the president is that he learn the lesson of our history and avoid the errors of King Herod of Judea. Like Herod, the president can build great things. But he can also destroy so much.
One Herod was enough for us.