Last week, we asked Connecticut rabbis to offer their advice to our incoming president, and several did. We continued to get their responses this week.
Mazel Tov on your election victory. We all wish you much success in uniting our country, and eliminating the political distractions that prevent government from fully serving all of our citizens.
You have drawn national attention to the essential qualities of leadership, and have garnered much respect for what you have achieved outside of political life. I would like to congratulate you on one of your most significant achievements: you have Jewish grandchildren, something that has eluded many Jews of our generation.
You have assured the American people that you will be the “law and order” president. As a rabbi, I can appreciate that. Our Jewish tradition created the concept of law and order. In fact, the name of our primary sacred text, the Torah, means “The Law” in Hebrew, and our prayer book is called a siddur, which means “order.” Our tradition gave the gift of law and order to the world.
I hope you will have many opportunities to spend some quality time together with your Jewish grandchildren studying the fascinating stories in our Torah, and getting to know the principal characters. Like many candidates, and even presidents, the heroes of the Torah had flaws. Our tradition does not demand perfection from its leaders, only humility, and fear of hubris.
As you have said, law and order cannot exist without strength. Strength is one of the three essential character traits we learn from our three biblical forefathers. In our sacred tongue, these traits are called middot, literally, measures. We can measure the quality of a person’s character by the display of these middot. We learn the middah of strength from Isaac and his wife Rebecca. But our Torah frames this quality with the middot of Isaac’s father Abraham, and his son Jacob.
Isaac’s parents Abraham and Sarah exemplified the middah of chesed, kindness. They practiced radical chesed, which extended to strangers and estranged relatives. Their legendary hospitality to visitors is the model of kindness, and gave them an opportunity to positively influence others, perpetuating this middah.
Isaac’s son and daughters-in-law, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, teach us the middah of emet, truth. They taught that the truth is not always what people want to hear or expect, and that technical truth can actually be worlds apart from truthfulness, when moral and ethical factors are considered. They taught that when our actions run contrary to the spirit of the law, we are living a lie, even if technically we have told no falsehood.
Isaac and Rebecca themselves are the source of the middah of gevurah, strength. Gevurah means to hold our core principles high, and live by them, even if it is not the easiest or most expeditious choice. It means laying down the law. But, it is potentially the most dangerous middah of them all. Unbridled strength will ultimately lead to collateral damage, to the victimization of people who are trying their best simply to live a good and moral life. That is why our Torah frames gevurah between chesed and emet. Strength is ultimately harmful unless it is applied in partnership with kindness and truth.
Each Saturday morning, during our Shabbat services, our congregation says a prayer on behalf of our government and its leaders. I want you to know that we are praying for you to succeed, and be a president that we can be proud of. We don’t require a superman, just a kind man with a commitment to truth, justice, and the American way. We pray that those you select to help you will exhibit these same commitments.
B’hatzlacha, may God grant you success in becoming the world leader your grandchildren, and ours, can admire.
Rabbi Debra Cantor
B’nai Tikvoh- Sholom
Although I am a rabbi, I do not purport to speak for the entire American Jewish community. While there is a great deal that links us together, we Jews have always honored the value of respectful discourse and disagreement. The Talmud faithfully records minority along with majority opinions and recognizes that “both reflect the words of the living God” (see Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b).
Which brings me to my first bit of advice. As president, and even now, as president-elect, you have the power to raise the level of civil discourse in our country, to soften the harsh rhetoric and name-calling which characterized the recent campaign. You have the power to influence the manner in which we address our disagreements as we move forward to heal and find common ground as a nation (see Proverbs 18:21).
You might begin this process by repudiating those of your supporters (e.g., members of the KKK and other white supremacist organizations) who have promoted racism and antisemitism and fomented hate against Muslims, LGBT folks, immigrants and others. They gained greater visibility during your campaign and have celebrated your election. Now that you have won, you would do well to emphasize that you intend to be president of all the people, including those most vulnerable to prejudice (see Leviticus 19:17).
You once co-authored a bestseller, The Art of the Deal. While some of the insights of that book may come in handy when you become president, might I suggest that you now consider exploring the art of listening? Just as governing is quite different from campaigning, debate is quite different from dialogue. Engaging in dialogue requires an openness to learning, to considering a variety of viewpoints and competing narratives (see above, Eruvin 13b).
Which is a good thing to remember when you deal with complicated foreign policy issues. For instance – and you knew I would bring this up! – Israel and the Palestinians. Do you imagine that this is a simple situation? Do you think that all Jews in the United States agree about how to handle it? We are as deeply divided about how to achieve security for Israel and justice for the Palestinians as the Israelis themselves. Cultivating humility may seem an odd piece of advice to give a world leader, but I am doing just that (see Numbers 12:3). Listen, move ahead thoughtfully and consider possible unintended consequences of your words and actions.
There is so much more I’d like to share with you! For instance, although we Jews care deeply about Israel, we are not – the vast majority of us – single-issue voters. We are concerned about a myriad of social justice issues (see Mishnah Avot 2:5). We care about the poor (see Deuteronomy 15). Our tradition impels us to include and care for those who are marginalized and at-risk in our society, not least because we are all created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26). It isn’t just our sacred texts that impel us to take action; it is also our history. We Jews know what it’s like to be the target of hate and oppression. That’s one of the reasons we have made common cause with others who face prejudice. We will continue to do so (see Leviticus 19:16).
Most of us vigorously support the right of a woman to make decisions about her own health and her own body. Jewish law differentiates between the life of a mother and the life of a fetus. The former takes priority over the latter (see Exodus 21:22-23 and commentaries). Regardless, we don’t think our religious view should prevail in our legal system. By the way, we Jews are also pretty adamant about maintaining the separation of church and state. We think that’s a good thing, especially given the growing religious diversity in our country.
Finally, I want to raise the urgent issue of climate change. The Bible commands us to be stewards of God’s Creation (see Genesis), which means we have the responsibility to care for the earth. There is near unanimity in the scientific community about the real dangers of climate change and the human contribution to it. We cannot wait to take action; I implore you to take science seriously and not to jeopardize our children’s and grandchildren’s future!
Mr. Trump, I could go on and on, but I will leave it here for now. You have a heavy task ahead of you. May God grant you wisdom and strength.