This should have been the rabbinical gig of a lifetime: offering a blessing at a presidential inauguration.
Not so fast.
President-elect Trump has invited Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, to offer that blessing.
But, an online petition is urging him to withdraw his participation in the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.
The change.org petition was posted by a Los Angeles businesswoman, Myra Stark. It has nearly 2,000 signatures.
The petition reads:
Hier is the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, named for the heroic Nazi-hunter, and the Museum of Tolerance — normalizing Trump with his participation will turn these organizations into a mockery and be a shame on the Jewish name forever…Apparently, Hier thinks it is acceptable to legitimize and collaborate with a political figure who the KKK is literally marching in the streets to celebrate.
So, should Rabbi Hier deliver his message at the inauguration?
It all depends on what you think the role of religion should be in public life.
It’s biblical. Religion in public life can be either priestly, or prophetic.
In the priestly mode, religion serves as a cheer leader for society. It is the civil religion of prayer breakfasts. It offers comfort and blessings. It mostly sanctifies what is.
In the prophetic mode, religion serves as a critic of society. It is not about prayer breakfasts; it is about protest rallies. It speaks of what should be.
As the Christian author Frederick Buechner once said: “There is no evidence whatsoever of a prophet being invited back a second time for dinner.”
As a congregational rabbi, I mostly function in the priestly role. I offer blessings. I offer comfort – to those who are ill, torn apart, travellers through the valley of the shadow of death.
But, truth be told: I actually favor the prophetic mode.
To paraphrase the social critic H. L. Mencken: The role of religion should be to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.
The role of religion in society is to make us maladjusted.
I am thinking about this, particularly at this season, because of the upcoming birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Because if anyone embodied the prophetic mode in American religious life, it was Dr. King.
I have always cherished these words that he delivered from the pulpit of Temple Israel in Hollywood, California:
This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation; dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives…human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.
Dr. King wanted us to be unable to adjust:
…to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence…
In this delicate moment in history, American Jews do not have the luxury of sitting out the next four years.
Yes, many American Jews are likely to have ongoing problems with the decisions coming out of this new administration.
But this is no time for imagined purity. Yes, politics sullies the hands.
It is a time for presence.
With all due respect for those who wish that he would sit it out, and with all due respect for the values that inform that wish: I believe that Rabbi Hier should give a blessing at the inauguration.
First, the blessing for the government is an integral part of Jewish liturgy and practice.
Remember that moment in Fiddler on the Roof:
Rabbi, is there a proper blessing for the Czar?”
Of course. “May God bless and keep the Czar — far away from us.”
Second, Rabbi Hier represents an organization — the Simon Wiesenthal Center — that stands for values and ideas that are critical for American society today.
Maybe — just maybe — he will give those values their voice on the steps of the capital.
Rabbi Hier has said that his offering would have “a 21st century ring to it.”
With all due respect, we don’t need 21st century right now.
We need 8th century BCE — the tone of the prophets Amos and Isaiah.
What should Rabbi Hier say? After all the usual niceties….
O God of all humanity, O God who calls us into relationship through the divine call for justice and compassion:
We ask that you bless this new president with the ability to perceive the power of his own presence — that he embody David and Solomon, and never Pharaoh and Ahasuerus.
We ask that you bless this new president with the ability to discern the great voices of the American spirit.
We pray that the American presidency will ever be a moral voice, its own light to the nations.
We ask that you bless this new president with the ability to speak out against injustice; against the new wave of hatred against Muslims, immigrants, Jews, LGBT Americans, and others who suffer the sting of Otherness.
Remind him of the covenant that George Washington made with the Jews of Newport: “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Does America have a prayer?
Let’s hope so.