Many years ago I read an article that spoke about how Jewish parents do everything for their children, who then grow up to do everything for their children, and on and on and on. The punchline: who’s the ultimate child that millennia of Jewish parents are doing everything for?
The question has an obvious fallacy in that Jewish parents — indeed most parents — do not do “everything” for their children. Parents have personal wants, needs, and desires unrelated to their children, and much of what we do is for ourselves.
But there is some truth as well in that we, as parents, place immense importance on, and effort into, raising our children. And a major part of what we do is try to imbue in them the best of ourselves and our tradition. We strive to make them better people; not necessarily more successful (though that’s good too), but better human beings.
Which brings me to Donald Trump and the Orthodox community.
Huh? Where did that come from?
Well, the path connecting parents doing for their children to the president and my community wended its way through two pieces I recently read. The first was a Facebook post by a high school classmate with whom I’ve reconnected through FB. My friend — a staunch right-wing, though not quite charedi, Orthodox Jew who is also a staunch liberal Democrat (yes, such people really do exist) — recently had a long post decrying the president’s character. Not his policies but his character. And one Orthodox woman commented: “I. Don’t. Care.”
The second was an interview in this paper with Jason Greenblatt, a member of Teaneck’s Modern Orthodox community and until recently President Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East. This wasn’t a puff piece. Among other things, the interviewer (all right, this paper’s editor) asked pointed, if polite, questions about Iran, the killing of Soleimani, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, the differing attitudes about the president by American Jews and Israelis, Saudi Arabia and the gruesome killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and the as-yet-unreleased U.S.-proposed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
Mr. Greenblatt’s answers to these questions were articulate, thoughtful, deliberate, and well-considered. Don’t get me wrong. I disagree with many of them. But a Shabbat meal with him — where we could explore and discuss those issues in more detail — surely would prove quite interesting and enjoyable, though I strongly suspect we’d still find ourselves at loggerheads by bentching.
Except. When asked about “the president’s language, its crudity and cruelty,” Greenblatt refused to engage. He said he wasn’t a politician and didn’t follow the president’s tweets (so? I’m not on Twitter but I know all about the president’s tweets), and made general statements about our “divisive society” and how he likes to work “toward resolutions.” If I were an editor instead of a columnist, I might condense this answer into a simple, and honest, “no comment.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Greenblatt is not alone as an Orthodox Trump supporter who fails to take seriously, and speak about seriously, the president’s language and basic lack of character — about his continuous childish insults of anyone who disagrees with him, his cruelty, his lies in matters big and small, his refusal to ever admit error or apologize, his demeaning and objectifying of women, his nastiness, his insensitivity to the powerless, his lack of empathy, his narcissism, and more.
Too many other Trump-supporting Orthodox Jews and leaders refuse, like Mr. Greenblatt, to engage; too many say no comment or, even worse, I. Don’t. Care. At most I’ve seen some throat-clearing “well I’d prefer if he spoke differently” before launching into “but he moved the embassy.” And all too often, supporters’ throats remain uncleared. They. Don’t. Care.
It would be bad enough if this were a small part of the Orthodox community. But it’s not. Trump has significant support in this population, as opposed to the broader Jewish community. According to exit polls, 54 percent of Orthodox Jews voted for Trump in 2016. And the American Jewish Committee’s 2019 survey data sent to me by my friend Steven Bayme, AJC’s Director of Contemporary Jewish life, show that 88 percent of the charedi community view Trump favorably, and so do 49 percent of the Modern Orthodox community. While I’m pleased that the number of supporters in my Orthodox niche is meaningfully lower than in others, it’s still significant.
Let me be very clear. I’m not speaking about policies such as tax reform, immigration, Israel, health care, trade, foreign policy, judicial appointments, or the many other issues that divide our nation. While I have strong opinions about many of these, they are, in the main, issues about which reasonable people can, and do, disagree.
What I am talking about is decency. What I’m talking about is civility, integrity, honesty, morals, and ethics. What I’m talking about is character.
Character is what Orthodox Jews are supposed to care about. Character is what our educators teach our children in day schools and yeshivot, what our rabbis preach about from their pulpits, what we learn from the weekly parsha and the narratives and personalities in Tanach, what we study in Pirkei Avot, Messilat Yesharim, and Chofetz Chaim. Character is what we admire in our parents and grandparents who still walk among us and remember most about those who sadly no longer do. And character is what we, as parents, endeavor with great effort to teach our children in the hope it will be our most precious legacy to them. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently wrote, the family is “where we have our most important and lasting moral education.”
It’s hard to teach about character and morals. But we certainly don’t teach character to our children by ignoring bad character in our leaders. We don’t teach character to our children by refusing to engage, by saying no comment, by posting I. Don’t. Care. Religious leaders don’t teach character to our children by calling President Trump a wonderful president because he supports Israel and improved the economy. A man without character cannot be a wonderful president. He can have some good policies that we can support, but he can’t be a wonderful president, at least not if we take our tradition and moral teachings seriously. And we must teach that to our children.
Ralph Reed said it well. “Character matters…. We care about the conduct of our leaders, and we will not rest until we have leaders of good moral character.” I never thought I’d quote Reed, a noted right-wing evangelical leader with whom I disagree about almost everything. But he’s the one who said it. I only wish an Orthodox religious leader was its author.
I do care about character, and I know many other Orthodox Jews do as well. Not enough care, however, because to meet the standards of our tradition, enough needs to equal all. All need to care, for the good of our community and our nation. Most importantly, all need to care for the ultimate good of our children.