2017 has not started off kindly for Jewish Americans. A menorah in Phoenix was vandalized, a rabbinical school was defaced, and a march was scheduled to antagonize and harass a Jewish community in Montana. Yet, one event on the horizon may or may not change the way the American public views the Jewish community, and it may or may not even be a good idea.
Rabbi Marvin Hier is scheduled to deliver the benediction at the inauguration for Donald Trump on January 20th. Hier is the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization that describes itself as an international Jewish Rights institution. He is also the founder of the Museum of Tolerance.
For a rabbi to have an opportunity to stand in front of the country and offer words of inspiration and Torah would be an incredible honor, and serve the American Jewish community well. For several years in the early 1900s, a rabbi speaking at the swearing-in was a mainstay. Since 1985, though, no rabbi has been involved in delivering a benediction. In a vacuum, this would be an ideal situation for Hier to make a statement, both verbally and visually, of the strength and vitality of the Jewish community in this country.
With an inauguration as volatile and contentious as this one, though, Hier finds himself in a troubling situation. Donald Trump has just finished a presidential campaign rife with conflict, and left huge populations of Americans feeling disenfranchised, marginalized, or threatened. The future is a scary one for those seeking religious tolerance, and a man in the business of working to create tolerance could be in a very difficult spot.
Rabbi Hier must serve the American Jewish people by demonstrating what it looks like to be a soldier of peace, and a creator of tolerance. That could come in one of two ways.
On the one hand, Rabbi Hier could deliver opening words that bring the country together. He could speak about the importance of healing, of looking out for one another. He could demand that the incoming administration take seriously the call for all Americans to be treated with respect and given a chance to be successful. And he could insist that Donald Trump use his new position to make great the lives of all Americans, not simply the ones who match his worldview.
On the other hand, Rabbi Hier is in a position to use his selection to make an even greater statement: he could step back and refuse to speak at all. By refusing to speak, he would be telling the world that the man taking over as Commander-In-Chief has failed to live up to Jewish values, and isn’t worthy of the words of a man who uses Torah to make the world a better place. In an act of public commitment to what is right, he has the opportunity to demonstrate the American Jews will not stand for the kinds of injustices that have been suggested over the past two years.
Regardless of what Rabbi Hier chooses to do, he cannot duck the responsibility. He cannot deliver toothless words that do not demand that the world do better. He cannot afford to offer pleasantries and sweet nothings when the world is looking to him to speak out for those without a voice.
A benediction is an opportunity to take a moment and reflect upon the holiness of a moment, to connect with one another and with God. On Friday, Rabbi Hier must use the microphone to either make a very important statement in the name of Tolerance, or not say anything at all.