Opinion: Keep your sleeves rolled up

“I think I’ll accept that invitation to serve on the Urban League Board. That’s something positive I can do in response to Trump’s election.” A congregant of mine made this announcement to me at an Oneg Shabbat just after Nov. 8. I am gratified to know that he – and others – are not giving up in the wake of the presidential election.

As president, Donald Trump will surely bring more extreme policies into American life. In response, as people regularly engaged in progressive public policy advocacy, the Jewish community must keep our sleeves rolled up and continue the work of repairing our world.

I reflect, however, also on the Republican nominee’s scorched-earth crusade for office: His long campaign regularly violated standards of human decency by denigrating our country’s minorities. And as Jewish Americans, we must be doubly concerned because of his unashamed use of anti-Semitic imagery (the retweet of a white supremacist’s anti-Jewish creation) and his vile anti-Jewish tropes (“international banking conspiracy”). His religious and racial assaults, by themselves, should have disqualified him from holding any elected office.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

The reality is different, of course, and we must turn our attention to the future. The shock and dismay many of us feel about Trump’s ascension to the presidency must now give way to planning, preparedness and action. Just as my congregant anticipates increased civic involvement, we must find our niche in one or more realms of Jewish world repair.

Perhaps Donald Trump can successfully meet the challenge of becoming a president for “all America.” But, frankly, the moral arc of the universe that bends toward justice, to which the Rev. Theodore Parker referred in his abolitionist campaigns of the nineteenth century, has just gotten much longer for us. The rabbis of our Talmudic tradition remind us that “even though we are not required to complete the work, we are still obligated to remain engaged” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).

So how do we invest our energies in the most effective way, to ensure that the president-elect and his administration promote the causes of human decency and strive toward equality in our country?

Don’t stay mad: organize! Let us strive to become strong and confident in our people’s ability to organize around Jewish values and the principles of American democracy.

Judaism crafted the value that each person, regardless of background, deserves to be treated with equal dignity and respect. This has become part of America’s ethos as well. Therefore, we can work with human rights organizations to press the Trump administration, both before and after the inauguration, to repudiate any hateful rhetoric that appears in the public sphere. Trump’s commitment to be the president of all Americans can be confirmed only when the president-elect condemns, in the strongest terms, any acts of prejudice and bigotry whether in the past or the future.

Struggle passionately. If matters of public policy respond best to those who are most passionately involved, let us use unabashed passion when engaging in the work of tikkun olam. Protest smartly and employ the right language and tactics, especially those that will not burn bridges behind us.

Protect our neighbors and communities. The Torah demands that we “not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). This means that we are truly responsible for each other. When anyone’s dignity as a human being is assaulted, we are all denigrated.

Let us stand firm to protect the vulnerable in our communities: women, people of color, Muslims and other religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ continuum, people with disabilities, and other groups that were assaulted by the Trump campaign.

Understand and appreciate the power of the word, whether spoken, in print or online. Along with our right of freedom of speech come civic obligations. For our nation to flourish, hurtful words, tweets, email and online posts must cease.

Free speech should lead to responsible speech, responsible speech should lead to empathic speech, and empathic speech should lead to honest, courteous and agreeable human discourse. We become a mature society when we pledge to use our gift of speech wisely and sensitively.

The book of Proverbs teaches that “a word properly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Appropriate language is a prerequisite for treating others with respect.

Those who are deeply troubled by the result of the Nov. 8 presidential election have these and other paths to follow, in order to bring about necessary change. Let us, therefore, praise God who has given us the opportunity to be engaged in these acts to bring repair to the world. I hope each reader of this newspaper will reflect on this prospect, and seize it with all strength possible.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch is the spiritual leader for Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Madison.