The Bible instructs every Jewish king that he must have one book with him all the time: the Torah. He should read it every day so that he will know three things: that he is accountable to God for his behavior as ruler; that he is bound by the Torah, the Constitution of his people, and is not above the law; and that he must not become arrogant and carried away by his power.
Last week, in a Forbes magazine profile, we learned that Jared Kushner, President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, has one book prominently displayed in his company headquarters: Pirkei Avot, or “Ethics of the Fathers.”
Pirkei Avot is a collection of life wisdom sayings from the rabbis who wrote the Mishnah, the core of Judaism’s second most sacred text, the Talmud. What guidance or wisdom might he glean for his important role in the coming Trump administration if he reads the book every day?
As the author of “Sage Advice,” a translation and commentary of Pirkei Avot, I have more than a few thoughts on that question.
But first I point out that the Mishnah/Talmud was written in the aftermath of the collapse of the ruling class of the Jewish state (Judea) at the hands of the Romans, who destroyed the Temple and ended Jewish sovereignty.
It was the rabbis who saved the Jewish future, cutting a practical deal with the Romans. They agreed to accept Roman sovereignty in return for allowing the Jews to build an autonomous community, without a military or foreign policy. Within that society, Jewish values and religion were rebalanced and revitalized, with an emphasis on individual and communal responsibility, religiously and socially.
“Ethics of the Fathers” was edited to communicate to the masses this new religious and political path. The book consists of pithy wisdom statements from 66 rabbis, designed to guide people to live a mature, responsible life and to build a better society — despite a reduced/slashed central government.
Here are some specific wisdom statements that could guide the incoming administration:
1. Simon the Righteous says: The world stands on three pillars — on Torah (Judaism’s vision of the world), on divine service (serving God/the ties of religion), and on acts of loving-kindness.
Proclaim and repeat the vision of America — what makes it great, what there is to be proud of, how to make it a shining city on a hill. Restore the base of faith and religious culture that has undergirded American democracy from its inception.
Recruit the armies of believers whose commitment to love their neighbor as themselves can be enlisted to help those in need and bring society together across all religious lines.
Call on the civic society — the extraordinary grass-roots network of American goodness — to increase its help to the needy, to feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, welcome the strangers. Let all three sectors form a coalition of the caring to restore wholeness, solidarity and purpose throughout America.
2. Follow the policy advice of Hillel: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
Repair of the whole world starts with my country, my city, my neighborhood first. This is one of Judaism’s greatest teachings, but one of its least understood. Self-interest is legitimate. People work harder and produce more in an economy built on private property. Loved ones or family first is the natural, more human way to operate. Idealism to equalize society — or love of humanity — should never be used to legitimize overriding family or ignoring those to whom I am close.
Jared Kushner, an observant, visible Jew, was welcomed into the Trump family. His observance was honored and accommodated. The lesson for society is clear: Idealism and redeeming the world should never demand that the individual betray a heritage.
But if I am for myself only, what am I?
It is legitimate — even important — to put America first. But this concern should grow and extend to the rest of the world. If policy concern stops right at the border, then it becomes the isolationist, regressive America First of Charles Lindbergh — a political grouping that turned a blind eye to tyranny and refused to hear the cry of the downtrodden.
And if not now, when?
The time to start repairing the world is now. The beginning of a new administration is an opportunity to think fresh, try harder and surprise friend and foe alike by embracing the best possibilities.
3. Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? One who learns from everyone. Who is truly strong? One who controls his impulses.
In exercising power, one can do tremendous good. If the power is misused, one can do tremendous damage. Think first. Review all possible options. It is important to cast the net of consultation widely. Do not give over policy formation to a narrow circle of insiders. Learn from opponents. Enlist the best and the brightest from every field. There is tremendous goodwill to improve America that can be tapped. When you rise over the heat and immediate focus of the campaign and learn from everyone what is best for the long term, then your policies are more likely to do good.
The first step to exercise power humanely is to be humbled by the challenge. This includes controlling the impulse to come down hard on opponents.
4. Rabbi Akiva says: Every human being is beloved — for every human was created in the image of God.
According to the Talmud, this means that out of God’s love, every human being is endowed with three inalienable dignities: infinite value, equality, uniqueness. This means that humans are the most precious beings in the world.
The president should repeatedly speak out that his administration is guided by the commitment to honor the dignities of every person. Because the president-elect has spoken out in ways that impugned whole groups of people (or, at least, were heard that way), it is all the more important that he speak out as president, regularly affirming this principle. This will bring more people to feel that he seeks to be the president of all. This will rebuke the extremists who have abused the rejection of political correctness into legitimizing racism and anti-Semitism.
5. Every argument/controversy for the sake of Heaven will have an enduring outcome. If it is not for the sake of Heaven, it will have no enduring outcome.
Arguments and policy disagreements are essential for democracy. But the key is to argue for the sake of the good of society.
Hillel and Shammai differed significantly on hundreds of issues and community policies but they argued within the broad limits of society’s consensus. Far from delegitimizing the other, they listened closely. The Hillelites even taught the views of Shammai first when they trained their own scholars. They became the majority and their decisions ruled society — but they were accepted by everyone. The result was a win-win for society.
The president-elect has a special responsibility — and opportunity — that he can fulfill as president. If he acts, he can strengthen himself and boost his chance of success and realize his best goals. This Mishnah suggests that he should review his proposals in order to bring them into the range of political controversy that is acceptable to both sides. He need not give up his distinctive ideas. He needs to restrain all of them so they will not impinge on others or damage them.
Let me end this reflection with the words of guidance from Rabbi Hanina in Pirkei Avot. We should all pray — and work — and compromise — and come together — for the sake of the well-being of the government. This includes assuring its acceptance and legitimacy even in the eyes of those who are not exercising power. Without the government, Hanina says, we would be living in a jungle.
Rabbi Irving ‘Yitz’ Greenberg, a teacher and scholar, is the author, most recently, of “Sage Advice,” with translation and commentary on Pirkei Avot. A fuller version of this first appeared in The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.