Who are Jewish Role Models Today?
This article, written by Joseph Aaron, appeared in The Chicago Jewish News, August 3, 2017
“…who are the Jewish role models of our time, who lives a life, acts in ways that exemplify the best in Judaism, that inspire the rest of us to better ourselves, act more honorably….Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former head of the Reform movement, showed amazing courage in speaking up and standing up for what is right, for valuing Jewish tradition, for insisting that all Jews be treated with dignity and that all Jewish points of view be respected.”
Harry Truman was a racist and an anti-Semite.
Now a good part of that came from the times and place in which he lived. It was pretty common place for people in Independence, Missouri in the early 1900s to not think kindly of Jews or African Americans.
But whatever the reason or the excuse for it, it’s pretty clear it was very ingrained in President Truman. We know that thanks to the diary he kept while he was in the White House, a diary in which he said some very not nice things about the Jewish people and the Jewish character.
And yet President Truman was the man who ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, a very courageous thing to do back in 1947, when allowing blacks into the American military was not a popular thing to do.
And, as we all know, it was President Truman who officially recognized the statehood of Israel, a mere 11 minutes after it was declared in 1948. For the most powerful country on earth to not only recognize the Jewish state but to do so dramatically by doing it so quickly was extremely important in establishing Israel’s legitimacy.
And doing what he did took real courage. His entire State Department opposed the move, the United States was still a country where anti-Semitism was pervasive and not very hidden. And it took special courage because George Marshall, the man who Truman admired more than any other, vehemently opposed him recognizing Israel, so much so that he said if Truman did so, Marshall would not vote for him in the upcoming 1948 election.
And yet despite all that opposition, and despite his own anti-Semitism, Truman did what he did, something for which all Jews should be grateful.
And so it was a racist who integrated the armed forces and an anti-Semite who recognized Israel. Which tells you everything you need to know about the office of president.
Truman did not allow his personal feelings to get in the way of what he thought was the right thing to do as president. He revered the office and understood it called for him to act in noble ways, he understood he was representing American values and so must act accordingly.
That is the majesty of the office, that it is far bigger than whoever holds it, that it calls on whoever holds it to behave a certain way, to stand for certain things, to embody the very best in American principles.
I feel the same way about Judaism. I have often said that it is the responsibility of every Jew, especially of every public Jew, to remember that they are representing not only themselves in whatever they do but they are representing all of us, they are representing Judaism and the Jewish people.
It’s why I so respect baseball greats Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, neither of whom was at all religious or particularly involved in things Jewish, but each of whom understood whoever you are as a person is only part of the story. If you are a Jew then you must act like one and so just as Truman the racist and anti-Semite put his personal beliefs aside to do what American beliefs called for him to do, so Greenberg, who didn’t go to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, refused to play on Rosh Hashanah, so Koufax, who didn’t go to the synagogue on Yom Kippur, refused to pitch on Yom Kippur.
Donald Trump’s greatest failing is that he is not a role model, indeed he is just the opposite. He tells Boy Scouts that Washington is a sewer, tells cops to rough up suspects, hires the despicable Anthony Scaramucci and enjoys watching him spew profanity to attack White House officials. You know the part of the Scaramucci tirade that bothered me most was not that Trump enjoyed the ugliness aimed at Reince Priebus but that he thought Priebus “weak” for not responding in kind.
In any case, I’m not here to waste more time on Trump. What the Truman and Trump examples got me to thinking about is who are the Jewish role models of our time, who lives a life, acts in ways that exemplify the best in Judaism, that inspire the rest of us to better ourselves, act more honorably.
Truman and Trump got me thinking: who are the Jewish role models today, who lives a life, acts in ways that exemplify the best in JudaismClick to tweet
I’m frankly having a hard time coming up with anyone. We live in a world where Sheldon Adelson, Jared Kushner and Alan Dershowitz rule, G-d help us. There was a time the prime minister of Israel would be someone we could look up to. Ben-Gurion, Golda, Menachem Begin, Rabin. Like him or not, I don’t think too many would say that Bibi represents our highest ideals, considering that he is at this moment being investigated in two separate criminal cases, and that his personal attorney just spent some time under house arrest.
There was a time when Elie Weisel was seen to fill that role and for a time he did. Sadly toward the end of his life he too disappointed us, first by getting tangled up with Bernie Madoff trying to get rich quick, then by forcing the censorship of a play that Wiesel felt made him look bad, then by refusing an offer to become president of Israel.
There are three rabbis that come to mind, though one is no longer with us and one has retired. The Lubavicher Rebbe embodied the Jewish teaching to love all Jews, by reaching out to all Jews all over the world and by presenting them with a positive upbeat vision of what being a Jew is all about.
And Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former head of the Reform movement, showed amazing courage in speaking up and standing up for what is right, for valuing Jewish tradition, for insisting that all Jews be treated with dignity and that all Jewish points of view be respected.
Thankfully we still do have alive and active Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of England, who is not only a brilliant scholar but who is able to clearly and engagingly show us what Judaism is all about and who uses modern forms of communication to spread Jewish teachings and who is open to seeing the wisdom in all Jewish denominations.
Truth is though that other than Rabbi Sacks, I literally cannot think of any other Jew today who is a role model, who shows us the beauty of Judaism by how he acts. Of course there are many wonderful Jews doing many wonderful Jewish things, but I am talking about public Jews, about prominent Jews in the community who we can all look up to, who is a walking and talking example for all of us to follow.
I’d be very interested to hear if you think any Jew today fits that bill. I’d appreciate if you would email me with any names you would suggest and the reason you do so. Please drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.