Barack Obama’s hope is our hope, too

The narrative and values of America’s President-elect are pleasingly familiar

By Jonathan Wittenberg, November 20, 2008

Who knows what will follow, but Barack Obama's election has brought hope back home to the West - a hope that resonates deeply with the Jewish spirit and Jewish values. The reasons why Obama received over 77 per cent of the Jewish vote lie deeper than American politics alone. There is the Obama narrative. Then there are Obama's values.

The title of the President-elect's book, The Audacity Of Hope, sounds like a phrase coined by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Actually, it's from a sermon delivered by the (since discredited) Rev Jeremiah Wright. It had a great impact on Obama: "in that single note - hope! - I heard something else... I imagined the stories of thousands of black people merging with David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh..."

As Jews, we recognise this way of reading sacred texts; their stories become our story, their aspirations our aspirations. Obama's reflection recalls the importance the Exodus narrative held for Martin Luther King and reminds us why Heschel marched by his side.

In the excitement of November 4, the words of the Haggadah came into my mind: "From slavery to freedom". It was as if some aspect of this Jewish vision had been realised. Obama's paternal ancestors were Luo tribesmen in Kenya, not plantation slaves. But that someone with his roots and story should become President of the United States seemed a vindication both of the truth that "all men are created equal" and of the biblical insight underlying it, that all human beings bear God's image. The joy that night seemed born of dreams and justice vindicated.

What of Obama's values? In general, his concern for community is obvious. He believes in faith with reason and without fundamentalism, a balance which I, a Masorti rabbi, particularly appreciate. But two more specific points strike me.

Firstly, "Yes we can" is an attitude which should resonate with Jews. It is the American formulation of Herzl's "If you want it, it is not a fantasy". "Yes we can" expresses that freedom coupled with moral responsibility which lies at the core of the Torah's commandments and rabbinic ethics. So when Obama speaks of "a fundamental element of the American character, a belief that we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams", Maimonides, who sets out the key principles of freedom of choice and ethical aspiration in the Laws of Repentance, would agree.

Secondly, Obama believes in listening. When, as a senator in Illinois, he drove hundreds of miles to meetings, he never expressed resentment if the audience was small. Listening to an unemployed man whose son needed a liver transplant, he observed: "These were the stories you missed at 40,000 feet in a private jet."

He has criticised the brutally adversarial politics of Washington, noting that, "in the world's greatest deliberative body, no one is listening". We Jews aren't always good at listening either. But we should remember the Talmud's praise for both sides in a genuine debate - "these and these are the words of the living God" - and that the disciples of Hillel became the majority because they listened to their opponents.
There are further reasons why I feel hopeful. The environment is truly on the presidential agenda. There'll be a puppy (and chewed furniture) in the White House. Most importantly, the process of democracy has been vindicated in a campaign rooted in an unprecedented degree of volunteering and an election in which people who had considered themselves disenfranchised queued for hours to vote. To those doubts about the West which have been hovering in the dust of 9/11 this is a resounding answer.

We don't know what kind of President Barack Obama will prove to be. There will be disappointments and failures. But great values are involved and it is as much our responsibility to work with them in our small spheres of influence as it is Obama's on the stage of the world.


Jonathan Wittenberg is the Senior Rabbi, The Assembly Of Masorti Synagogues

Last updated: 11:06am, November 20 2008


Mike Malkovitch

Fri, 11/21/2008 - 07:33

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Despite his wondrous achievement, Obama has not started well. If several months ago you'd have said that an Obama administration would be chock-a-block full of Clinton administration retreads, and have a national security team featuring the woman who advocated bombing Iran to smithereens in the event it launched a nuclear attack on Israel, few would have believed it. Less than a month into the honeymoon, look at what's in the offing. For all your fine sentiments Rabbi, one has to wonder - as we wait and see.