What Would Isaiah Say: If the Prophets Were Voting in Florida

For reasons that I cannot adequately explain, I recently found myself watching a few minutes of a Republican candidates’ debate in Florida.

This statement, I know, drips with sarcasm. Let me assure you that said sentiment does not owe to any belief on my part that the Republican Party’s choice of presidential candidate is unimportant. Actually, I believe that it is very important indeed, owing not least of all to President Obama’s apparent vulnerability in the forthcoming election. I do think, though, that by the time we have gotten to what feels like the twentieth or twenty-fifth debate, we pretty much know what the candidates left standing are about, who they are, and how they feel about any given subject. Really, how much of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney trying to belittle each other should any human being have to listen to?

Actually, what I did find very significant, if more than a little bizarre, was the ongoing discussion of net incomes and tax returns, and whether or not Governor Romney has been doing something “wrong” by maneuvering to pay the least amount of taxes possible on his very sizable annual earnings. (Also fascinating is the experience of hearing Speaker Gingrich decry Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for their role in our economic downturn, even though he and his firm were on their payroll. But that’s for another time.)

What a spectacle! The party that has always stood for the glory of capitalism, and resented government doing anything to limit the ability of American businesspeople to compete and be successful, found its leading candidate being attacked for being a successful venture capitalist and- surprise, surprise- doing whatever he could to shelter his huge income and pay the least possible taxes. If I were a Democrat strategist, I would have been having the time of my life watching that debate. Hearing Governor Perry previously refer to Governor Romney as a “vulture capitalist” was, I thought, a James Carville line if ever there was one. But there was Newt Gingrich banging away on Mitt Romney’s record as a businessman, and insisting that he release more of his tax returns. Like Mr. Gingrich’s adventures in the money machine that is Washington are something to be proud of…

The liberal/conservative divide is getting a lot of airtime in these early months of the presidential election season, and it is not an insignificant discussion. With our country in continuing economic turmoil and a national debt level that clearly needs to be reduced, the size and role of government is a legitimate topic of debate. No one can question that, Democrat or Republican. And surely, the greatness of this country of ours lies in no small measure in the freedom that we enjoy to think as we wish, speak out as we wish, and vote accordingly.

Writing as a rabbi, though, I think it needs to be said clearly and unequivocally that seeing government as responsible for promoting and creating equity and justice in society- the credo of the liberal agenda- is an inextricable part of our Jewish cultural legacy. Were Isaiah, Jeremiah and the rest of our classical prophets alive today, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they would be flaming liberals. FLAMING liberals. And I think that should give us serious pause.

On Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar year, the Torah reading is taken from the book of Leviticus, and features the ritual acts that were to take place in our ancestors’ quest for forgiveness. These included penitential sacrifices to be offered by Aaron, and the expulsion of the ‘scapegoat, via whose banishment from the camp the sins of the entire community would vicariously be forgiven.

But in a fascinating counterpoint to the Torah reading, for the Haftarah- the prophetic reading- the rabbis chose a section from Isaiah where he scolded the Israelites for their failure to understand what God really wants of them. God has no interest, Isaiah says, in scores of slain animals, or rivers of blood and oil flowing on altars. What God demands- not wants, but demands- is that widows and orphans be cared for, those who are hungry be fed, those who lack clothing be clothed…. God demands a just society, where all are made to feel worthy, and the divine image is seen even in the least able.

If Isaiah were listening to that presidential debate in Florida, or any debate featuring any of the candidates from either major party, he would not be a happy man. I have, to be sure, more than a few questions about the purpose and efficacy of Occupy Wall Street. I’m still not sure what it really represents. But I have even more questions about how the average American whose retirement savings simply disappeared in the collapse of 2008, and/or the many who are left unemployed or under-employed, is supposed to relate to a political process in which money still greases the machine, the only people who can even think about running are rich beyond the imagination of most people, and no one seems to really care about the least able among us. And through it all, the only really serious talk about spending cuts involved entitlements.

Were Isaiah to walk in the House or Senate chamber…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.