Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
For the first time in his presidency Barack Obama has, according to a Gallup poll, fallen below a fifty percent approval rating. It’s not hard to see why. No, it’s not because he’s spending too much money. There seem to be many Americans who want him to boost social programs. Less so is it because people perceive him as accomplishing little because if he pulls off health care reform that is a big thing indeed. No, the principal reason Obama, who became President by electrifying the electorate, has fallen to earth is that he has become boring. Humdrum. Can anyone recall any important line the President has uttered since assuming office or a single dazzling speech?
And lest we make the mistake of believing the President has become boring because his speeches are not up to par, let me be clear that I think the boredom is only partially related to failure to excite with inspired oratory.
Rather, the twin factors behind the President’s monotony are these: ubiquitousness and perfection.
This president does not seem to understand the power of mystery. At any given time, he is in China, Japan, Egypt, in the Rose Garden, at the UN, on your television screen, and on your radio. He does not believe in holding back. The net result has been to make him all-too available and utterly ordinary. The same is true of his propensity to prostrate himself – quite literally – in front of world leaders like the Saudi King and the Japanese Emperor. The issue is not that he belittles his office but that he comes across as a supplicant. What is about our president that propels him to seek others’ approval at every turn? And why can he not pace himself so that something of himself is left in reserve so that the people later want more?
Much more importantly, however, the President has become boring because he is way too perfect.
Last week I convened the first International Conference on Jewish Values. It featured most of Judaism’s foremost living personalities, including Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Michael Steinhardt, Joseph Telushkin, Richard Joel, Alan Dershowitz, and Dennis Prager (full video of the entire conference is available at Shmuley.com). The last, and most important, of the seven universal Jewish values we focused on was struggle.
Where most of the world believes in perfection, Jews believe in struggle. Jesus was perfect, as was Muhammad. Any insinuation as to Jesus even getting lonely and requiring the love of a woman, as Dan Brown suggested in The Da Vinci Code, would greatly offend the sensibilities of Christian brothers and sisters. And an insinuation that Muhamad had any faults – even if the suggestion is made in a humorous cartoon – can and has let to riots in cities around the world.
But it’s not just religions that make the mistake of promoting perfection. I remember as a young American boy being taught that George Washington never told a lie and that Abraham Lincoln walked miles to return a single penny.
But the Jewish Bible has not a single perfect person. All are flawed. Abraham demonstrates a lack of faith, Jacob favors a child, and Moses often complains and then refuses to perfectly carry out G-d’s instructions for which he is denied entry into the promised land. David, the father of the Messiah, is so riddled with flaws that he must live through the open rebellion of his beloved Absalom. So if these people were so imperfect, why do we look up to them as heroes?
The answer, of course, is that Judaism has no time for perfection. Perfect people are monolithic, predictable, often judgmental, and, worst of all, boring. That’s the main reason why Americans did not develop a populist passion for books about the founding fathers until about twenty years ago when authors finally starting writing the truth about how complex and flawed these men who had been sold to us as statues actually were. Joseph Ellis wrote American Sphinx and shared with us, in vivid detail, the fact of Jefferson’s slaveholding and his sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings. In His Excellency Ellis reveals George Washington’s uncompromising ambition for wealth and social status. And in Lincoln’s Melancholy Joshua Wolf Shenk reveals the great president as a man so suicidal that his friends often feared leaving him unattended.
So why do we revere these men if they were less than perfect? Because the truly righteous man is not he who never sins but rather he who, amid a predilection to narcissism and selfishness, battles his nature to live a virtuous life. The truly great man is not he who slays dragons but he who battles his inner demons, he who struggles with himself to improve and ennoble his character
Israel means ‘he who wrestles with G-d.’ It was the name of Jacob who wrestled with a brother who sought to kill him and a father-in-law who sought to enslave him. Most of all, he wrestled with an angel, a symbol of his earthly and G-dly nature locked in battle for ascendancy.
I would personally choose the man who has wrestled and struggled any day over the trust-fund baby who has never struggled. Those whom have been given gifts often lack empathy and risk becoming conventional and uni-dimensional.
Which brings us back to Barack Obama, a man was raised without a father who had to wrestle with major challenges in order to succeed. So why does he insist on coming across as perfect? Why will he not leave the teleprompter and give an off-the-cuff speech where he can showcase his humanity? Why does he take such long pauses in responding to all questions to ensure that only perfection stems from his lips? And why is everything in this White House a perfectly calibrated photo-op?
Sure, during the campaign America may have wanted a Messiah figure. They saw messy wars and a collapsing economy and wanted a savior. But as President they want someone real, someone who struggles like them.
Even in the worst moments of the Monica Lewinsky scandal President Clinton’s poll numbers never dipped below fifty percent. Most Americans saw a flawed man and identified with his lack of perfection.
Barack Obama is far more disciplined for such unfortunate choices and I respect him for it. But don’t be afraid to show us Mr. President that, as in the title of George Stephanopoulos’ book about President Clinton, that you also are All Too Human.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, is author most recently of ‘The Blessing of Enough’ and ‘The Michael Jackson Tapes.’ www.shmuley.com.
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November 9, 2009 | 2:22 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Every once in a while, a story comes along so jolting that it is scarcely believable. One such story appeared in The New York Times, of all places, this past Sunday, about how the Jews’ Free School in London has been ordered to admit a child whose mother had a non-orthodox conversion after the child’s parents sued.
I will not enter here into the ongoing and bitter divide in England between orthodox and progressive Jews. It was a battle that I witnessed and worked hard to mend through countless essays and public forums over the 11 years that I lived in the United Kingdom. Less so will I address here the very pressing questions of Jewish status as determined by conversion on the part of Judaism’s three major branches. I am a passionately orthodox Jew who is equally passionate about Jewish unity. Our divisions must indeed be addressed and healed. But this shocking story in Britain raises something far more pressing that is of equal concern to orthodox and non-orthodox alike.
What is mind-boggling is that a British court of appeals, which ruled against the school, said that the Jewish community’s ancient tradition of deciding Jewishness through parenthood is ethnically based, discriminatory, and therefore unlawful.
“The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act,” the court said. Whether the reasons were “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist makes it no less and no more unlawful.” In an astonishing ruling, the court said that if the child practiced Judaism, then he is Jewish. But to base the decision on his parents was an unlawful emphasis on ethnicity, rather than on religious faith. One can immediately understand the implications for Jews who are not at all observant. Presumably the British government would not consider them Jews.
Now, let’s put aside for a moment the unbelievable infringement of government on the affairs of a religion and focus instead on the court’s rationale. If you are living in Britain, you become a citizen automatically if your parents are British. Even if you don’t behave particularly British, or hate the country of your birth, the UK cannot take away your passport. Likewise, if you’re an American living abroad, your children automatically acquire American citizenship. I should know because six of my nine children were born in Britain, and even though only one of their parents was American, and was living in Europe to boot, they automatically became Americans.
Even if you never celebrated the Fourth of July or have ever heard of Abraham Lincoln, you and your children are as American as George Washington himself. So is it really that difficult for British judges to understand that peoplehood is conveyed through a parent? The Jews are first and foremost a people and only secondarily a faith. We were the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai and began practicing Judaism’s tenets.
Peoplehood comes first and is completely independent of any kind of religious affirmation. Jewishness is not something that can be lost and it is not something that can be renounced. In this sense, Judaism is radically different from Christianity, which requires a conscious act of affirmation.
While there cannot be atheist Christians, there are plenty of atheist Jews. I am gobsmacked that a British court is challenging this. In my 11 years living in Britain, I never heard anything so outrageous. This ruling constitutes a legal assault on the very integrity of the Jewish religion as practiced in Britain and is a watershed moment in modern Jewish history. And with all the recent stories of British academics seeking to bar their Israeli counterparts from conferences and the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in the British Isles, it will only further cement world opinion that Britain is a country that is becoming hostile to Jews.
Being a people does not make us a homogenous ethic group. There are black Jews and white Jews, European Jews and Asian Jews. Converts of every ethnicity can of course join us at any time. But in so doing they are not adopting a faith but a people. They do not become merely practitioners of the Jewish fait but part of the Jewish family. A convert is transformed from an outsider into a Jewish brother or sister. But the process must of course have standards. To be a British citizen is not an arbitrary act. It takes approximately 10 years of residency. Likewise, my Australian wife’s naturalization as an American citizen took many years of residency and required passing a test of American knowledge. Now just imagine how absurd it would be if the United States told Britain to alter its residency requirements, or vice versa, and you can begin to understand the chutzpa of British judges trying to alter the identity requirements of a three-and-half thousand year faith that is the precursor of Christianity.
Next week, my organization This World: The Values Network will sponsor the first-ever conference on Jewish values. It will feature some of the world’s leading Jewish personalities, including Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Yeshiva University President Richard Joel, Alan Dershowitz, Dennis Prager, Michael Steinhardt, AIPAC president David Victor and Marianne Williamson. Among of our religion’s principle values are community and peoplehood. For thousands of years, dispersed throughout the world, Jews have always looked out for one another. You could turn up in any city, and, regardless of level of observance, you would be invited to someone’s home for the Sabbath and made to feel like family, even though just moments before you were a complete stranger. In light of this outrageous British legal challenge to this time-honored principle of Jewish peoplehood, we will be adding an entire plenary devoted to explicating the special Jewish value of identity and peoplehood and hope that it will assist British Jewry in knowing that they are not alone in this critical battle.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network. To register for The Jewish Values Conference, taking place in NYC on Nov. 17 and 18, go to www.thisworld.us.