Precious, Precarious Democracy

27 CHESHVAN // NOVEMBER 13, 2020

This Yom Kippur, I spoke about what it takes to be civic mensches
the act of civilly, actively engaging in the creation of society.
This drash is civic mensches 2.0—
what it takes to build a healthy democracy.
Tonight, I will share a series of teachings on democracy
from a variety of Jewish voices.
Just hearing these voices is itself an act of democracy,
as democracy is founded on the will of many voices.
Voices sometimes come together to make decisions,
or sometimes simply in the cacophony of the public square,
or sometimes, as I hope for tonight, they come together
to create greater meaning and purpose for the way forward.

Many a great Jewish thinker have
contemplated the value of democracy.
Tonight, I will share with you some quotations
that have been powerful for me.
Tonight, I will also humbly submit my own thoughts,
and talk to you about why I am particularly concerned
about this current societal moment.

Before I begin, you are invited 
to think about –
how living in a democracy sustains you,
how living in a democracy impacts you and your family.
As I introduce some great Jewish thinkers,
I invite you to consider:
What about your own thinking on this topic?

I want to begin by introducing you to…
Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Justice on the Supreme Court.
In speaking about U.S. democracy and the Jews’ place in it,
he shared these words in 1915:
***“Not since the destruction of the Temple
have the Jews in spirit and in ideals
been so fully in harmony
with the noblest aspirations of the country
in which they lived.”***

Ame-rika, Ame-rika.
How free we are to live in Ame-rika.
Jews are so attuned to this country and its ideals.
This is, in part, because there is a strong symbiosis
between Jews and democracy,
in Jewish thought and in Jewish living.
Democracy has been good for us.
Where the alternatives to democracy
helped demagogues and dictators
take far too many a Jewish life,
or marginalize our existences,
modern democracies have
preserved and sustained Jewish lives,
giving us opportunities
to live those lives with abundant freedoms.
Jews can unequivocally say
that democracy has been “good for the Jews.”
What a precious gift.

It is a gift that many in our society
have taken for granted or forgotten.
With sadnesses at his recent passing last Shabbat,
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
was one of the great thinkers, theologians,
and spiritual leaders of the modern era,
may his memory be for a blessing.
In his final book
Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times,
the former British Chief Rabbi wrote:
***“A free society is a moral achievement.
Over the past fifty years in the West
this truth has been forgotten, ignored, or denied.
That is why today liberal democracy is at risk.”***

This week, five major rabbis and pillars
of the U.S. Jewish community,
spanning the denominational world,
Rabbis Sharon Brous, Laura Geller, Jack Moline, Shmuly Yanklowitz, and Sid Schwarz,
co-authored a shared piece
encouraging rabbis to speak up
against the current degradation of this precious gift.
They wrote: “In every other election in American history,
the defeated candidate conceded the contest and,
in so doing, committed to the peaceful transition of power
that is the hallmark of a functioning democracy…
This is no longer a partisan issue. It is a moral issue.”

Tomorrow, white supremacist organizations are leading
a march in D.C. and across the nation
to fight for what they are calling their “stolen election.”
It is both not surprising, and also terrifying
that white supremacists lead this charge.

I do not take for granted in our politically diverse community
who our members choose to vote for.
Voting is a personal right of the highest order.
I respect that. I am here to listen, to learn,
and to bridge the divisions among us.

Yet, there are times to speak up.
And the preservation
of free and fair elections are a time to speak up.
There has been no evidence whatsoever
of meaningful voter fraud in this election.
In the face of lies and deceit,
we must tell the truth,
in order to uphold our rights and freedoms.
Jews have a vested, life-affirming,
and sacred interest in a healthy democracy.

Back in September,
I was having a conversation
with my rabbi and friend, Rim Meirowitz,
about the state of modern democracy.
Facetiously, he responded:
“Democracy is overrated.
Only people I agree with should be in charge.”
He went on to say that
“all of us like a democractic process when we win.
But to be a civic mensch means that even when we lose,
we must still feel a part of the common good.”

The greatness of a healthy democracy
comes from the will of the people,
whether we agree or disagree with the outcome.
It is the ultimate sign that even when we do not feel represented,
we are still culpable and responsible for each other.

But a true and free democracy comes from personal agency.
From a feeling and from actions that say,
as I heard this week from Rabbi David Stern:
“Every day is an election day.”
Meaning, every day I have a choice to be civically minded.
“Everyday I get to elect compassion.
Everyday I get to elect justice.”
Everyday I get to stand up
for the rights and responsibilities passed down to me,
that I then get to refine, make more perfect,
and hand off to the next generation.

This is our task.
To stand up for our shared responsibility to each other,
and to the democratic will of the people.
It is good for the Jews,
meaning it is good for us to do so,
for it is good for us, for our lives, when we do so.
This democractic project is precious. And it is precarious.
May we hold it in the palms of our hands and nurture it in life.