America’s Two Visions, Two Realities

There are two visions of America, both of which were clearly displayed last month.

Vision 1: America is and should be predominantly white, straight and Christian.  People who subscribe to this vision believe that this group is superior—both intellectually and morally, and therefore deserve greater rights than those outside their group.  The “others” should not even live here, since their inferiority hurts the real Americans; they are our enemies.  Therefore, the others that are here should be subservient to their white masters.  

Moreover, the numbers of people in this group are increasing, and so the time is coming soon when they will take charge of this country and assume their rightful place.

Vison 2: America is and should be a nation of and for many peoples.  Its diversity is its strength.  All people are created by God and created in the Divine image and therefore, all of us are worthy of respect and dignity and deserve equal opportunity. 

While we have not fully lived up to our nation’s ideals, we are moving closer in each generation. Moreover, our role as U.S. citizens is to bring our present reality even closer to the ideal. 

We saw these two visions of America brought to life last month in actual events; thus, these events reveal America’s two opposite but existing realities.

We witnessed the first reality when insurrectionists attacked our Capital on January 6th.  We saw the second reality in the diverse kinds of people now leading our national government. 

In the first reality, those who tried to stop Congress from counting the state-certified Electoral College results were, according to the New York Times, “An ideological jumble of hate groups and far-right agitators — the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, the Boogaloo movement and neo-Nazis among them” (1/16/’21.)  Multiple reports also identified white supremacists and white nationalists, paramilitary groups and militias and followers of Q-Anon (who subscribe to a bizarre conspiracy in which a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles—consisting mostly of Hollywood celebrities, liberal politicians and “deep-state” government officials—are running a secret child sex-trafficking ring.)

The growing numbers of followers in these groups work actively to realize that first vision of America.  What do they have in common?  They hate and desire to rid the U.S.A. of people of Color, Jews, immigrants and LGBTQ people.  Certainly, members of these hate groups were joined by a broad cross section of the public on January 6th that included homemakers, doctors, real estate agents, business owners, lawyers, teachers, students and members or former members of law enforcement the military.

Since these “uninitiated” joined with the hate groups in believing the big lie (that the election was stolen) and in the Capital riot, many of them might join one of these groups.  Indeed many of the groups’ leaders see January 6th as a fantastic recruitment tool.

But that is only one vision and one reality.  The second (which sees America’s greatness in its diversity) came to life in the very people now occupying leadership positions in our national government. They include many firsts: Kamala Harris, the first female, Asian and person of color sworn in by the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, the first Black Senator and the first Jewish Senator elected to represent Georgia, the first Black Secretary of Defense and the first female Treasury Secretary are just some of the firsts chosen by President Biden for top positions.  Other firsts will include more women, if confirmed. 

Can we reconcile these two warring visions and realities?  We cannot.  They are polar opposites, not legitimate but competing debates over spending priorities and the proper role of government in our lives.  So, are these two Americas doomed forever to be at war with each other?

The truth is, these two realities have been coexisting uncomfortably since our nation’s founding and even before.  Moreover, I believe these warring realities persist, because we have never confronted our legacy of slavery or our treatment of indigenous peoples.  Hence, the many problems we experience today (such as equal opportunity in education, housing, healthcare, employment and our unequal system of justice for whites and people of color) are merely symptoms of this larger disease—the results of our refusal to face our history of subjugation of blacks and others.

Thus, we continue to struggle with two very conflicting realities:

Racism  deeply embedded in so many of society’s institutions while at the same time, more and more people with diverse backgrounds have achieved in many endeavors with some elevated to the highest positions of power.  Picture two equally matched teams in a tug-of-war, and you have an excellent image of America today.  Sometimes one team is winning, and at other times, the second team is gaining ground, and the two sides just keep pulling and struggling.

Which side will prevail?  I cannot predict nor are there guarantees, and while there may not be reason for optimism, we must never give up hope or the struggle to realize the open, diverse and beautiful vision and reality for America.  As a student of general and Jewish history, I observe that our people have enjoyed the greatest security, freedom and material success living under democratic governments. While living under authoritarian governments, in contrast, we have suffered from all manner of persecutions—from laws limiting our freedoms, to exile, to wholesale violence and genocide.

I want us to live, believe and practice our Judaism freely and fully as Jews and citizens; there must be no daylight between our two identities.  We must never feel the need to subjugate one identity for the other.  Then we want to leave this world, bequeathing a better America that lives up to its promises of liberty and freedom for all to our children and grandchildren.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner (Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism) writes in his statement on behalf of the entire Reform Movement:

… in light of the recent seditious attack by white supremacists on our Capitol, and the rising threat of violent antisemitism, racism, and other forms of bigotry, the Biden-Harris administration will need to act with courage, speed, and vision to begin to heal the nation.

I agree with Rabbi Pesner, but it cannot just be a handful of people in one administration doing the hard work.  We must all be involved in what President Biden called this “battle for America’s soul.”

We draw wisdom from our history.  We know where it leads when people insist that they are members of a superior race. We know where it leads when demagogues preach hatred and appeal to people’s worst natures.  We know where it leads when the followers show unwavering support, almost to the point of worshiping these leaders, believing in their infallibility and their lies.  

We draw inspiration and instruction from our Torah.  In Exodus, we learn how Moshe and Aharon stand up to a tyrant who ruled out of hatred and fear of the other and who tried to destroy our people by killing our children.  This is the Pharaoh whom Torah describes as “hardening his heart” even when showing a modicum of humanity would have improved his own circumstances and those of the Egyptians.  He would not relent or admit defeat.  He would not let go of his slaves, because he could not let go of his hatred and fear.  So he kept hardening his heart.

In his inauguration speech, President Biden asked us to 
“…open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.” That must be our mission.  If we will work for our vision of America, if we will fight for its soul, then we must strive to open people’s souls to our vision.  Like Moshe and Aharon, we will not open the souls of many of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, but we can and must win the souls of more and more Americans who have not chosen a vision and who are sitting on the fence.  May they join us in seeing and living a vision of America that sees in all kinds of Americans, a beautiful mosaic of one united people sitting under our vines and fig trees with none to make us afraid (Micah 4:4, 1 Kings 4:25, Zechariah 3:10.)

May God bless you and keep you,

Rabbi Steve