Over the past week two concerning narratives have surfaced in the media. As a rabbi of a Modern-Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC, and as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, these two story lines have evoked in me horrific imagery of the darkest times of the Jewish people.
No need to expand much further about the potential outcome for Jews when “the Jews are to blame” becomes a national and international slogan.
First, in a piece published in Vanity Fair, and later propagated by many print, online, and cable news services, Emily Fox insinuated that the worst domestic and international decisions emanating from the Trump Administration all occurred between Sundown on Friday and Sundown on Saturday ― a time when Trump’s main advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, is celebrating the Jewish Sabbath. During this 25 hour nirvana Jared becomes unavailable to counsel his father-in-law. The extension of this thesis is not hard to fathom: it is the Jewish Sabbath that is partially to blame for the questionable decisions. In the words of Fox, “The timing of Trump’s executive order on Friday, just moments before sundown, meant that Kushner would not be in the West Wing to absorb another cataclysmic Saturday.”
Second, in an article titled “How Could Modern Orthodox Judaism Produce Jared Kushner?” published in Forward, Peter Beinart suggested that every Modern-Orthodox synagogue is partially to blame for Jared Kushner. By extension, Modern-Orthodox synagogues are to blame for the decisions being made by the Trump Administration and the current state of the union. Beinart proposed that “Kushner’s failure is not his problem alone; it should chill every Modern Orthodox educator, rabbi and parent in the United States. How could the Modern Orthodox community, a community that prides itself on instilling in its children Jewish knowledge and ideals, have failed so profoundly?”
Both of these narratives are foolish and dangerous. First, President Trump has many advisers. To indicate that the inaccessibility of a son-in-law for 24 hours is precisely the reason that these questionable decisions are being made is tenuous at most. Furthermore, it is abundantly clear even in the most Ultra-Orthodox Jewish responsa that anytime there is a possibility of an emergency the Sabbath can, and must, be overlooked. Jared himself has shown his willingness to do so in a much-publicized occurrence the Friday night of the inauguration. There have been many influential Orthodox Jews working at the highest level of government, from Senators to Secretaries to Ambassadors, who benefited from this Sabbath dispensation when necessary.
The idea that Modern-Orthodox synagogues and Modern-Orthodox rabbis are somewhat to blame for Jared Kushner’s ideology is inaccurate and disturbing. First, as a Modern-Orthodox rabbi, I see firsthand the number of people who are actually listening and internalizing the messages that I convey from the pulpit. There is a reason why the following joke is very popular in the clergy. A local emergency management official was looking for places to house people during an emergency. She reached out to the local rabbi and asked if his synagogue may be able to accommodate. She also wanted to know how many people the sanctuary can hold. The rabbi responded, “I’m not sure how many people the main sanctuary holds but during my sermons Saturday morning it’s sleep 300.”
Even if you want to assume that Jared Kushner was one of those congregants who really integrated the messages being conveyed in synagogues, allow me to share with you the types of messages being transmitted. First of all, it is a well-known rule that clergy members speaking from the pulpit cannot offer political messages. Beyond the legal aspects, following this dictum has many congregational benefits as well. Furthermore, messages delivered at synagogues most often contain themes of individual responsibility and free-will. Orthodox Judaism promotes individuality in service of God; people can take these messages and apply them in their lives in whatever way they see fit. This independence of thought can be seen by the wide range of people and their thoughts emanating from the Modern-Orthodox world. From the political world of Washington, DC to the financial world of Wall Street, to Hollywood and medicine, and many other disciplines, Modern-Orthodox Jews have a wide range of opinions and beliefs. This plurality and variety is by design.
Blaming the Sabbath and Modern-Orthodox synagogues for Jared Kushner is limited and inaccurate. No! Modern-Orthodox Judaism is not to blame for Donald Trump and indicating anything different is an attempt to gain headlines at the expense of a potential calamity for the Jewish people.
In addition to being a psychologist, Dr. Avidan Milevsky is interim-rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, DC.