God, the Afterthought
The Democratic Party didn't quite succeed in banning God from its platform, but it did its best to ensure that no-one would listen to him by putting a liberal clergyman who talks about anything except God in front of a deserted stadium. That checked the God box without allowing the Maker of Heaven to get a word in edgewise.
Rabbis from the wrongly named Conservative movement are used to preaching to empty rooms, but there was something surreal in the image of the Los Angeles Sinai Temple's Rabbi David Wolpe blessing a deserted stadium late Wednesday night long after the Democrats had departed. Named by Newsweek the most influential American rabbi, Wolpe beamed empathy and gestured eloquently to the vacant stadium. After the last-minute vote by acclamation to return God to the party platform, Wolpe's benediction had deep symbolic overtones. Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair, while Wolpe talked to ten thousand empty chairs.
Rabbi Wolpe proposed gratitude that "our nation is founded on the highest principles of freedom and resourcefulness and creativity and ever-renewed strength, and we understand that those worthy ideals stand alongside the commitment to compassion, to goodness, our sacred covenant to care for those those are bereaved and bereft, who are frightened and hungry and bewildered and seek shelter from the cold." He talked of "teachers with strength of soul and wild, wonderful visions." And he added:
Ours is a holy charge. A single moment, a touch, a glance, a word can change a life. Our children look to us with aspirational eyes, with the hope that their world will be kinder, sweeter, smarter than the world we have known. Each of these changes touches all of us, for you have taught us that we must count on one another, that our country is strong through community, and that the Children of Israel on the way to that sanctified and cherished land, and ultimate to that golden and capital city of Jerusalem, that these children of Israel did not walk through this wilderness alone.
The wild and wonderful rabbi from Los Angeles put religion squarely in the middle of the helping professions, somewhere between social work and psychotherapy, and Israel into a generic communitarian mix. That raises a question: if rabbis only echo what the politicians say, why not have them speak after everyone else is gone? I hope I'm not the only one who found Wolpe confusing. In 2001 he set off a storm with a Passover sermon that insisted that the Exodus never happened (because archaeologists can't prove it happened). If he doesn't think it happened, why bring it up now?
Contrast this with the benediction concluding the Republican National Convention that came from the country's senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York. He said in part:
Almighty God, who gives us the sacred and inalienable gift of life, we thank you as well for the singular gift of liberty. Renew in all of our people a respect for religious freedom in full, that first most cherished freedom. Make us truly free by tethering freedom to truth and ordering freedom to goodness. Help us live our freedom in faith, hope and love, prudently and with justice, courageously and in a spirit of moderation. Enkindle in our hearts a new sense of responsibility for freedom’s cause and make us ever grateful for all those who for more than two centuries have given their lives in freedom’s defense. We commend their noble souls to your eternal care as even now we beg your mighty hand upon our beloved men and women in uniform. May we know the truth of your creation, respecting the laws of nature and nature’s God and not seek to replace it with idols of our own making.
Those are beautiful words. Strong was the warning against making idols for ourselves -- that is, worshiping the work of our hands, rather than the author of Liberty. The whole of the Republican convention delegates remained in place to hear Cardinal Dolan after Mitt Romney's acceptance speech, unlike their Democratic counterparts, who walked out on Rabbi Wolpe. Viewers of CNN, though, did not hear Cardinal Dolan, because Wolf Blitzer was too busy trolling the punditeska for instant comments on the Romney speech to allow Dolan to be heard. Fox News carried the cardinal's benediction rather than the pundits.
The opening invocation at the Republican convention came from the Orthodox Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, before whom the whole mass of delegates stood with bowed heads. He said:
Ribono shel Olam, Almighty God, You commanded Moses many years ago: Ukratem dror ba'arets le-khol yoshveha, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof."
Today, this biblical verse is emblazoned on the Liberty Bell, which embodies American independence. We Americans unite faith and freedom in asserting that our liberties are Your gift, God, not that of government, and that we are endowed with these rights by You, our Creator, not by mortal man.
You have called us to be a beacon of freedom to the world, and an ally of free countries like the state of Israel, an island of liberty, democracy, and hope.
Avinu Av Harachaman, Our Most Merciful Father:
● Bless and guide Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as they seek to lead this great nation;
● Protect the members of the American armed forces, who defend the freedoms You have given us;
● Shelter the residents of the Gulf coast as they prepare to battle the storms that are upon them;
● And help all of us as Americans renew our dedication to the principle of God-gifted liberty, so America can remain a beacon of faith and freedom for generations to come. Amen.
One difference between the two addresses is the fact that the whole Republican convention heard Rabbi Soloveichik, while no-one but the cleaning crew was there for Rabbi Wolpe. There was a also a world of difference in the content. Rabbi Wild and Wonderful preached social work and psychobabble, while Rabbi Soloveitchik linked God's revelation to Moses and the American founding, much closer in spirit to Cardinal Dolan than to the progressive Rabbi Wolpe.
It's no surprise that progressive Judaism is imploding. In the past decade, the Reform and (poorly named) Conservative movements have lost 30% to 40% of their members by various estimates. If Judaism boils down to social work, why not do the social work, rather than bother with the laborious practices of an ancient religion? Progressive Jews have the lowest fertility rate of any identifiable (heterosexual) segment of the United States population, and half of their children intermarry. The American Jews will be a smaller, but far more devout, community a generation hence.
The cultural divide in the United States is now almost absolute; Democratic Party liberalism, which once embraced devout Catholics and observant Jews, cannot conceal its contempt for religion. Even the clergy who cling to the Democratic Party have trouble concealing their lack of interest in religion. On the other hand, Americans of faith have rallied together as never before: Catholic and Jew, Evangelical and Mormon. For this observant Jew, hearing an Orthodox rabbi quote Torah to open the Republican convention was a milestone for America as well for the Jewish people (not to mention the fact that Rabbi Soloveichik is associate rabbi of my synagogue). And to hear an overwhelmingly Christian audience listen to this rabbi was a great event. The good news is that Americans who seek the love and guidance of the God of the Bible have put their differences aside where the good of the country is concerned. My prayer is: Let this not be too late.
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