U.S. Politicians: Forget Formulas, Try Innovation Instead

Rabbi Dan Dorsch
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Obama votes next to Aia Cooper in Chicago, October 20, 2014.Credit: AP
Rabbi Dan Dorsch

Much ado has been made about U.S. President Barack Obama’s early election voting video. Far from the dispassionate President Obama that Americans are accustomed to seeing in front of the teleprompter or the White House Press room, the video gives us a glimpse of what he is like off-camera and off-script.

In the video, the president chats away with the voter next to him after her boyfriend jokingly cautioned the president, “Don’t touch my girlfriend.” Taking it all in his stride and referring to the man as “a brother,” much of the media buzz was about how refreshing it was to watch the president unusually unscripted, relaxed and clearly comfortable in his own skin.

Unfortunately, the reason I believe that this video is receiving so much attention is because we’re not used to seeing politicians unscripted. American politics has become so formulaic and dispassionate instead of innovative. Even the president recently stated that one of his foreign policy objectives was just “not to do stupid stuff.”

Formulaic and scripted politics and debates are exactly the opposite of what Americans are voting for when they go the polls. Voters seek not only a candidate who effectively addresses the issues of the day, but who is also thoughtful, authentic and inspiring.

As a political moderate, I remember the 2008 election when John McCain, who I admired in 2000, began to shift rightward and move away from what people perceived to be his authentically moderate positions in the hope of getting elected. In the end, his choices alienated many moderate voters like me and he lost the election anyway.

Reporters may mock the straight-talking gaffes of Vice President Joe Biden, but Americans continue to give him an above average approval rating because we know he is one of the few politicians in Washington who are not afraid to go off script and tell you what he really thinks about an issue.

In one of the great transformations of the 18th century, Judaism also found itself in a similarly uninspired rut. It had become scripted and dry. Rote memorization and study had become the norm. What allowed for the vibrancy of Judaism to reemerge in that period was the emergence of Hasidism. The Baal Shem Tov and his followers understood that practicing scripted Judaism without passion would leave a dry, lifeless, ineffective Judaism that would leave Jews uninspired.

The Hasidim, a movement that sought more inspired Jewish practice, fought against the rote and uninspired nature of Jewish ritual in the hopes of making it a more unscripted tradition that is full of intention.

According to Hebrew University professor Rachel Elior in her book “The Mystical Origins of Hasidism,” early Hasidic homilies intentionally began with the words “One must imagine” (16), because Hasidic writers sought “to place greater kavannah or intent [...] on the contemplation of [a mitzvah’s] mystical significance--than to its actual performance” (ibid.)

The Baal Shem Tov’s transformation thus made space for a more passionate, non-formulaic, model of Judaism that would to focus on imagination and authenticity over following a script.

Today, the Hasidic movement is widely regarded as successful and the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples’ teachings continue to influence rabbis and Jews from across the denominational spectrum, encouraging them to engage in a more inspired and imaginative religious practice.

In the United States, our politics needs a similar transformation. We need more candidates who seek an imaginative, non-scripted approach to politics. In an age of low voter turnout, perhaps this would inspire Americans to recommit to democracy and civil engagement.

Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J.