You know the old joke about the psychiatrists: Two shrinks meet in an elevator. One says, “Hello.” The other thinks, “I wonder what he meant by that?”
Every year I enjoy parsing the Rosh Hashana greetings sent out by politicians, and every year I feel like the second psychiatrist. Sometimes a greeting is just a greeting. But it’s an election year, and it’s fun, if not always illuminating, to compare and contrast the two campaigns’ messages.
Let’s start with Mitt Romney’s greeting, in some ways the more transparent of the two. It begins with the personal, calling the High Holy Days “a time for humility and reflection” and a time “to think about how we can improve our lives in years ahead.”
“Improve our lives” is an interesting line. In Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur is about teshuva — bettering one’s self, atoning for past sins, vowing to do better. I don’t think Romney is referring to this personal process of repentance. When his stump speech refers to “who we will become tomorrow,” Romney is talking about national prosperity, not individual soul-searching. Only later in the greeting does he add that the High Holy Days “inspire us to become better people,” reinforcing the interpretation that “improve our lives” is about prosperity and the general welfare.
(As Adam Gopnik recently wrote in The New Yorker, the “gospel of prosperity” is central not only to Romney’s brand of Mormonism but to “almost every American religion.”)
President Obama’s message, by contrast, interprets the Holy Days in a surprisingly introspective way. “[T]he Jewish Tradition teaches us that one of the most important duties we have during this period is the act of reconciliation,” he says. “We’re called to seek each other out and make amends for those moments when we may not have lived up to our values as well as we should.”
It’s the rare presidential greeting that references teshuva as explicitly as this (like many American Jews, politicians prefer to dwell on the happier, may-you-live-and-be-well aspects of the season). Could Obama be reaching out to his critics in the Jewish community? Maybe not: The next paragraph suggests we all must do teshuva, specifically for partisan bickering; it references a “time when our public discourse can too often seem harsh; when society too often focuses on what divides us instead of what unites us.”
On Israel, Romney is more effusive. Romney recalls his recent trip to Jerusalem, and calls Israel a “remarkable country” and a “vibrant healthy democracy where entrepreneurship is encouraged, the economy is thriving, and innovation infuses nearly every aspect of society.” He’s not done. Israel, he says, is “among America’s best friends and closest allies in the world and I believe no one should ever doubt this basic truth: A free and strong America will always stand with a free and strong Israel.”
Here’s the Israel reference in Obama’s greetings: “And as a nation, let us be mindful of those who are suffering, and renew the unbreakable bond we share with our friends and allies — including the State of Israel.”
It’s an awkward sentence all around, and if it were my campaign I would have sent it back for a rewrite. “Renew” suggests the unbreakable bond has been broken, and the “including” sounds like an afterthought. I was perhaps the first to suggest that Obama needed to convince American Jews that he feels Israel in his “kishkes,” and this is not the way to go about it.
But perhaps Obama’s people have been reading the polls showing that most American Jews don’t place Israel as their top election issue. In a recent survey of Ohio Jewish voters by the American Jewish Committee, the economy, health care, and national security all beat Israel as the “top issues of concern.” Combine this with the liberal views held by most Jewish voters, and Obama may have felt that it was less important to emphasize pro-Israel sentiments than it was to promote “tikun olam,” as he does in this sentence: “I hope that Americans of all faiths can take this opportunity to reach out to those who are less fortunate; to be tolerant of our neighbors; and to recognize ourselves in one another.”
Romney’s statement doesn’t allude to what many rabbis like to call the “social justice” agenda; rather, he applauds the Jewish community for having “helped build our economy, helped defend our freedoms, and helped earn our special place in history.” For economic conservatives, a strong economy is a social justice agenda.
In general, the two greetings support what we pretty much know about the two candidates and the appeals they are making to Jews. Romney wants to position himself as the more pro-Israel candidate and regards Israel as a key to winning Jewish voters. Obama, while happy to point out all he has done to strengthen U.S.-Israel economic and security ties, seems constitutionally averse to gushing (or is it pandering?) on the issue. Romney believes in the Republican gospel of prosperity and economic “freedom”; the Democratic president will more readily reference the “less fortunate” and the language of tolerance.
I am off to Israel next week to take part in the Three Faiths, One Land mission of the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope and Peace. I will be blogging daily about the trip at njjewishnews.com/justASC/.