Tuesday, 20 January 2009

The New Jewish Issue in Washington

As Barack Obama assumes the Presidency of the U.S., it seems that many Jews have important and integral roles within this new administration. According to something I heard tonight, it even seems that of the seven most influential positions in this new administration, all seven have been filled with Jews. I am not sure how to respond to this fact. On one hand, there is pride in hearing of Jews attaining such types of positions. There is also gratitude and hope with the belief that Jewish People now have many friends in the White House, many members of our people in leading positions. There is, however, also some trepidation. Just because someone is identified as a Jew or even calls himself/herself a Jew, does not mean that he/she has the emotions of a Jew and cares about the Jewish People. In this case, though, amongst these new appointees, there are clearly some that strongly identify as Jews, who seem to care about the Jewish People. The problem for me, though, is not whether someone feels like a Jew but rather whether that person thinks like a Jew. In this regard, does this person turn to Jewish sources in making a decision or does the person simply do what so many Jews do -- act upon their own moral initiative and call it Jewish because they can find some source in the large corpus of Jewish sources that can be used to support such an initiative -- and, in any event, their Jewish heart just feels that its right?

Torah is so broad and multi-dimensional that one can almost always find some statement that can be used to support, even advocate for, some viewpoint. The question in Torah scholarship is not whether some source can be found to support an idea but how this source connects to and integrates with the myriad other sources on the subject -- often, seemingly, in contradiction -- to create a substantive, practical directive that reflects the true complexity of a matter. When I hear that a Jew, with a strong, positive feeling of Jewish identity, is in a position of governmental import, I generally do feel some good about it. This positive feeling should result in some positive feelings towards the Jewish People within that administration. But what I am really hoping for when I hear that a Jew is in such a position, is that this Jew is also a Jew who thinks like a Jew. This means someone who understands the nature of Torah and its lessons -- and thus recognizes the complexity of life and of decisions. Such a person I can also trust with the decision making that accompanies such a governmental position -- since such a person will also understand the value of Torah in identifying and clarifying the complexity of a situation and directing a person in proper responses to that situation. The result will be, not just a Jew in government but also Jewish decisions, decisions that reflect Jewish, Torah wisdom. That is, by definition, good for the Jewish People but it is, also, inherently good for all.

The greatest possible kiddush Hashem that can emerge from so many Jews in important positions in this new administration is that wise decisions will emerge from them and people will recognize the value in Jewish, i.e. Torah, thought. Sadly, a chilul Hashem, could also potentially emerge if these Jews actually make foolish decisions which are then interpreted as Jewish decisions because they were made by Jews even though the wisdom of Torah was not applied in making these decisions. So many Jews in the White House -- what to think? It depends. Will these Jews use Jewish wisdom in arriving at their decisions? If the answer to that question is yes -- it is good for the Jews and, in fact, for the U.S. and all Americans, in fact all the world. The wisdom of Torah will be available to assist in the development of the world. If these Jews, though, do not know Torah or how to apply it within their new roles, I have some concerns. They will make their decisions like everyone else but these decisions will still be defined as Jewish decisions. That is taking a gamble.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


thanbo said...

and here I thought the "new Jewish issue in Washington" was Rabbi Lookstein's participation in the National Prayer Service welcoming the new President, and Rabbi Herring's response.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The last time a Jew got this close to the centre of power it was Henry Kissinger. Fat lot of good it did us.

Fortunately, Jews in high places have been less damaging to us than those with Jewish blood, like Casper Weinberger Madeline Albright.