The first time the Israelites acted as one people, not a collection of tribes, was at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. There the Israelites remarkably pledged “na’aseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will listen to all that God declared.”(Exodus 24:7.) The doing of the deeds, in this case the 613 commandments, was the paramount response. Discerning their meaning was secondary.
The mitzvah system enshrining Mosaic law has been the hallmark of Judaism in the more than three millennia since Mount Sinai. The requirement to act by fulfilling mitzvot trumped any attitudinal disinclination to comply. You must give tzedakah to the poor, even if you hate the recipient of your largesse. Of course, studying the law has generated the Mishnah, the Talmud, and hundreds of commentaries through the ages, all to determine the best way to follow the Mosaic law.
Rabbi Steve Roth in Florida relates the story of interviewing the legendary coach of the Knicks, Red Holzman, a fellow CCNY alumnus, who had the distinction of coaching the Knicks to the only two championships in their history. After Holzman retired, the Knicks management decided to place a Knicks jersey with the number 613 in the rafters of Madison Square Garden, signifying the number of wins under Holzman’s tenure as coach.
Rabbi Roth asked Holzman if he was aware of the significance of the number 613 beyond his wins. He replied that as a Jew it made him proud to see that number every time he looked up at the rafters.
Two thousand years earlier, this mitzvah system permeated the lives of Jesus’s earliest followers, even after his crucifixion; the system was led by his brother James and Simon the Apostle. They believed that Jesus was the messiah, but like him, they maintained the Mosaic law.
The great separation from Judaism was enshrined in the Gospel of John 14:6:”Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth and the life: no man come unto the Father but by me.” This revolutionary theological tenet makes belief in Jesus as the messiah the only pathway to salvation. This concept was amplified by the greatest missionary for Christianity, the former Pharisee Paul, who echoed John when he argued, in Galatians 2:16, that faith in Jesus Christ was the sole avenue to salvation. And declarations of this belief system were codified in the various catechisms developed in Christendom.
In the millennia since then, Judaism worshipped on the altar of deeds over belief, while Christian theology emphasized belief — justification by faith rather than works, as formulated by Paul. This is well described in Abba Hillel Silver’s “Where Judaism Differs.” Perhaps one of the greatest contemporary defenders of religious pluralism, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, celebrated these differences in his book “The Dignity of Difference.” We are indebted to him and to the dozens of theologians who have moved us to recognize that we all strive to follow the best of our traditions to foster a better world.
But in the political realm, like Judaism, it’s much better to judge politicians on what they do, not what they say or believe. Who really remembers the platforms of political parties, which offer pablum to placate their most rabid constituents? It’s the accomplishments that count. Like James Carville quipped about the importance of acting on the major issues, not just rhetoric — “it’s the economy, stupid.”
For all of Woodrow Wilson’s progressive bona fides, he insured that the federal bureaucracy was segregated. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most interventionist president of the first half of the 20th century by virtue his all-encompassing New Deal initiatives, refused to desegregate the armed forces for fear of alienating Southern congressmen.
The anti-patrician Southerner Harry Truman, who spewed racist and anti-Semitic vitriol in his correspondence and daily interactions, desegregated the armed forces and recognized the State of Israel, over the indignant objection of his Secretary of State.
The arch anti-Communist Richard Nixon opened the gates to “Red China,” and despite his personal anti-Semitism, approved rearming Israel during the dark days of the Yom Kippur War, and he elevated Henry Kissinger to be the first Jewish Secretary of State.
More recently, despite their campaign pledges, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama did not move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, catering to the State Department’s fear of the Arab reaction. Donald Trump fulfilled this pledge with little turmoil in the Arab street. Of course, his promise to have the border wall installed and paid for by Mexico resulted only in billions of our taxpayer funds channeled to compensate for Mexico’s failure to fulfill Trump’s fantasy.
Now we have a new president, who gave a remarkable inauguration address touting the importance of unity and overcoming political, racial, and regional differences. It was the most impressive display of rhetoric since John Kennedy’s, and some even have compared it to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address of 1864 and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s in 1932.
Coming on the heels of the worst pandemic in a century, bitter racial tensions, a devastated economy, and attempted insurrection to overturn an election, Joe Biden, like Lincoln, called on our better angels to confront our enormous challenges as one nation.
Only in the days and weeks ahead will we know if the new administration’s deeds match the beliefs enunciated in this historic inauguration. We are all hoping it does.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014 and he is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.