The Jewish Case Against Donald Trump

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Supporters of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump celebrate the close of the polls as they watch election results at a rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina February 20, 2016.
Supporters of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump celebrate the close of the polls as they watch election results at a rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina February 20, 2016. Credit: Reuters

A few months ago, a New Jersey rabbi had a dream of rallying his colleagues in support of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump. Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg reportedly built a Facebook page called “Rabbis for Trump,” hoping it would attract like-minded rabbis. It didn’t. The page was then renamed “Rabbi for Trump.” Alas, as Rabbi Akiva said to Rabbi Eliezer after the latter remained the lone stubborn dissenting voice regarding the purity of a particular type of oven, “My master, it appears to me that thy colleagues keep aloof from thee" (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b), ultimately, Trump’s key rabbinic supporter abandoned his lost cause, attempting to close down the page in early February.

In my view, there is a place for rabbinic voices in politics. Rabbis are meant to advance Torah in the world, and the Torah is, among other things, a political document. However, there is something unsettling about rabbinic endorsements of political candidates, since it is hard to imagine a party or a politician that fully and unambiguously reflects or advocates for the Torah’s vision of a good society. Often, such endorsements represent the rabbi’s political point of view garbed in his or her rabbinic authority.

At the same time, it is telling when virtually no rabbis endorse a particular candidate or when many, if not most, actively oppose one. Such rare cases of rabbinic agreement (in a highly controversial arena like politics, no less) call for attention and analysis, because they indicate a consensus about bedrock Jewish values, about our collective rabbinic desire for leaders who embody and advance those values, and about our collective rejection of figures who stand in stark contrast with those values. In the 2016 presidential election, there is indeed such a candidate, a politician virtually universally rejected by American Jewish spiritual leaders: Donald J. Trump.

The Jewish tradition would reject Trump because of his positions. His domestic policy positions – such as building a wall to prevent Mexican immigration, deporting the roughly 11.5 million illegal immigrants currently in the country, and banning Muslim immigration – advance a stunningly cruel vision of America, where white and Christian citizens enjoy renewed and unchallenged supremacy. His foreign policy is belligerent and brutal in its protectionism and hawkishness, turning trade into a zero-sum game where others have to lose in order for America to “win,” and in matters of war and peace presuming that the only way to keep Americans safe is to devalue the lives of non-Americans.

These positions are anathema to Jewish values. Our tradition makes explicit our moral responsibility to ensure to the best of our ability that the circumstances of others’ lives, especially the lives of those who are unlike us, match what we would want for ours: Love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19:34).

The Bible invokes our collective memory of oppression in Egypt no less than 36 times, harnessing our history over and again so that we connect the crises others face today with our crises yesterday, to see their story as our story, to experience their reality as personally as we would our own. The Torah trains us to want for others, and particularly for others who are disadvantaged, what we would want for ourselves.

And our tradition imparts the moral responsibility toward the other as an extension of our theology. The Torah’s most basic faith claim is that “God is One.” If God is one, then all is one. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein puts it, “God is Melech ha-Olam, Sovereign of All, the God of global concern. In God, there is no such thing as care for our own apart from concern for the other, because in God there is no such thing as the other.” In a one-God universe, we are all one – brothers and sisters, children of one parent (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5).

Where Trump seeks “greatness,” Judaism desires goodness. Where Trump wants to “win,” Judaism demands justice. Advocating for mass deportations, vilifying hundreds of millions of peaceful and law-abiding adherents of a major world religion, pursuing the economic devastation of other countries, and gleefully advocating torture are all antithetical to the Jewish moral ethos.

And I believe the Jewish tradition would reject Trump because of the personality with which he dangerously marries his immoral positions. Take, for example, Trump’s characteristically unfiltered manner of speaking. This trait may appeal to those weary of restrictive political correctness and endlessly focus-grouped and programmed politician-speak, but his propensity for vulgarity, innuendo, invective, and slander also reflect a lack of concern for the opinions or feelings of others.

The Jewish tradition, on the other hand, deals at length with our responsibility to watch our mouths. For instance, Genesis 1 holds that God created the world through speech. The rabbis commonly interpreted this to mean that words create worlds. Speech has the power to shape reality in profound and enduring ways, to build up and to break down. That’s what the biblical book of Proverbs means when it teaches, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21), why the rabbis of the Talmud adjure us, “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know’” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rakhot 4a), and why entire tractates of Jewish law are devoted to shmirat halashon, guarding our speech. Our power of speech calls for extreme responsibility.

Similarly, while most politicians exhibit some degree of narcissism and have a propensity for self-promotion, Trump wears these qualities on his sleeve. Trump revels in displays of arrogance, frequently reminding audiences of his greatness, his singular talents, and his unparalleled successes.

The Jewish tradition teaches us to be wary of such arrogant people, especially when they are in positions of leadership. Those who see themselves as special tend look down on others. They have little compassion for those they do not perceive to be on the same level. They presume always to be right, never allowing for new information to change their mind. When our family members, peers, or co-workers exhibit that quality, most of us find them insufferable. When leaders possess that quality, they are dangerous. That’s why the biblical model for leadership is Moses, a man described as exceedingly humble (Numbers 12:3), and why haughtiness is consistently called out in the Bible and rabbinic literature as the most contemptible of qualities.

We look to our leaders both to articulate a vision for where we ought to go and also to be models for who we ought to be – as individuals, and as a people. On both of these grounds, it seems to me that the Jewish tradition speaks with a clear, and uncharacteristically unified, voice: Donald Trump is unfit to lead.

Rabbi Michael Knopf is rabbi of Temple Beth-el in Richmond, Virginia, and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow. Named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis" by The Jewish Daily Forward, he enjoys movies, traveling, and pizza. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiKnopf.

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