Goodbye Mr. Kasich: A Meditation on Politics, Prayerlife and the Transformative Power of Dialogue Through a Systems Lens

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
May 6, 2016 / 28 Nisan, 5776

On Monday, February 22nd, I woke with a tremendous sense of foreboding and dread. That was the day when I finally understood that Donald Trump had a very strong chance of becoming the next president of the United States. Up until that point, like so many others, I underestimated his candidacy, thought it was a bit of a farce, and couldn’t imagine he would obtain the Republican nomination.

But that Monday, while I was trying to recite my prayers at morning minyan, the blinders continued to be peeled from my eyes. I was in shock at how disconnected I had become from my country and its broader currents. I pride myself on not living within an “echo chamber” of the like-minded, yet here I was confronting my own lack of understanding. I wasn’t hearing the other voices of America or their tremendous pain. I couldn’t see the big picture. Not until that Monday.

It was that underestimation which was most shocking to me, less than the prospect of Mr. Trump as our 45th president. Let me explain.

Understanding Politics: The Great Man Theory

There are a great many lenses one can use to understand politics and geopolitics. The most common view, it seems to me, remains the “great man” perspective of history that was popularized in the middle of the 19th century by Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle argued, essentially, that great men (and for him it was men) mold world events by the nature and strength of their personalities.

While this notion quickly fell out of favor among historians and sociologists (there are exceptions, like Sidney Hook, who once ran the philosophy department at my alma mater), the circus of election politics and common opinion still seems to believe that politicians determine what happens to America by the force of their will.

This is why we feel so hopeful when the campaign we like seems to be doing well. It is also why we experience outrage or fear when a candidate does well whose views, personality and moral outlook are at odds with our own.

Understanding Politics: A Systems Approach

In contrast to this close up or micro view of politics, a systems-based or geopolitical view tries to understand whether a given approach is effective or not, and also attempts to understand the constraints and trends that strongly shape the area of activity in which a given politician operates. When one pulls the lens out to this more macro or large picture viewpoint, the difference between presidents is arguably much smaller.

As an example, President George W. Bush seemingly entered office as an isolationist who believed in small government and had no interest in nation building. The events of 9/11 forced him to take a much more expansionist approach. The global economic meltdown also confronted him with such stark choices that he embraced Quantitative Easing, the very antithesis of a small government policy, and one that President Obama continued and expanded. It would have been impossible to predict these decisions while he was campaigning.

Arguably, this same stark contrast between the actions one espouses and what one must deal with in office would apply to most of our presidents. It’s not that leadership doesn’t matter–it matters a great deal. But systems and events and trends define and constrain how and where leaders act. As many of us know from high school civics classes, the American system was built to emphasize this distribution of power.

A Short History of Conservative Movement Prayer from a Systems Approach

We can also see this systems approach active in the history of prayer in the Conservative movement. Without putting too firm a date on it, the style of prayer found in the Conservative movement remained remarkably consistent at congregations across the country from the 1940’s to the year 2000. Around this time, the independent minyan movement began in earnest, and with it, tremendous innovation in American (and arguably Israeli) prayer culture began to occur. In the early days of this renaissance, it was not uncommon to hear young Conservative rabbinical students (and pundits) bemoan how spiritually “dead” the suburban prayer experience was. Much of the blame was placed on the rabbis of “yesteryear.”

Yet the mid-20th century was also the period when the movement was possessed of some of its greatest rabbis. These highly capable giants included Robert Gordis, Gerald Wolpe, Jacob Agus and Morris Silverman (I don’t want to embarrass certain other Portland Conservative rabbis…but there still is room on my short list). If their times called for it, do we truly believe that they could not have brought major innovation to prayer?

Rather, our Conservative congregants consisted largely of people who were quite comfortable with traditional hazzanut and found the mix of “frontal” prayer, operatic vocal technique and complex music spiritually satisfying. I think it is more accurate to say that the priorities facing the Jewish community were quite different, and leadership was forced to confront those needs–such as building the institutions we Jews required as we continued to fully integrate into American society.

Now that larger numbers of congregants aren’t comfortable with that older style of prayer, we see tremendous creativity in this arena. Cantors and rabbis and independent minyan leaders are responding to this sea change. They are shaping what the times placed in front of them, not creating those conditions.

Goodbye Mr. Kasich: Why Civility Lost the Republican Campaign

On Wednesday, Governor Kasich bowed out of the Republican race. Throughout the campaign, he was the one Republican who emphasized civility throughout his campaign. In his earlier political days, he was irascible and known to outbursts, but as he matured, his behavior changed. As someone who lived in Ohio, one of America’s  “purple states,” Kasich was a man with definite politically conservative beliefs who had to forge relationships with those who thought differently. That’s what it is to be a governor. You have to make sure your state works, and the only way that happens in a purple state is through dialogue and compromise even as you advocate for your strongly held beliefs.

There is a weakness to dialogue, particularly when people feel desperate. Or maybe desperation results when you feel unheard in the first place. After all, we have a hunger to feel that we are alive and recognized. That’s why people love drama. It’s exciting, it gets our adrenals rushing. There’s no mistaking that you are alive. Drama is like a drug’s pathway to enlightenment–you don’t have to do the harder work to get there. It’s delivered to you.

When I lived in a black hat yeshivah, I had three main buddies. One was the son of the kosher butcher in Golder’s Green. One was Mr. Smooth, who was unflappable. And then there was Wayne, who like me, was visiting the Orthodox life style. He once remarked that the culture of Orthodoxy to which we were exposed flattened out the extreme joys and tribulations of life. For his part, he would rather feel tumultuously alive than modulated.

I understand that, because in other days, I too needed a big jolt to feel sufficiently awake. Now just looking at blooming plants is sufficient for me. Yet the truth is that politics and leadership is often about emotion because our lives feel somehow lacking. People who suffer deprivation try to fill that hole. In the political realm, too many of us stuff ourselves full with fiery rhetoric and disdain for those who think differently. There’s a joy to true belief. Mr. Kasich’s campaign didn’t cater to that need in a polarized society that is all about building tribes of emotion to address perceived shortcomings.

Yet as you know, dialogue has emerged for me as an essential element of the good life, of the religious life, and even of the political life. It is essential to the good life because it allows us to get along and to forge healthy and mature relationships and attachments. It is part of the religious life, because it is one of the deepest mechanisms we have that enables us to see the divinity in every other soul. Finally, it is the kernel of a functional political system because it prevents us from being blindsided, allows us to understand the deeper values in another person’s perspectives, and by so doing, aids us in generating solutions that are inclusive, respectful and that avoid gridlock.

Civility and dialogue, in other words, don’t sell news. They are the incremental, sober, and adult way to make progress. But they also create enduring change that benefits all.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D