A full week now into Elul, American Jews — and all Jews — are, hopefully, focused on the upcoming Yemei Hadin, and on the teshuvah and maasim tovim required of us. Less worthily, in some Jewish circles, there is focus, too, on a presidential conference call.
Over the eight years of the previous administration, President Barack Obama would speak by phone with hundreds of Jewish clergy before Rosh Hashanah, delivering an inspirational High Holidays-themed introduction and then taking usually anodyne questions from a handful of the participants. Past presidents, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, also made a practice of conferring with at least some Jewish leaders this time of year.
Although Orthodox Rabbis were always invited to participate in the conference calls, and some in fact did, the calls were generally organized by non-Orthodox groups. Those groups announced last week that there will be no conference call this year, in protest of President Trump’s comments about the Charlottesville rally and the violence that ensued.
It is unknown if the president was even planning to participate in any such call. But the clergy groups — the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — decided to pre-empt that decision by declaring to the media their principled refusal to hear a presidential pre-Rosh Hashanah message, and by denouncing the president in unusually harsh language.
In a joint statement, the organizations accused Mr. Trump of having given “succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia with his comments after the bloodshed in Charlottesville, where a young woman was killed after a man drove his car into a crowd of protesters.”
“We have concluded,” the statement continued, “that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.”
Mr. Trump, of course, has drawn widespread criticism, and in some cases even condemnation, from both liberal and some conservative media, and from some lawmakers even from his own party, for his string of public remarks about the Charlottesville violence. An Orthodox rabbinical group, the Rabbinical Council of America, and, separately, representatives of Agudath Israel, also took issue with the president’s comments seeming to equate the “two sides” in the Virginia clashes. This editorial page, too, called on Mr. Trump to clarify those comments.
But there is a difference between formally asking a president to make more clear that he does not equate proponents of white supremacism with protesters against the same, and, however one might feel about him, publicly and starkly insulting a duly elected national leader.
We doubt the president is losing any sleep over the fact that he won’t be exchanging pleasantries with several hundred clergy people in coming weeks. Facing an ongoing crisis with a nuclear-armed North Korea and a host of other pressing national security issues, there are likely far more important things on his mind.
But what does disturb us as Torah Jews is the public affront to the president. We know what Chazal teach about our sojourn in galus, that Jews should be mispallel for the government, whatever one might think of it, since governments, as the Mishnah in Avos explains, are what prevent people from acting on their worst instincts. Whether or not shuls opt to include a formal tefillah for the medinah in which they reside and its leaders, the concept and obligation remains. And the non-Orthodox groups, by their haughty statement, ignored it, much as they ignore virtually all that Chazal teach us.
The alienation of the Reform and Conservative leaders from our mesorah is nothing new, of course, and certainly nothing shocking at this stage. Their cancelation of any presumed conference call is the least of the evidence that their decisions are informed by considerations other than those of halachah and hashkafah.
These groups have long abandoned the most basic tenets of Judaism, and have repeatedly proved that they do not represent true Judaism.
Instead of spending their time and energy disrespecting the president, the leaders of these groups would do well to reflect deeply on more meaningful thoughts of the season, on all Jews’ holy responsibility to recognize the Source of our mesorah, to cherish that Divine heritage and endeavor always to act in accordance with its prescriptions for Klal Yisrael.
As we await the day when all Jews will reconnect to the Torah, our message to the White House is a simple one: These members of the clergy do not represent us, and we disavow in its entirety their statement and actions.