‘For my sake was the world created!’

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I have been a fan of Thomas L. Friedman ever since I read his 1989 book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” a perceptive, nuanced look at Israel’s involvement in the seemingly infinite complexities of war and peace in the Middle East. 

From the moment Friedman began writing op-ed pieces for The New York Times, in 1995, I have been a regular reader of his columns, which focus primarily on foreign affairs.  I have often wanted to stand up and cheer after finishing his final paragraph – but, on occasion, I have been infuriated by his daring to contradict one of my long-held, heartfelt, though not-well-thought-out, positions. 

Nothing I have read by Friedman, however, has moved me as much as his Sept. 9 op-ed, “Who Can Win America’s Politics of Humiliation?”  In the piece, he addresses a question that has been troubling me with increasing urgency as we approach the Nov. 3 election: Given all that Donald Trump has said and done during the past three-and-a-half years, why do 40 to 45% of my fellow Americans continue to be his staunch supporters?  What do they see in him that I fail to see? 

A few who voted for him in 2016 have told me that their vote was anti-Hillary rather than pro-Trump, and I must agree that Hillary Clinton was certainly not the best of candidates.  Moreover, I can understand that some individuals think that voting for Trump on Nov. 3 will be in their economic interest. And while I vigorously disagree with them, I do realize that some of my fellow Jews think that voting for Trump on Nov. 3 is in the best interests of Israel.

But I could not wrap my head around Trump’s appeal to millions of white working-class men until Friedman pointed out in his op-ed piece that large numbers of the president’s supporters are “attracted to his attitude – his willingness and evident delight in skewering the people they hate and who they feel look down on them.”

Friedman goes on to say: “Humiliation, in my view, is the most underestimated force in politics and international relations.  The poverty of dignity explains much more than the poverty of money.”

Friedman’s column draws on the insights of his close friend, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, whose recently published book is titled “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?”  Friedman echoes Sandel’s notion that “ ‘the politics of humiliation’ is also at the heart of Trump’s appeal.”

Sandel argues that America’s broad cultural support for meritocracy is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, there is something hopeful and liberating in our deeply rooted belief that hard work, especially the work of earning a college degree, pays off both socially and economically.  On the other hand, our unquestioning devotion to the principles of meritocracy has had serious negative, if unintended, consequences. 

As Sandel writes in his new book,  “Elites have so valorized a college degree – both as an avenue for advancement and as a basis for social esteem – that they have difficulty understanding the hubris a meritocracy can generate, and the harsh judgment it imposes upon those who have not gone to college.”

I confess that I am a product of our American meritocracy.  Though my father grew up poor, the youngest of five children born to immigrants from Lithuania, he eventually managed to work his way through Harvard during the depths of the Great Depression, graduating in the Class of 1937.  As a result of his educational attainments and work ethic, he was able to pay for 12 years of my education at Pingry, at the time an all-boys private country day school in Hillside, New Jersey.   He also managed to pay for my younger brother’s tuition at the same school, my older sister’s tuition at Wellesley, my brother’s tuition at Harvard, and my tuition at Columbia followed by five years at rabbinical school. 

Though I worked hard during school breaks and summer vacations, I never had to struggle to balance my studies with earning my tuition.

Though clearly a beneficiary of our country’s meritocracy, I can see the harsh, blatantly unfair judgment this system places upon the majority of Americans who have not completed four years of college.  Though highly intelligent and an avid reader, my own mother never had the opportunity to go to college. 

College degrees are credentials, but they are by no means the most important measure of character or talent.  One of the few positive lessons that our ongoing pandemic has brought to light is that our local “essential workers” – many of whom don’t have college degrees – have contributed enormously to our well-being.  To choose but one example, every Tuesday a worker from the nearby Eastside Marketplace calls us to take our order; on Wednesday morning, another person shops for us; later that day, a third individual delivers our groceries to the door of our condo. 

These workers provide an added layer of protection for Sandy and me, as we struggle to stay safe and healthy during these anxious COVID-19 days.  In ways that matter most, these workers are among America’s elite; they keep America singing.

No matter who wins the November election, our country will continue to need a complete and radical healing, a refuah shleimah, a healing of our body, a healing of our soul.  We need to return to the biblical notion that every one of us is created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God (Genesis 1.27). We need to affirm the inherent dignity of every human being, regardless of social, economic or educational status. 

Our Talmud (Sanhedrin 38.a) highlights our need to cherish the sacredness inherent in every individual:  “God created Adam as a single individual … for the sake of human harmony, so that no person will say to another: ‘My father is greater than your father.’… Therefore each and every individual is obligated (Yes, obligated!) to say, ‘For my sake was the world created!’ ”

For my sake – be I a CEO or a migrant farmer, be I the holder of a Ph.D. in nuclear physics or be I illiterate, be I an essential worker or an elderly shut-in – for my sake was the world created.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.