President Obama’s inaugural address moved me for many reasons, including how Jewish it was. There was no Hebrew (had to listen to Rick Warren for that), nothing about Israel, and no pleas on behalf of the Jewish people. There was nothing that was uniquely Jewish about it. It would have been odd if there had been. But his basic approach to addressing this moment in our nation’s history, was deeply, if not uniquely, Jewish.
The President’s method borrowed a page from Moses’ playbook, otherwise known as the Book of Deuteronomy. Like Moses before him, he reminded a new generation that we have much to accomplish and can do so precisely because we stand on the shoulders of ancestors who, while not perfect, achieved so much.
President Obama invoked both our collective past and our desire for a better future as he called on Americans to usher in “a new era of responsibility”. He reminded us that we must confront the challenges we now face as a nation with both a dream of how the future could be and the memory of past times when we have achieved our collective dreams. That sums up a good portion of Jewish liturgical formation and a fair bit of the Hebrew Bible’s great speeches as well.
Obama’s words reminded me of every Jewish holiday celebration from each Friday night’s Kiddush prayer which ushers the Sabbath to our dinner tables, to the Passover Seder which challenges each of us to see ourselves as both our slave ancestors and as those who can fulfill their dream of achieving freedom.
In this approach, history is not a chain which weighs us down, nor is the future an excuse for discarding the past. They are taken together as tools to inspire us to meet the present with courage and excitement. That is about as Jewish a methodology as one will ever find.
Of course, there is nothing zero-sum about this kind of Jewishness, or President Obama’s politics for that matter. In fact, I hope that Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Atheists can claim that the speech was deeply rooted in their traditions as well. One measure of the speech’s success might be precisely how many different groups can do just that. And it would be a good lesson for all of us to imagine that it is precisely those themes which we so identify, which represent the deepest messages of the particular traditions we hold most dear.