Still True, Four Years Later

With the 2020 presidential election really getting into full swing, I decided to revisit my HUC-JIR senior sermon––which I delivered just two weeks after the 2016 election

If you continue reading below, you’ll see that I actually wrote it before the 2016 election, expecting a different outcome. So when it came time to prepare it for delivery, I had to contend with whether I still believed what I had written. As I say in the sermon, if the words weren’t true after the election, then they weren’t true before either.

Now, almost four years later, I find myself pondering the same question: Are the words true today? I think they are. In fact, I think I could still give the same sermon this week. But in some ways it is even harder to stomach.

Anyway, here’s my senior sermon: “On the Other Side,” delivered on November 19, 2016.


I wrote this sermon before the election. I thought I would be celebrating the outcome and speaking to a community mostly doing the same. The polls favored Hillary Clinton and the media I trusted predicted a Democratic victory. Even the Cincinnati Enquired had endorsed Clinton. I was excited to see the first woman in the Oval Office, and I looked with hope toward the future. Progress was happening.

When I wrote this sermon I thought I would be delivering a message to help us come together after my side won. I thought I would be charging us to reach out in comfort those on the other side, those who felt dispirited by their candidate’s loss, and help them become part of a vision for the future that filled me with optimism.

And then I woke up the morning after the election, and I wanted to throw the entire message out the window. Actually, I wanted to punch the window, shattering it as so many of us felt shattered. Shattered by racism. Shattered by bigotry. Shattered by sexism. Shattered by a feeling of media betrayal. Shattered by the end of our first real chance at a female president. Shattered by not being able to point to the new president as a role model. Shattered by my own illusions about the country. Shattered.

I am not angry with those who vote for conservative or Republican policies. We can have honest, open dialogue about policy issues without compromising moral values. My anger is about the man who headed the Republican ticket, the dangerous intolerance he stirs up, and the people who would overlook that for some other imagined benefit.

I am angry and I am still grieving. Many of us are—and when we are doing the work of grieving, the work of healing seems impossible. But if the words I planned to offer aren’t true now, they weren’t true before. The world hasn’t changed; our perception of it has. I think of the kaddish: the quintessential mourning prayer which extolls the greatness of God. One of my rabbis once taught me that with broken hearts we choke on the kaddish’s words of praise—until we can say them again with whole hearts.

It is in that spirit that I offer these words today.

This election revealed a reality that caught many of us off guard: major segments of the American population see our world very differently. Our experiences of the country and our visions for it diverge so drastically that we no longer seem even to be talking about the same place. We have become incomprehensible to one another. And if we can’t comprehend one another, we can’t empathize with one another.

This is the situation we face now, as we wake up on the other side of the election: rebuilding the trust upon which our democracy is based. Though I struggle to take my own words to heart right now, I refuse to believe we are too far gone.

This morning, we read an excerpt from the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that God decided were too far gone. In our story, Abraham stands up in defense of these cities. Often Abraham’s negotiation is cited to laud the patriarch for being so stalwart in his support of justice that he would even stand up to God. Abraham does call God out as a hypocrite, for allegedly violating God’s own system of justice. Would the judge of all the earth not perform justice, treating the righteous identically to the wicked? The fact that God eventually acquiesces—at least temporarily—to Abraham’s plea apparently vindicates Abraham.

This reading portrays Abraham as a paragon of morality. But Nachmanides, one of our canonical medieval commentators, suggests that Abraham’s motivations might not have been so altruistic. Perhaps Abraham had in mind his relative Lot, who lived in Sodom at the time: he did not want Lot swept away in the city’s utter destruction. Abraham acted out of concern for his own kin.

Whether Abraham was motivated by high-minded principles of justice or by familial interest, the result is the same: he argues against the destruction of Sodom. Abraham need not be concerned explicitly with the differences between the righteous and the wicked, or by precisely who fits into which category. The fate of each is bound up with the other.

Our fates are bound up with one another. Democrat, Republican, black, brown, white, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, atheist—the idea of citizenship means, theoretically, that all participants in the democratic enterprise are equal. By virtue of being American citizens, our voices are supposed to count equally. That is the social contract on which our country functions: regardless of sentiment, each of us is an equal participant. After the election, how do we live together as equal citizens now?

Vincent Harding, the late elder of the civil rights movement, gave an interview in 2011 in which he said, “When it comes to creating a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious, democratic society, we are still a developing nation. We’ve only been really thinking about this for about half a century” (1). This election dismantled the delusion that we were close to the prize. It took us two steps back.

We have a long way to go. But if we truly care about our nation, if we truly want to see a more perfect union, we cannot allow our democratic institutions to be undermined. Democracy is valuable because it can work even if we see one another as righteous or wicked. We, the dejected and the inspired alike, should turn our attention to reweaving the fabric of our social contract. This is a prerequisite for bringing our country closer to being a fully democratic society. We must know how to live and work with those on the other side. 

There is a basic requirement for these conditions: peace. Without peace, we can’t coexist long enough to learn to empathize with one another. This means that sometimes we will have to act for the sake of another person with whom we profoundly disagree, someone who tells such a different story of our country that we cannot relate to them at all. We can act for the sake of peace even without empathy. This is the Jewish principle of mip’nei dar’chei shalom, acting for the sake of peace alone.

Maimonides teaches this idea in his laws of tzedakah. Tzedakah, in this discussion, denotes not charity but the obligatory offering of resources to provide for those in the community without the means to provide for themselves. It is a form of communitarian justice. Maimonides instructs us to distribute to the gentiles and Jews in our community alike mip’nei dar’chei shalom, for the sake of peace (2). Counterintuitively, he is not actually concerned with the wellbeing of the gentiles—in fact, he forbids the usage of tzedakah funds for that reason. We are obligated to include gentiles in the tzedakah disbursement only if we do so mip’nei dar’chei shalom, for the sake of keeping the peace.

Under certain circumstances, political expediency can be reason enough for acting in a particular way. That is, we might do something simply because we are trying to avoid conflict. Throughout Jewish history, Jewish communities frequently lived under the control of unfriendly, ruling powers. For the sake of self-preservation, Jews needed to avoid angering the gentile authorities. Maimonides advocates sharing the tzedakah with those outside the community so they will look with favor upon us, so they will be less likely to oppress us (3).

Mip’nei dar’chei shalom, acting for the sake of peace alone, is not a high-minded principle of justice. It is, essentially, a selfish motive: I am better off when I live in a peaceful community. To keep the peace, sometimes we should reach out to someone we’d rather not think about. Mip’nei dar’chei shalom allows us to be in community in the absence of empathy.

Mip’nei dar’chei shalom can frame how we rebuild the social contract of our country. It grants us a Jewishly legitimate motivation for relating to those with whom we cannot yet empathize. Even if Abraham wanted to save Lot’s family alone, he advocated saving the whole city, righteous and wicked alike, mip’nei dar’chei shalom, for the sake of peace. We should support and strengthen the institutions of our democracy mip’nei dar’chei shalom, even if we do not yet care for those whose vision for the country we cannot understand.

The “yet” is very important. Mip’nei dar’chei shalom is where we begin, not where we end. The election shook the foundations of our nation, which is why we need first to shore them up—or we will fall. But we should not mistake the scaffold for the structure. In our day, mip’nei dar’chei shalom cannot be an excuse to reinforce malignant divisions in our society. The principle is often criticized for doing just that.

Many of us are familiar with the idea that, on Shabbat, certain activities are traditionally prohibited. We may also know the talmudic rabbis decreed that these Shabbat prohibitions should be violated in order to save a life. This is the principle of pikuach nefesh. A debate ensues: does pikuach nefesh extend to all people in life-threatening situations, or only to Jews? Should a Jew break Shabbat to save a gentile life? Some authorities argue that Jews are permitted to violate Shabbat in order to save a gentile life only if we do so mip’nei dar’chei shalom. The logic is that we would want others so save us if we were in trouble, so we should go out of our way to save them. It is not about pikuach nefesh, the virtue of saving a life (4).

Here’s the critique: this debate implies that life of a gentile is worth less than the life of a Jew. To save a Jew, one may violate Shabbat for the sake of their life. But to save a gentile, one may violate Shabbat only for the sake of our lives, not theirs.

We should not learn from this debate to rely on mip’nei dar’chei shalom, acting for the sake of peace alone, as justification for dehumanizing those who are different from us. We should learn that, like any tool, the principle is dangerous if used inappropriately. We should use it to be in community with those for whom we do not yet have empathy, while being mindful of the equal value of every human life.

The beauty of mip’nei dar’chei shalom isthat it is, by its very definition, a principle for maintaining the conditions of peace long enough for us, as an entire nation, to work toward a more perfect union. It allows us to sit at the same table with those with whom we cannot yet find a single commonality. But it is not a guarantee that our coexistence will be just.

Equality of participation is not the same as equality of position. We should never permit the false equivalency between the etching of a swastika on the hood of someone’s car and the thousands protesting in the name of love or out of fear for the future. These responses to the election do not balance one another. They do not represent mere “differences of opinion.” As one person tweeted the day after the election: “Please stop telling people to respect others’ opinions. That’s for things like ‘I don’t like coffee,’ not for ‘I don’t like black people” (5).

Being in community with others does not mean mean giving up on our values. In one version of the discussion of mip’nei dar’chei shalom, we read that, for the sake of peace, we should allow others to gather from the corners and gleanings of our fields even if they are ovdei eililim, idol worshippers (6). Nowhere in Jewish literature will we find the affirmation of idolatry, but here we are instructed to let idolaters eat from our fields. In effect, the principle says, “We care that you are fed, but we will not quiet our moral voice that says you are advocating sin.” We can work together out of concern for others’ lives and for our democracy, without endorsing bigotry. Without normalizing bigotry.

We should speak our moral voice. Loudly. Even when it’s hard. As Rabbi David Saperstein, the US Ambassador for Religious Freedom, reminded us on campus this very week: Jews have been instrumental in securing rights for minorities and women in America—rights the founders of our country wouldn’t recognize. He urged us to keep that legacy and our values alive.

At this point, it truly does not matter who we voted for. We can disagree on policy and should debate it safely with one another, but we should also stand together against moral compromise. As Jews, all of us are called to work for justice. Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative—let’s build the democratic society we dream about.

Last Sunday, a wise second grader said in religious school t’fillah: we can feel strong when our team wins, and we can feel strong when our team loses. For many of us, our team lost. Though it is painful, this election has given us the chance to hit the restart button, reestablishing the social contract our nation rests upon. Our work begins with seeing all citizens as equal participants in the democratic process. It continues as we speak our moral voices.

As we look toward the next chapter in our history, I’d like to offer this prayer, composed by Sufi master Pir Zia Inayat Khan (7):

The election is over, and life goes on.
We will keep bearing witness to the One Being.
We will keep honoring the legacies of the prophets and prophetesses of all lands.
We will keep revering the sacredness of the Earth.
We will keep following the way of remembrance which all religions share.
We will keep pursuing justice for all people.
We will keep recognizing people of all races and persuasions as our sisters and brothers.
We will keep extending our hearts’ goodwill toward everyone, excluding no one.
We will keep witnessing the beauty that is all around us and within us.
We will keep learning the truth of our being.
We will keep working to draw back the curtains of egoism from our eyes.
Life goes on, and we will keep going.

The election is now eleven days behind us. Jews only mourn intensively for seven. Shiva is over. It’s time to get to work.

Shabbat shalom.


Bibliography

  1. “Transcript: Vincent Harding — Is America Possible?” On Being, November 10, 2016. http:// http://www.onbeing.org/program/vincent-harding-is-america-possible/transcript/9037.
  2. Meszler, Joseph B., trans. “Gifts for the Poor: Moses Maimonides’ Treatise on Tzedakah.” The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2003.
  3. ibid.
  4. “The NY Times: Can Jews Save Non-Jewish Lives On The Sabbath?” FailedMessiah.com. Accessed October 25, 2016. http://failedmessiah.typepad.com/failed_messiahcom/2007/07/ the-ny-times-ca.html.
  5. Woodard, Xannie. “Please Stop Telling People to Respect Others’ Opinions. That’s for Things like ‘I Don’t like Coffee’ Not for ‘I Don’t like Black People.’” Twitter. @XannieW, November 9, 2016. https://twitter.com/XannieW/status/796383910691151872.
  6. Gittin 5:8 (Blackman variant)
  7. Safi, Omid. “Seven Thoughts on Waking Up in Our America.” On Being, November 12, 2016. http://www.onbeing.org/blog/omid-safi-seven-thoughts-on-waking-up-in-trumps-america/9038.

One comment

  1. Excellent sermon, again. And very powerful to read now, in today’s context, AND following our discussion on empathy.

    Thanks Sam!

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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