Looking back on my first three years as a rabbi, I am embarrassed to admit how often I have shied away from policy issues in my sermons, adult education sessions, and even published articles. I do speak more openly about my views individually and in small groups, but spend most of my time in larger presentations delving into Torah and broader questions of meaning.
Yet multiple times so far this election, I have felt called to address what I see as egregious discourse that does damage to our social fabric. Are leading candidates calling for a ban on Muslims this week – or singling out immigrants? Have women been maligned once again in sound bites designed to “go viral” online? Has the call for “revolution” (and the subsequent mockery of that call) obscured meaningful discourse on policy? Have rhetoric-filled social media diatribes by diehard supporters of individual candidates caused people to lose meaningful friendships?
I don’t think many of us have been able to remain silent with public discourse so fraught. This is one of the messiest and most strident elections in modern American history. I also think it affords us with a tremendous opportunity.
The day before the New York state primary, I had the opportunity to speak at a hope-filled multi-religious “Faith Not Fear” rally at the Interchurch Center on the Upper West Side. Organized by the Reverend Jennifer Crumption, our call was simple and non-partisan: as religious leaders, we call on candidates for public office to eschew hateful rhetoric and other actions that pit Americans against each other. It was an unlikely honor to be among a roster of speakers that included the president of Auburn Seminary, the Reverend Katharine Henderson, television host and Senior Minister Jacqui Lewis, activist Professor Simran Jeet Singh, and Muslim community leader and mayoral advisor, Dr. Sarah Sayeed.
It seems that gatherings and rallies like this are springing up in different states – and could provide a helpful counterweight to what will likely remain a divisive election cycle. Though clearly cathartic for the religious leaders who spoke, it far more importantly gave renewed purpose and sense of urgency to community organizing and interfaith collaboration. It would be unlikely and truly noteworthy if a legacy of this election could be strengthened community relationships and deeper trust between community leaders. It would not come from political leadership – but instead from us. Enduring bonds of trust and friendship would give meaning to the idea of religious leadership in the public sphere and remain an asset to our communities going forward.
One date in particular will call us to act together. As I learned from a fellow presenter at the rally, this year, September 11th and the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha coincide. Given the state of political discourse, images of Muslims celebrating their holy day on a day of national commemoration and mourning are likely to flood the media. Muslims will be called terrorists. Calls for deportation will increase. Genuine acts of hatred or violence could take place against a fellow minority religious community.
Especially given that the Muslim holy day commemorates our shared ancestor, Abraham, perhaps we can change the conversation and give nuance to an all too Manichean electoral contest. Perhaps we can reclaim one day out of the election year for civility, humanity, commemoration, and pluralism.
In New York, religious leaders have only just begun visioning a commemoration for our shared losses on September 11th that affirm pluralism. With just over four months to go and political rhetoric only spiraling, time is of the essence. Yet I remain optimistic that with vision and renewed collaboration, a day that could be hate-filled could instead become one in which we bring communities and people together.
Rabbi Joshua Stanton serves Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, and co-Leader of Tribe, a group for young Jewish professionals in New York. He also serves as one of the representatives from the Central Conference of American Rabbis to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.