The news after Election Day last November was all political, and for Rabbi Andrea Weiss, it was all very depressing.
The rabbi, associate professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, cited some uplifting Torah verses in her first post-election class to give her students, who shared her “despair” at the election of Donald Trump as president, some cause for optimism.
“This is why we study Torah, why we study our sacred texts,” she thought.
Then she had another thought — she would turn to religious leaders of various faiths to give a spiritual perspective to the ongoing, rancorous political debate in the country.
The result is “American Values, Religious Voices: 100 Days, 100 Letters.” She approached clergy members and theological scholars from across the Jewish community, and well as the Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Native American communities, to write 350-word letters on themes centering around the current political climate.
The series began on Jan. 20 — Inauguration Day. It will continue until early May.
“We often talk about what people” — especially U.S. presidents — “will do in their first 100 days” in power, Rabbi Weiss explained; the letters, ideally, will offer a spiritual perspective to the decisions of the President and other D.C. leaders.
The letters are sent daily by email to members of the administration and every member of Congress and interested subscribers, and are available online at valuesandvoices.com.
Physical copies of each letter are mailed to the president and vice president.
Writers’ guidelines are fluid, Rabbi Weiss said: “What issues animate you? We designed it to be nonpartisan.” And brief: “A letter is a format that doesn’t take people much time to read.”
The letter-writing campaign is not unique to Rabbi Weiss. A separate “100 Letters: 100 Days” initiative, which does not identify its sponsorship, encourages participants “to write one letter each day of the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency.” Jewish Week columnist Erica Brown also initiated an “Open Letter to the Jewish Community” project, published in several installments here, in which she solicited responses on the election from a number of Jewish communal leaders and thinkers.
Citing their faith communities’ scriptures, the writers in Rabbi Weiss’ campaign have addressed such topics as free speech, separation of church and state, the treatment of immigrants and the responsibilities of leadership.
The campaign comes as President Trump has announced plans to abrogate the Johnson Amendment, which bans clergy from endorsing candidates from the pulpit.
Eboo Patel, “a proud American Muslim of Indian descent” who is president of Interfaith Youth Corps, a Muslim-oriented interfaith organization, cited the Koranic teaching that “We made you different nations and tribes that you may come to know one another.” Katharine Henderson, president of Manhattan’s Auburn Seminary (whose roots are Presbyterian), wrote about the New Testament verse about the “breastplate of righteousness” meaning “a life that pursues justice and therefore is pleasing to God.” And Rabbi Weiss discussed the prophetical precept that “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger.”
While none of the contributors seemed to praise the early actions of the administration or address the concerns about security and terrorism that was credited for fueling Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, they took “different tones … different approaches,” Rabbi Weiss said. “I would say they’re saying the same things.”
From people in Washington, very little.
Rabbi Weiss said she heard from “a staff member of a Republican congressman” who said she has passed the letters along to the representative. But, the rabbi added, she’s gotten “a large amount of feedback from our readers and subscribers.”
The letter writer this Friday is Emran El-Badawi, associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Houston. He agreed to take part in the project, he said, because “public scholarship is something that is very important to me.”
His letter, he said in a telephone interview, cites a chapter of the Koran, about the Jewish experience in ancient Egypt, which teaches that “you can be an evil ruler like Pharaoh or a good ruler like Joseph.”
Does he expect anyone in the White House to read and understand the message of the letter?
At first, El-Badawi said, he was “optimistic.” Now, he said, “I’ve learned that many members of the administration simply do not read.”
“These letters,” El-Badawi said, “are addressed to everyone” — people in wider society, not just political leaders. “I hope we’re not just preaching to the choir.”
Rabbi Weiss said she has heard that the letters “have really touched people.” Some say they start each day by reading the letter du jour, “part of their morning routine.” Some wonder what will happen when the 100 days are over. Will the letters stop?
“We’ve gotten that question,” the rabbi said. “I don’t have an answer.”