Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

The ‘Great Experiment’ is under great strain

Twice each year, before the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, I write about how this country was founded on “biblical values,” by which the founding fathers clearly meant the values of our bible, the Tanach, and especially its first five books, meaning the Torah.

Our founding fathers studied those laws, and chose them to be the moral and ethical underpinnings for the new nation they envisioned, for that “great experiment” in democracy they were so carefully creating.

To be sure, this “great experiment” was not perfect then, and still is not now. Despite the beautiful claim that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” that was true for some, but not for all. People of color who were slaves were considered to be only three-fifths human, only partial people. As for women, to quote Cornell history professor Mary Beth Norton, they “had no status in the Constitution of 1787.”

Such inequities never fit in well with this country’s vision and promise. As a result, we continue to modify the system to bring it into greater harmony with the moral and ethical laws on which it was founded.

Slavery was eliminated, although it took a Civil War to do so. The 15th Amendment removed racial barriers to voting, and the 19th Amendment removed gender barriers. The 24th Amendment and the follow-up Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed a number of other discriminatory barriers to voting. The 25th Amendment extended the right to vote to 18-year-olds, mainly in recognition of the fact that if someone 18 years old was qualified to die for this country, then he or she also was equally qualified to help decide who should lead this country.

Our system nevertheless remains imperfect. Women have the right to vote, but they are not guaranteed the right to receive equal pay for equal work. In too many communities, either they still do not have the right to determine what happens to their own bodies, at least when faced with unwanted or life-threatening pregnancies, or they are seeing those rights being slowly taken away from them.

There is more we need to do, but from the beginning of its history, this country has understood that even the best system can be made better and must be made better, and that the moral and ethical values on which this country was founded must remain the building blocks for an even better America tomorrow.

Based on the history of the last 20 or 30 years, however, I fear that we Americans are abandoning those very same moral and ethical values. In very large part this is because we have allowed our politics to sink into the mire and muck of partisanship, and our political discourse to plunge alarmingly into the rhetoric of divisiveness.

Right now, we are seeing this play out in a most repulsive manner. Our politicians on both sides of the aisle have been faced with an issue that should have been a no-brainer for them from the beginning: the forcible separation from their parents of nearly 2,400 children, from infants to teenagers, and the housing of many of these children in cages covered on top by barbed wire to prevent them from climbing out. (For the record, in addition to these children, nearly 8,900 others are in detention because they came to the United States unaccompanied.)

The Democrats say they care about these children, but their actions say otherwise. They do not see suffering children, and for now. at least, they care little about helping to resolve the underlying problems that got us to this point. All they can see is an issue they can keep alive until the polls close on November 6. To do what is right and just, to do what is moral and ethical, those are matters that will have to wait until they are back in control. For now, the only question Democrats care about is: “How can I take this to the polls and win in November?”

At least the Democrats recognize there is a need to do what is right and just, moral and ethical. The Republicans, on the other hand, have their eyes focused entirely on their districts, and their only question is, “If I go against President Trump, how will that play in my district?”

I am not saying this is true. Longtime Conservative Republicans such as the columnist George Will and the party strategist Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, are saying this and much more as loudly as they can.

Schmidt last week announced he was leaving the GOP, because it had become a “danger to our democracy and values.” He called it a “corrupt, indecent and immoral” party filled with “feckless cowards.” He urged voters to sweep the Democrats to victory in November.

Will, in his column last week, also wrote he was leaving the Republican Party, and also urged voters to sweep the Democrats into power this year. That, he wrote, would give the ousted Republican legislators the “leisure time to wonder why they worked so hard to achieve membership in a legislature whose unexercised muscles have atrophied because of people like them.”

Will said the GOP had become nothing more than President Trump’s “plaything,” and “to vote against his party’s cowering congressional caucuses is to affirm the nation’s honor while quarantining him.”

Those two questions — “How will that play in my district?” and “How can I take this to the polls and win in November?” —are not the questions to ask when children are being yanked from their parents’ arms (one of “the worst abuses of humanity in our history,” in Steve Schmidt’s words).

They are not the questions to ask when children and adults are murdered in schoolrooms by people who have no business carrying guns of any kind, much less assault weapons that have no place in society outside the military.

They are not the questions to ask when poor people are denied access to quality health care, or when pregnant mothers are denied access to better nutrition, or when schools in poorer neighborhoods are unable to offer their students the same quality education as schools in well-to-do neighborhoods.

The values upon which this country was built are not reflected in those two questions, or in the behavior of the two major parties. Perhaps it is time to end the two-party system, which clearly no longer works for the best interests of our nation. Perhaps we should adopt California’s so-called jungle primary system, in which candidates face off against each other in a primary regardless of party, and the top two finishers face each other in the general election. Elections become more about issues and less about party loyalty. The victors are then free (at least in theory) to vote their consciences, rather than adhere to party lines.

Will such a system work? Is there a better solution? I do not know the answer to either question. I wish I had the answers, but I do not. At least, though, I am asking the right questions. Until our politicians ask the right questions, our country will continue to backslide, until it reaches a point of no return. God forbid that should ever happen.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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