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A Rabbi at the National Prayer Breakfast

By Rabbi Joey Wolf

“The priestly garments you make for Aaron your brother – make them with honor and splendor.” (Exodus 28: 2)

Based on this verse in the Torah portionTetzaveh, Maimonides sees a parallel: the religious garments of the priesthood should look like those worn by people in high places. It makes me think of my experience at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., a week ago. Plenty of pastors, lots of the nation’s leaders...

You may ask, what was a progressive rabbi doing in the company of so many evangelicals, spreading the good news? Especially in these times when the narrative that gets broadcasted from our nation’s capital is replete with lies and distortions, wouldn’t you think there would be little redeeming in listening to conservative Christian paeans to the Commander-in-Chief?

You see, our wonderful Senator Jeff Merkley invited me to join him, and I couldn’t turn him down (at least this one time). I knew he’d need companionship – in mixed company such as this. And the prayer breakfast happened to be scheduled in the same week I would be on Capitol Hill to join a lobbying effort with the Shut Tornillo Down Coalition, working for the closure of immigrant child detention camps. Together, the Senator and I sat and gazed around us at the gleaming faces of satisfied customers. Given the fragmentation of rhetoric emanating from the White House, the obfuscation and deception, it seemed even more incongruous to hear people speak of prayer and kindness in one breath, and then go ahead and endorse a harsh regime in the next.

And how about this partnership – in a nation that supposedly observes the separation between church and state?

The mostly white, Jesus-praising cast of characters were earnest, even exhilarated, about the important work of government. They quoted Romans 13, exalting people in power, and at the same time I knew the Jewish variant of the teaching in the Talmud: it states, realistically, that the government’s edict is nothing to fool with. (Dina d’Malchuta Dina – to paraphrase, sovereign state law supersedes rabbinic law.) There are similarities between the statements, but our attitude towards powerful leaders is a pragmatic one and certainly nothing more than that. I saw a number of Republican leaders of Congress engaged in discussion with pastors; and I saw a few familiar liberal personalities who appeared considerably less at ease.

Picture this, if you will ... I was sitting next to Senator Merkley on one side. On my other side, a pastor from a small town between Dallas and Fort Worth who proclaimed that he did ecumenical work, bringing the gospel to interfaith conferences – and hoped that I could arrange something in Portland. To his right sat the ill-tempered Texas Senator John Cornyn. For much of the time I was seated at the table, I turned away from these gentlemen and mostly entered into conversation with Senator Merkley. We both experienced a level of anxiety about the comradery in the room, given the political moment. On a discordant note, I heard it said more than once that our president was “an imperfect vessel,” though his social agenda was very dear.

In advance of the president’s arrival, Senator Merkley forewarned me that I would observe his palpable lack of spiritual vitality. Truth to tell, unlike other public figures who enter a room and possess either a glow or, at least, bring a measure of dignity, his presence was characterized by gloom and morbidity. We unfortunately sat close to the front, within the glare of his amber complexion. Throughout the event, he sat distractedly, a caricature of cartoonish pomposity. Speakers alluded to his priorities exuberantly, but hardly met his eyes. They made intermittent attempts to find some humor in what was essentially not laughable. Even members of his own party, in the name of God’s grace, struggled in his blessed presence to express gratitude for his good works.

Nevertheless, as the two of us Oregonians sat side by side at this event, I know that we saw the pious crowd ingratiate themselves, and it was disturbing. Certainly, I did not want to be perceived in any way as a person of faith who endorsed the Republican agenda. And yet I knew it was somehow significant that I be in that room with a Jewish sensibility for Truth (though there were surely other Jews who would differ with me). I wore my kippah somewhat self-consciously – there were a smattering of Muslims, black or brown people, or Asians at the tables, as well. And even though I had stood politely when the president entered, I didn’t clap. And when he treaded Right to Life ground, or spoke about keeping our nation safe, both the Senator and I remained seated.

The National Prayer Breakfast is an event that has gone on since the Eisenhower years, but I felt that its unique resonance right now required me to be alert. It registered that, although very few appeared to be overjoyed at seeing the president, when he spoke, they flew into a virtual frenzy of celebration, specifically when he touched upon measures he has taken that reflect endemic racism and xenophobia.

I wondered, given the fact that he sows the seeds of contempt for human beings, why it was that these Jesus-loving people saw fit to praise him? Why did they embrace his declared emergency on the border, his fixation on a wall?

As we know, it’s all about collusion and white privilege and fear.

In his book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, Corey Robin has demonstrated that political elites don’t only operate hierarchically, in the sense that people in power pummel people beneath them. Of course, to a certain extent this goes on, but within a system of government that extols its checks and balances, it’s the horizontal connections that can wreak a great deal of damage. Constituencies outside of government can be mobilized in an electrifying way to rally in support of people in power.  (The Facebook effect is now fully documented.) Structural relationships between religious coalitions, or business lobbies, for example, can be enlisted against other segments of the society. In a Hobbesian sense, within the frame of modernity, it’s the masses that even the founders of American democracy feared the most – and, over time, whom the elites have learned to exploit and enlist in their projects. Although Robin’s book predates this nativist moment and our humanitarian crisis at the border, it was fairly predictable by his analysis that we could end up where we are. Not only do we have corporate interests gutting the statutes that protect our democracy, there’s the prospect of the highest court of the land insinuating itself on their behalf ... and all these blithely idiotic white people on a mission to save souls, dividing, conquering, imploding upon themselves.

As Jews, we should know something about this assault on good government. In Timothy Snyder’s tour de force, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, he painstakingly lays out the historical case for the importance of laws, institutions, and bureaucracies that abate demagoguery. He makes the case that the catastrophic experience in Nazi Germany was ironically mitigated only in those places where a regime of rules and protocols remained in place for the Germans and local peoples to respect and obey. If you think about it, our president disdains more than anything else international law, regulations, and the kind of oversight that can actually put the brakes on his dangerous agenda.

Though we have much to be concerned about the moral calamity in Washington, on the positive side, I experienced an excitement on Capitol Hill, due to the ascendancy of so many young leaders, women, people of color. They represent an alternative brand of politics and the many who have been left out or left behind. They are proactively articulating a progressive agenda we can be proud of.

But in the meantime, it’s the bigotry and hate we are being reminded of. There’s this wall and a manufactured state of emergency. And the conservatives are masterful, when it comes to pouncing on the political speech of newcomers and long-standing liberals – using their gaffes and ill-considered antisemitic-tinged tweets or sexist mistakes to insert a wedge or sabotage their work. A fact that deserves our consideration is how thoroughly and assertively many of these legislators on the left recognize their mistakes, embrace the sensitivities of a group they have offended; and their willingness to apologize should indicate that they stand for an inclusive, democratic brand of politics. Then again, there are the president’s enforcers with a poor track record for owning up to racist insensitivity. In so many cases, they subscribe to a discourse that pits an old privileged class against the less fortunate.

In this context, we Jews need to be more aware of our own role in aiding and abetting a conservative coalition that uses the rhetoric of fear. Israel’s place in this Christian narrative requires our candor. It bears mentioning that Bret Stephens wrote a column in this week’s New York Times in which he attacked those on the left who promote a progressive critique of Israel. He castigates people who express disgust with Israeli government policies and accuses them of inexorably enabling antisemitism, but is it a fair argument to make in the face of so much evidence about hardship we in America underwrite?

Well, his admonition should preclude any scrutiny, if it’s taken seriously. It should muzzle any legitimate discussion of what we as Jews should acknowledge about our financial support, or how we play into the hands of the evangelical design for an end-times. But shouldn’t we, in the name of loving Israel and seeking her peace, be working for peace? Talk about what redemption means in a Jewish idiom?

The Republicans at the Prayer Breakfast happen to love Israel a great dealt – and I heard from a couple of them that in the past there have been Knesset members (along with dignitaries from other foreign nations) in attendance and forging bonds. It occurred to me that this would be a place to find Israelis in power imagining themselves in league with a president who was strong on borders and walls. And I drew some comfort from the fact that Senator Merkley and I would later in the day stand together at a press conference. He would announce a bill he had co-authored to shut down the immigrant youth camps. At that gathering, a citizen who had himself spent thirty days in dusty west Texas, bearing witness at the isolated Tornillo facility, would say that a border was a window, a mirror.

I still was curious about these evangelicals who were enthusiastically sitting down to Quiche Lorraine and stale bagels, happy for their fellowship with people in power. I had little appetite for this affair, but wanted to learn more.

According to Melani McAlister, in her book The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals, it turns out that there is quite an array of evangelical political discourses. There are conservatives, of course, but there are also liberals. There are missionaries who care a great deal for the human rights agenda in the Global South, and there are missionaries who are neocolonialists. But what unites them theologically are notions of “the persecuted body,” “the body of Christ,” or the church of the world, crying out in pain, lending urgency to the work that mobilizes them. The trouble with martyr-centered theology is that when there’s a victim, there’s usually a villain that needs to be called out, an adversarial way of thinking. There’s an adventure somewhere else. This sets up a dichotomy wherein those who go on a mission can end up condemning outliers, disbelievers or proponents of a secular culture. There is a perceived threat, at best – a pathology of otherness, at worst. (We Jews are an exception, since Christ will return once we, the Chosen Ones, will all find our way to the Holy Land.)

The business of naming who suffers and who merits redemption has direct implications within evangelical politics for where borders are drawn. The gender historian Kristen Kobes du Mez has written about “a militaristic idea of Christian manhood” that pervades the white evangelical world. One example she mentions is James Dobson (who founded Focus on the Family), who declared “a crisis of church and society” and tied it to “the security of our homeland and the welfare of our children.” In the past, communism and Islam were assigned negative valences; and missionaries targeted the unconverted in countries that fell under the control of the former USSR or within the arc of the Muslim Middle East in dangerous and politically fraught ways.

In a keynote speech that Senator Merkley and I listened to, the director of a large evangelical relief organization spoke passionately about human slavery, but all the images on a giant screen were exotic, the efforts directed at Africa. The scholar McAlister has delved into the history of evangelical work in the political South, and ongoing internal arguments about assumptions predicated on race. In some of their larger symposia and conferences, evangelicals have embraced black American and black African efforts to honor the integrity of indigenous cultures, but this was hardly the case with regard to the National Prayer Breakfast, whose axis of power favored Washington’s current power elites.

Locating the “body” of Christ, configuring it within the politics of immigration, would seem to demand a coming-to-Jesus, in this rabbi’s humble opinion. The fact is that we live at a time in which large migrant populations are forcing us in the North to identify those at our border (and perhaps the ones who go without shelter inside it, as well) as the ones suffering, in pain.

I wondered about the hypocrisy in the room: What made these Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Honduran families escaping violence and poverty so unworthy of their concern that these evangelicals would stand up and applaud the man who, if he could, would put up a wall?

There was a rejoinder, I recall ... After someone offered a Christian benediction, Jackie Rosen, the newly elected Jewish Senator from Nevada and a former president of her synagogue, quoted from Isaiah 58, in which the prophet mocks the rituals and celebrations of a morally bankrupt society:

“Is this the fast I desire? ... No, this is the fast I desire, to unlock the fetters of wickedness, to untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free ...”

When the long breakfast concluded and the speakers were done speaking, I left the hotel for some fresh air. A man, upon seeing that I was wearing a kippah, approached me in the hotel  courtyard. Like everyone else I met, he was extremely gracious and solicitous. He said to me, “What I can’t understand is why so many young Jews are rejecting Israel. Can’t they see it’s the only democracy in the region? It’s such an extraordinary place. What’s going on with these young people?”

I had only a minute or two before I’d jump into an Uber, in order to get to the press conference focused on American detention camps. Looking him in the eye, I hesitated, but said that things aren’t simple. I didn’t go into the litany: about the Naqba, the expansion of settlements, the refugees, the messianic racism, the occupation ... the WALL that separates us from them and makes them invisible. But I suggested that we might all do well to look at people in our midst who are systemic victims, crying out in pain. We might do well, I said, to see the walls we put up as windows instead. As mirrors. To reflect upon who we really are and who we hope to be someday.

Fri, May 24 2019 19 Iyyar 5779