Rabbis Should Confront Trump Head-On Over Charlottesville

I strongly agree with the views of the leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist national rabbinic groups who have announced that they will not participate in an annual pre-High Holy Days White House conference call with President Trump.

But I disagree with their decision.

The leaders, representing some 4,000 American rabbis, cited the president’s lack of “moral leadership” in his comments about the Charlottesville tragedy in which he sought to put equal blame on the white supremacist, neo-Nazi organizers and those who protested against them. The rabbis’ joint statement noted the president’s lack of “empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred,” and accused him of having given “succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia.”

Well said, and all true. But snubbing the president, pre-empting a chance to engage with him and express deep-felt concerns, seems to me a missed opportunity — especially at a time when we as Jews are encouraged to participate in difficult encounters.

We are now in the month of Elul, a time, according to our tradition, to reflect on our actions over the past year and begin a period of repentance that culminates with the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. On that day, we ask God for forgiveness for failures in our moral and religious behavior. But in the month leading up to the Day of Atonement we are instructed to settle our scores with family, friends and others we may have hurt through words or deeds in the past year. That calls for direct dialogue — sometimes uncomfortable, yes, but necessary, since the goal is to clear the air and improve the relationships.

Three major rabbinical groups walked away from a High Holiday conference call with President Trump because of his reaction to white nationalists and neo-Nazis marching last month in Charlottesville, above. Was it the right call? Getty Images

The underlying premise in both forms of encounter is that all of us are imperfect, that we fail at times, but we’re given the opportunity to atone for our actions and be forgiven — in effect, to begin the new year with the blessing of a clean inner slate.

Snubbing the president, pre-empting a chance to engage with him and express deep-felt concerns, seems to me a missed opportunity.
As the rabbinic statement regarding the White House call noted, “our tradition teaches us that humanity is fallible yet also capable of change.”

That’s why I think the rabbis should take advantage of the White House call.

If it were just a one-way discussion, with the president reading his greetings to the Jewish community and the rabbis listening politely, I would agree that he doesn’t deserve their participation. But according to rabbis who have taken part in these White House calls in the past, representatives of the various rabbinic groups are given an opportunity to engage with and ask questions of the president.

When Trump, in his High Holy Day season message, expresses his commitment to American Jewry and calls for a year of peace, as he no doubt will, the rabbis can respectfully express why they believe too many of his statements and actions this year have had the opposite effect on our community and the nation as a whole — on issues ranging from his failure of moral leadership on Charlottesville to undermining the free press and judicial system to fostering an “us” vs. “them” society to cutting back on immigration, health care and environmental protection. And more.

If the planned conference call were to take place, the rabbis could listen to the president’s message but also express their disappointment with him, question his offensive statements and actions and explain the mandate — in both the Torah and New Testament — to reprove the improper behavior of others. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart,” we read in Leviticus 19:17, “but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor.”

The memorial for Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. Courtesy of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

The rabbinic statement said: “We pray that President Trump will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred.”

Is President Trump “capable of change” and self-effacement? The evidence suggests otherwise, but the stakes are high enough to try and find out.
Rather than pray for such a change of heart on the president’s part, which may be a long time in coming, given his lack of humility, I think our rabbis should be telling him directly why they feel he has erred, how his actions have led to further division and enmity within our society and why it is their responsibility to criticize him. Not out of disloyalty but in an authentic effort for better understanding between the nation’s leader and the American Jewish community.

I agree with the position of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America, expressed by its executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, who said:

“We respect the office of the presidency and believe it is more effective to address questions and concerns directly with the White House.”

One lesson I’ve tried to learn from my late parents is not to shut the door on a troubled relationship. I saw it in the advice my dad, the rabbi of the only congregation in a small town, would give distraught congregants who came to him many years ago on learning a child planned to marry outside the faith. I saw it when my mom counseled family, friends and members of her community. “Leave the door open,” she would say. “You never know…”

Is President Trump “capable of change” and self-effacement? The evidence suggests otherwise, but the stakes are high enough to try and find out.

Whether or not the annual tradition of the pre-High Holy Day phone call between rabbinic leaders and the president takes place this year, we should be advocates for dialogue, discourse and discussion. When the talking stops, the danger escalates.

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