President George W. Bush spoke a lot about G-d in his inaugural address. Predictably the G-d-talk made a lot of Jews nervous. When they hear Christians speaking about G-d, they start battening down the hatches in preparation for the next pogrom.
I’m not among them. Though I did not hear Bush’s address, I found even the written transcript stirring. The words of this born-again Christian were ones with which religious people of all faiths can easily identify, just as Joseph Lieberman’s discussion of his Judaism last summer resonated powerfully with Christian America.
Bush’s description of American history as a "long story" which we all "continue, but whose end we will not see," was lifted straight from the Ethics of Our Fathers. There Rabbi Tarfon describes each Jew as a vital link in a chain from Sinai that began before he was born and will continue after he is gone: "The task is not yours to complete; neither are you free to leave it off."
His characterization of American history as the story of a "flawed and fallible people, united across generations by grand and enduring ideals," could have as easily served as a description of the Jewish people’s relation to Torah.
Believing Jews share Bush’s affirmation of G-d as the Author of history, Who imbues Creation with purpose – a purpose that can only be realized, however, through our fulfillment of our duties to Him and to one another.
All observers of American life from De Toqueville to the present have noted the extent to which America has been defined by the richness of its civil society and private associations far removed from government. George Washington’s Farewell Address stressed the importance of religion to the preservation of civil society, but that civil society need not be inherently religious.
The centrality of a civil society independent of the State was Bush’s primary message. "Compassion," he insisted, is the work of individual citizens, "not just a government." When the spirit of citizenship, a belief in something beyond ourselves, is missing "no government program can replace it," he said.
When civil society is completely absorbed by the State, in either its totalitarian or modern liberal forms, and exclusive responsibility for solving all society’s ills is consigned to the State, the inevitable result will be fewer good people – fewer people called to do small acts of kindness every day with love.
Our Sages taught that the poor man who receives help from a rich man does more for the rich man than the rich man does for him. The poor man provides the rich man with the opportunity to make himself a better person by overcoming his inate selfishness. When taking care of the poor becomes the exclusive province of the State, and yuppie multimillionaires can look themselves contentedly in the mirror, confident of their moral virtue because they voted Democratic or Green, such selfishness will become the norm.
Fifteen years of Martin Peretz’s non-stop panegyrics in the New Republic on the virtues of Al Gore Jr., were wiped out, for me, by a single fact: Gore gives a measly couple hundred bucks a year to charity, despite considerable personal wealth and an annual income of several hundred thousand dollars. I personally know many yeshiva families that give ten times as much annually while struggling to raise many children on less than $2,000 a month.
If American Jews want to understand the danger that lurks in viewing our fellow citizens as the responsibility of the State alone, they need look no further than their own temples and synagogues. Visiting the sick and consoling the bereaved are no longer viewed as mitzvos incumbent upon every Jew, but as part of the rabbi’s pastoral duties. The rabbi has become the agent for the fulfillment of basic mitzvos. As a consequence, traditional Jewish feelings of mutual responsibility have atrophied without any consequent sense of guilt -- "the rabbi is doing it."
Bush’s vision of life in which no person is insignificant because each was created in G-d’s image is neither empty rhetoric nor one that Jews ought to fear. I recently found myself sitting on a flight from Tel Aviv to New York among an interracial church group from Kokomo, Indiana. Never have I experienced such easy camraderie between blacks and whites in America, or felt so optimistic about the potential of people of different backgrounds to acknowledge a common humanity.
In sum, Bush’s address confirmed for me, the wisdom of one prominent rosh yeshiva: Jews are much better off in a Christian America than in an atheist America.