Square Peg, Round Jew

Donald Trump has put me in a pickle again.

The president’s most recent State of the Union address, which offered a full throated condemnation of anti-Semitism and support for Israel, was a fantastic moment for me as an American Jew. The messenger was less than fantastic, because of his track record of nasty rhetoric and silence in the face of evil (see Charlottesville and Representative Steve King for examples).

How can I support the president’s statements but not be associated as a Trump supporter? Is that possible in today’s world?

The Jerusalem Talmud tells the story of an ancient pimp who did not believe in God and was always involved in mischief. Rabbi Abbahu happened upon this vagabond once and asked him: What do you do? The man replied, I manage women who get sold out to satisfy men. I do no good.

Abbahu asked him if he had ever done any good.

The man replied with a story of a woman who was trying to sell her body to ransom her incarcerated husband. When the man found out what she was doing, he dissuaded her from that path and gave her some money to help her free her husband.

After hearing that story, Rabbi Abbahu proclaimed, Come and pray with us in our community!

This teaching demonstrates that even the wrong can sometimes be right, that some acts can disqualify, and others can open doors. Lastly it reminds us that a cornerstone of being Jewish is making space for repentance and redemption.

The post State of the Union feeling seemed similar to when Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem, and I found myself a lone Democrat in a sea of Republicans. I felt similarly when Trump bombed Syria after it had used chemical weapons. I’m not a fan of warfare but a firm believer in all lives are precious. I also believe firmly in the notion of Never Again.

For each of these examples of standing with the president, I have a dozen other examples that swing in the other direction. But do mere numbers negate the statements that resonate with me, as few and infrequent as they may be?

A wise student of mine explained to me that in our chaotic world, people crave to make order by putting people and things in boxes. If I can categorize you as X or Y, it de-clutters my world. The problem is that not everything fits neatly into a box. I most certainly do not. Neither should you!

The Babylonian Talmud offers a conundrum with the story of a person who enters a mikvah holding a reptile. What is its status? The reptile makes you impure and the mikvah purifies someone who comes in contact with the reptile. In essence the Talmud is asking which wins: the power of the mikvah or the impurity of the reptile? While it is an interesting question, not all beliefs or leaders fit into an either/or category.

Why have we turned into a society that has created only binary choices and monochromatic colors to paint others? Is our need to make order in the midst of chaos trumping — ahem — our ability to be like Rabbi Abbahu and find the right and good in others? Can we not call out our president when he does something abhorrent or against the grain of our values and applaud when he says or does something to our liking?

I contend that we hesitate to “call them as we see them” for fear we will be categorized into a box we do not want to be associated with. I saw that behavior in senators who supported the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, yet sat on their hands instead of applauding during that portion of the speech for fear that they will be seen through the wrong lens. How morally corrupt of them and of us. Where is their courage in standing for what is good and right and where is ours to stop simplifying people by putting them in boxes over silly and subjective litmus tests, all which in the end offer no more order to our chaotic world.

Mr. Trump, I applaud your move of the embassy, your denouncing anti-Semitism and celebrating Israel’s sovereignty, and I appreciate you mentioning it during your State of the Union Address. By the way, I do not want a wall, I believe in a woman’s right to choose during every moment of pregnancy, and I support investigations into criminal activity by your advisers and administration.

Civics, America, Judaism all are complicated and layered. To simplify them into dualistic options does a gross injustice to our country, our religion, and our way of life. Let’s be like Rabbi Abbahu and act bigger than we are currently.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis, President of the NJ Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel commission and is a member of the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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