Thursday, November 8, 2012

Elections and Reconciliation.

On the Shabbat before the election, the Rabbi of one of the most prominent congregations in New York City ascended the bimah, apologized for preaching on a political topic, and launched into a sermon on the sacred importance of voting, the wrongness of the Republican candidate, and the threat the election posed to the unity of the Republic.

The sermon was not delivered this past weekend, but by Morris Raphall, the rabbi of B'nai Jeshurun  in 1860. In this article from the American Jewish Archives, Raphall again and again pleads for the preservation of the Union, going so far as to sympathize with southern Democrats and object to the abolition of Slavery, and later (in an 1863 Fast Day sermon) railed against 

“demagogues, fanatics and a party Press” of both North and South, had mired the United States “in the third year of a destructive but needless sectional war which has armed brother against brother and consigned hundreds of thousands to an untimely grave.” While Raphall found “consolation” that the “cause of the union is the worthiest in the field,” he never mentioned slavery or the Emancipation Proclamation or searched for any larger meaning to the conflict. The nation must find its way back to the days of peace and prosperity that preceded the "demagogues, radicals and a Party Press war, albeit without acceding to unacceptable Southern demands for dividing the Union. His words conveyed the disillusionment prevalent in both the general and Jewish communities of New York City—a city that had never supported Lincoln or the Republican Party and its causes. The lavish Purim balls held that year along with other social events, including festive Saturday afternoon strolls down “Judenstrasse” (Broadway from Canal to Union Square), were evidence of the community’s determination to “turn from the horrible realities of war to the gay and festive, the charitable and intellectual.”
Sound familiar? An electorate eager to get back to their lives, to peace and prosperity, a sense that radicals on both sides had taken over the political process and, through money, media and grandstanding, had driven a wedge between people in this country, and a sense that, while on the one hand history is being made before our eyes, the meaning, the sense of what is happening is lost to us. 

Thank God this election, with it's long lines, with it's endless commercials, it's merciless attacks, it's voter registration laws and fears of conspiracy on both sides, did not lead to the kind of emergency Raphall and his cohort experienced. Despite some commentators speaking of two Americas, we do not have to live through the kind of 'two Americas' we suffered 150+ years ago. But we are facing a crisis, one of love and trust, of the ability to see the other as ourselves. 

Other people have written more profoundly on this topic than me, including Wendi Geffen and this article from Kveller, which both speak of the need to sympathize, to put yourself in the other's shoes, to be able to continue the relationship with those we disagree with, in spite of our differences and because those relationships are so critical. Which doesn't mean surrendering your values--it means living them in the most human way possible. 

At the Penny Candy Store in Centerville, across the street from the playground I went to growing up (and where I take my son now when we're on the Cape) there are two white benches on either side of the door--on the left bench is written "Democrats" and the right bench is labeled "Republicans", both in a fun old-timey script. There was a time when, despite sitting at different benches, we could sit together--to debate and argue, to hash things out, to prove our points--but out of love and respect, not hostility. This election (and those that have built up to it) have done a great deal to hurt that idea, and replace it with one where it's not just about your values and issues, it's also about whether your 'team' won or lost, without any consolation. To be sure this has happened in American politics before; the Civil War is only the most dramatic example, but there was a time when voting meant running a gauntlet of armed thugs from the other party. But it is also true that we have found ways as Americans to put that animosity away and find ways to share our values with one another meaningfully and build our country up. That task falls to us again, and it must, by necessity, fall to ALL of us. We have become a more partisan country and our elections reflect that; let us now use that same energy to rebuild relationships and put aside hurts, blame, accusations and conspiracy theories to work together. As John Kennedy said, "Let us not despair but act. Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past - let us accept our own responsibility for the future."

I've quoted this line quite a bit since the election, but the sentiment is true. It is the very last lines of my favorite of Shakespeare's Histories, "Richard III". May these words come true soon enough: ‎"Now civil wounds are stopp'd, peace lives again: That she may long live here, God say amen!" 

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