Speaking Truth To Power: Then And Now

Meryem Yildirim, 7, left, sits on her father, Fatih, of Schaumburg, and Adin Bendat-Appell, 9, right, sits on his father, Rab
Meryem Yildirim, 7, left, sits on her father, Fatih, of Schaumburg, and Adin Bendat-Appell, 9, right, sits on his father, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, of Deerfield, during a protest on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Ill.

Let me not mince words: He’s a narcissistic, unstable tyrant who hates migrant workers and has instituted oppressive policies that endanger their lives. Almost everyone liked his predecessor but it’s a new day. We’ve all been watching and reading about this new guy. He’s so vindictive. He’s intimidated by no one, and you’d better not cross him or you’ll pay the price. One wrong word and you could lose your access to the corridors of power. And without access everything we care about could be undermined. Yet some Jewish leaders have the sheer gall to call out the most powerful leader on the planet. Are they courageous or foolish to speak truth to power?

For at least a moment, I hope you thought I was referring to today’s headlines and not about one of the oldest stories we know. But, the master story of the Jewish people, the Torah, recounts the showdown between the most powerful political leader in the ancient world and our not so articulate and rather intimidated prophet, Moses. All Jews around the world this week read this same portion, Parashat Bo, from the opening chapters of Exodus.

Much of the ancient drama has been lost after a lifetime of ritually retelling the narrative, because like the story of the ‘69 Mets, we know how this one turns out. Still, we must not lose track of the stakes or the power of the narrative. And, I think it’s fair to say that this year, especially, we are reading this parashah, and many others, with different eyes. Every U.S. president is like the ancient Pharaoh – holding the most powerful political offices on the planet, but ancient Egypt was not a democracy, nor do we, the Jewish people, have one leader who speaks on our behalf. Invoking even a rough comparison, therefore, is a risky proposition. But not doing so risks even more.

Va-Yomer Adonai el Moshe Bo el Paroh,” “Then the Eternal said to Moses, come to Pharaoh.” The key word “bo” is also the name of the portion. Bo means to come, but almost every translation says “Go to Pharaoh.” The 19th-century Hasidic master Menachem Mendel of Kotzk famously noted that it’s interesting that the Torah uses the word “bo” and not “lech,” because the Holy One is everywhere. This concept makes “bo” preferable because it means “come with Me” or even, “I am with you.”

Beyond linguistics, let’s try psychology. Our Moses is less than eager to confront the mercurial, seemingly all-powerful world leader. Moses didn’t ask for his oversized leadership role, and needs a push into each new encounter. So, for God to say “come with Me,” had to be extraordinarily reassuring to Moses. The Zohar, the 13th-century mystical commentary, probes the opening phrase further: “Why is it written “Bo - as in Enter to Pharaoh” instead of “Go to Pharaoh?” The answer suggests that Moses should get inside Pharaoh’s psyche. I don’t know how successful the Zohar’s rabbis were at getting inside Pharaoh’s psyche – and I won’t speculate about what makes the 45th or the 44th president tick – but I am interested in probing when and how we modern-day Jewish leaders still can speak truth to power authentically. It is a given that doing so is part of one’s rabbinic mantel, but I’m well aware that exercising such prophetic leadership can divide and shrink one’s flock – and potentially shorten one’s tenure.

In plain English, the Torah seems to say that Jewish leaders must “Bo el Paroh,” we must be willing to take on the powers that be. While many rabbis may be inclined to stay away from politics – afraid of overstepping the bounds of their clergy roles – the Torah seems to implore us as descendants of Moshe rabbeinu, Moses our rabbi, to raise our voices and speak truth to power.

In the Torah, it is God who commands Moses to challenge Pharaoh’s brutal treatment of our people. Imagine how far the “God-told-me-to-do-it” argument would go for a rabbi questioned by a congregational president for publicly critiquing political leaders or policies.

I don’t want to leave God out of our forays into speaking truth to power, but none of us should speak for God as if we know the will of the Divine. But, when we speak from the well of our tradition’s sacred teachings, we are not merely sharing a few personal opinions. The ways in which we treat refugees and immigrants, for example, should raise crucial religious questions for anyone who takes Judaism seriously. Of course, that doesn’t mean one political party’s policies always align with our Jewish tradition. Linking Jewish values with partisan policies is deeply problematic, but failing to debate the morality of policies altogether is surely a worse strategy. Too many rabbis are caught in this bind.

Let’s get specific. When have religious leaders spoken truth to U.S. presidents?

Elie Wiesel, during a 1985 visit to the White House to receive the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, famously criticized Ronald Reagan for accepting Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s invitation to lay a wreath at the military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, only to discover later that 49 SS Stormtroopers were buried there. Before the ceremony, Reagan’s staff tried to silence Wiesel, limiting his remarks to three minutes and instructing him not to criticize the president. Wiesel threatened to boycott the ceremony if he couldn’t speak freely, and reluctantly, Reagan’s chief of staff, Donald Regan, acquiesced. Wiesel’s words echo still: “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” Few in the Jewish community – then or now – argued that Wiesel was out-of-line.

Other examples, however, are less clear cut.

When Rev. Joseph Lowery, the 84-year-old former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, gave his eulogy for Coretta Scott King, President George W. Bush squirmed in discomfort. “How marvelous that presidents and governors have come to mourn and praise…[b]ut in the morning, will words become deeds that meet needs?” Lowery asked, believing that the funeral was just another photo-op for a president whose budget priorities proved he did not give a damn about the poor. Lowery honed in, praising Coretta King’s lifelong advocacy of her husband’s campaign against poverty, racism, and war. “We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there,” Lowery continued, drawing cheers from the congregation, “[b]ut Coretta knew, and we knew, that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance, poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.” Lowery’s brave prophetic utterances did not go unnoticed. Like the prophets of old, he was assailed for embarrassing the president, for choosing the wrong platform, and more.

I hear fellow Jewish leaders scold their more liberal colleagues, urging us not to criticize our new president too strongly or too often because if we do, we will lose access to White House policy makers. That is, of course, a risk. But what is the value of such access without our core Jewish principles?

Indeed, to officials at every level of government, the tone and content of our truth-speaking must be substantive and respectful. And, even so, we should be prepared that many will call us out. When they do, we must model the humility of leaders who can never be certain that all we do and say is the only morally or Jewishly legitimate view.

Audacity and humility were character requirements for Moses – and for all of us who follow in his intimidating footsteps. In the third verse of our Torah portion, Moses and Aaron say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Eternal…‘Ad matai ma’anta lay’anot mi’panai – How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?’” (Ex. 10:3). As we see again and again, Pharaoh consistently lacks humility – and so have some of those who have occupied the Oval Office.

But we are held to a different standard.

We know that not every Israelite agreed with Moses’ aggressive negotiation with Pharaoh to let our people go. As they approached the Red Sea, many Israelites cried out, “‘What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?…Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?’” (Ex 14:11-12) Just as Moses could not speak on behalf of all Israelites, neither should we. Nonetheless, he found his voice, and so should we. And when we do, we must speak from the depth and wisdom of our tradition – not from the platforms of our political parties.

One last example from the very recent past: Just before Christmas, we received word that the U.N. Security Council would consider a resolution on Israeli settlements. On behalf of the URJ, I issued a statement before the vote: “The Union for Reform Judaism, representing the largest segment of American Jewry, has a long-standing policy of opposition to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. At the same time, we stand firmly against any U.N. resolution that would dictate the way forward on this complicated issue. The United Nations has a long and troubling record of hostility to Israel, and it has proven itself incapable of playing a constructive role.”

I then spent hours on the phone with staff at the White House, the State Department and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations making every possible argument for why President Obama must veto UNSC Resolution 2334.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office deeply appreciated our efforts to call on the administration to veto the U.N. resolution, but was not so happy that we also asserted that Israeli settlements remain a serious obstacle to achieving a two-state solution. In contrast, the White House deeply appreciated our declaration that the settlements remain a serious obstacle to peace, but was not pleased that we called upon the administration to veto the resolution. At the end of that day, the U.S. and Israeli governments were deeply appreciative and simultaneously not so happy with us. That seems to be an indication that we had done our sacred job which is not to make governments or leaders happy but to express, as best we can, the core convictions we draw from our tradition.

Lest we think we should steer clear of the messy, often divisive, no-win world of politics, Parashat Bo implores us to raise our voices and speak our truths with equal measures of audacity and humility. Will each of us heed the call to “Bo el Paroh?” The stakes couldn’t be higher.