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Post Election Day Thoughts

November 2008
Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
Congregation Rodfei Zedek, Chicago

Last Tuesday night, all the eyes of the world were, quite literally, fixed upon Grant Park in Chicago with hope, joy, wonder, respect, admiration, and anticipation.   Americans have every reason to be proud of this past Election Day.  Our nation and the world know that Americans are truly committed to sharing the American dream across racial, ethnic and religious lines.

An unprecedented enthusiasm about American politicians and American politics now prevails in our country, especially among young people.  The election was amazingly good-spirited.  True, there was plenty of criticism, contention, and even name-calling, but only of the run-of-the-mill kind.  In comparison with past elections, the political climate surround­ing this election was as mild as the whether for late autumn.  Each candidate mentioned the other with graciousness and affection on Election Night.

In this election everyone became enfranchised and an enfranchiser of others.  The very electoral process, its diversity and debate, even votes cast for parties other than the clear winners, made the election of America’s first African-American president, Senator Barack Hussein Obama, all the more authentically American.   Who could not be moved, who could not feel the heartfelt relief, in the words of an African-American woman who blogged, “I am a 65 year old AFRICAN AMERICAN and have always felt like I was just a visitor here, who had to be watched on jobs, in dept. stores etc.  I now feel like I belong.”

I was particularly touched by the comments of Lester Holt, an NBC anchorman who was for a while at Channel 2 here in Chicago.  He said that he called his mother who told him:  “I never thought that I’d see a president who looks like me.”  Channel 7’s political commentator, Andy Shaw, suggested that many Americans cannot imagine that most of the world looks more like Senator Obama than like any of the presidents we have had before.

We recall that at one point during the primaries, Obama decided he had to stop and talk about race, and delivered in Philadelphia a memorable speech on the subject of race.  In the course of those remarks, he referred to the need for whites and blacks to confess racism in thought and word and deed, and to work for that “more perfect union” promised in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.  Yet President-Elect Obama has also acknowledged with gratitude and affection that he was most encouraged that Americans could truly elect an African-American president at the beginning of the primary campaign, after the caucus in Iowa, a state which is less than five per cent black, embraced him and endorsed him and gave him precious campaign points.

We know that transformative discussion of race and color-blind cooperation has only just begun.  We thank Barack Obama for advancing that discussion so graciously and thoughtfully and with such hard work on the campaign trail.  We congratulate him on his victory and on his well-run campaign and on the way he inspired men and women of all races and ages to participate.

We ought to note, however, that the election looked for a while like it was going to get ugly not so much about race, but about age.  Much was made about Senator John McCain’s age and about whether he would live through his first term.  There were magazine photographs touched up to make him look ancient, and the late night comedians were unrelenting on his age, to the point of obnoxiousness.  This was even before he named a controversial running mate.  Never before, not even during the Reagan campaign, when this had been such an issue, had we seen with such vehemence the notion that a person in his or her seventies may be too old to be Commander-in-Chief or to live out a political term.

Some of the attacks on McCain’s age, at least at political forums, were, it is true, counterattacks against the charges that Senator Obama was too inexperienced and untested.  But the assault on age was already present during the Reagan-Mondale campaign.  We recall how then Governor Reagan used this to his advantage when, in the political debate of 1984, he turned it around on Senator Mondale:  "I want you to know also I will not make age an issue of this campaign.  I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.”

This is the first year in recent memory, however, when being older was treated as an outright liability.  In 1960, when John F. Kennedy won the presidency, the concern was quite the opposite: that he was “too young.”  One of the literary gems of our Conservative Movement in Judaism emerged out of that election.  It was a sermon delivered by Rabbi Israel H. Levinthal of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, perhaps the all-time master of traditional (midrashic) Jewish preaching in the English language, on the sixtieth anniversary of his bar mitzvah.  The sermon was entitled, “The Youthful President Kennedy and the Youthfulness of the Biblical Joseph.”  In 1961, it was reprinted in the “U.S. Congressional Record” and later in Levinthal’s fine book, Judaism Speaks to the Modern World. Rabbi Levinthal pointed out that Kennedy, who was forty-three when elected, could hardly be called a naar, a youth, by Talmudic definition, which would not allow a person to be called this after twenty-five or thirty.  Our Sages described Joseph as a “patriarch in wisdom and youthful in years.” Yet the Sages also spoke of older leaders being as enthusiastic and zealous as youth, and of Joshua and Solomon being extremely youthful (naar) at an advanced age.

The point of Rabbi Levinthal’s sermon is that youth and even naivité are not a matter of age, but depend upon the person.  It is wrong and even foolish to judge people by age alone. It is wisdom and the ability to seek wise counsel that count.  When Jack Benny auditioned for the film, The Sunshine Boys, the screen test director told Jack that his walk was too youthful.  “Remember, you’re supposed to walk like you’re eighty years old.”  Jack answered, “But that’s the way I walk, and I am eighty years old.”

I remember that in my first year as a rabbi, in New Haven, I visited a woman in the hospital who was a secretary.  She confided in me, “Rabbi, I am alone and well into my seventies.  I color my hair because if my bosses knew how old I really was, they would let me go.”  Our society has to learn to deal better with age, even as we must learn to be color-blind.  I am not saying that the problems are the same.  It is clear that the most suffering in our society has been due to racial prejudice, and every member of society, young and old, has been affected.  But young and old are affected by prejudice against the aged, as well.

As it happens, in this morning’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, an old man, Abraham, is called to leadership.  His career really begins at age 99.  Abraham is a member of a people which is totally disenfranchised, who are at best wandering visitors, called Hebrews, perhaps from the Hebrew ever, for “crossing over from the other side.”  In many ways his story protests against anyone being treated as an “other sider,” from the other side of the tracks, from a less enfranchised group, whether for reasons of race or of age.

But are we to interpret the Abraham story as saying that older leaders are better leaders?

Not according to Rabbinic tradition. Our Sages tells us that when God promised Abraham, “I will make of thee a great nation, and bless thee, and make thy name great,” God saw to it that Abraham immediately had a coin, a seal, a sign of prominence in the ancient world.  And what was the effigy on this coin?  It was, the Rabbis say, an old man and an old woman on one side and a young man and a young woman on the other side.”

Here is a beautiful paradigm for our society, as we welcome a new President, Barack Hussein Obama.  President-Elect Obama himself observed in his Grant Park speech that “young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled” are all Americans “who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States:  we are, and always will be, the United States of America.”  Particularly moving to me were the many young African-Americans interviewed in various media who said, as if in chorus, that the first thing they did upon hearing the election results was to call grandparents and even great-grandparents and to congratulate them.

The mandate of our Jewish and American traditions is to pray for our new President and his family and to unite in support of him and to assist him in all his worthy endeavors for our country, as well as to advocate for causes and policies that we consider worthy and against causes and policies that we, as citizens, consider unworthy.  God grant President Obama wisdom, strength, health and long life, and every blessing to him and to his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia Ann and Sasha, and to America and to the world! Amen.

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