Partisanship: What We Can Learn from 1st Century Judea

Sermon delivered February 5, 2010, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Ecclesiastes, whom our sages identify as King Solomon himself, wrote, Ayn shum hadash tahat ha-shamesh, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Though the ancient Israelite King wasn’t writing about debilitating partisanship, he might as well have been. From the earliest recorded history of our people, strong divisions marked Israel’s political life. Whole books of the Bible are believed to have been written to bolster, or to attack, the rule of King David or his son Solomon. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom collapsed, with two rival rulers, one in the north and the other in the south, leading the Children of Israel in two entirely different directions. After sniping at one another strongly for a couple of centuries, with kings and prophets taking one side or the other, the northern kingdom, known as Israel, was destroyed, once and for all, in 722 B.C.E. The surviving realm, based around Jerusalem in the south, was known as Yehudah, or Judea; thus do we come by our name as the Jewish people.

Like any nation, Judea went through its ups and downs over the centuries, from destruction to rebuilding, from degradation to victory. By the first century B.C.E., and especially in the first century of the Common Era, Judea was in real trouble. You see, our ancestors’ land was occupied by the Roman Empire. The Romans were eager to expand their conquests in far-flung corners of the realm. Heavy taxes and crippling persecutions were heaped upon Judea, as the Romans sought to suck every penny out of a poor possession to finance their empire-building abroad.

Different groups, perhaps we should call them parties, of Jews, had different solutions to the problems of Judea. The Tzaddokim, known in Greek as Sadducees, were made up of the Priests and their supporters. Corrupt in their long-entrenched Temple power, the Sadducees sought to consolidate their authority, telling their fellow Judeans that the future could only be secured through strict adherence to the prescribed sacrificial service at the Temple. Some Jews believed that salvation could never be found in this world. They sought a better life only after death, which was an entirely new idea to our people at that time. Some of these Jews listened to the followers of Jesus, who believed that their mentor had found salvation after death and was promising the same to all who would listen. Still other leaders in First Century Judea pointed to the Torah. While God’s Instruction had been around for centuries, nobody had sought to interpret and live by all its words. These people, called Pharisees in Greek, became the Rabbis.

Arguing about whether the Torah should be followed may sound absurd. However, that’s what happened. The Sadducees were so intent to perpetuate their own power that they would not permit observance outside the Temple. A more dangerous party interceded: hard-liners who sought to oppose the Romans with whatever scant military power they had. The people of Judea were utterly disunited. Chaos reigned among the people at a time when they required unity like never before. The Romans finally got fed up with the Judeans’ ever-changing and foolishly oppositional response to Roman rule. The Romans generally did not wreak further violence upon territories they had already conquered. The Judeans, though, had become too much for the Romans to bear. In the 60s of the Common Era, the Romans fought a brutal war against Judea, killing much of the population, famously massacring a band of hold-outs at Masada, and ultimately destroying the Temple in the year 70. The Kingdom of Judea was no more, with sovereignty not to return to our people in the Holy Land for nearly 1900 years.

When the rabbis reflected back on the tragedy of the year 70, including the destruction of the great Temple in Jerusalem, they judged the defeat to be God’s punishment for “groundless hatred’ between different groups of Jews. Excessive and destructive partisanship destroyed the kingdom of Judea, just as it threatens to weaken the United States of America today.

Our country does not, thankfully, face the same kind of military onslaught or devastating poverty confronted by our ancient ancestors. As a result, many of our truly serious problems are obscured, even if they are hidden in plain sight.

The costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security continue to soar. These programs permit our country to provide important and much-needed benefits to older Americans and to the poor and disabled. However, at the same time, they threaten to bankrupt our nation. When people talk about our national debt, about the growing extent to which our country is mortgaged to China and other nations around the world, they are generally talking about the costs required to continue funding Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security at levels required by today’s laws.

Successive Presidents have warned about the dangers of failing to reform these huge federal entitlements. President Bush suggested creating private health savings accounts and permitting individuals to invest their Social Security funds. President Obama has insisted that health care reform is required, not only to provide for the tens of millions of Americans who lack access to health care, but also to bring the costs under control.

Everybody seems to agree that the current state of health care in America is a danger to our country’s future. Democrats and Republicans agree. And they agree on one more defining point: neither party is willing to permit the other party to get the credit for solving the problem.

We have seen the worst of the worst in the last year, from both parties, as the crisis has only worsened.

Democrats haughtily imagined that their super-majorities would permit Democrats alone to pass any legislation on which they could agree. Cynically and secretly, despite the President’s campaign promise of openness, they cobbled together an awful bill. That proposal including paying off the entire State of Nebraska, the stated bribe required to win the vote from the Democratic Senator of a given state. Some went future, compromising deeply-held principles, to achieve a bill, any bill, Democrats only. An example, sadly, is our own Ciro Rodriguez, who cast his first-ever anti-abortion vote in order to help achieve an all-Democrat Bill that wouldn’t get him booted from office.

Yes, the Democrats behaved shamefully. But what of the Republicans? For a time, Senator Snowe of Maine – and earlier, others, such as Senator Grassley – seemed to be engaging in the negotiations. They were roundly criticized by their Republican colleagues. The general Republican sentiment was clearly articulated by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who said that health care reform would be President Obama’s Waterloo. The clear message was that Republicans were not to cooperate in attempting to compromise and create a bipartisan bill. Instead, Republicans’ job was to turn President Obama away empty-handed.

That strategy spells trouble for America, even for one who agrees that the health care reform proposal was not a good one. If one party’s answer is nothing other than “no,” then how are we ever going to be out of debt? How will we ever pay the bill coming due for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, as the “Baby Boomer” generation ages? If we cannot come together to confront our problems, our nation is doomed.

We have seen a great and strong country fall. The Soviet Union was one of the world’s two great superpowers. It possessed a collection of armament previously unknown in human history. With all that military power, though, the Soviet Union was so weak that it crumbled under its own weight. The nation’s leaders did not enjoy the support of the people. The country was deeply in debt, having spent all the money on weapons and corruption, not enough on food and basic needs for the people. The empire was torn apart by ethnic rivalries and sectarian strife. We watched, smiles on our faces, as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.

We had reason to rejoice. The Soviet Union had menaced America and the entire free world for decades. Now, though, we have new enemies. Violent Islamist extremists threaten all who love life. Which empire will be the next to fall?

The United States, of course, possesses the superior military, but of course that was true of the Soviets in 1989. I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of a strong military. Our country can’t live without it. And yet, as Generals and Admirals surely already do, we would do well to heed the words of Zechariah, who taught that military strength is not sufficient. “Not by might, nor by power,” says God through the prophet, but only by God’s spirit and its own will a nation survive.

Today, we see our nation’s problems, and we point to people who are different from us, to bankers or brokers, to gays or lesbians, to immigrants or automakers, to Democrats or Republicans, or to Supreme Court justices, and we proclaim: They are the problem. They are the ones destroying America.

We look at a plan to cut health care costs and cover tens of millions of medically underserved Americans, and we scream, “socialism.” We see people protesting that our President is an alien traitor, and we shout, “racism.” We see bankers receiving seven figure bonuses, and we cry, “robbers.” Yes, we have problems in America, but will greater divisiveness save us? Will our name-calling avail us?

Our ancient Rabbis had a good measure for dividing between worthy arguments and those that serve no good purpose. An “argument for the sake of heaven,” they wrote, is about principled differences, discussed rationally, between people who respect one another. An argument that serves no purpose is about who should be in charge. And they knew an unworthy argument when they saw one, for they had seen such disputes destroy fair Jerusalem itself.

Let not our partisanship destroy these great United States. Let the “Tea Baggers” and the liberals, Keith Olberman and Glenn Beck, indeed basically everybody on Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and their evil twins on the left, all of them, just be quiet. Or, better yet, let us stop paying attention to the screamers. Let us all stop tearing our nation apart. Let us stop pointing fingers. Let us stop worrying about whether we have a “Democratic solution” or a “Republican solution,” and let us save America together.

Perhaps I’m a romantic. Perhaps I’m naïve. I still believe in the hope that Barack Obama taught us as a candidate. I believed that he could bring real change to Washington, that the gridlock could end, that he could work with Republicans and Democrats to solve what ails our nation. For sixteen years, we had been lost in a partisan whirlwind; perhaps now, we could emerge together.

The President offered us the same hope last week, in his State of the Nation address. He came with less credibility this time, having allowed health care negotiations in secret and having pressed Democrats to go ahead with their own thing when Republicans weren’t being their partners on a Bill. Perhaps I should have learned my lesson, and should not hope.

But for three more year, Barack Obama will be our President. And we Jews are commanded to be asirei tikvah, prisoners of hope. For some, of course, three more years of this President sounds more like prison than hope. But we have no choice: we must be prisoners of hope. Let us work, together, to assure the success of this President and the next one, this Congress and the next. Let America not only survive but thrive, in the 21st Century and beyond, for Grant’s generation, for his children’s generation, and for many more to come.