By Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf
Jewish Standard Published on 03/28/2008
Barack Obama is more than a presidential candidate to me; he’s also my neighbor.
The Chicago synagogue at which I’ve served for 27 years, KAM Isaiah Israel, sits across the street from Obama’s home. As an Illinois state senator, Obama spoke to our members; since he hit the campaign trail, his Secret Service agents have occasionally had to visit our washrooms.
But I support Obama not out of neighborly instincts. I do so because he stands for what I believe in, what my faith demands.
In the mid-20th century, Jewish and black America forged a vital alliance. Our communities shared a common vision. I and many Jewish Americans stood shoulder to shoulder with the giants of our generation, demanding freedom for all.
Today, though, many in both communities find it too easy to forget our shared history. Grumbling can be heard in our synagogues and churches, community halls, and workplaces. It’s rarely expressed in polite company, but it’s there, beneath the surface.
Beneath it, that is, until someone like Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, crosses the line of polite discourse and all hell breaks loose.
On March 18, the Obama candidacy had to stop in its tracks to confront the ill-conceived comments of the man who once led the candidate’s church. Obama stood accused of guilt by association, and the man known best for his soaring inclusionary rhetoric had to declare what anyone with any sense should have known: He disagrees with Wright.
In fact, he doesn’t just disagree. Obama believes that Wright’s recently disclosed statements on race express “a profoundly distorted view of this country,” that they “denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation.” On March 14, he called Wright’s comments “inflammatory and appalling.”
Judaism has a long and proud tradition of dialogue. We expect to wrangle over scriptural interpretation and practice, and I believe I’ve learned as much by listening to my congregants as I hope they’ve learned from me. Certainly many people who call me their rabbi have held opinions far different from mine. A preacher speaks to a congregation, not for it.
This is, in essence, what Obama said about Wright. “Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views?” he asked March 18. “Absolutely — just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”
And though many people may have forgotten the old black-Jewish alliance, it’s significant that Obama himself has not. Speaking before a Jewish group in Cleveland earlier this year, he drew a clear line from our shared past to the present: “I would not be sitting here,” he said, “if it were not for a whole host of Jewish Americans.”
The strong positions Obama has taken regarding the Iraq war, poverty, the climate, and the genocide in Darfur all speak directly to struggles in which American Jews have been intimately involved. His candidacy represents an historic opportunity to re-forge the links between our communities and once again fight together for justice.
On a personal level, I can say that I’ve worked with Obama in Hyde Park, Ill., for more than a decade. So has my son, a lawyer who represents children and people with disabilities, and greatly admires Obama’s dedication and skill dealing with issues affecting our most vulnerable citizens. We have not always agreed on every point — personally, I occasionally find Obama too conservative in his consideration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — but I have seen him for who he is: a brilliant, open-hearted man, the one figure on the political scene who remembers our past, and has a real vision for repairing our present.
He is also, it should be noted, far wiser and more thoughtful than his former minister, and he offers what this country needs most: a leader willing to ask hard questions and grapple with difficult answers.
It has been a privilege to engage in conversation with such a man over the years. It is my deep hope that this nation will afford itself the same opportunity by choosing Barack Obama as its next president.
Arnold Jacob Wolf is rabbi emeritus at Chicago’s KAM Isaiah Israel, Illinois’s oldest Jewish congregation.