In Praise Of Public Life | Congregation Beth Am

In Praise Of Public Life

By Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit on
September 21, 2017

The stakes were high - a popular two term incumbent was leaving and a new President would take residency in the White House.   America divided.  Blue and Red.  On election night, Americans anxiously watched the returns from swing states - Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida.  The winner of the electoral college did not win the popular vote.   Not 2016, but 2000.  You remember, I hope, the first Jewish candidate on a national ticket for a major American political party.           

My favorite anecdote about that election.  After weeks of ballot counting and contentious back and forth - nearly five weeks after election day Vice President Gore conceded to Governor Bush.  Hadassah Lieberman, the wife of the Connecticut Senator and VP candidate, comforted her dejected husband Joe,  saying:  “Don’t worry honey, in our house you’ll always be the Vice-President.”

Senator Lieberman offered the commencement address at my college graduation.  Even to this day, the idea of an observant Jew, the son of Eastern-European immigrants, nearly becoming the Vice-President feels remarkable - no doubt his nomination was a proud moment for many of you.  Senator Lieberman has written a handful of books, one was his reflections from the 2000 election, which I never read.   Another was a book about Shabbat - amazing, a sitting US Senator writing about Shabbat.  Another, and this was the central theme of the address he gave at my Trinity College graduation, focused on public life.   

The book is nearly 20 years old, but on this Rosh HaShana morning, I like his message.  He calls on young people to embrace the public sphere.  “We need to convince more young people who want to make a difference to enter public life.”  Senator Lieberman writes,  “For the American experiment in self-government to remain vital, we need more people to serve in that government and to live public lives. If we didn't have politicians, we would have to invent them. We can turn our backs and abandon them in disgust, thereby ensuring that the government does indeed belong to the privileged and powerful few. Or we can conclude that public life is a worthy pursuit, that it can be an honorable, constructive, satisfying, enjoyable career, deserving of the best among us.”  

Judaism has a lot to say about our role in the public sphere.   The idea that we must support  our public institutions is deep in the Jewish DNA.  Around the year 600 BCE, the prophet Jeremiah, wrote a letter to the exiled Jews living Babylonia.  In his letter, he urged the exiled Jews to “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit… seek the welfare of the city… and pray to god on it’s behalf, for you will prosper when it does.”  (29:7) This message from Jeremiah was a seminal moment in Jewish history. Rabbi Lance Sussman calls it the “ideological basis for Jewish life in the diaspora.”   

To set the scene - things are not looking good for the Jews.  Many of the priests and prophets and elders had been exiled out of the holy land, away from Jerusalem and the temple by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon.  After the destruction of the temple in 586 the entire Jewish community would be exiled.   Yet, Jeremiah instructs the people to embrace Babylonia, to not be afraid to prosper and to find a new way to worship God.  But not just that, as Jews, at least according to Jeremiah, we are required to be good citizens and contribute to the public good.  

Certainly we know that our relationship with governments and rulers has not always been rosy.  In Jewish liturgy, prayers for “the country” were often defense mechanisms.  We wanted to demonstrate that we were good, loyal citizens to protect ourselves from others’ scorn or violence.  We know that famous line at the opening of Fiddler - “May God Bless and Keep the Czar … far away from us.”

Nevertheless, as the great Jewish historian, Jonathan Sarna writes, “Jewish political philosophy …. assumed that a government, even an oppressive government, is superior to anarchy.”    No place is this clearer than in the teaching of Rabbi Chaninah, in Pirkei Avot, 700 years after Jeremiah, and after the destruction of the second temple and the second exile from Jerusalem.  Chaninah said:  “Pray for the welfare of the government, since, were it not for the fear of it, people would swallow each other up alive.” (3:2)

This idea, that we pray for and support the welfare of the state in which we live has been around Jewish worship for a long time and has existed in Jewish siddurim since the 1600s.  The prayer has no doubt varied from country to country and ruler to ruler.  The first Reform Prayer book in the United States, compiled in 1825, included a prayer for the government, written entirely in English which asked God to bless, preserve and enlighten the president and other federal and state officials.  It thanked God for having ... removed from the republic “the intolerance of bigotry;” and for freeing its people “from the yoke of political and religious bondage.”  

Around the same time, In 1836, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch the father of modern orthodoxy wrote 19 letters on Judaism.  These letters, written in German, recognized the need for Judaism, even Orthodox Judaism, to coexist with the nation state. Rabbi Hirsch wrote:   “...  it is our duty to join ourselves as closely as possible to the state which receives us into its midst, to promote its welfare and not to consider our well-being as in any way separate from that of the state to which we belong.”

Of course, our Rosh HaShana prayer book has a prayer for this country, page 272, we’re almost there, which contains references not only to Deuteronomy and Leviticus but also to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  “Inspire us through your teachings and commandments to love and uphold our precious democracy. Let every citizen take responsibility for the rights and freedoms we cherish.”    

There has been a lot of conversation about the role of citizenship and its interaction with faith since last Rosh HaShanah.   It’s an age old discussion in this country, but seems extra timely now, especially in our Jewish Community.   Sally Steenland, opens her collection of essays called Debating the Divine saying:  “The Iconic Public Square where Americans of the past used to gather to debate the politics of the day is long gone from most cities and towns, but the spirited conversations that once defined these places - both in myth and fact - are alive and well today.  The topics of our current political and cultural conversations range from mundane to the profound, but a recurring theme has to do with religion and politics - in particular whether religion should be a force shaping our public policies and our common civic life.”  

This debate has surged in the Jewish world and consumed Jewish leaders all across the nation.  No doubt it’s part of your thinking this high holidays as well.  Take Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles who earlier this year pleaded: “All we hear all day long is politics. Can we not come to shul for something different, something deeper? I want to know what my rabbi thinks of Jacob and Rachel, not of Pence and Pelosi…. As a rabbi, my task is to bless, to teach values and texts and ideas and rituals, to comfort, to cajole, to listen and learn, to grow in spirit along with my congregants, to usher them through the transitions of life, to create a cohesive community, to defend the people and land of Israel, and to reinforce what most matters. The great questions of life are not usually political ones.”   

My hunch is some of you are nodding.  Saying to yourself - can’t the Beth Am team model that rabbinate?

In contrast to Rabbi Wolpe is Rabbi Noah Farkais:  “... I believe ultimately that the false distinction between religion and politics makes both worse. It makes religion a reverential Polaroid of ancient times. It makes faith static, metaphysics frozen, and theology moribund. If religion has nothing to say about the world we live in, if it addresses no reality outside our door, especially when that reality causes anguish and pain, what then do we need religion for? We risk slipping into the great void where all our windows become mirrors.”  

My hunch is some of you are nodding.  Saying to yourself - can’t the Beth Am team model that rabbinate?

Personally, I believe it essential that as Jews and as a synagogue we actively engage in the public sphere.  We are needed more than ever.  With the rise of fanaticism and secularism our role in the civic conversation takes on renewed urgency.   Our participation as progressive Jews and allies is necessary in the public world. Certainly Americans’ greater detachment from religious activities and institutions, especially those of younger generations,  contributes to our national polarization.  As Peter Beinart noted in the Atlantic earlier this year, ”Maybe it’s the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition that churches instill. Maybe religion builds habits and networks that help people better weather national traumas, and thus retain their faith that the system works. For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.”

Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: the Story of an American Muslim, asserts the importance of including a range of religious voices in the public sphere -- not to combat secularism but to counter extremism.  “When liberal and moderates avoid public discussions of religion and morality, they leave a vacuum to be filled by extremists, whose dominance gives them disproportionate influence and power… The way to dilute such power is to add more religious voices to the public realm.  Moderating voices can challenge the extreme views of fundamentalists, disprove their false claims and add to the vigor of the public debate.   Just as free speech advocates argue that the solution to bad political speech is not silencing it but adding more voices, the same is true for religious speech.”  

And let’s be entirely honest, being in the public sphere is good for Jewish self interest.  Fights against anti-Semitism, support for Israel, against prayer in public schools, for the separation of church and state, have been influenced by the ubiquity of Jewish voices in the public arena.   The fact that we’ve never backed away from being openly and loudly Jewish in our American democracy has shaped these and other issues.  It’s also allowed for people like Senator Lieberman to run for higher office.  No doubt that our presence in Washington, 32 Jewish representatives, exists because of our historical engagement with public life.   When our confirmation class - 33 strong this year - walks the halls of congress each winter, lobbying our elected representatives, we stand with both conviction and history.  

Locally, we need to continue our commitment to the public conversation.   Our community wide rally in support of refugees and asylum seekers at Mountain View City Hall earlier this year was a strong demonstration that as Jews we see our place in the public arena and we need our voices in the public conversation.  In 5778 we’ll continue our work advocating and supporting refugees and asylum seekers.  No issue touches the Jewish heart more than support of refugees.  We are going to partner with two organizations Catholic Charities and IsraAid to continue this work.   Our work will be local and global.  Helping refugees new to our area as well as those across the world.   You’ll hear more about this initiative and I hope you get involved.   

Beth Am has built deep relationships with our elected officials as well as other faith based institutions.   I’m in awe of the dedicated women who helped create the Muslim Jewish Solidarity Alliance.  A caring group of women who came together to say we need to know one another better.    Our building bridges group does this with our Christian neighbors, and has also begun to reach out to local Muslims.  We register voters every September and often collaborate with the League of Women Voters.   And, our local IAF community organizing is built on the idea of public action and strengthening civic society.   When we know our neighbors we have deeper power to make a difference in the public sphere.   These initiatives are ongoing - come join us.  

I certainly am not advocating that we violate the sacred separation of church and state.  At Beth Am we will never endorse candidates or parties.  Issues, policies, concerns, certainly - but we know that we are not monolithic in our views and that diversity is one of our strengths.   With that in mind,  I’m sure there have been times this year being a republican at Beth Am has not been easy.  I think about our republican members often and I know that life’s blessings and burdens are a part of your life.  No doubt Beth Am should be a place for comfort and joy, rest and reflection for everyone.   One of the reasons our Equal Start campaign chose Early Learning as it’s social justice focus is because it is one of our nation’s most bi-partisan public policy initiatives.  The leading State in advancing Early Childhood Education is Oklahoma, proudly Republican.   In the local realm, Equal Start has partnered with public institutions including Canada College and Ravenswood School District to bring advanced teacher training to local pre-school teachers.  This would not have happened without Beth Am.    

And while we are at it, a specific message to our high school and college students:  be involved in the public dialogue.   We need you more than ever.   Being a public servant is an important and noble calling - don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  I certainly understand the disalussion with a career in the political sphere - too corrupt, too greedy, all noise no action.  I certainly know you haven’t always had the best role-models.  Living here in Silicon Valley, the epicenter of disruption, it might seem like you can do more outside the system than inside.  I disagree - as Bill Moyers says, “democracy works when you claim it as your own.”  Please remember - being a public servant - in whatever form that looks like -  is an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives and to change the world.   It’s sacred and honest work and we will delight in your accomplishments.  

There is a famous story about Helen Keller, toward the end of her career she was speaking at a college in the midwest and a student asked her:  “Is there anything worse than losing your sight?”  “Yes” she replied, “I could have lost my vision.”   We are a community with great vision.  Vision for how we treat one-another, vision for how we pray together, and also a vision for how we interact in the public sphere.  Jewish Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said: “the most important political office is that of private citizen.”   Our counties, states and nation need us more than ever.

Moyers, On Democracy


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