The Mirror

     The reaction to the Trump victory has been over-the-top, provoking raucous and even violent demonstrations by those whose commitment to democracy tolerates only one legitimate electoral outcome – the one they prefer. They shout epithets at the man whom they despise because he used epithets, and act violently to protest the man they fear will bring violence to American streets. They are trying to destroy America to thwart the man they believe will destroy America. One wonders how they have so much time off from work, until the realization dawns that violent protest is their paid profession.

Certainly there are more restrained opponents of the president-in-waiting, who fear the consequences of aspects of his character and his unformed policy prescriptions. That, indeed, is true of every opponent of every new president. But those ideological opponents are not taking to the streets, not denouncing Trump at every turn, and not demanding – demanding! – that the rest of society join them in their disgust, issue proclamations against him, and oppose all his policies and appointments. They will not be satisfied until Trump adopts their view of every issue and nominates for his cabinet people they approve. Of course that will not happen. The unrestrained antagonists can be ignored, save for the violence, but the Jews among them who think calling someone racist, bigot, sexist, etc. has any potency anymore should take a look in the mirror.

The Baal Shem Tov said that righteous people who have no evil within them do not see evil in others. For everyone else, the evil we see in others is essentially what we do not want to see in ourselves. It is as if when we are looking at others, especially critically, we are standing in front of a mirror really looking at ourselves. What bothers us about others should really bother us about ourselves and induce us to change, learn, grow, and improve. And at first, it is worthwhile to recognize what is right before our eyes.

President-elect Trump has elicited strong, even hysterical reactions, for both his real and imagined flaws. One would think that with the elections over it would be prudent for even his opponents to reconcile with the new reality. That so many cannot is a comment more on them than on him. Those who take to the streets to scream, yell, wave signs, break windows, shout vulgarities and cause mayhem are worse than immature; they have become a caricature of everything they are protesting. They may be looking at Trump but they are seeing the worst in themselves.

It is hard to deny that over the last few decades America has become a decadent, even vulgar, society. The lewd and the crude are standard entertainment offerings, with many critics even deprecating family entertainment (notwithstanding that it usually produces higher revenue) as saccharine and old-fashioned. Trump has been rightly criticized for his occasional vulgar speech, although certainly that should not define his personality any more than any other single attribute defines a person. He does push the ends of the envelope when he is not altogether shredding the envelope. But he is actually quite representative of the society that he will soon lead. The crude language that he uses on occasion is quite typical of American culture. It is ironic that many protesting his crudity revel in it when the practitioners are rap singers, entertainers, and cable television offerings. Their words are the same as his words, except that his are used more sparingly and often whimsically.

Whatever offensive things he has said are actually tame compared to the lyrics of rap, the ranting of bad comedians, and what the tawdry culture celebrates. We should remember that New Yorkers first got to know Donald Trump as a real estate developer, but much of the rest of the country became familiar with him as an entertainer. This is the culture. What so many of his critics loathe in Trump is, perhaps, what they should loathe about American society but they don’t. They are just looking in the mirror and don’t like what they see.

On the flip side, Hillary Clinton represented another coarse aspect of modern life that many of her supporters generally and studiously ignored: the high-flying and sweet rhetoric offered the public contrasted with the crass materialism, insider deals, rank dishonesty and insatiable greed that was the private Clinton world. That she traded access for money, lots of it, is undeniable. Sadly, the American culture has long rewarded the something-for-nothing mentality, from the top of society to the bottom. She was an especially heavy-handed and oleaginous practitioner of it, but also is not atypical of the society. Consider that Harry Truman – also a vulgarian by the way but one of the most honest men ever to serve as president – said that the only way one can make money in politics is by being a crook. We should look in the mirror and ask ourselves why that was tolerable to so many.

Add to that one other lamentable aspect of the culture: the incessant assertions that Clinton was entitled to the presidency because she was a woman and it was “about time.” Nothing has made American life more vacuous than the identity politics played by the Democrats. Who you are and what you are is not as important as to which group you belong, as if choosing a president is all about checking off the right boxes on the diversity application. Such an approach is demeaning to the individual’s status as a unique creature of G-d, but it nonetheless prevails in much of the mass media and the general society. Unfortunately, that will get worse before it gets better, and it cannot get better until each person looks in the mirror and sees a human being and not part of a class.

Finally, the shrillness of Trump’s critics has become especially strident with the demands – demands! – that Trump apologize for this uttered word or not appoint that guy, that rabbis denounce this speech or that act, that everyone kowtow to the social media mob. It is actually amusing that some of the people who did not vote for Trump are now demanding – demanding! – that he fire this guy, change this policy, or else. Or else… what?

I don’t know Steve Bannon from Steve Madden (although I am partial to anyone named Steven) but the customary accusations from the left have descended on him full force (big league, as the president-elect would say). The vehemence of the accusations against him that he is a Jew-hater are in inverse proportion to the evidence of that charge, which evidence is actually quite skimpy and disreputable. Why Trump should heed his opponents and dismiss a loyal aide is a mystery, mitigated only by the realization that he will justifiably ignore them. The louder they get, the less people hear them.

What is no mystery, and quite-off-putting, is the frequency at which charges of “anti-Semitism” (as people inexplicably call Jew-hatred) are leveled against anyone with whom many liberal Jews disagree or who make an off-handed crack. It is the stock in trade of organizations such as the ADL, long just an irritant – an expensive irritant, at that – without any power or influence in the Jewish or non-Jewish world. Its only weapon is that accusation, and so it lies in wait and sits in judgment of every utterance made by anyone. (I have been attacked several times by the ADL over the years – I frankly don’t remember for what – as has Jerry Seinfeld, among numerous others.)

Granted that this is what they do for a living, but when Jewish organizations cheapen the use of this slur by sheer frequency and inappropriate use, it is like the boy who cried wolf. When it really happens – and real Jew hatred occurs, such as in the Crown Heights riots 25 years ago when the ADL was out-to-lunch, no one will pay attention. Would that the ADL was more exercised by the nomination of Keith Ellison as head of the Democratic National Committee! Now there’s a guy with some rough things to say about Jews and Israel, but criticizing a Democrat hits too close to home. They would be better off taking on “Black Lives Matter,” elements of which are permeated with Jew hatred.

In a most bizarre twist, an array of “Jewish” organizations is calling on Trump to denounce “anti-Semitism” (again) and announce his support for a Palestinian state. In other words, eviscerating the State of Israel is now a sign of philo-Semitism? Jews who love Jews are supposed to favor expelling Jews and renouncing Israeli sovereignty over the biblical heartland of Israel? We do live in strange times. Perhaps it is worth mentioning a cartoon that has made the rounds in the last week, with the caption: “The difference between Donald Trump and most leftist American Jews is that Trump has Jewish grandchildren.” If only these groups would realize that intermarriage is the most serious crisis facing them today, and compared to that, politics is beanbag.

As it is, few outside the leftist media echo chamber pay attention even today to their “demands.” Fortunately, the Social Justice Warriors who have arrogated to themselves the right to adjudicate everyone’s morality (except their own), speech, conduct and ideas are now, post-Trump victory, on the decline. They can yell and scream “racist!” “bigot!” “sexist!” and they will, and they will demand apologies, retractions, clarifications and penance from their targets in order to stay relevant, and the cowardly will accommodate them, but their moment has passed. They will be ignored because they should be ignored. They have committed the grave, modern offense of becoming boring, predictable, and tiresome. The tyranny of those who monitor every word or phrase for swift offense, and keep a dossier on the offenders, is over. Long live freedom!

They too should look in the mirror. Those who attack others for “intolerance” and insist on verbal reparations are among the most intolerant and bigoted people walking the earth today. If only they had the self-awareness to look at their targets and see the hatred in their own hearts for anyone with whom they disagree. They should follow the Baal Shem Tov and realize they are looking in the mirror.

Even this confirmed Mitnaged would welcome that type of neo-Hasidism.

The Empire Strikes Back

    The simplest way to understand the Trump victory is to recognize that since 1952, the United States changes the presidential party in power every eight years, the only exception being the dispatch of Jimmy Carter after just four miserable years, and the extension of the Reagan eight years with four of GHB Bush. Otherwise, it is like clockwork – R, D, R, D, R, D, R, D and now R again. Of course, there is much more to this election cycle.

Four years ago in this space, I published an essay that went viral: “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.” It lamented the Obama victory in 2012 and how changes were coming to the United States that would leave the country unrecognizable to many of its citizens with domestic policies that were more socialist and foreign policies that shrunk America’s role in the world and made the world a more violent and dangerous place. It further lamented the decline of politics in America that depicted a good, decent man like Mitt Romney as a monster and ogre who gleefully threw the elderly off cliffs, deprived the ill of their cancer medication and delighted in firing hard-working people.

It was nearly impossible, given the demographics of American life, to see a plausible path to the Republicans ever winning the presidency again. One of the ironies of this riotous, unpredictable and unprecedented presidential campaign is that the only Republican who could have won was not really a Republican and certainly not a Republican for a long period of time. For make no mistake: a conventional Republican – a Bush, a Cruz, a Rubio, et al – might have been preferable to Donald Trump in theory, but such a conventional Republican would have been eviscerated, lambasted, vilified and scorned in actuality, and would have lost the election.

I remained puzzled about the almost universal support of Democrats for Hillary Clinton, despite her personal flaws, and the Republican “never Trumpers” who refused to support their party’s nominee because of his personal flaws. And both were flawed, which is an understatement. But Trump’s policies always trumped Trump’s personality, and I was always at a loss to understand which of Hillary Clinton’s policy prescriptions for America were preferable to those of Donald Trump. But too many Republicans, including columnists, pundits, activists and even some rabbis (who might not be Republicans), were so turned off to some of Trump’s faults that they were completely blind to Clintons’ when they weren’t rationalizing them altogether. Too many people did not recognize that there was no moral argument that could be marshaled on behalf of either candidate, but Clinton supporters were particularly dismissive in that regard. The only morally consistent approach was to concede that both candidates were deficient and that one’s vote was based on policy. That was my approach, as well as to acknowledge that Judaism prefers leaders with skeletons in their closets (Masechet Yoma 22b); it keeps them humble.

 

Here in Israel, there is, for the most part, a great sigh of relief. It is anticipated that Obama’s grudging support for Israel and his embrace of Iran will both be reversed, and that the world will learn again to respect and even fear a resurgent America. It is also anticipated that President Trump will craft a new foreign policy that rejects the chimera of a “two-state solution” and supports the right of Jewish settlement throughout the land of Israel. That will be a welcome and revolutionary change, even if it happens subtly rather than overtly. The fear of the Obama “December” surprise is still present but less burning. A presidential recognition of a “Palestine” can be reversed and a UN resolution critical of Israel, settlements, support of a Palestinian state, etc., supported by the US might be vetoed by…Russia, whose president has better ties with Netanyahu than Netanyahu had with Obama. Perhaps President-elect Trump could weigh in on that matter with Putin as well.

There are numerous takeaways from this most unusual election.

      Polarization. It is not just that the electorate is divided, but rather the persistence on the left in portraying the right as evil, not just wrong, has led to the despair in so many parts today over the Clinton loss. How can “evil” win?? This pattern dates back to Obama’s first term and is now entrenched in American life. With evil, you can’t compromise; with evil you can’t even dialogue. Those who vote for evil must be evil! And one should then not wonder why children – from kindergarten through law school – are being kept home from school today in droves so their troubled parents can try to explain how “evil” could prevail. Here’s the approach they should take: another opinion is not necessarily evil but different. There is no one solution to the problems that confront America. And there are people who can occasionally do or say bad things but that failing does not necessarily make them bad people. That goes for both candidates, not just one. We are all imperfect and we must learn to accept the imperfections of others if we hope to live in the world without becoming insane, vengeful or perpetually angry. Endlessly citing this or that word or phrase as if it defines the human being who uttered is a caricature, not an analysis.

      The Failure of Punditry and Pollsters. There are people who make their living making predictions, and they were almost all wrong, and in very predictable ways. Once it became socially unacceptable to support Trump – and many of the pundits and writers were the ones who made it socially unacceptable – it was clear that polls were not accurate and would miss 3-5% of the voting public, at least. That is exactly what happened, as Trump’s margin of victory was extremely narrow in several states that facilitated his victory.

It also vindicated Trump’s campaign model that should drive so many “professionals” batty. He spent relatively little, spoke his mind, eschewed handlers and messaging, and spoke directly (even occasionally tactlessly) to the people. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who shunned the media like the plague and felt like answering questions was beneath her, Trump was omnipresent on television, interviewed again and again, and then again. Free advertising, very human and personal, and a brilliant strategy.

Do not underestimate the resentment that the Trump candidacy engendered in the professional political class. He is the ultimate outsider in a world where to be an insider is considered a success. Trump is the guy who walks in unannounced from the parking lot, becomes the team quarterback and wins the championship. (There are such cases – Johnny Unitas, Kurt Warner, and probably dozens of people reading this.) Those who toiled in the system and either wouldn’t or couldn’t are naturally brusque with the one who did and could.

The Republican Party is Floundering. Some of its most principled people refused to support Trump, because of both personal blemishes and policy heresies. But it should recognize that it is increasingly talking to an electorate that is deaf to its values, uncomfortable with personal responsibility, uninterested in its policies and – for many – addicted to the free stuff that only Democrats can offer. It is safe to say that the Trump phenomenon cannot be duplicated, so where does that leave the GOP, alienated in large part from its standard bearer?

Ganging Up. Americans like a fair fight, and Trump was opposed by the full weight of one party, much of the other, the presidency and the tools of government, and especially by the mainstream media whose collusion with Clinton (including slipping her questions before debates and checking articles with her before publication lest something displease her, as Wikileaks revealed) made them not the reporter of news but makers of news and attempted shapers of outcomes. That was never supposed to be the role of the independent media, and the few outlets or individuals who actually presented fair and balanced coverage were not only honest and a credit to their profession but reaped the windfall of high ratings. They became a refuge for Trump supporters, whether tepid or passionate. Donald Trump became the underdog despite the media’s best efforts to make him the bully. People saw through that, saw the ugliness of the insider dealings and the cattiness of released emails, and saw the pay-to-play schemes – and recoiled from them.

Narrow Margins. Republicans should not gloat. Once again, the Democrat candidate won the popular vote. That is somewhat misleading because if California is taken out of the mix, then Trump wins by several million votes. Nonetheless, Republicans still have won the popular vote only once since 1988, and future prospects are not good unless…Trump is successful in his quest to strengthen the inner cities and reach out to other communities traditionally marginalized by Republicans and patronized by Democrats. His direct appeal to blacks and Hispanics was a welcome shift from prior Republican tactics. As America is becoming less and less white, the Republican Party will become a permanent minority unless it changes its approach to the electorate. Ronald Reagan’s America does not exist anymore.

Les Deplorables. That being said, was there a greater gaffe in memory that Clinton’s contention that half of Trump’s supporters constitute a “basket of deplorables”? That was arguably worse than Romney’s statement that “47%” of Americans don’t pay federal taxes and therefore have no skin in the game. At least Romney’s statement was a fact; Clinton’s slur was a direct attack on the integrity and decency of the supporters (“irredeemable”) of the nominee of a major American party. Rabbis quick to see Trump’s offenses glossed over Clinton’s outrages. Others, impressed by Clinton’s graciousness at a seder, ignored her similar graciousness towards Suha Arafat, kissing, hugging and praising Yasser’s wife right after she accused Israel of poisoning Arab wells in order to murder Arab children. Trump had no monopoly on “deplorables,” most of whom were not deplorable at all, and some of his critics would have benefited from a little more self-awareness. There are bad people on the right – and on the left; truth be told, bad people did not play much of a role in this election.

Rigged System. The Deplorables had only to open their eyes and see the special treatment, the unequal justice under the law, and the outright criminality of the Clinton enterprise to realize that this election demanded more than sitting at home and whining about the worthlessness of voting. The double standard was, to borrow a Trumpian term, “disgraceful.” The corruption, under Obama and Clinton, of the FBI, the IRS, the FCC, the EPA, and much of the rest of the alphabet exceeded anything that Richard Nixon had carried out. The schemes of the Clinton Foundation were breathtaking in scope, and its entire business model was built on Hillary Clinton winning the presidency and rewarding her donors. That is not to be, and the book is still open on whether it will continue as a legitimate charity. Will Obama, before his term ends, pardon Clinton for any and all crimes? I would expect it.

Negativity Works. Well, it depresses the voters and depresses the numbers of voters. Neither candidate is a paragon of virtue but Trump was aided by one factor: his children seem remarkably well-grounded and decent people. It is hard to imagine such individuals emerging from the home of such a “villain,” and having such genuine respect and love for their father. So the negativity became overkill after a while, not to mention Trump’s prior popularity as a TV entertainer that enabled many people to feel that they “knew” him. The feeling of unease that many Americans feel is attributable to the campaigns that brought new lows to American politics. Negativity works, but what an awful price to pay for such successes.

The Death of Political Correctness. Donald Trump is not a politician, and will be the first person since Dwight Eisenhower to assume the presidency never before having held elective office. Being a non-politician, and indeed the antithesis of Hillary Clinton, he did not poll test and focus group every word he uttered. He was refreshing, even if occasionally crass and crude. Certainly the latter is unbecoming, and Trump matured (is that the right word for a 70 year old?) as the campaign neared its end. But most people recognize the unseemliness implicit in the revelation of private comments (or emails). Few but the most pious among us would like to be judged by what we do or say in private; if that were untrue, the curtain business would fail and we would all live in glass houses.

But Trump, one can hope, has put an end to the petty tyranny of political correctness. He said what he thought was true regardless of who was offended by it, and the reactions – often overwrought but occasionally justified – reflected life in an era in which freedom of speech has been curtailed, people watch their words constantly (and not for always salutary reasons) and the thought police are ubiquitous. It wasn’t always like that. There was a time when an offended person, group, or class would just be told to grow up, and if the offense was unintended, a classy person would apologize. Now, the offenders are publicly mocked, excommunicated and sent for sensitivity training. The most intolerant among us are those who frequently hurl epithets like racist, bigot, sexist, -phobe, etc. at someone with whom they disagree. Generally speaking, they are the ones who are the most apoplectic about the results of this election.  Maybe they should just grow up?

One lesson of this election is that Americans are tired of being told what to think, whom they should like or dislike, that their traditions and values are hateful and that an unelected class of scolds gets to sit in constant judgment of their every utterance. Trump was a hero to those Americans, and anathema to the thought police. Those vocally liberated voted for Trump in droves and thumbed their noses at their supposed judges. Democracy is a most unruly form of government.

One by-product of this election and the PC malady is that the Democrats continue to view the electorate not as individuals but only by a group identity.  We are not individuals but whatever ethnic, religious, gender, racial or national attachment we have. How limiting – how degrading is that to every person who is then expected to think and act and vote like the group to which he or she is a part! Are we supposed to vote someone because the candidate is a Jew, a black, a woman, a Latino, or something else? Nothing could be more anti-intellectual, demeaning or shallow. That too should end. It won’t, not yet anyway.

Margaret Thatcher once said one of the greatest problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas. Perhaps that will change as well.

There have been bitter and divisive elections in the past in the United States; obviously 2000, but also 1860 (the Civil War followed Lincoln’s election, after he succeeded James Buchanan, still the last president who previously served as Secretary of State) and 1828 and 1824 (the ruthless battles between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams) come to mind. Some of those campaigns were even dirtier and more vicious than this one. But the world needs a strong America; the dangers around us are real and cannot be wished away. We can only pray that Donald Trump, who has so many good instincts in many areas, will be focused and responsible. In many ways, he is similar to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, whose tenure started but didn’t end well. Trump will surround himself with good people – Boltons, Giulianis, Flynns, Huckabees, Carsons and others. Life goes on. We hope and pray for the best.

Mark Twain stated that “if voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” Twain, at least here, and now, was wrong. The citizens of the American empire have chosen to change course. The people have spoken. Long live the people.

Is this good for the Jews? Time will tell. Disappointments are inevitable in life but we are ever hopeful. God’s hand controls our destiny. But what is always good for the Jews is this: learn Torah, observe the Mitzvot, daven with sincerity, perform acts of kindness, stand with Israel and come to Israel. If we do that, then only good things can happen.

 

The Joy of Torah

 

(This first appeared on the front page of the Jewish Press, October 21,2016.)

Simchat Torah is the culmination of the entire festival season. Gone, at first glance, is the awe of Days of Awe, and the fearfulness of the period of judgment is replaced by a day of rejoicing and revelry. The change in mood is so striking – certainly from the solemn joy of Yom Kippur but even from the inner happiness experienced on Succot – that it is not unknown for the spiritual highs of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to be lost or forfeited in the riotous behavior some indulge in on Simchat Torah. This refers not just to the execrable drinking that occurs in certain precincts but especially to the ambiance that pertains in many (but by no means all) shuls.

Thus, one who takes a young child to shul only on Simchat Torah and Purim is probably not inculcating in that child the reverence that should typify our deportment in shul, and it will probably take years of training to reverse that impression. That is not to say that young children should not be taken to shul on Simchat Torah but rather that they should be put on notice that the conduct they will witness is atypical.

Undoubtedly, the festivities are cathartic for those who are uncomfortable with the seriousness of Yom Kippur. All of which begs the question: what exactly are we celebrating on Simchat Torah? Of course, one is obligated to rejoice when completing any cycle of Torah study, and so the conclusion of the annual Torah readings and its immediate renewal are appropriate grounds for rejoicing. These are milestones in life, and the transition from Moshe’s death with the Jewish people poised to enter the land of Israel back to the beginning – literally, “in the beginning” – reflects another year in which we have heard, studied, internalized and been uplifted by the Torah’s message. Now, another such year is beginning. And rather than going back to the same place – both in the Torah and in our lives – we are actually ascending a spiral staircase in which we gaze back at the previous year, cherish the insights that have shaped our minds and refined our deeds, and eagerly anticipate the next cycle of readings.

And so we dance, and do hakafot with the Torah in appreciation and gratitude for the divine gift to the Jewish people. Some argue today that hakafot on Simchat Torah are an example of the innovations that once characterized Jewish life that have now been frozen by a stultified Rabbinate. Well, not quite. The hakafot of Simchat Torah are actually extensions of the hakafot that are made throughout Succot. Every day of Succot we grasp our arba minim and march around the Torah that stands in the center. On Simchat Torah, we hold the Torah itself, and circumambulate the place from which the Torah is read. Better said, we are circling our version of Sinai – the shulchan from which the sounds of Torah emanate – and celebrating with “He who chose us from all the nations and gave us the Torah.”

After weeks of repentance and soul-searching, confessions and fasts, and on the verge of returning to our daily lives, we need to celebrate the Torah, elevate it in our eyes, show our love for it and prepare to re-integrate it in all its aspects. Amid all the celebrations, we must realize that dancing with the Torah is not an end in itself but a natural expression of our love for Torah. But that love is primarily actualized not by holding the Torah, waltzing, fox-trotting or tangoing with the Torah, or even kissing the Torah when it passes in front of us. That love is fully consummated only when we study the Torah, observe its laws, cherish it, and protect and preserve it from those who try to modify it to suit the times.

One cannot love the Torah and constantly find fault with it nor can one love the Torah and negate or minimize its divine origin. One cannot love the Torah and try to change it, anymore than one can love a spouse while trying to change that person as well. Both are futile quests. We can only change ourselves. Sometimes, we have to change ourselves to accommodate the spouse who might have an irritating trait or two (love conquers all). Sometimes we have to change ourselves and surrender to the dictates of a divine Torah, even when we find some of the commandments challenging in one way or another.

It is a basic rule of Jewish life that every person will have to struggle with at least one area of Torah, even if only because the Torah demands that we overcome our natural instincts and defer to G-d’s will. In theory, only the perfectly righteous observe the Torah without difficulty, but the perfectly righteous are not that large a demographic today. Nonetheless, true love of Torah always requires that we conform to G-d’s will rather than expect G-d’s will to conform to our needs.

Not long ago, a Yeshiva high school principal wrote that “the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today.” Without at all discounting, trivializing or minimizing the struggle that some have with this issue, if such is “the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today” they should count their blessings. And this conclusion accounts for the genuine pain many people feel over their circumstances, which is quite often heartbreaking and should always evoke our empathy. It takes into account the pain of families wrestling with this challenge. But the greatest reality – the one that governs our lives – is the reality of G-d’s existence and the laws of the Torah He gave us.

So the world has never spared the Jewish people formidable religious challenges, and to be sure, many Jews have unfortunately succumbed to those challenges. But imagine if our young people today had to deal with grinding poverty, relentless persecution, pogroms, the Holocaust, the Haskalah, high infant mortality and forced conversions. Imagine if these young people had to witness their families murdered before their eyes by an enemy driven to destroy them because of its hatred of Torah. Imagine if they had to encounter the Inquisition or were forced to abandon all their worldly possessions and flee into exile. Imagine if these young people had no job on Monday because they failed to show up for work on the previous Shabbat. Imagine if kosher food was not readily available in every supermarket, and there weren’t kosher restaurants aplenty to satiate every palate. Imagine if they had to travel hundreds of miles to use a mikveh, as some Jews in the former Soviet Union had to do. Imagine if they were denied the right to learn Torah under the penalty of death. Just imagine…

They should be thankful to have such a “formidable” challenge as the one they claim to have, even acknowledging that it is serious and often tragic. But we should wonder whether or not we are doing an adequate job in educating our young people that Torah sometimes requires sacrifice or pain or struggle, and observance of the Torah sometimes means that we cannot always get our way.

Not every desire can be reconciled with the laws and morality of the Torah, even if the zeitgeist decrees that you can always have everything you want, how you want it and when you want. It is just not true. That is when we show our love for Torah by surrendering to G-d’s will.

Just because young and modern people disagree with something in the Torah does not make them right and the Torah wrong. Perhaps, indeed, it is the reverse. One would think that a primary focus of Jewish education today (in truth, I assume it is) would be to impart to children the reality of life as G-d mandated it to us. Only G-d’s vision of mankind is real – not anything that we concoct. Only G-d’s morality can preserve mankind’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. Only the truths of Torah can remind man that he is created in the image of G-d and has been given the tools with which to best serve G-d, perfect his soul and enjoy life on this planet.

Again, without trivializing anyone’s pain or the struggles they confront, it stands to reason that if we investigated every generation going back to ancient times, young people in every generation undoubtedly found something to take issue with in the Torah. When all their peers were worshipping idols, or marauding, or carousing, or eating any type of food, or enjoying the weekend (not Shabbat), or reveling in every new discovery and every act of rebellion against their elders, or when they saw their peers pursuing their life’s dreams and desires unfettered by any external restrictions – it is not difficult to envision that many of them felt spiritual “challenges” as well. Those who overcame them are our illustrious ancestors in whose merit we exist today. Those who succumbed to them disappeared into the mist of history and were lost to our eternal people.

Every generation thinks it is reinventing the wheel and faces trials that no one else had before. In truth the wheel grinds on, and in every age Jews confront obstacles to the observance of mitzvot and the love of Torah. What we can never do is measure the worth or viability of Torah by contemporary standards of morality. If we ever did, among other problems that would not be a Torah worth sacrificing for or even dancing with.

On Simchat Torah in the Torah reading, we indirectly reference the famous Mechilta (Parshat Yitro) that every small child is taught: “And He said, ‘Hashem came from Sinai, shone forth to them from Se’ir, appeared from the mountain of Paran…” (Devarim 33:2). To whom did G-d appear? The Midrash states that the nations of the world would have protested the giving of the Torah to Israel, so G-d first offered it to them. “He revealed Himself to the children of the wicked Esav (Se’ir) and asked, ‘will you accept the Torah?” They answered with a question: “Mah k’tiv ba?” What is written in it? G-d answered “You shall not murder,” and the children of Esav responded that homicide is a legacy from their ancestor, and so they rejected the Torah.

Ammon and Moav were also approached and asked “Mah k’tiv ba?” Told there are restrictions on lascivious behavior, they too declined, for their nations were founded on acts of immorality. The children of Yishmael were also offered the Torah and also asked “Mah k’tiv ba?” Informed of the prohibition “You may not steal,” they too protested. “Our forebear was blessed with this special talent, and so the Torah is not for us.

Conversely, when the people of Israel were offered the Torah, we answered “whatever G-d says we will do and we will obey,” “naaseh v’nishma” (Shmot 24:7). We did not ask “Mah k’tiv ba?” We accepted the Torah without investigation (even impetuously, as Rava, the great Amora, was taunted by a heretic, in Masechet Shabbat 88a) and only because we trusted the Lawgiver to give us a Torah that would guide us through life properly, satisfy every legitimate human need, and perfect our souls. We accepted the Torah unconditionally, even though to us it was an “aish dat,” a fiery faith that is not easily handled. We trusted G-d who is compassionate and merciful and knows the best way for man to live.

Some are still asking “Mah k’tiv ba?” – What is written in it?” – and conditioning their acceptance of the Torah on whether or not the commandments of the Torah suit them, their friends, their personalities, their business practices, their own moral conclusions, their family lives, their politics and their proclivities. But those whose acceptance of the Torah is predicated on “Mah k’tiv ba?” will never fully accept the Torah. They are substituting their morality for

G-d’s and, in effect, worshipping themselves.

Is that something to celebrate? Maybe on one’s birthday but that is not the meaning or import of Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah we celebrate not the giving of the Torah but its incorporation into our lives and our profound joy in being entrusted with G-d’s eternal message for all of mankind. At the very least, we should feel an unlimited sense of gratitude along with the rejoicing.

How can we impart to younger Jews – raised in a world in which narcissism is considered normal and even healthy, and feelings matter more than truth or substance – the spirit of sacrifice, the nobility of surrender to G-d’s will, or the willingness to embrace moral notions that are Divine and objective but contrary to the prevailing norms?

Perhaps we can enlighten them as to the great people in our history who celebrated, loved and lived the Torah when it was not as easy as it is today: Rabbi Akiva (and countless others) who forfeited their lives to teach the Torah to the simple laborer who after a day of toil attends a shiur; parents who retain as their primary ambition in life raising children who love, respect and will learn the Torah; and communities that will faithfully transmit it unaffected by the winds of modernity that are gusting through others.

Those individual giants and committed communities have sustained us until today and will continue in the future. And we should underscore how every Jew has a share in that Torah, community and destiny if only he or she embraces them, a Torah that is “our lives and the length of our days.”  That is the true and enduring celebration of the Torah.

Chag Sameach to all!

Honored Guests

Every year we welcome into our Succot some of the most distinguished guests in Jewish history – the “Ushpizin” – Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon and David. It is the Jewish dream team and a mystic’s delight, but for the rest of us – why are they here and what do they teach us?
Rav Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, once told the following story. In the year 2000, he was invited to deliver the annual St. George Lecture at Windsor Castle, the first Jew ever so honored. He was overwhelmed by the thought of it – and what he would say – especially considering that Windsor Castle is the oldest royal castle in the world in continuous use since its construction in the 1070’s by William the Conqueror, a decade after the Norman Conquest. Kings and queens have used that residence ever since and much happened to us while they were there.

In the almost 1000 years since, Jews underwent great hardship in the UK – starting with the blood libel in Norwich in 1144, the massacre in York in 1190 (there’s a kinah that describes that), and the expulsion of Jews in 1290 by King Edward I. Jews did not return legally to Britain until Oliver Cromwell permitted them in 1657. And Rabbi Sacks wondered: if those Jews could talk, what would they say now?

What he did say was this: I’m trying to put myself in the mindset of someone who inherits this castle and who lives here. The place is saturated with history. Every royal who lives here sees this home as his personal history, but also as the history of a nation. The residents therefore have moral obligations to the past and the future, and not just the present. Every resident becomes part of that history, the history of Windsor Castle, and he has to preserve it for the next generation of Windsors, the next generation of royalty. This is life lived not just an individual but in an historical context.

Jews, he said, do not have castles. We do not have castles but our history, our memory, is built through words. In context, he meant the hagada – the lecture occurred before Pesach – words that emanate from the commandment of “and you shall relate to your children on that day,” to impart the story of Israel to every new generation. We don’t need buildings of brick and stone if we know the words, and the words are transmitted from generation to generation, century after century, millennium after millennium, frequently under conditions of hardships and travails. And every child is taught the words, because that is his legacy – to transmit those words to his children.

Edmund Burke wrote that “a partnership is not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” Burke meant that everyone in society is part of the partnership – but we mean it as referring to the great Jewish odyssey. Indeed, the venerable Labor ideologue Yitzchak Tabenkin told David Ben Gurion not to accede to the partition demands of the Peel Commission, because he had “consulted” both his grandfather and his grandson, and neither would tolerate one generation’s surrender of the ancestral land of the Jewish people. No individual generation has the right to betray the past or the future.

I would take it a step further. Jews don’t have Windsor Castles; those do not represent our essence. We have our words but I would expand that too: what we have our experiences – experiences that we cherish, that define us, that keep us connected to G-d and to our people and that we transmit from one generation to the next.

We don’t need a fancy castle because we have a Succa – and in that Succa we hear the echoes of the giants of our history. The beauty of our history is that they – the Ushpizin – are the constants; we are transient. In our Succa, the guests are always the same – the Ushpizin; only the hosts change from year to year.

And what we convey most to our children are those experiences – of the Succa and the seder, of Shabbat and the shofar, of prayer and Torah study, of the innumerable acts and cherished values – that will both shape them and fully equip them with the means to live not just in the moment but in history, to see themselves as partners in the grand plan of the Creator in history.

“So that generations will know that I caused you to dwell in Succot when I took you out from the land of Egypt, I am G-d.” We dwell in the Succa so that we can transcend the generations – so that all generations will know that G-d has preserved us from time immemorial until this very day. Those Succot in the wilderness began our journey, which will culminate, as the prophet Zecharia taught, when all nations will come to Yerushalayim to celebrate Succot, in the era when G-d’s kingship will appear on earth and the entire world will pay homage to G-d, “and He will be One and His name will be One.”

The Optimism of Rosh Hashana

On Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, all individuals and nations “stand in judgment before the Creator of worlds.”  Naturally, we are usually more preoccupied with our individual judgments, even if the global judgments are equally, if not more, influential. We see all around us the rise of evil, and the unwillingness to confront it; we see the suffering of millions, and the indifference of billions; we hear of threats to the good and decent as the wicked and brazen intimidate and silence. We wonder about reward and punishment, and confront the challenging and comforting words of the Mishna (Avot 1:7) “Do not despair because of [seeming lack of] retribution.”

The simple explanation is that there is a Judge and judgment, and G-d’s justice may be more deliberate than ours would be, but it will come. So do not despair. It will come. But there is another explanation as well.

There is no more visceral sensation that pervades our being this time of year than the ultimate question that hovers around us: “who will live and who will die.” It’s the question that cannot be avoided. Each year, for all the blessings in our lives, death takes its toll and makes our world a little darker and a lot emptier. Death – even the specter of death – brings with it a sense of vulnerability and helplessness. Rav Soloveitchik wrote (in his “Halachic Man”) that death and holiness are contradictions. In the confrontation between man and nature, man always loses. Life itself is transient and fragile. And in a world at war, in a world where Jews feel increasingly exposed because the evildoers are shameless and emboldened and almost all others are feckless appeasers, it is that world in perpetual conflict that led the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes to look at man’s life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Rosh Hashana teaches us the exact opposite. We are confronted with the obligations of repentance, which is a reflection of renewal. The Gemara says (Masechet Shabbat 106a) that if one from a social group dies, everyone in the group should worry. And not just worry, as Rambam (Laws of Mourning 13:12) elaborates: whoever doesn’t mourn properly, as our Sages commanded, is “cruel,” i.e., is living in denial. What should one do? He should be scared, anxious, examine his deeds, and repent.

It is interesting that the proper response to loss – like to the Day of Judgment – is repentance, which forces us to refocus, to reconnect with the Eternal One and His reality, to triumph over the lure of the frivolous and remember that, indeed, our time here is limited. And that is life-affirming, not depressing.

That is the great message of the Mishna: “do not lose faith in the coming retribution.” It is not only that we believe in reward and punishment, and that the wicked will soon receive their just retribution. It also means “do not despair because of the existence of evil,” of suffering, of problems. Do not despair. Do not think that life is over. Do not even think that the world is filled with evil. None of that is true.

Rav Kook wrote on the verse we recite every morning (Tehillim 30:6) that “G-d’s anger endures for a moment” but to live according to His will is life itself. All the problems in the world, in our lives, are just “a moment,” and that underscores that the abundance of good that is “a life according to His will.”

Rav Kook: “the goodness and kindness in life are the permanent and dominant foundation of existence. It is evil that is temporary and ephemeral.” Evil is the exception, something extraordinary, and comes only to deepen and expand our appreciation of the good. That we don’t always see it like that is the problem with which we have to wrestle.

A person who sees the world as filled with death, pain, suffering and evil is not only mistaken, and not only loses his desire for and enjoyment in life, and not only fills the world with hatred and despair. But such a person also is not paying close enough attention – to see the blessings of life, prosperity, of children and grandchildren, of food, clothing and shelter, of all the opportunities we have to do good for others.

Winston Churchill said, quite insightfully, that the pessimist sees the challenges in every opportunity, whereas the optimist sees the opportunities in every challenge. If the Day of Judgment fills us with awe and trepidation – as it should – it is only because we wish to choose life, not because the alternative is mysterious and terrifying but primarily because of the opportunities that we are afforded in this world.

Rav Saadia Gaon taught us that the shofar is sounded on Rosh Hashana not only to inspire our repentance, induce our trembling on the day of judgment, or even to remind us of the coming redemption and the resurrection of the dead – but rather, in its most basic purpose, as an act of coronation: to accept upon ourselves His kingship and the world of good He has favored us with.

If, on occasion, “at night we lie down in tears” (Tehillim 30:6) – tears shed because of the misery and fear and sorrow we witness, sadness because of personal loss – still “by morning there is joy and song,” the joy of rejuvenation, and the sound of redemption. That is the eternal faith of the Jew. So, never despair and always be optimistic.

May we all merit hearing the sounds of song and salvation in the tents of the righteous, and be inscribed and sealed for a year of life and goodness, of good health and prosperity, of peace and redemption, for us and all Israel.

Enjoy this selection from the “Jewish Shofar” project.

To buy the digital CD, including other melodies, here is the Link

http://payhip.com/b/dm7j

 

Name Changers

The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 16b) that four actions can change a person’s heavenly decree for the good: charity, changing one’s name and one’s deeds (maybe even one’s domicile) and crying out to G-d. Rambam places this directly in the realm of repentance – not just to avert a decree but to better oneself: “Among the ways of repentance is that a person constantly cries out before G-d with supplications, gives charity to the full extent of his ability, keeps far from sin, and changes his name, as if to say ‘I am someone else and not the man who committed these sins,’ and he changes his deeds for the good…” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:4).

For sure, merely changing one’s name without a concomitant change of behavior is fatuous, worthy of a criminal entering the witness protection program. He hasn’t changes his essence but is seeking to evade justice. But how does changing one’s name in the best of circumstances constitute any real change in the individual? After all, we are defined more by our deeds; our name just is a handy reference point to the person who does those deeds, for good or less-than-good.

We do not find that name-changing is a common practice among penitents today, but the Gemara and the Rambam are evoking a different experience than the literal act. The true penitent has to perceive himself as a different person, as someone else entirely, unencumbered by his past. That past might have been lamentable and might even have defined him in the eyes of the public, but that person has now been replaced by a new person. Same DNA makeup, different moral universe. The sincere penitent has become a different person, so it is prohibited, as Chazal teach (Bava Metzia 58b) to say to a penitent: “Remember your past deeds,” as if he is still who he was before.

But can name-changing erase the past? Should it?

For several years, activists in the black American community have been seeking (in some places, successfully) to erase the names on public places of some of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and change them to names that are more suitable to their interests. Their offenses are known. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe were all slave owners, and their names adorn cities, school, universities and other institutions. Monroe, in fact, is the only US President to have a foreign capital named for him – Monrovia, Liberia. John C. Calhoun, slave owner, Senator, Vice-President, Secretary of State and ardent segregationist, has a building named for him at Yale University, where several months ago, a black employee, irritated at a stained glass window depicting black slaves in what he perceived to be a pejorative way, smashed it to pieces. (He was fired and threatened with arrest. Our times being what they are, and the activists being who they are, he was never prosecuted for his vandalism and has been re-hired by Yale.)

Assuming that these activists are sincere and not merely engaging in a cultural power play so common in this overheated era, is there any merit to their argument? Should the Founding Fathers of this nation be dishonored because of the sordid aspects of their past, notwithstanding their astonishing achievements that changed the world for the good? Does erasing their names really erase our history, or is the notion of re-writing the past too Orwellian, too much like the old Soviet Union, to be taken seriously?

There are two approaches to these questions.

One can be called “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Jews have a long history, the longest of any nation still intact with a coherent and vibrant relationship with our ancestors, as well as the memory of numerous enemies that tried to destroy us over the millennia. Those enemies are often celebrated, perhaps innocently.

For example, the World Monuments Fund every year presents what it calls the “Hadrian Award” for excellence in architecture. It is named for the 2nd century Roman emperor Hadrian, who was renowned for being a patron of the arts, for his love of architecture and culture (he rebuilt the Pantheon that still stands in Rome, and for his humanitarian endeavors across the globe.

Hadrian was also a psychopathic mass murderer who brutally suppressed the Bar Kochva rebellion, and killed in his time hundreds of thousands of Jews. That rebellion only began after Hadrian banned the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvot in the land of Israel. Thousands of Jews went into hiding in order to cling to our faith. Hadrian, apparently, oversaw the torture and execution of some of our Talmudic giants, including Rabbi Akiva.

The Midrash illustrates the cruelty, caprice and vindictiveness of Hadrian with the following story (Eicha Rabba 3, Reish): A Jew passed by the emperor Hadrian and greeted him. Hadrian said: “How dare you, a Jew, deign to greet the emperor of Rome!” The Jew was beheaded. Another Jew then passed and did not greet the emperor. Hadrian stopped him and said: “How dare you, a Jew, not greet the emperor of Rome!” That Jew was also then beheaded. A puzzled officer then asked Hadrian: “You kill those who greet you for greeting you, and kill those who don’t greet you for not greeting you?”

Hadrian responded: “Are you trying to advise your king as to how I should kill my enemies?”

The four winners of the 2016 “Hadrian Award” were announced this past July.

Much better known than the Hadrian Award is the city of St. Louis, the second largest city in Missouri and a name that should stick in the craw of every Jew. That city was named for King Louis IX of 13th century of France, a devout Catholic, and canonized by his church for his piety, and especially for one particularly galling and hateful act perpetrated against French Jewry, a catastrophe memorialized in a kina (elegy) recited on Tish’a B’Av. At the behest of Pope Gregory IX, Louis IX seized all the extant copies of the Talmud in France – more than 1200 manuscripts in all, all painstakingly transcribed in an era two centuries before the invention of the printing press – and on one Friday, in July 1242, they were ceremoniously burned in the public square in Paris, 24 wagon loads in all.

With that, the era of the Tosafists effectively ended, most Jews soon left France, and the remaining French Jews were expelled in 1306.

Saint Louis? Not from this vantage point.

For sure, we Jews have plenty of grievances, and awards and cities named for rogues and villains, murderers and tyrants, are among them, but not very prominent among them. Should Jews boycott the city of St. Louis until it changes its name? (Suggestion: call it “Rabbi Yechiel,” after the great sage who headed the Yeshiva in Paris in the 1200’s and defended the Talmud against its detractors and burners. Of course, that will never happen.) Should an enraged Jew tear down the “Gateway Arch?” Of course not. But why shouldn’t the name “St. Louis” evoke such disgust and revulsion among the citizenry that good people will want to change the city’s name in order to avoid hurting the feelings of … anyone?

The answer is that there is a second approach to all these issues. It is this: We would do well to judge people on the totality of their deeds and not by their single acts that we find offensive. (Granted, there can be single acts that are so heinous that one is left with little choice but fusing that act with that person.) The premise is that no one is perfect, and that every human being is flawed. We should judge others by their essences and not by the lamentable, disreputable and even squalid activities with which they were also sporadically associated.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Calhoun and others were all slave owners, but none are being feted for being slave owners. Some of them, indeed, regretted the very institution even as they benefitted from it. Washington was the indispensable figure who led the American Revolution to victory, Jefferson was the primary drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Madison was the Father of the Constitution, etc. All played historic and positive roles, and should be rightly honored for them, notwithstanding the blots on their record.

No one is perfect and if the goal is to honor only perfect people by naming public entities after them, we will live in an anonymous world. Elihu Yale, who gave his money and name to that university, made part of his fortune as a slave trader. Abraham Lincoln himself made occasional racist comments, and FDR, JFK and even Martin Luther King, Jr., had a deplorable relationship with women and did not always treat their wives with the greatest respect. Not every politician with a bridge named for him was a tzadik.

True, anything named for Adolf Hitler, yemach sh’mo, would rightly cause offense, as his essence was evil. Other tyrants and dictators are the same. Their crimes against mankind were so extreme that there is no redeeming quality. We may not be able to see any good in Hadrian or Louis IX but others did, for whatever appalling reason. They had other dimensions to their existence than their hatred of Jews, as others see it. Accepting that outrage is part of the tolerance requested of those who want to live and interact in a civil society, and do not want to impose their views on the rest of society.

We can’t erase the past, and there is something admirable about the way some nations have examined their past wrongs and righted them. The Founding Fathers will always be the Founding Fathers, judged for the enormous good they did in the context of their times. That should be enough to engender a fair assessment of their lives and to honor their achievements.

And isn’t that how we ourselves want to be judged? By the totality of our personalities and not by our sins alone? The process of repentance involves as much an accounting of our sins as an acknowledgment of what we do right. We want to rectify our flaws but be judged on our essence, which longs for the good. Changing our names as part of the path of teshuva is a recognition that we are not our sins, and we do not want to be defined by our sins. So, too, we are not just our virtues. We are an amalgam of both, and we hope, pray and endeavor that our merits exceed our demerits – as individuals, as a nation and as a world.

Then we can leave our judgment in the hands of the True Judge who sees all and knows our hearts, and whose judgment is perfectly calibrated at all times to effect His plans for all mankind.

Been There

Imagine for a moment a US presidential election between two candidates, neither of whom is particularly beloved to the populace. One candidate is an undistinguished former Senator and lackluster Secretary of State who had few if any accomplishments in office but is breaking a social barrier by running for the presidency, and the other is a wealthy businessman with dictatorial tendencies and a populist streak and inspires devotion in his followers and fear and loathing in his adversaries. Even members of his own extended family support his opponent. Imagine also that exactly four years after one of these individuals is elected – after four years in office of abject failure, with simmering problems and no solutions – that utter catastrophe befalls the nation.

We need not let our imagination run that wild because such was the fateful election of 1856 that pitted James Buchanan against John C. Fremont. Buchanan, a Democrat, had served without distinction in the House and Senate, and as Secretary of State under President Polk. His sole qualification for the presidency, aside from the boxes checked off on his resume, was that immediately before the election season he was serving as American ambassador in Great Britain and so was removed from the disputes then raging over slavery. He remains the only lifelong bachelor ever to serve as president, shattering once and for all that important impediment to high office.

His opponent was the colorful Republican John C. Fremont, whose long locks flowed over his ears and whose beard gave him a dashing appearance. Fremont was a wealthy businessman who gained his fortune in an unorthodox way. He was by profession an explorer, one of many Americans to go west in the 1840’s blazing new trails and expanding America’s horizons. He ventured as far as California, and when the Mexican-American War erupted in 1846, Fremont was awarded a commission as a Lt.-Colonel, won several battles in California (including in the area of Santa Barbara) and almost immediately declared himself the military governor of California.

That did not sit well with his superiors. Fremont was eventually court-martialed and convicted but had his sentence commuted by President Polk. Back in California, Fremont found his fortune when his Mexican workers discovered enormous quantities of gold on land Fremont claimed as his own. He parlayed that gold into the purchase and development of extensive real estate holdings, especially around San Francisco, and into a career in politics, briefly as Senator from California and then the run for President as the first candidate ever of the newly-minted Republican Party.

There was a third-party candidate as well in this election. Former president Millard Fillmore ran on the ticket of the self-proclaimed “American Party,” nicknamed the “Know-Nothings.” They were a party with a single cause – opposition to immigration; at that time, the disfavored immigrants were Catholics from Europe. There is no truth to the rumor that Fillmore promised to build a wall along the Eastern seaboard to prevent Catholic immigration and have the Vatican pay for it. In any event, American society today is much more efficient, so Fillmore’s party has been subsumed by one of our two parties.

All things considered, Fremont was the superior candidate and despite his intriguing resume would have made a better president, but who knows? Buchanan the Democrat was pro-slavery in an understated way, and as a northerner (the only president ever to be born in Pennsylvania), it was assumed he would attract some Northern votes along with those of the Southern pro-slavery crowd. Fremont the Republican was anti-slavery, as were most Republicans of that era, and that moral stance forced his own father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, to oppose Fremont and support Buchanan.

Democrats accused Fremont of being unfit for the presidency and claimed that he would surely provoke a civil war. In the end , of course, it was Buchanan who won and whose failures as president made the Civil War, the bloodiest in American history, inevitable. The election was closer than it seemed.  Buchanan won 45% of the vote to Fremont’s 33%, but the anti-immigrant Fillmore earned a startling 22% of the vote as the third-party candidate. Absent Fillmore’s involvement and siphoning of votes from the other two candidates, Fremont might have won and American history might not have taken the dark turn it did. Fremont carried most of the north, but even lost his own state of California; Buchanan swept the slave south and his home state of Pennsylvania (then, the second largest state after New York). Fillmore won Maryland and that’s all, and soon faded into obscurity.

Buchanan as President, despite his gaudy resume, allowed the fight over slavery to escalate. He supported the Dred Scott decision wherein the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the territories and basically allowed this moral and civil problem to fester. It festered into the outbreak of the Civil War a month after Buchanan left office and Abraham Lincoln was sworn in. Such is the price for failed leadership in a time of crisis and for stale ideas when new thinking is required.

Fremont fought in the Civil War for the Union, later moved to New York, died in 1890, and is buried in Sparkill, New York in Rockland County, just a few miles south of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Is past prologue? There has never been an election in American history as the one we are enduring this year, in which both major candidates are despised and distrusted by large majorities of the populace – the crank versus the crook. It is fair to say that this is the first election in which few, if any, supporters can make a plausible argument for the candidacy of their favorite, and must suffice with the contention that the other candidate is simply awful and whose election will be catastrophic. And perhaps everyone is correct.

It recalls the old joke of the preacher who was asked to eulogize the most hated man in town. He starts to speak, falls silent, and realizes that he has nothing to say. He pauses, and then asks the assembled: “Is there anyone present who can say anything nice about the deceased?” The audience is silent, for a minute, and the preacher asks again: “Can anyone say anything nice about the deceased?”

Silence, again, until a man in the audience stands up and says: “His brother was worse.”

Unfortunately, there are consequential issues facing an America in decline that will not be seriously addressed because of the quality of these candidates – one whose policy positions are unformed, to say the least, and therefore fluid, and the other because it’s hard to believe a word she says. These issues will define the America of the future far more than most people realize. A few examples:

Is there such a concept as an “illegal immigrant” or are foreigners who enter this country without authorization merely people lacking documentation?  Should the United States have open borders like Europe has today? Does America still aspire to be a world leader or should it be content to follow the lead of international organizations? The United States’ engagement in the past century in world affairs allowed the good guys to prevail in both World Wars and the Cold War. Does the US have a dominant role to play in the conduct of the current world war?

Should the government control the economy or should government allow the marketplace to pick winners and losers, products and services, prices and wages? How much government involvement is necessary and how much is stifling? Must government guarantee to every person equality of outcome or just equality of opportunity? Should government enforce an equitable distribution of income and assets among the citizenry, even if it means confiscatory action against those perceived as too wealthy?

Which takes precedence in the hierarchy of values in America – religious liberty or political correctness? Should individual freedoms and personal liberty be curtailed if a minority or even a majority finds them offensive?

Neither candidate has addressed these questions beyond the issuance of platitudes. Neither seems capable of or interested in addressing them with any degree of cogency or sophistication. We all still have to vote but the only clear outcome is that this polarized country will be even more polarized regardless of who wins. That does not bode well.

Welcome to the election of 2016, whose analogies to an election 160 years ago should not be ignored. Somewhere, Buchanan, Fremont and Fillmore are smiling. Or, maybe, given the outcome of their election process and the horrendous war that broke out several years later, they too are crying.