To Reclaim Politics

Rabbi Noah Farkas delivered this high holiday sermon at Valley Beth Shalom.

When the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831 to investigate the American prison system, he instead discovered the inner workings of American democracy.  Coming from France, de Tocqueville worried that in a free society like America the nature of democracy would turn citizenship into a series of tepid exchanges between isolated individuals and a powerful state.   Especially as, in his view coming from France, the seemingly political equality among citizenry would inevitably erode and the social relationships rooted in one’s family, religious institution, and workmen’s association or guild would similarly implode .

Instead, de Tocqueville found a teeming society that supported and was equally sustained by the associations that drew people from individualism into shared civic life. The fact that these associations were voluntary in nature meant that they could be a font for the ebbing and flowing of civic values.  The choice to belong served as a font of renewal citizenship for every generation, and along with it, the refreshment of representative democracy in America.  What de Tocqueville saw in the sustainable nature of American democracy stood in stark opposition to the constitutional monarchy that brought him to power, which lasted less than a decade. [1]

What truly makes American democracy work is the collective capacity of individuals who have a shared purpose. When values, ideas, or persons inure a sense of purpose, civic forces can fuse; nudging citizens into public action.  For generations, American democracy has thrived because the nature of the political ecosystem demands of its citizenry nothing less than a life predicated on values and a dogged optimism in the face of an uncertain tomorrow.

Today, we do live in an uncertain world.  I don’t know if it’s less uncertain than one de Tocqueville saw when he first cast his eyes on the Eastern Seaboard, but with high unemployment, huge debts, a hollowed out middle class, and a shrinking active community, we certainly have a number of uncertainties to put up on our chalkboard of history.   What concerns me, though, is not that we are faced with challenges, but that we don’t have the spirit to face them a sense of shared purpose.

In about 40 days we are going to elect the next president.   What worries me now, what I pray for, are not policy decisions that address unemployment, the debt, or national security.  For hundreds of years this nation has looked at these perennial challenges with certainty and courage.  Its civic virtues and sense of belonging have impressed the world over, sealing the idea that America is unique and exceptional in the community of nations.  No, What worries me  is something less tangible, harder to quantify, but far more terrifying.  There is a creeping malaise in this country, a quiet despair moving slowly across our nation, and I pray that we can stop it.

There is a nagging feeling that who we are as Americans is changing, that the young will never be better off than their parents.  Or that the next generation of immigrants will never climb the social ladder, that we won’t be able to take care of the elderly, our sick, and our poor. There is a creeping fear that the way things are now are the only way things will ever be, that we might lose our optimism and courage and confidence.  That for many, the idea of the American dream is slipping away.

Paul Begala, the liberal journalist, wrote an article this summer, and opened it with a story.   I’ll share it with you now: Begala describes his wealthy friend who, one day was chatting with his next-door neighbor, a republican, who asked him why he’s a democrat.  The friend said he’d grown up poor but had gotten a good public education, worked his tail off, and made it. Then he pointed to a gardener working across the street. “Don’t you want that gardener’s son to live the same American Dream we have?” the friend asked. His neighbor shot him down, sniffing, “That gardener’s son will be my son’s gardener.”[2]

“That gardener’s son will be my son’s gardener.”

Begala goes on to explore policy points about the rise and fall of the middle class, and he gives his liberal point-of-view of policy.   But that’s his drasha on the story. Mine is more fundamental.

First, we could easily reverse the speakers.   The republican could have said, I worked hard, went to school, made a business for myself, and I hope this guy can do the same.  And it could have been the despondent democrat that said, “nope,” the cards are stacked against this guy; he’ll never get out of his social class.”

The names and titles don’t really matter. What’s important, what is fundamental to this true story, is that these neighbors don’t share the same moral universe with each other.   One, in Begala’s version a democrat, says the American bargain is still on the table.  The bargain that says if the immigrant farmer comes to this country becomes a gardener and starts at the bottom, he can still send his kids to high school and college.  The door to success is still open for this family.

The other, in this case a republican, says the bargain is over.  That no matter what he does, his family will live tomorrow like it lives today.  And that’s my fear.  In fact there’s evidence that it’s not just a fear, but a fact.   According to Charles Murray, the conservative sociologist, 78% of those who attend top tier schools in America today had parents who attended those schools.  That means that only 22% are truly socially mobile in higher education.   Murray also shows that a student with a D from one of these schools will make more money that someone with an A+ from a second tier school – meaning that the credential of the school is more important than the content, and thus only those who can afford it, the wealthy, will get ahead.

It’s this fear that I have, and what I pray to change this holiday season.   It’s the same prayer that our founder’s believed when they wrote into the sacred canon of our country:

“We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union.”

This is the opening gambit of the idea of the United States of America.  It’s a wager that says the government’s authority derives from its people, a unified people with collective values, a shared sense of belonging, and a shared moral horizon.  It says that our purpose is to be more perfect, more just, more free, more prosperous – together, as a more perfect union.”

But what if we lose those civic bonds?  What if you and I no longer inhabit the same moral universe and no longer march towards a common horizon?  Would not the wager that is this still young country be lost?

We are a divided nation. We have lost our sense of national community.  We have lost our trust of each other, of those who do not look like us, sound like us, think like us.  When we are divided, when we lose the communal resolve and collective sense of national responsibility – we lose our sense of the future.

This is not a new moment in history for the Jewish people.  We’ve seen this before.  In the Tanakh, when Joshua took over the mantle of leadership from Moses, he inherited a people that never saw the splitting of the sea, never saw the fire atop Mount Sinai.   This nation grew up in the desert, without certainty, without a home, and without wealth.  At this precious and tender moment of transition, when one generation was giving way to the next, standing in the doorway of their posterity, at this very moment, when everything was on the table, a great fear gripped the people.  Who will lead them?  How will they enter a land filled with giants?    They cowered at the task ahead of them.  Then Joshua ben Nun rose to his feet, and said, “Be strong and resolute; do not fear or despair, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”[3]

This is our story.  On the eve of our setting out, when we prepared to enter the land,  when all seems to be in the balance, we moved beyond ur fear and resolved to meet the challenge of entering the Promised Land – because Joshua gave us courage and strength to see a common cause, a common purpose, and a common future under the banner of the Sacred.

There are many lessons to be taken from Joshua’s words –courage and strength – the confidence to move forward, for example.  He gave our people the heart to make something of themselves and to take responsibility for their destiny, together as a nation.

But the key word in his blessing is the word despair.  “Do not despair”, Joshua says, “for the LORD God is with you.”

Despair is a special type of fear.  It’s a fear without hope.

Despair means distancing yourself emotionally because there is nothing you can do.  It’s the idea that our actions don’t count for much.

Despair says to us, who are we to change anything about ourselves, let alone the world.

Despair teaches that we shouldn’t have high hopes for our kids, and they shouldn’t have expectations of themselves.

Despair is what it feels like when homeowner says, “That gardener’s will grow up to be my son’s gardener.”

When we despair, we give up.  And when we give up, we turn inwards, and say, there is no reason for shared sacrifice.

When we give up, we privatize our entire lives including our schools, our social clubs, our friends, and our family.

We no longer feel that the public good matters, only what is good for me, and say, “I’ll be damned if I concede a thing to the public.” And say, I won’t contribute anything more than I absolutely have to, either in taxes or pension concessions to ensure a shared future.”

When we give up, we live starkly by the maxim, what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours. – the very motto the rabbis attributed to Sodom and Gemmara.[4]

In the Talmud, one of the first topics of discussion a young student learns is ye’ush or despair.  When one loses an object in the city, asks the Talmud, does one despair over it’s loss?  Is your loss simply that, only yours?

In every major town, however, the Talmud teaches that there was a special place called the Even HaTo’en the claimant’s stone.  It’s a large rock in the center square, where lost objects could be reclaimed.  If you found a wayward ox, you would bring it to the claimant’s stone and declare that you have you found it. If you found that basket of fruit or bundle of wheat, you bring it on down to the square and say, “does this belong to anyone?”

The owner of that lost object could reclaim it for himself,  but to do so,  and here’s the key – to do so, the claimant must  go out and meet the finder in public at the stone, in public and say, “that is mine.”[5]

The claimant’s stone is the Jewish answer to the question of despair.  It symbolizes that there is a place at the center of the community that belongs not only to me but to you as well.   It’s also the loadstone that holds our values together and says, when you lose something precious, it’s not only your loss, its mine to.

The claimant’s stone teaches us that what you put down I pick up. And together we meet in the center and we reclaim it.

It keeps us from despairing, from ever giving up because, like Joshua’s prayer, it binds us together in a mutually valued community, with an understanding of a common good and a shared prosperity.

You cannot despair if you know that you are supported by a common heritage.

You cannot despair if you see that you have a common moral center.

You cannot despair if you see that you have a common future.

America needs a political claimant’s stone.  It’s not a physical place, but a rock-solid surety, that when fear of the future grips the land, when we can longer to say our children that they will be better off than we are, when the very idea of the American dream is forgotten, lost, or dropped –  we can have the courage and the resolve to go into the public square and pick it up.   And say, “This is mine!”

We need to reclaim civic life in this country and not hide in the caves of our own narcissism, behind high walls, and hollow cries of sanctuary.

We need to reclaim politics in America away from those who profit from the existential battle of left and right.

We need to enter the public square, and lay claim to an America that still dreams of a world that is safer, cleaner, and more prospers than the one we have today.

Voting is a good start.  No matter who you vote for, voting in this election is the first and most fundamental right in a democracy.  But voting is not enough. As the libertarian author, James Bovard wrote, “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”[6]   You need to join civic groups and institutions that create common space and dialogue, that promote the American dream for the next generation and that don’t see politics as a dirty word.

Most importantly, know the sacred calling of the country is still there, wherever we go, and have the courage to not despair, not give up in the face of our uncertain future.

When Joshua led the people down from the mountains they stood opposite the walls of Jericho, the greatest and most fortified city in all the land.  Faced with this seeming impenetrable fortress, guarding against their promised future, Joshua told the people, to stand together and march together around the city.  For six days they marched and blew the shofar. And on the seventh day he said, “march together again.” When they heard the sound of the shofar, from many they became one.  They spoke with one voice, as one people, united in the idea that their cause was just, their purpose was good, and actions were right.  They spoke in a chorus, young and old, rich and poor, together.  And it was not in their marching, not in their circling, and not in the blowing of the great shofar, that gave them strength, but in the chorus of their voices shouting in unity, in belief, in hope, and with the courage of resolve that brought the mighty walls of Jericho a ‘tumbling down.

Rabbi Noah Farkas is an alumnus of the Seminary Leadership Project and is a current JOIN for Justice board member. Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas serves as a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. In addition to his work at VBS, Noah has co-founded Netiya: the LA Jewish Coalition on Food, Environment, and Social Justice.

[1] Tocqueville, Alexis de, Phillips Bradley, Henry Reeve, and Francis Bowen. Democracy in America,  . New York: A. A. Knopf, 1945


[3] Joshua 1:9

[4] Avot 5:10

[5] Talmud Bavli Baba Metzia 28b

[6] Bovard, Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (1994) p.333

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