A primary reason we have religious communities is to teach the value that each person is indispensable and that we have obligations to one another, which is contrary to how Trump has campaigned and governed. He appeals to and inflames our divisions and differences, making it harder to see that all of us are made in the image of God.
As he tries to persuade Americans that the pandemic is behind us, Trump has encouraged my neighbors to agitate to “liberate” their states and “reopen” the country rather than appealing to their sense of our common humanity and the idea that God values each of our lives. This kind of rhetoric undercuts the work of keeping people safe rather than putting them in danger. A pandemic such as this should remind us that we are our brother’s keeper, but Trump has chosen otherwise.
One of the ways that religious leaders assist our community is by providing wise counsel. But Trump has cast doubt on the advice of local and national public health officials in a time of a global pandemic, which leaves people unsure of whom to trust. In Jewish tradition, one ancient commentator asks us “Who is wise?” and then offers wisdom that Trump wouldn’t understand: “He who learns from all people.”
The Declaration of Independence insists that we don’t live by a king’s decree, which makes the president’s “order” absurd even if it responds to people who wish to worship together. In houses of worship across this land, including my synagogue, we don’t bend our knees to a king, and we don’t submit to lawless decrees issued arbitrarily and capriciously by anyone. I don’t work for Donald Trump. I serve the King of Kings (“melech melachim,” we say in Hebrew), as do my co-clergy, Jewish and otherwise.
We closed our sanctuary in mid-March. Now I lead online services and Passover seders from my living room, use video to counsel congregants who have lost loved ones and record video stories for children. I have officiated at a funeral wearing a mask, while the handful of mourners permitted to attend stood six feet apart and could not embrace one another. Yet because of the rights enshrined in our Constitution, I am under no obligation to open my synagogue just because the president wants it.
This isn’t about political parties. America does not need a theocratic despot or, worse, someone who worships appearances. Thankfully, other leaders, including Republicans such as Gov. Larry Hogan in my state of Maryland, have shown character and moral fiber, and a respect for each person, by fully taking into consideration the recommendations of public health advisers and officials, even when it is difficult to do so.
I worry what will happen if other ministers and congregations bow to the president’s pressure and open their sanctuary doors too soon. Among the highest principles taught in Judaism is that of “pikuach nefesh,” choosing life over all other considerations. Reports of older worshipers contracting the coronavirus in group meetings during this pandemic should give any rabbi, priest, minister or imam pause before following the president’s lead.
Trump’s supporters, especially in places such as Washington County where I live, have pushed back against Hogan as Trump has criticized him. Thankfully, Hogan has not bowed to the president’s will and has shown great moral leadership, but Trump has sown discord. Instead, Judaism’s prayer for peace (“Shalom”) encourages us to sow something different: “Plant virtue in every soul, and may the love of your name hallow every home and every heart.”
Regardless of what the president says, our way of worship is not determined by where we pray. Although we’re not meeting physically, we have never stopped practicing our faith, and our homes have become our “beit tefillah” — our “house of worship” — and our hearts are as open as ever.
This week, we plan to celebrate the ancient Jewish pilgrimage holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the Israelites’ covenantal affirmation of receiving the Torah even as they were in the desert. In the same way, we remember that God fulfilled promises and honored our worship even when there was not a formal building to do so.
Both Jewish and American history are bound up in the struggle to live up to the religious ideal that each person counts, that all people are created equal. The Jewish sage Hillel, who lived some 2,000 years ago, once offered an explanation expanding on the Torah’s teaching of “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It said, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.”
Our president seems to lack this fundamental understanding of the essence of religion. It isn’t about just showing up. Everything else involving religion, be it his hope that houses of worship look filled on holidays or that he receives the political support of religious leaders, is secondary to ensuring our health as a country, both physically and democratically.