Driving down I-95 in Northern Maryland this past Monday, I was reflecting on what had surely been one of the best weekends of my life. It mostly consisted of partying and praying, but there was also a little 2 ½ hour ceremony during which my daughter Hannah and 13 of her classmates were ordained as rabbis. It was the culmination of five years of post-graduate schooling and a whole lot of soul searching. Believe me, I was proud of Hannah’s entire class. It thrills me that these freshly minted Reconstructionist rabbis are being thrust into the world to reinvigorate Judaism and become a “light unto the nations. “
Driving my jalopy with “Spinoza” license plates, I was feeling my oats. I had just passed the beautiful Susquehanna River and Cal Ripken’s baseball stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland and was looking forward to going to a retirement party for one of the jewels of the U.S. Department of Justice (and one of my beloved mentors), Joyce Branda. Life was good. So I asked my wife’s permission to indulge one of my guilty pleasures – listening to right-wing talk radio with her in the car. To my surprise, she said yes.
Strangely, though, we couldn’t find any suitable stations – at least not until we crossed the Baltimore Harbor. That’s when we began to hear WMAL, the powerful DC station that has graced us with such luminaries as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and, in this case, Chris Plante.
My wife’s patience lasted all of five minutes. During that time, Plante hurled just about every insult imaginable at Democrats and liberals. You would have thought he was talking about cockroaches, except that Democrats and liberals are people, or at least I tell myself that we are. That afternoon, I sounded less like a person than a laughing hyena. That’s the only way I can cope with programs like Plante’s – by laughing hysterically at the sheer idiocy of his hate speech, speech directed at folks like me and everything I hold dear. I feel compelled to listen to Plante because I need to know what America thinks, and Plante, Limbaugh, Levin and Company are the rabbis to roughly one third of this country.
By Wednesday morning, I was back to the rhythm of a normal workweek as the highs of last weekend had begun to fade. Listening to the morning news, I was shocked to learn about a different form of hate speech. This time, the speaker communicated not with words but with bullets. He opened fire on a group of Republican Congressmen and staffers who were targeted solely because of their political views. It was reminiscent of the January 2011 attack in Tucson, except that this week’s shooting involved a so-called “progressive” hunting down conservatives. Immediately, my fellow liberals tended to write off the shooting simply as the product of mental illness – a lone lunatic running amuck. But for me, that excuse is overly glib. We’re dealing now with an ever-deepening internal conflict in America that is reaching dangerous levels. Not only are we seeing its outgrowth in politically-motivated homicides but also in terms of policies that reflect utter contempt for large swaths of Americans. Think about it – how else can we explain why Senators are holding secret meetings to determine how to strip millions of Americans of healthcare insurance if they didn’t think their political base holds the uninsured (i.e., working class Americans) in complete disregard?
Yesterday, the New York Times led with an article entitled “Partisan Relations Sink from Cold to Deep Freeze: Democrats and Republicans Have Lowest Regard of Each Other in Decades.” The article featured a graph showing that Democrats’ attitudes about Republicans has largely paralleled Republicans’ attitudes about Democrats throughout the period from 1980 to the present. The graph also showed that while those numbers had dropped gradually from 1980 to 2000, they’ve dropped precipitously ever since. Less than a quarter of us now view the “other” favorably – down from 40 percent at the turn of the millennium. Whoever coined the motto “e pluribus unum” is surely turning in his grave.
After the terrible shooting in Alexandria, there has been talk of the need for unity. I’m not feeling it though. I think this nation is hopelessly polarized at the moment. I see things getting worse before they get better. But last weekend, I did see the antidote – on that stage in suburban Philadelphia, where the 14 graduates of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Class of 5777 were assembled. There, in that tiny class, I saw white people, black people, men, women, openly gay, openly straight, openly trans. I saw the faces of love, not of hatred. Of hope, not of fear. Of anonymity, not of celebrity. Of self-effacing service, not of grandstanding hubris. Of singing and praying, not shouting and demeaning.
I had a vision in which humble, hard-working and committed people like the RRC Class of 5777 stopped deferring to the politicians and media personalities who have collectively driven our national car into the ditch. In my vision, these young men and women would then take responsibility for identifying leaders from their own generation who wouldn’t suck up to the Chris Plantes or the Rush Limbaughs – or, for that matter, to the snide, liberal analogues who similarly spew hate from the other side of the aisle. They will take to heart the Jewish precept that “lashon hara” -- speech that is disparaging, even if true – is truly evil and difficult to forgive. They will, in short, teach my fellow Baby Boomers that it is time to back off and let a gentler, smarter and more humane generation lead us out of the wilderness.
As the Class of 5777 can tell you, our Biblical ancestors wandered in that wilderness for 40 years and never did enter the Promised Land. Sadly, it has been nearly 40 years since 1980 – when we started turning our political rivals into true enemies. My sense is that things are going to get worse before they get better. But maybe, just maybe, in a few years, the spirit of the Class of 5777 will turn things around. At least that’s my dream.