So when Donald Trump addressed the group’s annual policy conference at the Verizon Center on Monday, I was sitting six rows away from the stage. And as Trump began his speech, I rose from my seat. I spread my tallit over my shoulders, raised my hands up high and declared: “This man is wicked. He inspires racists and bigots. He encourages violence. Do not listen to him.” With every cell in my body, I felt the obligation to declare his wickedness to the world.
Since 2004, I’ve been a rabbi here in Washington. I try very hard to stay away from commenting on partisan politics. (I don’t remember ever publicly criticizing either George W. Bush or Barack Obama.) I believe that the job of a rabbi is to be a rabbi for all congregants — no matter who they vote for. Our congregation has passionate Republicans and Democrats, and we all get along. This ability to worship together despite strong political differences is essential to a faith community.
But besides being the spiritual adviser to my congregation, I am also a father of seven children. As a father, I teach my children that when there is wickedness in our midst, we must stand up and recognize it. Sometimes we will just be another voice in the wind, but even so, we have a religious imperative to call out that wickedness and declare that it is wrong.
And the laws and teachings of Judaism make it clear that Trump qualifies as wicked. He has equivocated about whether he would disavow support from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. He has called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. He has suggested that torture be made legal and that the U.S. military kill the families of terrorism suspects (a war crime in international law as surely as it would be an ethical crime in religious law). Sure, he walked back some of those comments, but there is no question that his campaign is inspiring and nourishing the bigots and racists of the world. Lately, he has openly encouraged violence at his rallies. This combination of providing sustenance to racists and encouraging violence is a deadly one that represents an existential threat to our country. That certainly qualifies as wicked.
Before Trump’s speech, I asked other attendees at the AIPAC conference whether they would walk out to protest. Some small groups did leave, to study Torah elsewhere during his address. But most stayed, and many applauded. People told me that they wanted to hear what he had to say. They wanted to hear whether he would be supportive of Israel.
Whether he supports Israel is irrelevant to me. If a person inspires bigotry and racism, we should not overlook those character traits just because he says something with which we agree. Just the opposite: that he does agree with us on some issues makes his message even more dangerous, as it can make his bigotry and racism more palatable.
On Wednesday evening, we Jews will read the Book of Esther as part of our celebration of the holiday of Purim. In this story, King Ahasuerus first seduces the people of his kingdom with lavish parties. The people are impressed and grateful for the king’s ostentatious hospitality, so they all rush to support him. At that moment, Ahasuerus elevates the wicked Haman to a position of great power. Haman eventually manufacturers an edict to kill all of the kingdom’s Jews, but even before that, Mordechai, a Jew who lives in the kingdom’s capital, senses Haman’s true nature. All the visitors to the king’s palace bow down to Haman, but Mordechai alone “refused to bow and refused to kneel” (Esther 3:2).
At that critical moment, Mordechai spoke truth to power.
As I sat in the Verizon Center and watched Trump ascend to speak, I thought of my children, and I drew inspiration from the Purim story. Like Mordechai, we Jews must not bow down and kneel to a man who inspires hatred. We will not overlook his calls for violence.
After AIPAC security escorted me out of the arena, I was approached by members of the media. They asked me why I did what I did. I had no illusions that I might affect Trump’s rise in any way, nor did I expect to convince people of the correctness of my positions. I also knew that many in my congregation would support me and others who call me their rabbi would be deeply upset with me. But at that moment, none of it mattered. I felt a strong religious imperative to act even if it achieved nothing. As the Megillah says about Mordechai, when he heard the news of Haman’s decree: “He went out into the city and let out a loud and bitter cry” (Esther 4:1).
So I told the media, as I broke down in tears: I did it for my children.
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