Debra Cantor

Some Rabbinic Advice for President-Elect Trump

November 2016/Heshvan 5777

To President-Elect Trump:

Although I am a rabbi, I do not purport to speak for the entire American Jewish community, let alone the Jewish people as a whole. Though there is a great deal that links us together, we Jews have always honored the value of respectful discourse and disagreement. The Talmud faithfully records minority along with majority opinions and recognizes that “both reflect the words of the living God” (see Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b). Especially prized among the Talmudic Sages was the notion of “argument for the sake of Heaven [i.e, a higher purpose]” (see Mishna Avot 5:20), which Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has characterized as “conflict resolution by honoring both sides of the conflict and by humility in the pursuit of truth.”

Which brings me to my first bit of advice. As President, and even now, as President-Elect, you have the power to raise the level of civil discourse in our country, to soften the harsh rhetoric and name-calling which characterized the recent campaign. You have the power to influence the manner in which we address our disagreements as we move forward to heal and find common ground as a nation. (See Proverbs 18:21 about life and death being in the power of the tongue.)

You might begin this process by repudiating those of your supporters (e.g., members of the KKK and other white supremacist organizations) who have promoted racism and anti-Semitism and fomented hate against Muslims, LGBT folks, immigrants and others. They gained greater visibility during your campaign and have celebrated your election. Now that you have won, you have the power to change that and to emphasize that you intend to be President of all the people, including those most vulnerable to prejudice. (See Leviticus 19:17 for the mitzvah to rebuke those who have done wrong.)

You once co-authored a bestseller, called The Art of the Deal. While some of the insights of that book may come in handy when you become President, might I suggest that you now consider exploring the art of listening? Just as governing is quite different from campaigning, debate is quite different from dialogue. Engaging in dialogue requires an openness to learning, to considering a variety of viewpoints and competing narratives (see above, Eruvin 13b).

Which is a good thing to remember when you deal with complicated foreign policy issues. For instance – and you knew I would bring this up! – Israel and the Palestinians. Do you imagine that this is a simple situation? Do you think that all Jews in the United States agree about how to handle it? We are as deeply divided about how to achieve security for Israel and justice for the Palestinians as the Israelis themselves. Cultivating humility may seem an odd piece of advice to give a world leader, but I am doing just that. (See Numbers 12:3, a statement about the humility of Moses, one of the greatest leaders of all time and no shrinking violet.) Listen (see above), move ahead thoughtfully and consider possible unintended consequences of your words and actions. The Middle East is a volatile area.

Oh, there is so much more I’d like to share with you! For instance, although we Jews care deeply about Israel, we are not – the vast majority of us – single-issue voters. We are concerned about a myriad of social justice issues (see Mishnah Avot 2:5). We care about the poor (see Deuteronomy 15). Our tradition impels us to include and care for those who are marginalized and at-risk in our society, not least because we are all created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26 and much of the Book of Deuteronomy.) We care about the fairness of our legal system (see Deuteronomy 16:18).

And it isn’t just our sacred texts which impel us to take action; it is also our history. We Jews know what it’s like to be the targets of hate and oppression. That’s one of the reasons we have made common cause with others who face prejudice. We will continue to do so (see Leviticus 19:16).

Most of us vigorously support the right of a woman to make decisions about her own health and her own body. You may not realize that Jewish law differentiates between the life of a mother and the life of a fetus. The former takes priority over the latter (see Exodus 21:22-23 and commentaries). Regardless, we don’t think our religious view should prevail in our legal system. The government should not decide what goes on in our bedrooms and with our bodies. Oh, and by the way, we Jews are also pretty adamant about maintaining the separation of church and state. We think that’s a good thing, especially given the growing religious diversity in our country.

Finally, I want to raise an issue which, sadly, was never raised during any of the three Presidential debates, but which is so very urgent: climate change. The Bible commands us to be stewards of God’s Creation (see Genesis), which means we have the responsibility to care for the earth. Here is a beautiful midrash which emphasizes the weight of this responsibility:

“When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13)

There is near unanimity in the scientific community about the real dangers of climate change and the human contribution to it. And there is overwhelming evidence that these changes have already begun and that the situation will be dire for future generations. As a father and grandfather, you will understand that we cannot wait to take action; I implore you to take science seriously and not to jeopardize our children’s and grandchildren’s future by pulling out of international climate change agreements, and putting climate change deniers in charge of the EPA.
Mr. Trump, I could go on and on, but I will leave it here for now. You have a heavy task ahead of you. May God grant you wisdom and strength.

Rabbi Debra Cantor

About the Author
Debra Cantor was ordained in 1988, a member of the first Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School class to include women. She has worked in synagogues, day schools, Jewish camps and communal agencies. Her husband is a nurse, her son is in college and her daughter just made aliyah. Debra loves teaching and playing with art supplies. Creativity is her middle name. Actually, it's Sue...