Trump triggers crisis of faith for some religious Jews

by Brian on February 6, 2017

in In the News,Politics

The election of Donald Trump has created a profound crisis of faith among some Orthodox Jews who opposed Trump’s candidacy.

How is it possible, they ask, that so many of their co-religionists allowed themselves to look past Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, his pathological falsehoods and moral failings that seem to go against so much of what Jewish ethical teachings are about, all because he was seen as somehow “better for Israel” than the other candidates?

The question was raised in a widely discussed Facebook post by a friend who lives in a religious settlement in the West Bank. He did not support Trump but most of his neighbors did.

“How ironic for men and women with families and children to casually look aside from Trump’s bragging about sexually harassing or assaulting women, his mocking of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski or his refusal to denounce the verbal and physical violence that were hallmarks of his campaign rallies,” wrote Tom (not his real name).

The crisis for Tom, who came to religion as an adult, comes down to this: “I found deep resonance and meaning in performing the mitzvot (commandments) in order to connect with a higher spiritual goal. The halachic system’s passionate detail to ensuring that the weakest members of society are protected convinced me that this system was, if not the only expression of God’s will, then certainly a perfect expression of it. But I fear that today those very same halachic requirements are, in the eyes of too many of my neighbors, little more than cute phrases uttered quickly during morning prayers.”

Tom’s greatest disquiet is that, “on a communal level, we have willingly created an illusion that sticking within the technical letter of a particular law excuses us from engaging with its social and personal messages; that our penchant for finding ‘creative’ solutions – selling hametz at Pesach, for example – has allowed us to rationalize virtually any behavior. If there is anything that the Trump phenomenon has taught us, it is that no bigotry, offense or comment is beyond the pale for our community. Support Israel and you’re OK by us.”

Tom ends by wondering whether he really has a home in his settlement “or in religious Zionism at all.” The pro-Trump events in Israel that he has observed over the past months “have been populated by, how shall I put this politely, individuals who look from the outside an awful lot like me.”

Janice (also not her real name), has a similar concern to Tom.

“I think as a community Orthodox Jews are focusing on the wrong things,” she told me. “We’ve forgotten the basic values of humility and being a mensch, which all the evidence – from Trump not paying his bills to the infamous ‘locker room talk’ tape – shows that the new president is not. At this point, I’d prefer to surround myself with people who don’t care how much of my hair is showing or if my daughter wears tights to school but who are willing to fight for a woman’s dominion over her own reproductive organs or compassion towards immigrants and the poor.”

I get where Tom and Janice are coming from. While I no longer define myself as Orthodox, 21 years ago when I did, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin triggered a comparable disconnect between the behaviors of many in the religious community and my humanistic moral compass.

To be sure, most religious Zionists condemned Yigal Amir’s actions and at least a temporary soul searching took place afterward. But the issue became a deeper, more abiding concern for people like me – and for Tom as well – who made a conscious choice to trade our secular upbringings for Orthodoxy as much for the values we perceived in its members as a feeling of supernatural commandedness.

What’s happening now with Trump is, in many ways, more disturbing. There’s been no reconsideration, no turning inward. The battle lines between right and left are now so entrenched that, no matter what Trump does, as long as he pays lip service to moving the American embassy or stays silent as Israel announces plans to resume building over the Green Line, he is on the path to becoming a non-Jewish Messiah.

“Belief cannot be predicated on the idea that all religious people will behave perfectly,” countered Laura, suggesting that I’m looking at what Judaism is about all wrong.

“We are not perfect,” echoed Miriam, “but we should try our best. That’s what Judaism is all about.”

Or to use a different analogy, added Kelli: “I’m a woman and I’m not reconsidering my gender because many women supported Trump.”

That may not be enough for Tom.

“My frustration doesn’t stem from the fact that people are flawed – that is true everywhere. It’s more the feeling that I’m alone in taking what others seem to feel are the ‘less essential’ parts of Torah seriously. That praying in a minyan where men and women sit together is considered unacceptable, but tax evasion, fraud and sexual harassment are not.”

Trump’s election didn’t precipitate Tom’s crisis of faith. But it’s strengthened it. It’s an experience that may spread with every new tweet from the White House. At least until Trump reverses all his currently stated positions. (Embassy in Jerusalem? Not so fast.) Which will launch a crisis of faith of an entirely different kind.

I wrote about Trump-inspired crises of faith first at The Jerusalem Post.

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