Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

The New Golden Calf: United States Presidential Election

The biblical Exodus from slavery meant freedom; freedom allowed one to create and to be responsible for the other, which ushered in salvation. (The root of the Hebrew word for other (Acher or Akher) also means responsibility (Acherot).

What did the Israelites do with their new found freedom? Built a golden calf, that’s what. They chose idolatry, rejecting the responsibility freedom demands and/or commands. To have been created in the image of this biblical God meant one was a creator, one was born, invited and directed – perhaps even condemned – to create. Perhaps an ethical world? No. Serving the golden calf was an attempted coup against creation. They stood for Pharonic self serving idolatry and thus inhospitality, which is irresponsibility toward others. Violence. Why did some choose violence for the Other, the stranger, so to speak, over creative or responsive hospitality? Is it because tradition is sometimes blind to the necessities of the day?

The bible punished persons who messed with strangers or didn’t care for them. Inhospitality (a symptom of idolatry) betrayed the stranger. There are more injunctions to care for the stranger, the other, so to speak, than for anything else. 36 commands were about responsibility for the stranger/other, including the other’s freedom.

Here’s my point: 73 Million Americans voted for a servant of the golden calf, a cowboy capitalist without regard for anyone but himself. 57 percent of white Americans voted for President Trump, a man with 36 allegations of sexual assault (55 percent of white women voted for him), an man who mocked publicly a person’s disability, a man who refers to black people as “the blacks”, calls Mexican immigrants “murderers and rapists,” claims Jews “care only about themselves” while claiming there are good people on both sides of our fight for civil rights when discussing the Charlottesville right wing riot. Nazis were on one side.

President Trump often speaks of promised goodness for white American Christians, talking about the good he has created while in power. For example, “…we moved the capital of Israel [from Tel Aviv]  to Jerusalem. That’s for the Evangelicals,” Trump boasted at an airport rally in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.”

Trump’s talk of doing good while in power isn’t a helpful frame to understand him or power in general. Terrorism studies has a question when evaluating conflict: who is in control of violence? Power is not some ideal form or god that is abused. Power controls violence. When looking at candidates – I ask myself, who do I want in charge of violence? 73 million Americans chose a man who has lied every single time he has spoken to us. Every time. They chose a man who has attacked our democracy from the minute he gave his first speech as president  and before that. Covid is out of control from his neglect as President. More than a 250,000 dead.

Another statistic upsetting me is that 77 percent of Israeli Jews wanted Trump. Why would they want an American President who trades on white Christian ethno-nationalism? This troubles close to 80% of American Jewry. And it should. It’s not good for American Jews – let alone everyone else who isn’t a white Christian. For example, The Anti-Defamation League documented American Jews experienced 2,107 cases of Jew-hatred in 2019. It is the largest number of Jew-hating incidents in the United States  since 1979.

Why do so many Israeli Jews absent these Jewish concerns from their answers to pollsters? Do they not care about us as Jews? Do they not consider us Jews? They’re more than happy to demand our support and take our money. Have they lost sight of us? I’m not sure they ever saw us. At minimum, 77 % of Israeli Jews wanted to trade American democracy for autocracy. Perhaps as we all witnessed at Sinai, a golden calf both blinds and deafens them to the Talmudic command that discussion shall never cease in this life or the next. My question is: how do we help them understand they are off the path commanded by our prophets and Torah/Talmud tradition?

I have taken to heart what Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt spent her post holocaust life preaching. Do not assume the wonderful times of  yesterday and today will be here tomorrow. Democracy is an everyday fight. From here the good news is that Trump lost and we now know what’s going on. We are still fighting our civil war. The South has taken the middle American West, but the Union was saved by 79,000,000 American voters.

How quickly we forget times when we Jews didn’t matter. For example, 19th German Jews sang, Jewish Lives Matter. Former Jew Karl Marx responded with: All Lives Matter.  This sentiment is often echoed by many supporters of President Trump when Black people sing Black Lives Matter. Fortunately, more than 79,000,000 Americans voted that Black Lives Do Matter,  choosing against idolatry, aspiring to create democratic promise for all.

“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!” Isaiah 5:12-21

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern is the author of The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College
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