Rabbi Steve Cohen: Reflections After the Capitol Hill Riot

As we await the Inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on January 20, I think that many of us…both Republicans and Democrats…. are asking the same basic question.  Can we hope to create a civilized society here in the United States, with healthy, functioning institutions of local, state and national government?

The mayhem in the Capitol Building the day before yesterday stunned us all.  In retrospect, many say we should have seen it coming, but I don’t think any of us could have imagined a mob of hundreds of rioters overwhelming the Capitol police and running amok in the halls of Congress, with Senators and Congress people rushed away to safety, and Capitol staff and representatives of the press cowering terrified, and fearing for their lives.

The heart of our nation suffered a heart attack on Wednesday.

Later that evening, after what was surely the most intense day of their lives, the women and men of the Senate and House of Representatives returned to their chambers and working until 3:00 in the morning, carried out the sacred ritual of counting the electoral votes of the 2020 election.  Personally, I took great comfort in watching those proceedings, the time-honored rituals, the rhythmic incantation of the words as the results from each state were accepted, “are there any objections to counting the certificate of votes of the state of blank, which the teller has verified appears to be regular in form and authentic?”  I especially enjoyed the speeches, some of which I felt were excellent.

For the moment, it seems that our nation has survived the heart attack.

Always, a heart attack leaves us feeling vulnerable.  And with good reason.  We should bear in mind however, that for a person with undetected heart disease, a heart attack….if we survive it….can be a great blessing.  It comes as a wake-up call, to change our way of life.  There is nothing like a heart attack to help a person begin to eat right, and to exercise, to limit their alcohol and to stop smoking.

Our nation suffered a heart attack this week; can we change our national, political lifestyle?  Can we become healthy again?  Can we ever hope to create a government with well-functioning institutions, which is more or less trusted by most of its citizens?  I admit that seems like a far-away dream right now.  But let us begin by asking a few basic questions:

  1. How might we reach some shared basic agreements about truth and falsehood in our public discourse?
  2. Can we find a way to maintain law and order, without oppression and unnecessary violence, and especially without perpetuating this nation’s legacy of systemic racism?
  3. How do we select leaders who will work for our collective good, and not for their own personal aggrandizement and benefit?
  4. What is the right time and place to discuss, to debate, to listen and to learn from each other about how our government should work? We now know that social media and Cable News fail miserably at opening our minds and promoting intelligent debate.  So where can intelligent and respectful debate occur?  The library? The bookstore?  The university? The synagogue?  If not here, where?
  5. What are the things that we need from national government? What should be left up to local authorities? Who should be given primary responsibility for our Health care?  Education?  Infrastructure?  Compassionate support for the poor and the unlucky?  What should be separated completely from government control?  These questions were debated by the founders of this country, and they never stop needing our attention.

How might we talk about our government without insulting and hating each other.

These are the questions we all share, I believe, whatever our politics.  None of them are easy, but if we do not develop a healthy national political life, I’m afraid there will be more heart attacks in our future.

I have three suggestions for getting started, for beginning to take care of ourselves as a society, to avoid another crisis like the one that almost killed us this week.  Each of these suggestions comes out of our old Jewish wisdom.

First, in a famous Mishnaic text, Rabbi Chanina taught “pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for the fear of the government, people would swallow each other alive.”  Rabbi Chanina anticipated by 1500 years the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the first great political thinker of the Enlightenment, who taught that a world without government would be a “war of all against all.”  If there were no government, said Hobbes, our lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Our first new act of political health, I believe, is to regain our lost appreciation for the necessity and the benefits of good government.  To pray for the welfare of the government, which I would say just means to care about it.  To vote, but also to pay attention, to read, to learn, to participateMost importantly of all, not to simply abdicate our responsibility and hope that other good people, somewhere, will do the hard work of participatory democracy.

A second new political habit for a healthier political lifestyle is to recognize the difference between “Olam hazeh/This world” and “olam haba/the World that is Coming.”  This world is this imperfect reality.  The world of real human beings, who make mistakes, and get things wrong, sometimes try their best, sometimes fail and disappoint.  This world is the world we live in, and it will never be perfect.  The world that is coming is the world we aspire to.  The world as we want it to be, the world toward which we are always working and striving.  We need to remember the difference between this world and the world that is coming, and not become fed up, disillusioned, angry or bitter when this world turns out to be imperfect.

A healthy politics requires us to be both realistic and idealistic.  To recognize that “politics is the art of the possible.”  But never to lose sight of The Promised Land, off on the horizon, a country that is more just, more truthful, more compassionate, more civilized.  We need to imagine that country, and to work toward it.  We need to become more mature, to be both realistic and idealistic.  Either one without the other will lead to despair…and another heart attack.

Finally, perhaps the most important new habit we need to learn, if we are to heal this body…this American people….is to internalize the most profound truth of Judaism, which is that we are all one Human Family.  We are separated from each other by culture, by language, by religion, by political party, but underneath all of that, we are brothers and sisters.  All of us in this country, citizens, resident aliens, and undocumented immigrants, and all human beings on earth.  We have been living through a time of bitter division and hatred, and we have suffered because of it.  We suffered a heart attack earlier this week, in the heart of our nation, and it almost killed us.

As we prepare to make this new beginning as a nation, let us acquire a new way of living, in which we reach out to each other….with respect, with kindness, with curiosity, and with honesty.  Jews, Muslims, Christians, Latinos, Anglos, gay, trans, cis, Blacks, Whites, Democrats, Republicans, farmers, city dwellers, Americans, Europeans, Africans, Chinese, Koreans, Russians, Persians, Israelis, Palestinians, and on and on.  We are children of many different parents, but we are one Human Family.

This is the human truth embedded in our ancient gift to the world:

Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. 

Listen every human being.

The God within me is the same God that is within you.

Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Steve Cohen

Friday night sermon January 8, 2020

Congregation B’nai B’rith, Santa Barbara CA