Taking Obama To Shul

I’m very belatedly getting around to discussing the whole Obama-goes-to-a-racialist-church-whose-pastor-is-pals-with-Farakkan-and-why-won’t-he-denounce-him-Jeepers-maybe-he’s-a-secret-Muslim-I-should-vote-Hillary-or-McCain-because-they-are-better-for-the-Jews thingy. You know what that whole business made me think of? My first Rosh Hashanah as an undergraduate.

I went to the Conservative service on campus. And my roommate, who was from Missouri, and didn’t know much about Judaism (though he’d grown up in an academic household in Columbia, so he’d certainly met Jews), decided he’d come along, to learn something.

The rabbi gave a rather gassy sermon, the theme of which was that Judaism revolved around four key themes: the Jewish God, the Jewish law, the Jewish land, and the Jewish people. And he divided Jewish history into four periods based on the relative centrality of each theme.

First, we had the era of the Jewish God: the period of revelation and prophecy, and of the Temple service.

With the rise of rabbinic Judaism in the late Second Temple period, and particularly after the destruction of the Temple and the second exile, we had the era of Jewish law: the codification of the Mishnah and the Talmud, and the spiritual regulation of everyday life.

Nearly two thousand years later, with the rise of Zionism, began the third era: the era of the Jewish land, focused on establishing Jewish territorial sovereignty and securing a physical home that could be defended by Jewish arms.

Apparently, this era was a very short era, because the rabbi was prepared to declare it over, ushering in the fourth era: the era of the Jewish people. What, precisely, this era consisted of he was rather vague about, but it was one part “putting people first” and two parts ethnic solidarity. You know, we’re all brothers, we’re responsible for each other, we have to celebrate our diversity but never forget that we’re all in this together, blah blah blah.

Now, this speech struck me as extremely banal, the kind of thing I’d heard dozens of times before. Well: that was not the way it struck my roommate. We walked out of shul together, and he said, “I can’t believe the racist sermon the rabbi gave.”


Basically, from his perspective, what the rabbi said was: Jews need to look after the Jews first, and look after each other because they’re fellow Jews, and the Jewish religion is substantially about racial solidarity and exclusion, and that this is not some residue of the past – it’s what Judaism especially is today!

So we had a long talk, and I tried to establish the context in which the rabbi’s sermon is properly embedded, and about the peculiar nature of Judaism (a religion that is bound to a people that is not precisely a nation). But I noticed, as we talked, that there were only two ways the conversation could reasonably go: I could be defensive and apologetic and try to convince him that Jews should be forgiven our bizarre ethnocentric religion because we can’t help it and don’t mean any harm; or I could convince him that Judaism made sense in its own terms, and, effectively, “witness” to him about my faith in a way that a Christian spreading the evangel might. And, you know, I really didn’t want to do either thing – and honestly, neither was what he wanted to hear anyway. He wanted to make sense of what he’d heard from some neutral standpoint that was neither affirming nor condescending. And we both kind of concluded that this wasn’t possible.

I thought about this in the context of Obama’s own “rabbi” because, as I’m not the first to point out, there are some points of contact between the African-American and the Jewish experience, most particularly the experience of coming from a people that is not precisely a nation. And I think it’s striking that so many Jews, aware of their own peculiarity in this regard and of this parallel, have gone out of their way to be uncharitable in their understanding of why Obama might associate with a chuch of the sort he chose.

Last Shavuot, at our tikkun, the theme of our study and discussion was Jewish chosenness. And the rabbi who led the discussion began by handing out two quotes. The first quote was from Jerry Falwell, and it related to the eternal damnation of those Jews who do not accept Jesus as the Christ and their personal savior. He asked the group whether this quote was bigoted or racist. (I said no, but most of the participants said yes.) Then he handed out the second quote, which said that Jews were not the same species as human beings – human beings were created creatures, with souls created by God, whereas Jewish souls derived from God and were not really created. This quote came from the Chabad Lubavitch website. Again, the rabbi asked: is this quote bigoted or racist? And thr crowd hemmed and hawed, some saying yes and some saying no, not really, and some saying, in effect, that you have to make allowances for what the Jews went through when you hear something like this, and so forth.

The rabbi then gave us his opinion: that the quote from Chabad was much worse than the quote from Jerry Falwell, because while Falwell was denying the validity of Judaism, and condemning us to hellfire, he was not saying Jews were in any way inherently distinct from other human beings, whereas the Chabad position was “spiritual racism” and truly abhorrent. He did, in other words, what I think Obama’s critics on this point would like to see him do with respect to the Reverend Wright.

But I objected to this conclusion. And I made the following analogy: imagine two political systems. In one case, the sovereign is a single individual, a hereditary ruler of a longstanding dynasty who has theoretically absolute power, unlimited by a written constitution. In the other case, the sovereign is the people, and the written constitution explicitly grants a variety of freedoms and total social equality; moreover, the heads of state have included several individuals of modest birth, attesting to the fact that anyone could rise to the top. Which regime would you prefer to live under: the first, or the second? What if I told you that the first regime is that obtaining in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, while the second is that which obtained in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics? The point being: you can’t tell what is an oppressive system simply by looking at a few cherry-picked beliefs or tenets; you need to know more.

I hasten to add that I do not believe that Jews are distinct from other human beings, having a fundamentally different soul, not being created by God, or any of that – nor are these mainstream Jewish beliefs. But neither do I believe that I am obliged, to remain a member in good standing of polite society, to cast Chabad into the outer darkness and refuse to associate with them. Nor do I believe that Senator Obama is obliged to denounce his pastor. I believe the bar should be set really high for these kinds of defenestrations, and that the important thing to discern is not whether you believe the right thing, but whether you do the right thing.