In Jewish tradition, the Tree of Life, the name of the synagogue where an anti-Semite with an AR-15 killed 11 worshipers, is the Torah. For example, the final song before closing the synagogue ark after reading from the Torah calls the Torah a “tree of life. The passage goes ”It is a tree of life onto them that lay hold of it, and happy is every one that retaineth it.” (from the 1958 Hebrew Publishing Company edition of the Synagogue Service New Year and Atonement)
The Torah—or the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch, as it is also known—records the mythic history of the Jewish people from the birth of the universe through the exodus from Egypt and the wandering in the desert for 40 years before entering the Holy Land. But beyond the narrative, the Tree of Life is a guide for how to live one’s life. Rabbis have identified 613 specific commandments in the five books, most of which have been subject over the centuries to repeated interpretation to bring them up to date to cover situations, technologies and times that have changed dramatically since the original writing of the Torah, about 2,600 years ago. Each time someone follows any one of the 613 commandments, he or she performs a “mitvah,” a good deed. The idea of the Torah as a book of action as much as a book of history is central to all branches of Judaism.
I don’t believe I’m wrong to propose that action in the world—be it prayer, acts of kindness or bravery of making your voice known, dominates the way Jews live in the world, be they Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or atheist. Moses stresses the importance of acting in the world in his very last speech to the Jewish people, at the end of Deuteronomy. I’m going to give two translations, first the standard one you can find on the internet: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law.”
Now the slightly more formal translation in the 1962 Jewish Publication Society of America translation: “Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching.”
There’s a double message here. First that our salvation and our objectives on earth can only manifest themselves through action. It doesn’t matter what you say or what you think. You are judged on what you do. It sounds very existential to me, which may explain why so many atheists of Jewish background insist they are good Jews and that there are a number of Synagogues for atheist Jews across the country.
The second message is just as clear: Our actions should depend on the real world—the things that are revealed. This affirmation of science and the application of facts stands in stark opposition to certain other religions that expect us to ignore facts in favor of faith, which, as Emily Dickinson once pointed out, “is a fine invention when gentlemen can see, but microscopes are prudent in an emergency.”
The countdown of the 2018 midterm election has seen so many truly disturbing events that the more religious among us may have come to believe we are living in apocalyptic times. The brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi; the wave of pipe bombs sent to public figures whom Donald Trump has constantly demonized in speeches and tweets; the racist murder of two African-Americans outside a supermarket in Kentucky; the dreadful Tree of Life slaughter. Many others probably feel as I do—as if I’m on the ropes of a fight ring and am being hit on the jaw time and again by a heavyweight boxer. That the violent and hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump and the Trumpites running for office has engendered an atmosphere of permission for the crimes and hate speech is hard to dispute. Since the latest mass murder and hate crimes, Trump and his administration have put the pedal to the metal in advocating various forms of racism both directly and using coded language and action. In talking with Pittsburgh Jewish leaders, Trump said that he, like them, likes to negotiate, an anti-Semitic slur. Mike Pence invited a spiritual leader who is a Jew for Jesus to pretend to be a rabbi and give a speech at a memorial ceremony for the Tree of Life dead, a poke in the eye to virtually every Jew. Trump used his authoritarian streak to ratchet up the hate when he asserted that he could overrule the 14th amendment and outlaw birthright citizenship with an executive order. We wake up each morning asking ourselves, what fresh hell will come today?
While the Torah is clear that we shouldn’t wait around for a miracle of faith, but act, its writers could not have anticipated the complex challenges of a post-industrial world in which the ultra-wealthy have made a devil’s pact with racists and the authoritarian right. But I infer a very clear application of the Torah’s message: Vote, and do not vote for liars and those who dispute scientific truth.
Scientific truth, of course includes a belief in global warming and the idea that racial constructs are meaningless. It includes an understanding that immigrants—legal and illegal—raise the wages and employment of everyone and commit fewer crimes than the native born. It recognizes that single-payer universal healthcare leads to lower healthcare costs; that lowering taxes on the wealthy does not create jobs; and that the more guns in a society, the more people are killed and injured by guns. It dismisses outrageous lies like the Saudi arms deal will create a million jobs, the caravan of refugees 900 miles from the border represents a national threat, or the United States is the only country to grant birthright citizenship. It discounts all racial and cultural stereotyping. In other words, to vote for truth requires us to reject Trumpism in its whole and its parts.
For Americans of good faith, be they Jewish or non-Jewish, believers or atheists, that means one thing and one thing only: wherever you are, vote straight line Democratic. I know that no Democrat will align exactly with your positions, but 2018 is one year when must vote by party, not individual, if we are to defeat the evil of Trumpism. Hold your nose and cast your ballot for that imperfect candidate, as long as she/he is a Democrat. The future of our country depends on it.
And you’d be doing a mitzvah.