Barack and the Jews: “Wise men, be careful of your words”

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by Rabbi Elchonon Oberstein

Pirkei Avos Chapter one, mishna 11 teaches us “Avtalyon says: Scholars, be cautious with your words, for you may incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of putrid water…….and consequently the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.” The following is brought down in the ArtScroll Sfas Emes on Pirkei Avos.

Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshis’cha compared a scholar’s words to a physician’s medication. Just as a doctor weighs every medication he prescribes ( the rebbe was a pharmacist), so too the tzadik weighs the impact of his every word on the physical and spiritual welfare of his followers.

The Sfas Emes explains that the mishna is admonishing the talmid chacham to weigh carefully every word, since we are lliving in an era when the words of Torah are in exile, i.e. easily misunderstood.

These words are especially insightful in the midst of this year’s very heated political contest. We are in golus and our words, whether words of Torah by a scholar, or comments on the political scene by a blogger can easily be misunderstood and cause undesirable consequences. We must be careful.

The current brouhaha about Barak Obama’s membership in a Chicago church whose pastor preaches an Afro-centric, racially charged message is of great importance to the Jewish community. After the dust settles, it is quite likely that Obama will be the Democratic nominee for President and the next President of the United States. Even if neither of these two possibilities comes to fruition, this campaign will have a lasting effect on communal relations for whites in general and Jews in particular. Intemperate remarks are being made all around and hurtful words are never forgotten.

In case you have been totally out of the loop, Obama has been a member of a church for twenty years, whose pastor gives fiery sermons full of rhetoric that sounds anti-white, anti-semitic and anti-American. The sermons are video taped and sold by the church, so it is easy to cut and paste a bunch of sound bites that make Reverend Wright sound like a
fool, a bigot, a racist and a demagogue.

For those of you who think it is that simple, it isn’t. I was born and grew up in Montgomery,Alabama during the Civil Rights Era. As a child,I hung around my father’s grocery store on the edge of an all black housing project and got to know the poor children as playmates. Even though I grew up in a highly segregated society, I have always had a deeper understanding and, perhaps, more empathy for African Americans than some of the people I have met since coming up North to attend Yeshiva
University High School in the early 60’s.

Black preachers of Reverend Wright’s generation gave voice to a a sense of victim hood, a feeling that the white man has all the cards and a poor Negro can’t catch a break. They express out loud a sense of rage for past and present injustices and have made the black church one place where whites did not intrude and where they could let out their
frustrations. This is not limited to one church on the south side of Chicago but can be heard in many churches around the country by preachers of Reverend Wright’s generation. I think it also explains the kinship felt for Black Muslim leaders by putatively Christian ministers, a common foe.

Barak Obama joined that church twenty years ago and by his own account has been highly influenced by the minister. How then can one explain the current imbroglio. How can he belong to a church whose leader says not to sing “G-d Bless America” but “G-d damn America”. How can he sit there and absorb anti Israel rhetoric and claim to be pro Israel ? I think the answer is compartmentalization. Barak and Michelle Obama are a new generation, they are graduates of top universities. Obama has tried to run a gender neutral campaign , to claim to be post racial. He wants to bring us all together with no prejudice against anyone. Barak has studiously tried to distance himself from the older generation of black
politicians, whose careers are built on playing the race card.

Readers of Cross Currents will be the first to acknowledge that allegiance to a certain way of life forces one to contend with words or deeds of highly respected leaders that go against our individual sense of acceptability in twenty first century America. Those on the outside call for total condemnation,those on the inside call for understanding in context. The issues may be far removed and there may be no comparison, but the mental processes are similar.

I think that even the younger generation,like Michelle Obama, have a lot of resentment in them and rage under the surface. To some extent they are like the Palestinians growing up with a narrative of victim hood. How else could she say that she is proud of this country for the first time in her adult life because people are voting for her husband. This shows a lot about her psyche and can’t be swept under the carpet. Barak himself did not grow up in the ghetto, I don’t know to what extent he ever actually experienced racism. Joining this church was his way of identifying with the black half of his genes and building up a power base in a large church known for its social justice agenda. The church, like Hamas, is praised by many for its good works, not for its political agenda.

I understand where it comes from and I do not in any way condone the attitude of those who feel you can simultaneously live in two disparate societies and get the benefits of both. Barak shows his political naivete by thinking that his membership in a racially charged church would not have harmed his chances of being elected President. Obama tried very hard to run as a color neutral candidate. Bill Clinton, whom many think was politically foolish, is no fool at all. He painted Barak the color black in South Carolina and now it is catching up with the Obama campaign. It may be too late in the game for Hillary, but this
controversy may well put McCain over the top in the general election.

I honestly do not believe Barak Obama would be a racist President. I believe he is too sophisticated and too highly educated to believe the low brow rhetoric of Rev. Wright. He does have a hard time disassociating from inflammatory words when he bases his ability to be President on his way with words, “One speech” in the words of Hillary. I also do not believe that he is a closet racist. There are millions of dollars of Jewish donated money funding his campaign,. There are Jews of the liberal variety all around his campaign and he has spoken all the right words about issues of interest to the majority of the American
Jewish community.

I caution all to think before speaking. This man may be our next President and we do not need to alienate him or his team by painting him in the worst way. Richard Nixon said anti-semitic things ,yet helped Israel in 1973. Harry Truman had harsh words about Zionists , but recognized Israel in 1948. I caution my Republican friends not to get so caught up in this campaign that they harm our community by sounding like bigots. Our non white neighbors do not see this issue the way we do. They see Barak as the first African American with a real chance to win the White House and they discount the rhetoric of his pastor and tend to see his good works and his black pride.

We American Jews are so confortable in this country that we forget that are in golus, living in a society where we are a very small minority. When we express our valid political opinions let us do so without narishkeit. If we justly condemn Reverend Wright for believing conspiracy theories, let us not be the ones to spread patently false stories about a candidate who has won the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. We risk a lot for many reasons, not the least of which is that this man may one day be the President. As Avtalyon teaches us, we risk making a major chilul hashem by intemperate and poorly considered speech.

As a life long Democrat, I will vote for Senator McCain in the upcoming election . I cannot vote for Barak, not because of his pastor’s racially charged rhetoric, but because I agree with Geraldine Ferraro that he has been pushed to the head of the line too soon and is not ready for the most powerful job in the world. The Obama campaign lost my vote when
they trashed my fellow Southerner, Lyndon Baines Johnson and implied that giving credit to any white person for the civil rights movement is being anti black. I am not a bigot, but, Michelle Obama feels I am,if I don’t support her husband. I heard her on CSpan and that sealed my opposition to her husband. We are in for a rough patch ,whether Barak
wins or not. But, as Martin would have said, “We Shall Overcome Someday.”

[Rabbi Elchonon Oberstein served as a pulpit rabbi in Baltimore for over 25 years. He is Director of the Teachers Instutute at Ner Israel Rabbinical College , however he stresses that his opinions are totally his own.]

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13 Responses

  1. Reb Yid says:

    Continuing the discussion with R. Oberstein about the MLK/LBJ “flap”:

    I agree with you 100% that LBJ really stepped up to the plate–he certainly deserves plenty of credit, for all the reasons you mention, and then some. What HRC said was the “truth”, but….

    …HRC framed this praise in an unnecessarily divisive manner (and here I’m even giving her the benefit of the doubt that she didn’t mean to inject race into the equation), pitting two necessary components and leaders against each other. It’s like saying it took a Joshua for the Israelites to cross the Jordan River, which unnecessarily mitigates the importance that Moses played up until that point.

    And I did some checking on the internet….the media/tv/newspaper critics were very quick to criticize HRC for what she said–it didn’t need anyone from other political camps to fan the flames here…even some Clinton supporters who were African-American were not pleased…Obama tried to stay away from responding for a couple of days until the media finally pinned him down. He did say that what HRC was ill-advised (although not framing it in terms of race, which he has taken pains to avoid)…it certainly had the effect of being divisive, whether intentionally or not.

    I’d be willing to give HRC the benefit of the doubt overall if this is the only time where she made a “factual” statement that had needlessly divisive overtones…but sadly the HRC campaign has been full of such tactics. The most famous, of course, was Bill’s “factual” statement about South Carolina where, after all, Jesse Jackson had won in years past. That statement and its aftermath have pretty much resulted in writing off much of the African-American vote (again, this mess had nothing to do with anything Obama said)–and one in fact can argue, as many analysts have contended, that the Clinton camp made it a deliberate strategy from that point to do just that.

    I write all of this noting that at the beginning of the Dem campaign that I would have been happy with either Edwards, Clinton or Obama but have been extremely disappointed with the Clinton campaign’s divisive tone and hope for everyone’s sake (Dems and Republicans alike) that HRC does not win the Dem nomination.

    Second, I write because again–while there are many reasons where someone might prefer a Republican to a Democrat–I cannot imagine that R. Oberstein’s potential Obama vote was lost on this particular issue. Perhaps on other issues, but if on this issue–I cannot imagine a more sensitive, intelligent and eloquent candidate.

  2. Robin says:

    Rabbi O., you claim your upbringing in Alabma gives you special insight into black culture. Only a 21st century American could say that. Perhaps, to the contrary, it clouds your judgment in ways in which others are not affected?

    Likewise, you speak of the so-called “civil rights” bill in hagiographic terms. Have you ever lost a job to someone less qualified than you, because of “affirmative action”? Has your son ever lost or not gotten a job because of this? Has your company ever been the all-too common victim of extortion, of a black employee filing a frivilous lawsuit of race discrimination, just to get a settlement? Perhaps the many white Americans who have experienced what I just described are in a better position to judge than you.

  3. L Oberstein says:

    1.”I will vote for him if G-d forbid Hillary were to get the nomination”
    2.” the flap over the Martin Luther King/Lyndon Johnson issue as the reason why the Obama campaign “lost his vote”.
    3.Nowadays,being right wing/republican is part of the definition of a religious Jew. If you’re not right wing/republican you’re not really frum/charedi.
    4.Too bad for Hillary that she won’t be able to capitalize on this fact without lighting a fuse of Black voter discontent that could sink the Democratic party for a generation or two.”
    The above are exerpts from some of the insightful comments, which I greatly appreciate. I want to comment on them:
    1. Hillary and Bill Clinton are both brilliant and very competent on the issues. They have a lot of baggage and high negatives enough to make her candidacy problematic in the general election. I have asked psychologists why people hate Hillary and been given various answers. Like all women, she is judged harshly for “midos” that are ok in males.She is not without many faults but she is not the wicked witch of the West.
    2.Lyndon Johnson did what Kennedy couldn’t do and Eisenhower wouldn’t do.He was willing to lose the Solid South for generations to pass the Civil Rights Act. I grew up with George Wallace and his era and saw Wallace change competely after the passing of the Voting Rights Act. The people around Obama decided to interpret Hillary’s valid comments as racist and to blow it into a controversy when what she said was true.
    3.Trying to be polite and keep from being excommunicated, I agree with you 100%. I first encountered orthodox Jews who spoke in a manner that we in the South did not about racial issues as a teenager and later met orthodox Jews who were so judgemental and self assured that their way was the only way.Some even put ads in the paper that “the gedolim say vote for me.”
    4. Thank’s Scott. This election has raised tensions because it is forcing Amreica to deal with issues like race and Obama has tried to deal with it maturely. I agree with Bill O’Reilley that he succeed partially but the issue may have raised fatal doubts that will prevent his election . For those who believe the spelling is “Demoncrat” this is surely a sign that Heaven favors the Republicans, so gloat.

  4. Dr. Irene Diamond says:

    I really appreciated your comments. I too am a life long democrat and have never voted for a Republican and had thought I would this time around because I supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq. About 6 weeks ago I started reading everything I could about Obama and I am now passionately committed to him and believe he is the only candidate who has the smarts and vision to not impose a stale 2 state solution on our people. He is a man who because of his own biography truly listens to all sides and then moves beyond. Did you read his speech on national security that he delivered the very next day after the brilliant and politically courageous race speech which will go down as one of the most important documents on the subject of race in our history?(I believe it is actually much more complex than King’s I have a dream speech and that is why it is so amazing that a candidate for the presidency would take such a teaching moment and not simply totally disassociate himself from the pastor who brought him to G-d) Please take the time to read the national security speech, McCain is simply incapable of coming up with something of that depth. I will vote for him if G-d forbid Hillary were to get the nomination, but Obama understands the complexities of bridge building because he knows that power doesn’t just emanate from the corridors of those in the halls of states. Some of the most passionate defenders of our land, who know it is truly the promised land in a way that U.S. Jews for the most part do not, are ex-slaves, Christians and Tribals from the SOuthern SUdan who have fled from Eygpt for their lives just as we did. Obama because of his interest in Africa which has nothing to do with experience in committees in Congress, is capable of reading what Simon Deng an anti-slavery activist and a strong supporter of the David project says about those who hate Israel like Desmund Tutu. As President he will be much more creative than Bill CLinton who was incapable of thinking out of the box. Today LoveIsrael means to avoid all the formal peace negotiations which only produce false promises and greater politicization. Ferraro is a kinda confused old lady who only got to be the vp nominee because she was tight tight with congressional insiders. How much govt’ l experience did Lincoln or Kennedy have? In my book Obama’s ability to manage Harvard Law students is relevant expereince when it comes to diplomacy, actual more so than McCain’s who doesn’t know from bridge building in the world.

  5. RCD says:

    This has little to do with the point of Rabbi Oberstein’s post, but I can’t help but comment on the rich irony that when David Dinkins lost his bid for reelection as mayor of NYC in 1993, after having driven the city to the ground during his four years in office, Bill Clinton accused New Yorkers of rascism! At this time of “v’nahapachu” surely we can say: What’s good for the gander is good for the goose.

  6. Avigdor says:

    I thought Obama’s speech was great (and I’m Republican). Put aside all political issues about the presidential campaign and focus solely on the speech as a speech about race in America. As such, I think Obama did several things exceptionally well.

    He dealt with the complexity of race in America, with honesty, even though this is complex and controversial. It would have been far easier to give a much easier speech. He unequivocally condemned Pastor Wright’s comments, but he put black anger into a historical perspective. He also put white anger and fear into perspective. Obviously, he cannot singlehandedly solve all race problems, and he did not suggest he would do so. But he provided context, talked about what unites us, and talked about moving forward.

    He was educative without being preachy. It is hard to find political leaders who can really educate.

    As Jews, we have all had to some degree the experience that he notes. As R. Adelstein noted in a post several months ago (commenting on some of the aftermath of the Noah Feldman controversy), there are statements in many places of traditional Judaism, including the Talmud, that reflect an ugly attitude towards non-Jews, for example. R. Adlerstein’s recommended approach was to neither defend these statements nor to sweep them under the rug. Instead, it was to contextualize them and to make clear that whatever they meant at the time, they do not now represent the attitudes of American Jews towards our non-Jewish American neighbors. And that was exactly Obama’s point about race.

  7. Reb Yid says:

    I’m a little puzzled by the conclusion to R. Oberstein’s otherwise well-reasoned post.

    R. Oberstein cites the flap over the Martin Luther King/Lyndon Johnson issue as the reason why the Obama campaign “lost his vote”.

    My recollection of this incident is when Hillary Clinton alleged a crucial distinction between those with mere “words” (i.e., Martin Luther King) and those who in her view followed through with more important “actions” (i.e., LBJ and the Civil Rights Act).

    It is interesting to me that R. Oberstein has viewed this through a racial lens–I certainly don’t think that was what was intended by either candidate when this topic arose. The discussion that followed was really about words mattering, and how much they do. If there are quotes from Obama that support R. Oberstein’s contentions here, I would certainly be interested in seeing them

    While there are no doubt ample substantive reasons that R. Oberstein may choose to vote for or against a particular candidate, and especially in light of yesterday’s speech by Obama, I would ask R. Oberstein if, at least on this particular issue, he might consider alternative interpretations.

  8. Scott Italiaander says:

    Rabbi Elchonon you are wise and great man. You have put things in absolutely the right context, which is unusual for a Democrat.

    The reason why Obama is not qualified to be president is not because he is a racist, its because he is too callow, shallow and insulated from the real world to exercise the judgment necessary to be president.

    Too bad for Hillary that she won’t be able to capitalize on this fact without lighting a fuse of Black voter discontent that could sink the Democratic party for a generation or two.

    Which I franky admit is not good for the country.

  9. shloi says:

    Thank you for this intelligent post. We have to be careful not to automatically support the same side of the political divide and judge every issue on its merits, not according to the party the candidate belong to. Nowadays,being right wing/republican is part of the definition of a religious Jew. If you’re not right wing/republican you’re not really frum/charedi.
    We have had lately the tendency to put our eggs in the same basket, and followed blindly Mr.Bush’s policies, although they were misguided even if with good intentions.

  10. Ori says:

    Rabbi Elchonon Oberstein: We are in golus and our words, whether words of Torah by a scholar, or comments on the political scene by a blogger can easily be misunderstood and cause undesirable consequences. We must be careful.

    Ori: Our gentile countrymen don’t see us as exiles, grudgingly granted the right to live in their country for now, but as citizens with full right and responsibilities. Acting as if this is not the case is more likely to alienate them than anything else.

    To quote Mark Twain: “The Jews have no party; they are non-participants.” Perhaps you have let the secret out and given yourself away. It seems hardly a credit to the race that it is able to say that; or to you, sir, that you can say it without remorse; more than you should offer it as a plea against maltreatment, injustice, and oppression. Who gives the Jew the right, who gives any race the right, to sit still, in a free country, and let somebody else look after its safety?

    Rabbi Elchonon Oberstein: In case you have been totally out of the loop, Obama has been a member of a church for twenty years, whose pastor gives fiery sermons full of rhetoric that sounds anti-white, anti-semitic and anti-American.

    Ori: If anybody reading this is inclined to publicly attack Barak Obama based on his church, please don’t do it on the basis of anti-semitism. Being opposed to a small self-selected group of the population without justification is bad. Being opposed to a much larger group, on account of their genes instead of their choices, is a lot worse.

    Calling somebody “anti-semitic” makes it a Jewish matter, directly relevant to a small segment of the US population. Also, it’s a card that certain Jewish groups tend to play to excess. Calling somebody “racist”, OTOH, makes it a problem to anybody living in a multiracial society.

  11. tzippi says:

    I appreciate Cross-Currents getting on this so fast. R. Oberstein brings a good perspective to this. (And I too agree with Geraldine Ferraro. And I was also very put off by Obama’s throwing his maternal grandmother to the wolves in his speech.)
    One comment – Obama’s name is spelled Barack. Some people may be skipping this essay based on the title.

  12. Yoel B says:

    I think that Rabbi Oberstein’s observations are correct but his interpretation may not be.
    Allow me to propose an alternative: Under the influence of the late William F. Buckley, Jr. the conservative movement in the United States marginalized anti-semitism. Buckley dropped fellow Catholics and long time colleagues from his magazine to do so. Today, frank anti-semitism and anti-Israel thinking are fringe phenomena on the Right in the United States.
    Not so on the left. Anti-semitism has moved in from the hard left to the mainstream; Obama is to the far left of the US Senate and made his political bones associating with the hard left, including the likes of unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers, a minor power in Chicago; his church affiliation is consonant with that.
    The days of being a pro-Israel mainstream Democrat are waning. That is why Joe Lieberman sits in the Senate as an Independent Democrat. On social policy he is a liberal Democrat; it is his views on Israel and national security, which used to be in the Democratic mainstream that cost him his party affiliation. His old party is moving to the Left and appealing to darker forces in the human psyche. Barack Obama is trying to paint those who oppose him as racist; a few may oppose him for racist reasons but he is consciously and deliberately playing with fire. He appears to have little loyalty to the social and intellectual forces which have gone into American exceptionalism and made the American galut so congenial a place for Jews, including Orthodox Jews.
    Obama is a smart, gifted politician who scares the living daylights out of me. He said of himself that he is a blank screen on which people project their desires. That, like his suddenly ex preacher’s, is fascist thinking. Due to slavery and Jim Crow, and due to the commonplace but mistaken acceptance of Stalin’s propaganda masterstroke of calling National Socialism right wing while appealing to Russian nationalism, America has turned a blind eye to African-American and other Leftist fascism. Barack Obama may well have thought that the way to credibility as a black man in America was to join his church. He may have been correct. The thing is, any white politician who belonged to a white anti-semitic church for decades would be untouchable as a presidential candidate in either party. Obama is not. He is ambitious, he will be back if he loses this election. He may indeed be our next president, or the one after that.
    Rabbi Olberman refers to Nixon and Truman. Both saw support for Israel as important for the advancement of freedom and the containment of an expansionist power that, like the Nazis, yemach shemam, believed that the State could transform human nature and should kill if necessary to do so.
    We are seeing Ishmael rise in power and the waning of Rome in Europe. It is once again becoming dangerous to live in the Dar ul Harb. McCain opposes the jihadis and considers them dangerous; the mainstream of the Democratic party considers them a nuisance to be accommodated. The view that the establishment of the State of Israel was a mistake and that US support for Israel is the perpetuation of an expensive mistake is gaining respectability on the Left in the Democratic party, including, R”L, among Jews (see the Daily Kos and the Huffington Post for confirmation.) Obama is the favored candidate of those who hold that view and whatever his rhetoric is about Israel, he will owe them a debt if elected.
    Halacha does indeed contain the structures that permit us to live in the dhimmitude that so many of our brothers and sisters fled after 1948. Rabbi Olberman’s plea for Jewish circumspection in opposing the fascism on the Left suggests that he fears that dhimmitude may be on the horizon for America.
    His suggestion that we weigh our words in general is of course very well taken.

  13. joel rich says:

    Interesting insights, I’d appreciate it if you could comment on a possible extension of your parallel to the frum world; that is, is there a significant difference between what either group articulates as its narrative klapei pnim (internally) vs. klapei chutz(externally)?
    KT