Four Jewish texts in response to the Election of 2016

I write these words as an individual, who serves a Jewish community that is diverse in many ways, including national origin, race, sexual orientation, and political perspective, among other points of diversity.  I don’t have the illusion that everyone in our community will agree with what I am writing below, but it is my hope that you can find at least one thing with which to agree.  

My tendency at times of joy and at times of difficulty is to look to traditional Jewish writings for wisdom and solace. Here are 4 traditional Jewish texts that are helping me through this day.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 2nd c. CE), 4:10:
 ואל תאמר קבלו דעתי, שהן רשאין ולא אתה  
“[Rabbi Ishmael taught:]  Don’t say to someone else, “You must come around to my opinion!”  That’s up to them, not to you.”

Western democracy may be young, but the idea of majority vote and (in some circumstances) majority rule has been a hallmark of Jewish tradition for thousands of years. The book of Exodus tells us, אחרי רבים להטות “Incline yourself after the majority.” (23:2)  And this passage from Pirkei Avot, probably intended to describe a dispute among judges, reminds us that minds are changed only through persuasion, not through coercion.  It is a great blessing to live in a country that is characterized by the orderly transition of power between adversaries, where we are educated to grow accustomed to the notion that we will often disagree with our government.  If the result of yesterday’s election was surprising to me and to most pollsters and journalists, it’s a sign that there is a significant segment of the United States population that we don’t understand beyond an inaccurate caricature.  As Secretary Clinton said in her concession speech today, those who disagree with President-Elect Trump “owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.”

Psalm 146:
עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט לָעֲשׁוּקִים נֹתֵן לֶחֶם לָרְעֵבִים ה' מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים. ח ה' פֹּקֵחַ עִוְרִים ה' זֹקֵף כְּפוּפִים ה' אֹהֵב צַדִּיקִים. ט ה' שֹׁמֵר אֶת גֵּרִים יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה יְעוֹדֵד וְדֶרֶךְ רְשָׁעִים יְעַוֵּת.
God upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry; God sets prisoners free.  God gives sight to the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, and loves the righteous.  God watches over the foreigner   and sustains the fatherless and the widow, and frustrates the ways of the wicked.

The core of Jewish ethics is support for those who are most vulnerable: those who are oppressed, impoverished, unjustly imprisoned, those who are ill and disabled, those who are bereaved and without protection, and those who are foreigners.  This is the way that the Jewish community has always strived to be -- even when Jews lived under the dominion of ruling authorities who felt otherwise.  Embracing these values is part of what it means to live a traditional Jewish life.  These will remain core Jewish values for the American Jewish community.  It is my sincere and deep hope that the President-Elect will embrace these values as president to a much greater degree than he has embraced these values as a candidate.  If he does not, I have confidence that the American Jewish community will agitate for the fulfillment of these values, as Jews have done so frequently throughout our history.

(Moses Maimonides (Egypt, 12th c.), Mishneh Torah, Laws of Temperament, 2:7)
ואמרו שכל הכועס--אם חכם הוא, חכמתו מסתלקת ממנו, ואם נביא הוא, נבואתו מסתלקת ממנו.  (הלכות דעות ב:ז)
Our sages said about those who are full of anger: if they are wise, their wisdom departs from them. If they are prophets, their prophecy departs from them.

For those who find the outcome of the election to be troubling, now is a time to be gentle with each other, as nerves are frayed and tension is high.  Many of us (myself included) may need reminders over the next few days to walk and drive more slowly and carefully, to react more slowly, and to avoid taking out stress and anger on loved ones and random people.  Crises often bring out our best impulses but sometimes (in the short term especially) our worst tendencies.  This may be why Maimonides cautions so strongly against expressions of anger even for causes we regard as righteous (and, of course, to the angry person, anger is always righteous):  anger corrodes and corrupts our souls and causes our wisdom to dissipate.

Rebbe Nahman of Breslov (19th c. Ukraine)
כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאד והעיקר לא לפחד כלל
The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to fear at all.
In these famous words, it is hard for me to believe that Rebbe Nahman of Breslov was really suggesting that people should never fear.   Fear is an essential emotion -- and fear plays a vital role in keeping us safe.  Those who have a realistic sense of fear are much safer than those who are never afraid.  My sense is that Rebbe Nahman was identifying that fear is a distorting emotion. In fact, (in my opinion) irrational fear of the other is exactly what led so many to make the electoral choice they made.  To me, this quotation by Rebbe Nahman is the Jewish version of the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Whatever happens, we do better when trying as hard as possible to lead with other emotions rather than fear.  

We must be vigilant, especially in identifying the warning signs of the pausing or dismantling of the government’s system of checks and balances on presidential power.   We must be activists on behalf of groups that are an important part of the American mosaic that have been threatened by the President-Elect when he was a candidate. But we should remember that the United States has been through a lot of difficult times in its long history, and the Jewish people has been through even more difficult times in its much much longer history.  The current moment calls for vigilance and activism -- as every moment does.  The current moment does not call for despair -- as no moment does.


  1. Thank you so much for these calming, well-reasoned (as always) words at this troubling time.
    Ellen Cohen

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  3. Thank you, Rabbi. These texts are worth deep meditations.

    Since Tuesday night, there is just one thing in my mind: Why? What made good people vote for a candidate that, as you put it, not only did not show any "support for those who are most vulnerable", but openly threatened them? Your words: "there is a significant segment of the United States population that we don’t understand beyond an inaccurate caricature" hold the answer.

    Our most important task now is to reach over the divide and get to know that segment, learn about their hopes and their fears, let them know that they are a part of their country as much as ever. Even if it is different from the America of their childhood, it is still their America: it's just also a lot of other people's America and we are not here to threaten them or to take anything away from them, just to share it.



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