We Must Banish the Menacing Hand -A message from Cantor Kate
For a few days after the election I struggled over what to say in this column. I tried to comfort those who were feeling frightened (as I am), and support those who were speaking out for justice (as I hope to). I worked to sort out my own emotions and political views from the needs of you, my kahal (congregation). I don’t know the percentage of Trump supporters within the BAJC community; I suspect it is small, perhaps non-existent. Yet, I considered that a Trump supporter in BAJC, or in the Brattleboro area, might also feel embattled and uncomfortable. In this week’s Forward, conservative columnist Bethany Mandel makes a cogent argument for why she moved away from Reform Judaism in part because she felt “increasingly unwelcome and uncomfortable as a political conservative.”“I found myself gravitating toward the Modern Orthodox camp,” she writes, “where […] most of my fellow Jews believe what I believed politically, but even more importantly, politics rarely came up in communal settings.” She asks how liberal synagogues can expect all Jews to feel welcome – not only “the individuals who may feel marginalized in more right-wing religious settings,” but Jewish Trump supporters who do not believe that he is an anti-Semite. She herself is not a Trump supporter, and indeed reported in an earlier column that she had bought a gun to protect herself against the “Trolls” of the vicious so-called “alt-right” who made threats upon her life. In her view, however, “A synagogue’s entire purpose is to provide a religious sanctuary for its members, not to provide a platform to political beliefs, movements or causes […] [An} emphasis on tolerance is a priority of paramount importance. Tolerance, however, cannot only extend to those with whom the majority of the community is already comfortable; it should also extend to those Jews whom they do not understand.” As I read this I asked myself: Is it time to be measured and fair, or time to sound the alarm? Is there a way to do both?
The day after the election, I taught two b’nai mitzvah students. At eighty-nine, Selma Schiffer is the oldest bat mitzvah I have ever taught (though not the oldest bat mitzvah ever –women in their nineties have celebrated a bat mitzvah, and the world’s oldest man had his bar mitzvah at the age of 113!). Selma was in quite a state about the results of the election. After her lesson, however, she reported that she felt much better. “It’s so good to connect to something that has been around for thousands of years,” she said. “It helps to put everything in perspective.” She also had the pride of having recited the blessing for putting on a tallit, slowly but accurately.
In the afternoon I taught Avi Moses, who had sat up until 11:30 the previous night watching the election results coming in and was in shock about how it had turned out. We talked about the election, and about how we might move forward in these scary times. Avi said, “Is there a prayer I could say for Trump?” “Well,” I said, “You can’t pray for him to disappear, but how about a prayer for him to govern well and wisely?”
Our own siddur, Mishkan T’filah, has such a prayer (you’ll find it on page 376). It begins with a quote from Isaiah:
Thus says Adonai, This is what I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. Share your bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into your home. […] If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand, the evil speech; of you offer compassion to the hungry […] then your light shall shine in
The prayer then asks for Adonai to “Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance. May they govern with justice and compassion.” Avi liked this prayer, but he preferred the one from Siddur Sim Shalom, the old Conservative prayer book. He liked the English wording better, but even more he liked that there was a Hebrew version – because he, like many of us, suspects that Adonai may hear Hebrew prayers best. Here is the English of that prayer:
A Prayer for Our Country
Our God and God of our ancestors:
We ask Your blessings for our country- for
its government, for its leaders and advisors,
and for all who exercise just and rightful authority.
Teach them insights from Your Torah, that they may
administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom
may forever abide in our midst.
Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit.
May citizens of all races and creeds
forge a common bond in true harmony,
to banish hatred and bigotry,
and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that
are the pride and glory of our country.
May this land, under Your providence,
be an influence for good throughout the world,
uniting all people in peace and freedom-
helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet:
“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither
shall they learn war anymore.” And let us say, Amen.
While I do not agree with Bethany Mandel that politics have no place on the bimah (especially when it comes to climate change, which in my opinion is no longer merely a political issue but a matter of the life or death of the planet), we do have to make a place in our synagogue for all. But as we wait to see what the results of a Trump presidency will really be, we must all commit ourselves to the principles that are spelled out in the prayers for the community in both the Reform and the Conservative siddurim, as well as the good, strong, and even political words from the prophet Isaiah. The forces that would “spread hatred and bigotry,” that relish lifting “the menacing hand.” must not be allowed to take over our country. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, no one of us, as good Jews and good human beings, can allow fear to paralyze us. We have no choice now but to fight to protect “the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.” Our synagogue and our Jewish community are truly our sanctuary now – a place to gather together and pray, to communicate, to support each other, and to prepare for whatever comes next. We are connected to a long and amazing history. We will not only survive, but will continue to protect all of God’s vulnerable and downtrodden. This is not a matter of mere politics, but of humanity and justice.