Faith And Loyalty In The Time Of Trump: Eikev 2019
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Deuteronomy is a harsh book. Several passages, including some that appear in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“Consequences,” Deut. 7:12-11:25) list the severe punishments that would befall the Israelites should they fail to be loyal to God. In fact, some of these curses are so horrible that when chanted in public, it’s customary to chant them sotto voce, under one’s breath, so that they are barely audible.
God demands complete and unquestioning loyalty. The Covenant between God and the Jews is binding, an agreement that must never be broken.
Our relationship with God is, after all, what defines the Jews as a people—even more than the foods we eat and the language we pray and study in.
To be sure, it isn’t an easy relationship. Faith is an acquired trait, based on experience. And it is rarely unwavering. How often do I hear fellow Jews tell me that they are angry with God, or—especially after the Shoah, the Holocaust—that they simply cannot believe in God anymore! Of course I cannot and wil not argue with them. As I see it, anyone who has come out of those nightmare years with his or her faith unshaken is a true tzaddik (a righteous person).
In Judaism, one can argue with God, debate God, even negate God. In his famous book, Night, Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, describes a scene in which Jews in a concentration camp go as far as to put God on trial, accusing Godof breaking the Covenant with His people, rather than vice versa.
The Talmud teaches us that all matters are in the hands of Heaven, except for the actual belief in God. Faith is in our hands. Belief in God is our choice.
Deuteronomy does not negate this philosophy. What this book does forbid, however, is dual loyalty, or following other religions, other gods.
Other creeds and faiths that existed when the Torah first appeared, around the 10th century BCE, demanded horrific behavior. Nothing was unthinkable. Incest, prostitution, witchcraft, human—and even child!—sacrifice, were all acceptable, indeed even considered honorable!
For all its unbending strictness, what Deuteronomy defines as righteousness would today be described as liberal, progressive, and—by some politicians—even as radical behavior: loving the stranger, feeding and clothing them, giving them shelter from the pursuer; dealing justly and compassionately with orphans and widows; teaching and educating our children, raising them to be seekers of truth and justice. Adhering to these standards of ethics and morality is how Deuteronomy defines loyalty to God.
Faith, in the Rabbis’ understanding, can’t be dictated; how we believe is our choice. Loyalty, however, can be. You can’t be punished for your belief, but you can be for being disloyal. Disloyalty to God, as the Torah sees it, is not determined by which king, prophet or President we chooseto believe in, vote for and follow. Rather, it’s defined by our failure to follow God’s mitzvot, God’s commandments. That is what Deuteronomy warns us about. Disloyalty to God is any deviation from that which the Torah calls righteousness, behavior that is based on law and justice, as well as compassion and fairness. That is what will warrant the harsh consequences listed in this week’s portion.
That is why President Trump’s recent words about Jews being disloyal if they vote for a Democratic candidate are so disturbing.
Accusing Jews of disloyalty is nothing new. Back in Moses’s time already, that was one of Pharaoh’s fears: that we rise up against him and strip him of power. Dual loyalty is an ancient and vicious anti-Semitic trope, one which for thousands of years has led to terrible persecution of the Jews. The danger implicit in President Trump’s words is something none of us can afford to ignore.
Democracy guarantees freedom of thought, freedom to follow our conscience. For the majority of Jews in America, democracy has meant not only our freedom to gather and worship in safety and security, but also to be involved in the process of democracy. Jews run for public office; Jews support candidates—Jewish or non-Jewish, Democratic, Republican or Independent—with contributions of money, time and effort. Jews vote, possibly in proportionally larger numbers than many other groups. Jews participate in the cultural, legal, medical, business and all other aspects of American life. Jews serve with courage and valor in the Armed Forces. One of my relatives is a pilot in the Air Force and has flown on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many members of congregations where I have served as rabbi—including students I have taught and at whose bar mitzvahs I officiated, served and continue to serve in our defense forces. What further proof of loyalty can be asked of them? Certainly not who they vote for.
Jews cannot be lumped into one category. Some of us define ourselves as Orthodox, others as Conservative or Reform, while many others still choose not to affiliate with any Jewish organization. In Israel as well as in other countries, some support the State of Israel and its policies, others do not. Similarly, here in America, Jews vote the spectrum of the political scene. In doing so, they act out of deep loyalty and unwavering love and commitment to the United States and the American way of life—as well as to the demands of the Torah and the Jewish faith. We may disagree—in fact we often do—with one another. We may find fault with this elected official or another; we may criticize the words or actions of particular members of the House or Senate—but that’s not disloyalty. That’s democracy in action. To say anything else is untruthful, hurtful, and divisive. The bottom line is, we Jews cannot ignore speech that accuses us of being disloyal. These words harbor grave danger to ourselves as well as to the larger society of which we are part.
This sermon did not start as a political speech. Its intent was to congratulate and charge the newest adult in our community, a girl who as of tomorrow morning will be considered mature and responsible enough to follow her own chosen path in life, yet still remain faithful and loyal to her faith and ideals. And that’s how this sermon will end, with a strong message to this person: Be strong and courageous. Do not let people accuse you of being untrue to yourself or to anyone else. I cannot tell you to how or even whether to believe in God—that’s your choice, and that may or may not change as you grow and mature. However, I can and must urge you to follow the message of this week’s Torah portion: To love God is to love one another, including the stranger who resides among us. To love God is to pursue justice with compassion, especially when it comes to those who are weaker and more vulnerable than ourselves. To be faithful to our people and our to country is not determined by which party or individual you vote for. Rather, to be loyal means that you show everyonethe same courtesy, dignity and respect with which you expect to be treated yourself.
This is the high standard of faith and loyalty which our religion demands of us.
In his great play Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “Unto thine own self be true.” That is the ultimate test of loyalty. Remain true to your heritage, the Torah; be just and caring and follow the Commandments of God. Remain true to your own conscience as well as to the aspirations of our American hopes and ideals. It is so that you will find your life enriched with blessings and wonderful consequences.
© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman