Unlike the leaders of the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, the rabbinical heads of the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Movements declined to participate in a pre-Rosh Hashanah conference call with President Trump this morning (JTA, Ron Kampeas, September 14). Clearly, this is a controversial decision, and there are good arguments to be made on both sides for reaching opposite conclusions. But here is why I believe that the movement leaders who decided not to participate acted faithfully.
Politically, we shouldn’t take for granted the exceptional relations that we have had with the White House in recent decades. After all, how frequently in Jewish history have we enjoyed such an embrace from the White House, and how different might modern Jewish history be had we possessed those relationships with European leaders before the outbreak of World War II?
But history has also shown that we ultimately gain the respect of powerful people when we maintain self-respect. In this case, I believe that means distancing ourselves for now from a President who has relentlessly demeaned and dehumanized a rather diverse group of people through reckless speech—one of those sins for which we ask God’s forgiveness on Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. (And you have to admit that insulting such a broad array of individuals, from Senator John McCain to Khizir Kahn, a member of an American “Gold Star” family, whose son died in Iraq, while serving as a captain in the American military, indicates that many have been targets of President Trump’s acts of verbal shaming and insults.) We know from history, too, that verbal abuse sets the stage for physical violence. And we can reach far back into Biblical times for precedents of religious leaders confronting political power (for example, the Biblical prophet, Natan, confronting King David). Religious leaders can cause significant damage when they are seduced by proximity to political power. It can warp the very values that are supposed to guide their moral leadership, and that’s good reason to opt out of this presidential call.
In an earlier editorial, in The New York Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt, publisher, wrote that “Rabbis Should Confront Trump Head-On Over Charlottesville. Apply the lessons of Elul and Don’t Hang Up on the President”. He argued that rabbis who declined the call with President Trump were not applying one of the fundamental lessons of these holy days, namely, reproving someone who acts immorally (Leviticus 19:17). The question of when reproof is religiously mandated is complicated for several reasons. First, the general attitude in America about “judging” another is often, “if your behavior personally doesn’t hurt me, even if it offends others, I won’t bother you.” But that is not a Jewish value, and while Jewish textual sources on how and when the commandment to “reprove one’s neighbor” are varied and sometimes contradictory, one can legitimately read Jewish laws of rebuke as relating to situations in which the person at the receiving end is potentially amenable to change.
We can never know with certainty if even someone whose personality seems destined to provoke havoc won’t eventually change. But what we can expect is some consistency of steps toward honest efforts of change. When we see consistent, unambiguous efforts toward change, even though they will be imperfect, then we can consider whether a person is really open to engage in difficult dialogue. I won’t psychoanalyze President Trump, but I can ask for consistent indications in changed behavior that reflect modest insight into the hurt that he continues to inflict, even if those attempted changes are imperfect. Instead, what I have observed in the past few weeks is a continuing pattern of President Trump using his “bully pulpit” to verbally bully and shame others.
While there is time on these White House calls for some “limited engagement” with the president, this pre-High Holy Day call is designed to use rabbis as channels to communicate presidential good wishes locally before and during the holy days. At its best, it is a heartfelt gesture of good wishes from the president to the Jewish community. At its worst, this call can become a headline that will later be used as a reminder by the president of his support for the American Jewish community at a time when it’s convenient for him to do so.
Also, understand that there is disagreement within these movements about any public policy or symbolic statement that their leaders make, and that is true of this decision. A national rabbinic organization resembles a congregation in some ways, where members have different opinions about the wisdom of a decision of its leaders. But that’s what leaders, and especially rabbinic leaders, are called to do: use their best judgment of the facts at hand, distilled through their understanding of Jewish tradition, to make hard decisions.
I was not involved in the decision-making processes of those who refused the call, and I’m not acting on anyone’s behalf to defend it. But I do want to thank those rabbis who decided against participating in it. If the president is serious about deeper engagement with rabbis, there will be many opportunities for it in the coming months, and I know that my colleagues will actively seek them out and take the first steps to meet him more than halfway.
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is an author, presenter and organizational futurist, and C.E.O. of HayimHerring.com which “prepares today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations.” ™ His latest book, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World, co-authored with Dr. Terri Elton, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2016.
lished by Rowman & Littlefield in 2016.