Trump and a Divided Judaism: Reimagining Religious Community

By: Joshua Shanes

January 23, 2020

Finding Faith in Impeachment?

A deep chasm of reality perception and values has ripped across the Jewish world since the rise of Trump. While American Jews disproportionately oppose Trump, Orthodox Jews (along with evangelical Christians) moved in the opposite direction. Orthodox rabbinical bodies and prominent rabbis make regular public pronouncements in support of him, swooning over his gifts to the Israeli right, while refusing to criticize his hate-mongering, praise and pardon of violent criminals, separation of families, evisceration of the environment, social welfare, and more. Voting records show bright red islands in Orthodox neighborhoods like Flatbush and West Rogers Park, while even relatively safe petitions urging Trump to be inclusive, or to fire Stephen Miller following the release of his white nationalist emails, regularly include signatures of organizations from every denomination but the Orthodox.

Political tribalism trumped decency as Orthodox Jews—and their evangelical allies—turned out in droves for a man who ran on xenophobic hatred, gross misogyny, race baiting, calls for violence, ignorance and conspiracy paranoia, an alliance with neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and a narcissistic cult of personality unlike anything in American history. That support has only grown since the election and during this current impeachment crisis. As a result, progressive Orthodox Jews and evangelicals—isolated and even ostracized in their communities—face a crisis of religious identity, namely the apparent inseparability of immoral political beliefs that comes with identifying with those communities. 

How might interfaith dialogue heal political divisions? The answer is that it cannot. Political divisions between those who advocate racist hate-mongering, misogyny, and cruelty and those who advocate for humanism and equality cannot be bridged. Only communities can be healed—and these groups no longer constitute a single community. For this division to heal, the core value system that currently dominates Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians must be exposed as a perversion of God’s truth, especially by open evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews who reject it. 

Interfaith dialogue can, however, forge new ecumenical communities to defeat this heresy. The ecumenical fraternity of those camps worshipping the golden calf of Trump must be fought by a competing fraternity of Jews, Christians, and Muslims dedicated to the ethical humanism demanded by our shared prophets, even as we respect each other’s ritual and theological differences. In other words, we have to reimagine religious community to form around shared theological commitment to humanism and human equality. My tribe is formed by people committed to these values and not necessarily Jews—even Orthodox Jews—who share my strict observance of Jewish ritual. 

Finally, faith leaders must be prepared to engage these topics from the pulpit with the full understanding that these are religious issues without fear of violating political “neutrality” or offending constituents. There is no neutrality in politics, any more than there is neutrality in Sabbath observance. The Sabbath comes, and one observes it or not in whatever way one chooses. “Political neutrality” is itself political. It is support for those in power, or for those destined to be victorious without the voice of the clergy. 

Moreover, too often faith leaders insist that they do not take stands on political issues but then happily support various causes that they understand to benefit their communities, such as rabbis advocating for a particular policy vis-à-vis Israel (or Iran). This is a circular argument that labels such actions as “non-political” because they seemed so self-evidently beneficial. Those were, in fact, political actions that reflected the Jewish values of the rabbis in question, and their refusal to advocate for other issues is equally a political act. In short, insisting that neither support for Trump nor opposition to him necessarily opposes the Torah is itself setting the Jewish values of one’s community in a specific way. 

Faith leaders may not be versed enough in American law to speak to the logistical details of the impeachment or the broader constitutional crisis. They can, however, speak to our faiths’ basic values to vociferously oppose rhetoric or policies that they recognize violate God’s will, and they can forge new communities across denominational and religious boundaries that share this worldview. May it happen speedily and in our day.

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