Windows and Doors

Windows and Doors

Ted Kennedy, The Bible and The Rabbis

Hailed by many as perhaps the greatest senator of the 20th century, Ted Kennedy died today following a 15 month long battle with brain cancer. I don’t know if he really was the greatest senator, but he was a model of how to combine passionately held views and genuine civility toward even those with whom he passionately disagreed.
In a world of increasingly mean-spirited politics and polarizing politicians who sit on both sides of the aisle, Mr. Kennedy’s death is a loss for all Americans. His combination of passionate liberalism and respectful engagement with even the most strident conservatives was rooted in an approach to life about which he spoke often and which can be traced to ancient biblical and rabbinic teachings of which I am reminded on the morning of the senator’s death.
Ted Kennedy regularly referred to the fact that “the work is unfinished”. Perhaps that sense of unfinished business was connected to the legacy of his two brother’s lives which were ended by assassin’s bullets. Or perhaps it was connected to the grand image of the good society which he sought to create, but was never fully attained. Perhaps it was something else altogether. But whatever it was, Kennedy’s sense that there was always more to do, allowed him to accept those with whom he disagreed and to make pragmatic deals with those same people.
Since the work to be done would always be unfinished, Senator Kennedy never worried about ideological purity or being compromised by making compromises, as long as things were moving in a direction with which he could live. That kind of pragmatism is anything but soulless. It is actually animated by the pursuit of really big goals, goals which are always pursued and never fully attained. And in that, whether he knew it or not, Mr. Kennedy’s politics were rooted in the Bible and the words of the rabbis of the Mishnah.


Deuteronomy 16:20 teaches, “Justice, justice shall you pursue”. While we all may not agree about his vision of a just society or how it was to be attained, these words are ones that Ted Kennedy lived by. And like his vision of work so grand that it would go unfinished, this verse from the Hebrew Bible appreciates that justice is never fully attained, but must always be aggressively pursued.
The Torah can live with unfinished work, but not with workers who fail to be engaged in the project. Sounds like Ted to me and it brings to mind a famous teaching from Pirke Avot, the Mishna Tractate devoted to practical ethics.
Avot 2:20, referring to the work of connecting to God and healing the world, teaches that while we are not obligated to complete the task before us, neither are we free to give up that very work. Again, the message is clear. We need not be bothered by that which is not accomplished, as long as we are truly engaged in moving things forward. In effect, we are told to lighten up on the anxiety caused by the need to succeed, in order to contribute to the ultimate success.
Ted Kennedy not only understood the message of Deuteronomy and of the rabbis, he lived it. By doing so, he helped create a passionately engaged and profoundly civil form of politics, one which we need more than ever. He will be missed.

  • cori

    yasher koach.
    wonderful posting, Rabbi!
    The death of Senator Kennedy is a great loss to humanity.

  • Solomon2

    I cannot feel so charitable towards this senator. That’s probably because I am biased against hypocrites. I can’t forget Ted Kennedy grilling Clarence Thomas for alleged social impropriety with women when only a few years earlier it seemed every other headline in National Enquirer announced “Teddy’s New Teen Love!” Or how he repeatedly engaged, even on his deathbed, in political conduct of dubious morality/flexible principle if it served to benefit his party or family.

  • Solomon2

    The Kennedys were the first political family to really grasp the important mechanisms of the modern media. That stemmed from Joe Kennedy’s keen grasp of rumor and response on Wall Street in the 20s and national politics in the 30s – although an important ally, Roosevelt banished him to become Ambassador to Great Britain just to keep him from meddling in domestic affairs.
    The sons’ rise to power was carefully stage-managed at many times and through different mechanisms. Consider JFK. He lost his boat in WWII, it was his father’s influence in the media that portrayed him as a hero rather than an inept commander. The outcome of the key TV debate with Nixon was settled when a Democratic operative working for NBC arranged for Kennedy to wear a dark suit and Nixon a white one – so Kennedy would look more imposing on TV – and extra-bright lighting – so Nixon, who unlike Kennedy refused to wear pancake, would sweat profusely during the debate and appear nervous.
    I suppose Ted’s path to power was similar. The joke in Washington in the 60s was that with one son in the White House, one in the Cabinet, and one in the Senate, the Mrs. Kennedy ran the best employment agency in town. Lots of people changed their tune to suck at that trough.
    JFK was lionized before, during, and after his presidency. Yet, looking back, I see he was the president who stonewalled civil-rights reform, led the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war, and took the lead (he took a personal interest in equipping the troops, and Third World wars were clearly part of the JFK vision) at embroiling the country in a divisive and unnecessary war. How good a president was that?
    I’ll need a few more decades before I can look at Ted Kennedy’s legacy less passionately. For the moment, I’ll hope that his last wish – that the laws of Massachusetts be reversed after four years to allow the governor to appoint another Kennedy as senator – will not succeed.

  • Eileen T. Murphy

    The Kennedys were all involved in service to the poor, the disabled and every human course they could be an advantage too. Yes, they had faults, but what human being doesn’t. When I was left disabled with 2 small children, ages 1 yr and 5, it was Ted Kennedy who answered my letter and said if there was anything he could do. A Sarasota Judge threw me and the 5 children on the street so my ex could live. I was an abused wife in first marriage and left with children ages 6, 3 and 1 week when separated husband after giving me a black eye took off and never supported them. Ted Kennedy and all the Kennedys tried to right what was wrong with the establishment. I had no help for Lymphedema right leg after cancer surgery in 1982. Doctors in Sarasota, Florida burned my intestines as well. I fought for 14 yrs. to get disability in a country where I worked from age 14. I am 71 and I have undergone various cancer surgeries for the last 3 yrs. The only cancer I had was diagnosed by Mayo clinic in Jacksonville which was a mass. It was treated by Cyberknife radiation as I had been so badly burned in 1982 by Sarasota Oncology. Shame on a country that gets child support for illegitmate children, but not children of marriage. GOD BLESS TED KENNEDY AND ALL THE KENNEDYS FOR THEIR SERVICE TO America.

  • Sue Goulden

    How do we forget about the Kennedy’s indiscretions? and subsequent deaths and suffering they caused so many people? Wasn’t Papa Joe Kennedy always known to be anti-Semitic? I am not impressed by the Kennedy name. I DO HOPE Ted Kennedy’s medical situation and ultimate death brings to light the desperate need for more research and treatment for BRAIN TUMORS. There are people, like me, who are survivors or malignant brain tumors. The world needs to know that $ and help is needed.

  • Robert R.

    While I personally choose to follow a chaste life, why on earth should we worry about the Kennedy indiscretions, except as they indicate political character? How important is it today that a man who has been dead for decades may or may not have been anti-Semitic? I am not impressed by the Kennedy name either, but for me I am neither awed nor repulsed. They are who they are, and we are who we are.

  • Michael

    >His combination of passionate liberalism and
    >respectful engagement with even the most
    >strident conservatives was rooted in an
    >approach to life about which he spoke often
    >and which can be traced to ancient biblical
    >and rabbinic teachings of which I am reminded
    >on the morning of the senator’s death.
    Huh? Rabbinic teachings? To what rabbinic teachings do you refer? Are you unable to recall Kennedy’s deliberate and infamous public defaming of Robert Bork? The murder of a name for which Kennedy never apologized. And also, as mentioned in a previous comment, his deliberate and malicious smearing of Clarence Thomas. Have you forgotten the calumny he heaped upon President George Bush?
    Having said this, no reason exists to speak ill of Senator Kennedy at his passing except when people who know better (rabbis?) forget their history. To claim, as you do, that his respect for his opponents made him a great man is, well, to forget (and suppress the rememberance of) a man who, without shame, murdered the names of those with whom he disagreed..
    Rabbinic teaching indeed…

  • zed

    The Last of the Original Kennedy Dynasty
    As soon as cancer was found, there was an immediate attempt, by the
    “mainstream” media, at canonization of old Teddy. They are saying what
    a “great American” he is. Let’s get a couple things clear and not
    twist the facts to change the real history.
    1. He was caught cheating at Harvard when he attended it. He was
    expelled twice, once for cheating on a test, and once for paying a
    classmate to cheat for him.
    2. While expelled, Kennedy enlisted in the Army, but mistakenly signed
    up for four years instead of two. Oops, the man can’t count to four.
    His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, former U.S. Ambassador to England (a
    step up from bootlegging liquor into the US from Canada during
    prohibition) , pulled the necessary strings to have his enlistment
    shortened to two years, and to ensure that he served in Europe, not
    Korea , where a war was raging. No preferential treatment for him like
    “he” charged President Bush received.
    3. Kennedy was assigned to Paris, never advanced beyond the rank of
    Private, and returned to Harvard upon being discharged. Imagine a
    person of his “education” NEVER advancing past the rank of Private.
    4. While attending law school at the University of Virginia, he was
    cited for reckless driving four times, including once when he was
    clocked driving 90 miles per hour in a residential neighborhood with
    his headlights off after dark. Yet his Virginia driver’s license was
    never revoked. Coincidentally, he passed the bar exam in 1959,
    5. In 1964, he was seriously injured in a plane crash, and
    hospitalized for several months. Test results done by the hospital at
    the time he was admitted had shown he was legally intoxicated. The
    results of those tests remained a “state secret” until in the 1980’s
    when the report was unsealed. Didn’t hear about that from the unbiased
    media, did we.
    6. On July 19, 1969, Kennedy attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island
    in Massachusetts. At about 11:00 PM, he borrowed his chauffeur’s keys
    to his Oldsmobile limousine, and offered to give a ride home to Mary
    Jo Kopechne, a campaign worker. Leaving the island via an unlit bridge
    with no guard rail, Kennedy steered the car off the bridge, flipped,
    and into Poucha Pond.
    7. He swam to shore and walked back to the party, after passing
    several houses and a fire station. Then two friends returned with him
    to the scene of the accident. According to their later testimony, they
    told him what he already knew, that he was required by law to
    immediately report the accident to the authorities. Instead Kennedy
    made his way to his hotel, called his lawyer, and went to sleep.
    Kennedy called the police the next morning and by then the wreck had
    already been discovered. Before dying, Kopechne had scratched at the
    upholstered floor above her head in the upside-down car. The Kennedy
    family began “calling in favors”, ensuring that any inquiry would be
    contained. Her corpse was whisked out-of-state to her family, before
    an autopsy could be conducted. Further details are uncertain, but
    after the accident Kennedy says he repeatedly dove under the water
    trying to rescue Kopecne, and he didn’t call police because he was in
    a state of shock. It is widely assumed Kennedy was drunk, and he held
    off calling police in hopes that his family could fix the problem
    overnight. Since the accident, Kennedy’s “political enemies” have
    referred to him as the distinguished Senator from Chappaquiddick. He
    pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and was given a
    SUSPENDED SENTENCE OF TWO MONTHS. Kopechne’s family received a small
    payout from the Kennedy’s insurance policy, and never sued. There was
    later an effort to have her body exhumed and autopsied, but her family
    successfully fought against this in court, and Kennedy’s family paid
    their attorney’s bills… a “token of friendship”?
    8. Kennedy has held his Senate seat for more than forty years, but
    considering his longevity, his accomplishments seem scant. He authored
    or argued for legislation that ensured a variety of civil rights,
    increased the minimum wage in 1981, made access to health care easier
    for the indigent, and funded Meals on Wheels for fixed-income seniors
    and is widely held as the “standard-bearer for liberalism”. In his
    very first Senate roll, he was the floor manager for the bill that
    turned U.S. immigration policy upside down and opened the floodgate
    for immigrants from third world countries.
    9. Since that time, he has been the prime instigator and author of
    every expansion of and increase in immigration, up to and including
    the latest attempt to grant amnesty to illegal aliens. Not to mention
    the Pious grilling he gave the last two Supreme Court Nominees, as if
    he were the standard bearer for the nation in matters of right. What a
    pompous ass.
    10. He is known around Washington as a public drunk, loud, boisterous
    and very disrespectful to ladies. JERK is a better description than
    “great American”.
    Of course, as this past election has demonstrated, previous history
    and associations no longer matter… long as the “mainstream media”
    loves you and covers for you.

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