Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 49—The Prophetic Voice.
Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .
Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.
Dan Libenson: We're here today for the first of a special series of three episodes—I don't know if "special" is the right way to talk about it, but an unplanned series of three episodes—talking about the beginning of the Trump administration. You know, Lex, when we started this podcast ten months ago now, we didn't imagine that we were going to be spending an arc talking about the advent of President Trump.
Lex Rofes: Nope.
Dan Libenson: But it seemed that we really needed to, not because we want to get into politics—that's really not the purpose of this podcast—but because it just seems like, when we're talking about the future of American Judaism, this is really relevant on two levels: one is just that this is going to be the landscape of American Judaism for the next four years; and the second reason is because, I think, actually, the campaign and the beginning of the putting together of the Trump administration really raises a lot of deep issues about fundamentally what it means to be Jewish and what's the value of being Jewish.
So we're really excited to have as our guest on the show today Rabbi Shai Held, who is a theologian, scholar, and educator. He's the president and dean at Mechon Hadar. In addition to that, Shai has the distinction of being the rabbi at my wedding. So, I think that, while we probably didn't pay him sufficiently, we certainly are giving him his star turn here on Judaism Unbound.
But more significantly, Shai has actually been one of the more outspoken folks in the Jewish community of late, speaking about the meaning of Donald Trump from a Jewish point of view, and specifically expressing grave concerns about Donald Trump from a Jewish point of view.
So, we thought there really was no one better to bring on Judaism Unbound today to help us start working through this. So, without further ado, Shai Held, welcome to Judaism Unbound. It's great to have you.
Shai Held: Thank you for having me. Great to be here.
Dan Libenson: I wish it were under different circumstances.
Shai Held: Me too. Me too.
Dan Libenson: So, Shai, could you get us started by just giving us a sense of what you have been thinking about Donald Trump and Judaism in the last however many months it's been, and why you have really focused your voice on this issue, and what you've been saying?
Shai Held: I would say that for me, my understanding of Jewish theology and Jewish ethics really centers around the notion of human dignity, and really the notion of universal human dignity—that, since every human being is created in the image of God, every human being everywhere, without exception, is infinitely valuable. And I think Donald Trump's long career in public life betrays an extremely disturbing lack of commitment to that view. Donald Trump, as we know, over the course of his long career, has belittled African Americans, belittled women, over the course of the campaign belittled veterans. I mean, this is a person who simply does not seem to believe in the value of very much besides himself. And on that level he represents, I think, an assault on some of the most fundamental values that Jews ought to hold dear.
So, I have been talking over the course of these months really about two things: one, about the ways in which Donald Trump seems to me to be manifestly unqualified for the office he's now been elected to, but also trying to emphasize the point that, from my perspective, this ought not to be particularly a partisan issue. Opposition to Donald Trump should not be about being a Democrat versus being a Republican, but simply about being committed to a certain level of decency in public life. I don't know whether I've succeeded on that front—I mean, there obviously have been some Republicans who have been extremely courageous and others who have capitulated. So we're in a very, kind of—a time of truly uncharted waters here.
Dan Libenson: Yeah, that's where I really wanted to start, on this question of partisanship, and to get your thoughts on it. Because it feels to me like, especially before the election, there was a lot more talk of Trump as not a partisan issue, right? It seemed like there were so many Republicans who were "Never Trumpers."
Even after he secured the Republican nomination, the Republicans were not all falling into line behind him—or certainly not publicly. And it seems to me that ever since the election, all of a sudden there's been this, kind of, normalization of Trump, where he is now being talked about, essentially, as a Republican, which makes it much more difficult to express opposition to him or horror about him, because it quickly gets framed as a Republican versus Democrat issue, where that's certainly not the way that I'm thinking about it, and I know that's not the way that you're thinking about it. And I guess I'm wondering what your experience has been of that, and how you think that that could be changed.
Shai Held: Well, I have to admit, the last part of your question is, to me, the hardest and frankly the most depressing. I'm not sure, at this point, whether it can be changed, let alone how it can be changed. That is to say, I'm not sure right now that the goal, from my perspective, is to persuade those people who have fallen into line to fall out of line, as it were, or whether our priority really ought to be to stand up and fight here.
I think part of what has happened here is simply the nature of politics, which I say not to justify, but simply to describe, which is many Republicans realized—many professional Republican politicians and leaders realized—that they had an opportunity to secure the kind of jobs that they, as politicians, seek, and that it would cost them greatly to oppose Trump.
Now, I think part of what it means to be morally qualified for leadership is to be, at times, willing to refuse prestige and to refuse stature in the name of doing what's right. It's ironic, of course, or maybe not ironic at all, that we're having this conversation the day after Martin Luther King Day.
Dr. King receives so much love and admiration now because he's dead and has been domesticated. But when Martin Luther King was alive, he faced enormous and vitriolic opposition. It's not fun to be the opposition. It's always much easier to kind of fall into line and become part of the power structure, and that's what we've seen. I think it's enormously disappointing.
I have enormous respect on this issue for people like Bill Kristol and David Frum, who have really refused to fall into line—Evan McMullin and others—who have really insisted Donald Trump is not meaningful a Republican. I mean, who would have thought that we'd be in a moment when Democrats would be reminding Republicans of the danger of allowing Russia to have a major hand in steering our foreign policy? It baffles the mind.
Dan Libenson: You talked about the nature of politics, and as you were talking I was also thinking about human nature and Judaism, and I would suppose all religions, as really—and not only religions, wisdom traditions, cultural traditions—as fundamentally having value, in part, because they help human beings overcome human nature to some way—I don't know if that's the best way to put it.
Shai Held: Yeah, they strive to, for sure. You can put this, I think, in two ways: either you can say religious traditions, wisdom traditions, cultural traditions, try to elicit what is best in human nature and to subdue what is ugliest, or if you prefer a darker view of human nature, they help us try to overcome our worst impulses. Those may be two ways of saying the same thing, but yes, I agree.
Dan Libenson: Yeah, and I'm thinking about your work on Abraham Joshua Heschel—you wrote a book, a biography, essentially, an intellectual biography of him, called Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence . . . to be honest, I haven't read the book yet, but it has a proud place on my shelf . . .
Shai Held: I'm dropping off the call now, but thank you.
Dan Libenson: [Laughs] . . . but my sense of part of Heschel's project was really to emphasize the voice of the prophets in Jewish history and in the Jewish textual tradition, and I'd love for you to talk a little bit about that prophetic voice and how that fits into all this because it seems that there are moments that call for a prophetic voice, and if this isn't one of them, it's hard to imagine when would that moment possibly come. But it seems like the prophetic tradition really is one where the prophets had the courage to tell the king that he was a sinner, essentially.
Shai Held: Right. So let me perhaps begin by saying this. It seems to me that Judaism asks us to be countercultural in whatever culture we find ourselves. Let me give you an example of this that I hope will be helpful. In the side of my life that is, kind of, a historian of Jewish thought, one of the things I've noticed is that there's a kind of recurring debate in modern culture—it appears in the history of Zionism and elsewhere: Is Judaism for capitalism, or is Judaism for socialism? I've come to the conclusion that the more healthy, constructive way to approach that question is not to ask that one, but rather to say that, in whatever economic system Judaism finds itself, it should be a voice of countercultural criticism.
So that, in a capitalist society, Judaism's contribution should not be primarily to write apologia for why capitalism is always and everywhere the best thing. It may be, but that's not Judaism's job. Judaism's job is, perhaps, to ask the question, what are the moral and spiritual costs of capitalism? Who suffers? How do we try to address the damage that capitalism does, even with the blessings that it brings?
And similarly, in a socialist society, Judaism's contribution should not be to bless socialism, but to remind the culture about the values of individualism, the inherent good in people being allowed to, encouraged to pursue individual goals and agendas, etc.
So, in other words, I think Judaism should be countercultural everywhere.
By the way, I would add, as a minority culture, if you're not countercultural, you will end up being assimilated anyway. Because if all you're doing is blessing the mainstream culture, then people will simply cut out the middleman at a certain point and just become part of the mainstream culture.
So, counterculturalism, I think, is not only inherently important to Judaism, but it's inherently important to being a sustainable minority culture.
Then the question becomes, how do you become countercultural in a way that is Jewishly authentic? And I do realize the word 'authentic' is loaded.
So, here, we live in a world—have always lived in a world—in which the powerful often run roughshod on the powerless, and there are always people in the society who are ignored, who are devalued, who are degraded and downtrodden. And one of the most venerable Jewish traditions, going back to chumash, the Pentateuch, and then, as you mentioned in your question, the prophetic tradition, is the insistence, to use very traditional language, that God sees those who are not seen, that God is on the side of the downtrodden, and that what it means for the Jewish people to be in a relationship with God is that we, too, are on the side of the downtrodden and those who are oppressed.
So, it seems to me that a compelling and authentic Jewish response to a moment when someone comes to power who broadcasts his disdain for large swaths of the population is, in fact, to stand up and say, "No."
There is a text that I more or less stumbled upon a couple of years ago that has become enormously important to me, and inspires me, challenges me, and to be totally honest, daunts me. In a commentary on the Book of Exodus, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, one of the great traditional Jewish commentators of the Middle Ages, makes the comment that, "The status of those who observe oppression and remain silent is equal to the status of those who commit the oppression themselves." In other words, according to Rabbi Ibn Ezra, in Jewish ethics, there is simply no such thing as an innocent bystander. You simply can't go along to get along. You have to stand up when you see people being oppressed and degraded, and that's what I think this moment calls for.
Now, I would just add I, myself, am a little wary of the use of the word "prophetic" in a lot of contemporary discourse, just because I worry about the ways that that implies, sometimes, that my position is God's position, and if you oppose that, you must be not only a political opponent of mine, but an enemy of God's. I'm a little wary of the word "prophetic," even though the way in which you mean it, I think, is actually very important—"prophetic" in the sense of a willingness to stand up to those in power and say, "No."
Lex Rofes: I have a question on that note. I guess my question, given all of what you just said about ways to approach this from a Jewish lens, how are we doing? When we look out at the Jewish institutional world—Dan and I have spoken about this a little bit—but what's your read on how Jewish organizations, Jewish individual people, are doing in the face of this drastic change that we're looking at?
Shai Held: Let me start with the most empathic formulation that I think I can muster at this moment. I think that people who run the establishment, legacy Jewish organizations are in a tough situation here. Because on the one hand, people like you and me want them to speak up forthrightly and condemn so much of what is dangerous and damaging to our culture about Donald Trump and his agenda. On the other hand, they do have the responsibility of finding a way to work with whatever administration happens to be in power in America. So, I don't think that JFNA has an obligation to say the same things that I've been saying, but I fear that many Jewish organizations have fallen into line too quickly with agenda number two, and have more or less forgotten about agenda number one.
In other words, it is possible for people to have sent notes of congratulations to Trump and to express their desire to work with him. I think it is really problematic to have done that without also having called upon him to speak differently, set a different agenda, etc. In other words, the notion that one has a stark binary choice—either criticize the incoming administration or stand up to it—strikes me as false and ultimately self-serving, because it basically serves to justify saying nothing critical. And I think it was absolutely possible—and remains absolutely possible, and morally and Jewishly necessary—to say, "Yes, we'll work with you, but yes, we also have a litany of things we must bring to the table here that you have said that are morally and Jewishly objectionable and even intolerable."
Now, I think there are exceptions to this. I would say the ADL and Jonathan Greenblatt have been enormously courageous in maintaining their agenda, being true to their agenda of calling out anti-Semitism from the left and the right, and calling out bigotry from the left and the right. Jonathan has set a real model here.
But, on the whole, I would say I've been disappointed with the communal leadership in the way that it's been afraid to do that. Now this goes, obviously, separately from those who have actively curried favor—organizations, let's say, that choose to invite Steve Bannon to their dinner—but I think many individual leaders and many rabbis have been courageous and outspoken here.
But the rabbis are in a very difficult situation, and that points to another very difficult moment, I think, we are in, in the American Jewish community. There is so much hostility at this moment to anyone who would stray from the party line, that many rabbis I've spoken to are extremely afraid. I would actually say, if I backed up for a minute, I think congregational rabbis have two dilemmas here. One is about fear and one is about, I think, genuine and really difficult questions about their role. The fear issue is that we live in a culture where so often, right now, if a rabbi says something that a congregant disagrees with, the congregant either leaves or tries to have the rabbi fired. I mean, let's take a very tame example. I was talking recently to a friend who told me about giving a lecture in the synagogue about some practice in the synagogue—something totally local and not huge on any level—and he said that, when he checked his email after Shabbat, two congregants had written to him to object to what he said, one from the left and one from the right, both of whom said, "I guess I have no choice but to resign my membership." And he said he responded to them and said, "Could we actually recreate a community where we can talk to each other without your needing to leave? Why are you threatening me as opposed to talking to me?" So I think that's one piece of it that is really problematic, and I hear this from rabbis a lot.
Then I think there's the totally legitimate and understandable—I think the first piece is legitimate and understandable, too—but the second piece that's really difficult, and I've heard this also from many congregational rabbis, people who feel very strongly opposed to Trump, but understandably feel it's their job to also be a pastoral presence for those who supported Trump, and try to figure out how to negotiate between—to use your language—the prophetic role of the rabbi on the one hand and the pastoral role of the rabbi on the other, which is about keeping the community whole. That is really hard.
Dan Libenson: It feels to me like—just thinking about this kind of descriptively—that there are so many Jews, so many individual Jews, like you talk about, that are speaking up against Trump and against Bannon and against all of this, and that are actually stepping into that role of the democratization of moral responsibility, and when they look at these organizations, they may well have compassion for those rabbis, but nevertheless say, "Look, if, at the end of the day, Judaism cannot speak in a full-throated voice to condemn behavior that crosses every line of what we have ever found politically-acceptable in our culture, then what's the point of Judaism?"
It's got to be that, at some point, we move away from the sort of self-protective "we have to work with every administration," etc., etc., and sort of think about it in terms of Mordecai saying to Esther, in the Book of Esther, "Perhaps it is for this moment that you have been put in this position." And if you allow that moment to pass, without acting, then what was the point of the whole thing that got you here?
If we were talking about partisanship, then I would agree that the role of a congregational rabbi is to build the community where Democrats and Republicans can live together in peace and harmony. But when we're talking about Donald Trump and his unique situation, which is what we're talking about here. The fact that he has been normalized, the fact that he has been made into a Republican, is part of the problem. We're already in a situation where it's hard to even talk about it because it quickly is portrayed, even by ourselves, in partisan language, where what I really want to say is, look, I have compassion for somebody who's trying to build a community where everybody can be part of it, but the truth of the matter is if there's a community that is trying to make people feel comfortable who are in support of Donald Trump, despite all of these horrible things that he has said about Jews and about—not that he has said about Jews, but that he has been involved with people that say it about Jews, and that he, himself, has said about so many others—I'm just not interested in being part of that community.
So I might have compassion for the leader who is trying to build that community, but as a Jew what I'm saying is that that's not the Judaism I'm looking for. And I'm very comfortable saying that I'm looking for a community—a Jewish community—in which support of Donald Trump would not be considered okay. Because if we're not able to say that supporting Donald Trump is not okay, then it feels to me that, fundamentally, there's just no red lines anymore, there's nothing that fundamentally we can say, "Judaism is about this, and does not look kindly upon that." Maybe ultimately this whole struggle about Trump is, fundamentally, a deep question about why bother being Jewish.
Shai Held: It's perhaps appropriate that we're having this conversation in a week where the Torah reading is Parshat Shemot, the beginning of the Book of Exodus, because something that happens there, that I think is really very moving and challenging, is to realize: what does Moses have to do before God elects him as the leader of the Israelites?
So, first he intervenes when an Israelite is attacked by an Egyptian. Then, he intervenes when an Israelite is attacked by a fellow Israelite. But then, crucially and fundamentally, God does not choose Moses until Moses intervenes on behalf of oppressed Midianite women and saves them. It is only then, it seems, that God decides that this is the guy I want to lead my people.
Now that is stunning, right? It is a man—let me be anachronistic for a minute, a Jewish man—who first speaks out for his own and then moves to speak for (a) non-Jews, and (b) non-men. And at that moment God says, "Hey, you're the guy that I want." Now that is extremely powerful.
So, I think that the kind of worldview that says, "Jews look out only for Jews," is bankrupt. The kind of worldview that says, "Jews don't look out for Jews," I think is also bankrupt. And maybe I could put it differently. In an age of total Jewish powerlessness, I understand why many Jews felt like, look, we look out for our own, end of story. I understand it. But in an age of unprecedented Jewish political and economic power, of Jewish access to power, to talk about "we look out for our own" as the exclusive focus of our attention just strikes me as hugely problematic, to the point of unforgivable.
But it's even worse than that, because what you have is, many of those people are even not willing to speak up for Jews who are being attacked by white supremacists. I mean, where is the outcry about Whitefish, Montana? I mean, what is going on?
Now, let's take what I was saying about Moses to its logical conclusion for a minute. Without mentioning names, a friend was telling me about approaching a prominent Jewish leader and asking, "How are you still going along with Trump?" And the answer, which appalled me, was about, "Well, Jared Kushner will look out for the Jews." That's just disgusting—that's a desecration of God's name. First of all, I don't know that it's true. But second of all, much more fundamentally, so, if someone looks out for the Jews and betrays a history of appalling racism, they're somehow okay? That stands against everything I think about God, about ethics, about Torah—to use your language, about what Judaism is for. That's just appalling. It's beneath contempt, in my view.
Dan Libenson: So, Shai, why should we not expect and demand of every rabbi to speak like you just did? It just feels to me like, if Judaism stands for fundamental moral principles . . . we can debate about what the rules and regulations are, what the right way to live out these moral principles is . . . you know, do the various laws and customs make one more likely to live this way and with these values, and that's why they're valuable, or for whatever reason—we can debate all of those things . . . but if, fundamentally, Judaism stands for a set of moral propositions, including the treatment of Jews, the treatment of non-Jews, the treatment of women, the treatment of the vulnerable, immigrants, etc., . . . if these are the most fundamental, deep-seated Jewish values that we have, then why should we not expect and demand . . . why should regular Jews not expect and demand that every arm of the Jewish community either speaks this way or . . . it's not discredited, it's just not really relevant anymore and not interesting. And, therefore, not to condemn them, but to simply to say, "Yeah, let's build something new that really does express these values."
Shai Held: I think that many rabbis have tried to do some version of the following: many rabbis have spoken up about the most egregious statements Trump has made, but they have hesitated to reach the next step, which is to say, "And a vote for Trump is Jewishly unacceptable."
Now, ultimately, I think that's a needle that can't coherently be threaded, but I want to be clear: I don't think that most rabbis have been totally silent about the most obscene things Trump has said. But, more fundamentally to your point, look, I'm actually with you on this point, in the sense that I think that at a certain point, banging your head against the wall about a certain kind of establishment may be futile, and even may be a waste of very precious energy—meaning, I'm a big believer in the idea that Jews should build the kind of Jewish community that they seek and not wait for other people to build it for them. That's also part of what it means to take responsibility for your own Jewish life. That's what at Hadar we've called "empowered Judaism" from the beginning
Now, in this day and age, we are going to disagree among ourselves very profoundly on what those communal values ought to be. Jews will disagree on everything from . . . I mean, you and I could have a discussion about whether God figures into that conversation—it doesn't get more fundamental than that; about how gender should be played out; about the respective relationship between particularism and particular concerns and universal concerns. There's a tremendous amount we can disagree about, but we are all responsible for building the communities we believe in, whether that means, in an established synagogue, trying to dramatically help shape its moral and religious course, whether that means creating new things—absolutely. I don't think that the largely-non-elected establishment leaders have any right to anybody's . . . have any intrinsic right to Jews' support.
One thing I want to be careful about is: I'm very wary of talking about "The Jewish Establishment" because I think there are many Jewish establishments. There are denominational establishments in the religious communities. There are political establishments, and there are differences among the different organizations in that establishment. So, I think you can say there's no intrinsic obligation to support various establishments. But I think we also should be careful about writing off everyone with one brush. But I also want to be clear that there's absolutely no reason to be docile in the face of that organizational leadership. I think it's important to speak up when the people people tend to look to as the establishment of the Jewish community—to say, "They're not speaking for me."
Lex Rofes: So, I have a question about a variety of interweaving elements of what we've talked about so far. We've talked about congregational rabbis a decent amount, and I think that's important. I want to think about how our Jewish world is structured right now. And, because of the clear difficulties and challenges we are about to face and already facing, I want to think about: What is it that may be worth keeping as it is? What is it that is actually fundamentally problematic in a way that we would need to shift it?
And I think all of us agree that there are both of those. When I look out at the landscape of, let's say, congregations—let's say synagogues, because we've been talking about congregational rabbis—I think we've got this unspoken, but actually fairly interesting, decision, and I do think it was, at some point, a decision, which is that we've built a landscape of American synagogues, the vast majority of which are unified on a particular denominational affiliation and not on a particular set of beliefs or a particular interest group or a particular age group. They're affiliated with a denomination, and that's their core. And then the idea is, oh, we're a Reform congregation, we're a Conservative congregation—our role is to unite people of whatever political beliefs that affiliate or in some way connect to that movement.
And I say that because we take that for granted—that's just the way it is—but I'm actually not convinced that that's particularly good. I think some of that is good. I think there are some people that really feel a connection to one movement or another, for whom they want that space above any particular space to express a particular Jewish value or be around particular sets of Jewish people. I think some of the people exist. But I look around and I think, wow, would this all be a little different, would we have more congregational rabbis who didn't have their hands tied if we actually had communities where it wasn't the Reform congregation and the Conservative congregation and that's it in a small community, but instead you've got, oh, this is the congregation that people know is for . . . progressives, for people on the left? Maybe that strikes us as a bad thing—I'm curious to hear your thoughts, if that would be actually a step back. But could we envision a world where there were still some of these congregations that were meant to be, sort of, unifying forces and pluralistic, where the rabbis are designed to be pastoral forces for people of all sorts of backgrounds, and could there also be places that are specifically designed for these issues, that are not designed for that pluralism? I'm curious if that would be a nicer—or different, at least—Jewish world.
Shai Held: I think, Lex, that's a really interesting question. Maybe we could back up for a minute and talk about denominations, because, historically, denominations were formed around a set of value commitments. Now, the commitments around which they were formed tended to be, broadly speaking, religious-theological. So, you could imagine certain kinds of ritual performances in an Orthodox synagogue, other kinds of ritual performances in a Reform synagogue. To a large extent that's still true. I think one of the things that has happened is that, first of all, in a more liberal Jewish world, the denominations have become such large tents that it's sometimes unclear what the defining and animating values are. So that's the first piece.
I think also it's important to say the denominations formed around a certain set of values that were largely religious-theological and less-so political. Now, of course, here's where it get messy, because some Jews operate under the illusion that you can have a serious commitment to a religion and theology without it having political implications. And the truth is you can't worship a God who loves widows and orphans, without the Torah you're being taught having some political implications.
I think in most circumstances you can't say that there's a one-to-one correspondence between the teaching of the Torah, on the one hand, and this political policy question, on the other. There is good room to disagree about how to alleviate the plight of people who are poor. There is no room to disagree, in my view, about the mandate to alleviate the plight of the poor. That we have an obligation is clear. How the obligation should be played out—there's room for disagreement about. Let's, by all means, argue about what the best approach is to questions of immigration in America, but let's be clear that you can't be an heir of a book that is obsessed with the notion of loving the stranger—which is another way to talking about an immigrant—you can't be an heir of that book and stand passively while immigrants are demonized. You can't do that.
In other words, while the urge was to divide denominationally based on religion and theology and questions of Jewish law, the notion that you could forever keep politics out of the equation and keep it from being determinative in some way may have been an illusion.
I wonder a little bit, Lex, whether your question actually reveals something that is telling about our time, and I say this descriptively—feel free to tell me I'm wrong, obviously—which is that, for many Jews, especially as you move left on the denominational spectrum and left on the political spectrum—some of their political commitments are now so fundamental to who they are that defining their Jewish community around those, rather than on the religious and theological distinctions, may feel more pressing to them. I don't know—that may be the case.
Lex Rofes: Yeah, that's absolutely what I . . . I didn't spell it out, but I do think that that's the case. I appreciate you spelling that out, because I did not clarify that, but yes, I do think that.
Shai Held: So, for me, as a person whose life is oriented around religion and theology, it's one of the ways that . . . you know, in many ways, I'm maybe different than the two of you in this way: I would always want my community to be centered around a certain set of religious commitments. And yet, I want to make sure that this is a very complicated issue because my religious commitments lead me to insist that politics has to be spoken about. I don't want to divide the Jewish community purely along political lines. I want to daven with people with whom I don't share a politics—but I want to be clear, I want the community I'm in to be a safe space for Democrats and Republicans, not for Trumpists. I'm not that invested in that, because at that point we're basically saying that there are no values . . . it's two things: in supporting Trump we're saying there are no statements that are disqualifying, and there are no people who are disqualified, and I find both of those views just impossible to tolerate.
My fear is that we will end up in communities that are merely echo chambers. In other words, I want to be clear that for someone like you—I'm not going to put this on you personally—but for someone like you who wants to have a community where nobody would ever vote for Donald Trump, I think we ought to be careful not to live in a community where nobody would ever consider voting for Mitt Romney, because I don't want to live in that kind of monolith religiously, politically, ethically—because then I'm not challenged to grow.
This, again, comes back to that point we keep coming back to, about why I don't think this issue is Democrat versus Republican.
Lex Rofes: Sorry, I just want to clarify something. I would not say that I want to inhabit a community where there is nobody who would vote for Donald Trump. I would say that I would want to inhabit a community where, sort of, the space of the community is very clearly not designed for support of Donald Trump. But if there are people who want to opt in, knowing that they are . . . if they, for whatever reason, like the space or the rabbi . . . I don't feel comfortable saying that I would not want to share space with any Trump supporters, but I do think that it's just, sort of, what the core of the community is about.
Shai Held: Right. So I would prefer . . . from my perspective, I would prefer if we talked about a community whose central agenda was questions of how to build a more just society. And it might emerge, in the context of that discussion, that some views are held to be beyond the pale. But I would hope that many views are within the pale.
Maybe that sounds obvious, but I'm not sure it is any longer. I mean, look, here we are, the day after Martin Luther King Day—I found myself thinking a lot yesterday about how much easier it is to revere civil rights leaders of the past than it is to support civil rights movements of the present, because revering civil rights leaders of the past doesn't really cost me very much. Really struggling for civil rights in the present means that I am opened up to controversy. Let's take a very clear and forceful example: You can talk about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King all you want, but if you're not willing to talk about voter suppression in 2016, I'm not sure exactly what it is you're doing when you're talking about Dr. King. You're talking about a largely domesticated teddy bear version of him.
So I agree with you, and I want to speak personally for a minute. I am not, by temperament, an activist. I am, by temperament, a philosopher, which means that, for most questions about anything, my problem is that I tend to see 37 sides of the question in a way that can be paralyzing—I'm not saying that in some self-flattering way, I think it's actually not always the greatest kind of temperament to have around questions like this. I really feel that, to the extent that I've become an activist over the last few years, I was driven by my reading of the sources that I've spent my life studying and teaching. I felt at a certain point that I could no longer be teaching classes in tanakh—in the Hebrew Bible—at the institution that I run and not be asking the question, what are they saying to me right now?
I taught a course on the Book of Deuteronomy, and one of the things that kept emerging was how obsessed the Book of Deuteronomy is with the status of those who tend to be excluded from society, and how the society that God wants is a society in which those who tend to be forgotten are remembered and cared for.
And at a certain point I found myself saying, "Either you're full of it, or you're going to live some of this stuff." Am I active enough? Probably not, but I'm trying to live that out in that way. Now, for me, my aspiration, at least, is a kind of holism: the Torah that I learn, the services that I go to in synagogue, and the activism that I engage in, ideally draw from the same sources and are nourished by the same larger worldview and world-commitment.
Is it always whole? Are there fractures? Of course there are. This is the modern world, this is the post-modern world—these are complicated times. But my aspiration is that the entirety of my Judaism and the entirety of my humanity are as integrated as possible.
Dan Libenson: Actually, I think that . . . in our waning moments, I think that actually gives us an interesting transition to something that I think branches off from Trump, but not really. It goes to the deep question, which I hope we'll have a chance to explore again—have you on the podcast again, Shai . . .
I've heard you introduced as a theologian—as the leading Jewish theologian of your generation, or something like that, and then you often come back and say, "Well, are there any others?" It's not a growth industry . . .
Shai Held: [Laughs] Right.
Dan Libenson: . . . but that means that you're really the one that I'd love to ask to reflect a little bit on two questions, which I know are huge questions, and we only have a few minutes, but, essentially, it's . . . could you just tell us a little bit positively about the image that you have of God and what God calls upon us to do? And then maybe, just in closing, I was wondering if you could in some way translate that—or do you think that that can be translated—for folks who don't believe in God as an entity, external, somewhere out there, that's calling on us? But is there some way that you find that the image of God, and what God wants of us, that you talk about, can also be deeply powerful as a metaphor? Because I experience it that way when you talk, but I'm wondering how you think about it. Or really it's anchored deeply in this idea that there is a being that calls upon us for this.
Shai Held: I am working on a book right now in which I make the claim that the central category of Jewish theology is love. For all kinds of reasons—which are themselves worthy of a study—but, for all kinds of reasons, many Jews, including many of the most religious Jews, have really lost that language, not least because it's language that in America has been ceded to Christianity.
One really helpful way to think about Jewish theology, spirituality, and ethics, all rolled into one, is that it's essentially a story about a God who loves humanity and the Jewish people, and who calls us to love God, to love one another, and to love the stranger. The God that I aspire to believe in—I want to underscore that point, the God that I aspire to believe in—is a God who loves and calls me to love. We are created in love for the purpose of love.
Do I believe that all the time? No, I don't. And one of the responsibilities I feel I have as a theologian is, I think, acknowledging that the reality of doubt is enormously important and even integral to the task of theology in the 21st century, to acknowledge that there are many good and understandable reasons not to believe in that God.
So the God I aspire to believe in is a God who loves and challenges me and us to live lives of love. Now, obviously, all of that could be played out and fleshed out at greater length. But that's what I aspire to believe in.
Now, can that be heard, and be heard as compelling, by people who don't believe in God? So, here I want to make a distinction, perhaps an obvious one, between me and my listeners. For me, when I talk about God, I'm, in philosophical terms, what's called a metaphysical realist. I believe I'm actually talking about something/someone, that's out there, and it's important for me to say that when I talk, I'm not talking about God as a metaphor.
Now, that said, is it possible for Dan Libenson to hear what I say and to say, "I find that powerful when I think of God as a metaphor?" Well, of course it is. And I don't really have a problem with that.
I think that it's important for Jews to have a conversation about God because, as I often say, to refuse to ever consider the question of God is to essentially inherit a huge story in which the one rule is you never talk about the main character in the story—in other words, the main character in a Biblical story, in the traditional Talmudic story. Now, when I say "talk about it," I'm under no illusions that that's going to mean all Jews end up being theists, let alone they all end up being theists who believe in exactly the same kind of God as I believe in. I think we would do well as a tradition that, at minimum, started and grew as a religious tradition, to have those conversations.
For some people, those conversations will evolve into, "What am I ultimately committed to? What are the ultimate values? What is really important? What am I willing to stake my life on?" Take a historical example—many secular Zionists who were, if I may use this term, devoutly anti-religious, also drew great inspiration from their readings of the Hebrew Bible. So, I don't see a reason why an American Jew can't do the same thing.
I feel it's my job, as a rabbi, as a teacher, to put out a vision of Torah that is mine. That vision is very much focused on God, who is very much focused on human beings, which is why theology and ethics are intertwined. But I don't for a minute think that I get to determine who finds Torah meaningful and who can take inspiration in Torah, or even, for that matter, in whatever I have to say about Torah.
If I believe in a God who, at the end of the day, says, "Even more than I want to be worshipped, I want you to learn to love each other," then, by all means, if engaging with Torah helps you learn to love other people, to fight for justice, to build communities where human dignity is real, then more power to you. I, in my life and in my role, will keep on talking about God, and you will translate it into whatever language you need to translate it into. I might not necessarily accept that language, I might not see it as theologically compelling or plausible to me, but maybe that's okay. We live in a world where, thankfully, we don't engage in religious coercion. So, yes, by all means, if hearing Torah with God as a metaphor leads you to live a life that is more just, that is kinder, that is more animated by love, then I'm really glad you're able to read it that way, even if it's not the way I read it.
Dan Libenson: What a great note to end on. Thank you so much for joining us today. I think this is going to be an extremely valuable perspective for us to use as an anchor to think about the forthcoming period in American Jewish history, and we look forward to future conversations about it.
Shai Held: Thank you so much for having me.
Lex Rofes: Thanks again to Shai Held for coming on. This was a great episode, and we hope all of you out there have enjoyed listening and that it's given you something to think about as we enter into this next four years.
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