On My Mind: Arnie Eisen
Arnold M. Eisen, one of the world’s foremost experts on American Judaism, is the seventh chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
I woke up Wednesday morning breathing deep with relief that the long nightmare of the campaign was finally behind us—and fearful that my fellow Americans and I will not be able to find it in ourselves to overcome divisions greater than at any time since the Civil War. After all, tens of millions awoke with immense pain and anger at the outcome of the election, and about the same number with the sense their voices had finally been heard. I do not know, in legislative terms, what the specifics of “coming together” will entail. But I do know that the Torah demands that we never give up on one another or our society; that we be better than we have been of late; and that we take concrete steps to return to the truth and ideals that are “self-evident” to Americans when we do not cover them over with cynicism. These are, I believe, the only ways to keep the house we share from burning. All hands are needed—and all hearts, too—to put out the fire and rebuild.
The first building block, it seems to me, is speech. Words played a major role in turning us into this nation divided—name-calling, disparagement, smears of all kinds—and words will have to play a major role in making things better. God spoke the world into being, we learn in the very first verses of Genesis, and Jewish sages taught that human beings, having been created in God’s image, have the power to make and destroy—to build up and tear down other human beings—through speech.
Let’s all resolve to watch our mouths in the post-election period. No harmful speech, let alone violent action. Let’s listen so well to the words uttered by people who disagree with us, that we hear what is intended and felt even when it is not actually said. The disagreement likely will not go away. But the anger and pain need to be registered. So does the fear—palpable on all sides—about where our country is headed.
A related casualty of this long and grueling election cycle has been the truth, so damaged that many Americans have apparently stopped believing that any politician ever tells the truth. The Torah says that Truth is one of the names of God. The Ten Commandments prohibit us from lying in God’s name; a major aspect of loving our neighbors, Leviticus teaches, is to be straight with them about what we think they are doing wrong. Jews have learned the hard way, as have other minority communities, that when those in power play fast and loose with the truth, individuals and groups who are powerless, as Jews have been in the past, are the first to pay a heavy price.
So let’s all make a promise, with the election behind us, to tell the truth on a more regular basis than seemed possible in the heat of the campaign. There is a time for political rhetoric, and a time to own up to complexity; let’s reject the lie that a person or group is either “with us” or “against us.” Let’s own up to the complexity of things for a change, admit that the policies and individuals we favor or oppose are not all good or all bad, and recognize that disputes over principle often mask fights over turf or privilege.
Third, let’s really be our brothers’ keepers. We mustn’t think the fire will consume only their side of the house we share. Let’s reach across every aisle, every fence, to every neighbor. Let’s listen hard to the anger and the pain. Most important, we must heed the Bible’s refrain that “widows and orphans”—all who cannot provide for themselves—must not be allowed to starve. Like many Americans, I don’t much care how we accomplish that goal, but it pains me that we don’t, that it seems we can’t, and—worse—that we act as if we do not give a damn.
Let’s channel that impatience into action. Christmas Eve this year falls on the same date as the first night of Hanukkah. Could we resolve as a country—individuals of all parties and creeds, corporations and businesses of every size and complexity, governments at the federal, state, and local level, religious organizations and secular charities, all of us—that no child will wake up the next morning without enough food to eat. For that one day, at least (and for as many days afterward as possible). To make the holiday a Holy Day for all Americans, regardless of religious beliefs. To show that we can work together on something valuable, that we care. That light in the December darkness would make all Americans proud.