Building and forfeiting legacies
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OpinionI’VE BEEN THINKING

Building and forfeiting legacies

There are certain rabbinic saying that have become so well-known that they are commonly heard not only in the beit midrash and from the pulpit but also around the Shabbat table. Hillel is known for such statements, with one of his most famous being “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.” (Shabbat 31a)

But that’s not the saying that speaks to me as I sit down to write this column. Rather, I’m thinking of the aphorism of Rav Yehudah HaNassi (Rebbe) that yesh koneh olamo besha’ah achat – “people can acquire their share in the World-to-Come in one moment.” (Avoda Zara 18a)

This statement of aggadah (the nonlegal or narrative material in rabbinic literature) mainly has theological/moral teachings rather than halachic ones. One that resonates with me today is that a person can build a positive legacy based on only a few truly virtuous acts or perhaps even a single one. There is, though, an important corollary – that one can destroy any positive legacy with a single or a few truly harmful acts.

My thoughts about these teachings were sparked while watching the still-ongoing (as I write this) January 6th hearings and reading about several recent Supreme Court decisions including, and especially, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. that overturned the constitutional right to abortion. Allow me to spell this out.

I’ve made no secret of my antipathy toward former president Trump. As I’ve written, he disgraced, over and over again, the office he held and the country he led. His presidency was a dark four years, during which our very democracy was placed in jeopardy.

And then, thank God (words I don’t often use in my columns), he was defeated in a fair and democratic election. He lost the popular vote by a substantial majority, and his 2020 Electoral College loss was as decisive as his 2016 victory. You needn’t believe me since his numerous, though often frivolous, lawsuits challenging the election results were rejected time and again on the law and the facts. Thus, to claim that the election was unfair and that Trump won is appropriately called the Big Lie.

Nonetheless, despite his defeat at the polls and in the courts, for the first time in our nation’s history a president refused to follow the sacred tradition, established by George Washington, of an orderly transfer of power. Rather, inventing conspiracy theories and spreading lies, he and his cabal continued to falsely claim that he won the election and devised and participated in unconstitutional and criminal plans to thwart the will of the people and illegitimately retain power.

Tragically, Trump’s actions and those of his supporters culminated in the January 6, 2021 violent invasion of the Capitol where, at his instigation, his followers stormed the nation’s seat of government causing death and mayhem, and almost stopped the counting of the presidential electors. We’ve learned from the hearings just how close we came to becoming a tin-pot dictatorship.

But, thank God (again), Trump’s treachery ultimately failed. And one reason it did– which brings me back to Rebbe’s teaching – is people like Liz Cheney.

Cheney, Wyoming’s sole member of the House, is a strong conservative Republican. I, an equally strong liberal Democrat, disagree with her on most policy issues. Though she’s been touted in certain quarters as a possible future presidential candidate, I strongly doubt that I could ever vote for her.

And yet, if there were elections for a Profiles in Courage award, Cheney would win my vote hands down. Putting conscience over career, the American people over party, decency over dishonesty, truth over Trump, impartiality over insurrection, and sanity over sedition, she seriously risked her professional life by combating the Big Lie and becoming a major leader in the fight to uncover the evils of the insurrection and what led up to it. Through her difficult and vitally important and virtuous work, she has truly established an ever-lasting legacy to be proud of.

In many great historical hearings like the January 6th one, a single statement often encapsulates its meaning and importance. In the McCarthy hearings it was Joseph Welch turning to McCarthy and saying: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” At the Watergate hearings, it was Senator Howard Baker’s question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” And while it’s too early to know what history will choose from our current hearings, I offer for consideration this statement by Cheney: “I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”

There are others who acted courageously after the election and are helping the January 6th committee in its work. Only a few – and I’m thinking mainly of Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois; Cassidy Hutchinson, until last week a little-known Congressional aide; and unrecognized election workers like Shaye Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman – deserve to be in the pantheon of heroes with Cheney. Others also merit some praise for acting bravely under pressure and putting their jobs at risk, though for many it followed years of enabling Trump while for yet others it was followed by expressions of continuing support of the disgraced former president. So for them, praise but no pantheon.

Most, however, merely did what they are legally required to do – respond to subpoenas, produce documents, and testify truthfully under oath. Considering that many Trumpists have not done even that, those who did act, if only briefly, as men and women of honor, have earned a tincture of merit that might add a trace of polish to their tarnished legacy. But let’s not confuse them with Liz Cheney.

And then, in the midst of the hearings, SCOTUS handed down Dobbs. It wasn’t unexpected, of course, since we learned from the leaked draft opinion all we needed to know. I’ve already written about that draft and the reactions to it by some Orthodox organizations (“Wading into Dangerous Waters”). I won’t repeat what I wrote there, though I will note two post-Dobbs events. First, my friend Art, rereading my earlier column, wrote me accurately that the situation is “sadder now that ‘reality’ has set in.” Second, the Rabbinical Council of America, which had been wisely silent in reaction to the leak, issued a statement that I, a proud Modern Orthodox Jew, find deeply flawed in tone, American legal history, and its (mis)understanding of the relationship between halacha and the American legal system.

But what I didn’t discuss in my earlier column, and what links Dobbs, the January 6th hearings, and Rebbe’s message, is SCOTUS’s legacy and how it’s being impacted by that case and at least two others decided at the end of this term: New York Rifle and Pistol Assoc. v. Bruen (allowing even more unlicensed guns in public), and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (allowing a football coach to publicly kneel and pray on the school’s fifty-yard line after a game in view of his players and the media).

When I think of the Supreme Court, I think of an institution that cares about rights, about people, and about the real-life impact the results of its decisions will have on those affected by its rulings; the Supreme Court that in Brown helped end segregation, that in Engel protected non-Christian students from Christian public school prayer, that in Lawrence freed gay people from criminal sanctions, that in Loving and Obergefell allowed people of different races and of the same sex to marry, that in Gideon and Miranda ensured arrested poor people legal counsel and the same rights that the wealthy always enjoyed. And there are so many more cases in which SCOTUS protected the poor, the weak, the fragile, and others often ignored and mistreated by the powerful. That is a legacy to be proud of.

But now, a reactionary majority, champing at the bit to undo this majestic inheritance that has been built over my lifetime, has begun to take away precious rights and  improperly make other rights supreme. The rights of non-persons trump the rights of real women, by eliminating abortion’s constitutional protection and placing it under the aegis of state governments kowtowing to evangelical Christian doctrine. Gun rights trump the right of people to live in safety in a country where young men, wielding guns because of our courts’ blind subservience to a supposed Second Amendment right, slaughter Black people in supermarkets, Jews in synagogues, and children in classrooms. Religious rights trump health concerns during a pandemic and cause students to lose their right to be free from coercive religious practices.

Women are frightened but Alito doesn’t care. Parents of non-Christian public school students are frightened but Gorsuch doesn’t care. New Yorkers are frightened but Thomas doesn’t care. And from my personal religious perspective, organizations that purportedly represent me and speak for me and Torah also don’t seem to care. Indeed, some even applaud this regression to an earlier, and in some ways uglier, era, without subtlety or a clear understanding of the errors, dangers, and pitfalls of their self-described nuanced statements.

Liz Cheney burnished her legacy over the last year. The Supreme Court tarnished its this past week.

Perhaps I was wrong when I noted at the beginning of this column that the teaching that speaks to me today is Rebbe’s and not Hillel’s. Perhaps both do because they’re related in an important way. Hillel instructs us not to do hateful things; Rebbe teaches us the results, positive and negative, of following, and not following, Hillel’s lesson. Our country would have been spared so much angst and pain had the Court’s new majority truly thought about what is hateful to women whose lives may someday be put at serious risk; about what is hateful to their neighbors who may be put in danger because of yet more of guns in the public arena; about what is hateful to non-Christian public school children because of coercion or exclusion. If only.

Those who enabled Trump, who caused and participated in the insurrection, and who are now still trying to cover up their crimes, deserve the ignominy that I pray will be their fate. But I have always expected so much more from the Supreme Court and, indeed, my expectations were rewarded for many years. But no longer. Sadly, no longer.

Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.

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