Editor's Note: A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
No, the president’s “Rosh Hashanah Message” doesn’t count as one of the most significant state papers to emanate each year from the Oval Office but someone in the White House should have nonetheless reviewed and edited the odd, embarrassing holiday statement just released over Barack Obama’s signature.
Anyone who actually bothers to digest this ritualized declaration (or to watch its video version –here) and tries to compare it to Jewish New Year greetings from prior presidents will be struck by two distinctive features of this chief executive’s remarks. These unique Obamanisms (not quite obamanations) reveal far more about the president himself than they do about the holiday at hand.
First, he clumsily inserts nakedly political posturing that seems altogether out-of-place in the context of the High Holy Days.
And, second, Mr. Obama seems to suggest that he himself dutifully celebrates Rosh Hashanah—treating the holiday like a universal American tradition (as much a part of the secular national calendar as Thanksgiving?) rather than an unequivocally religious occasion annually embraced by less than 2% of our citizens who identify as Jews.
The politics intrudes with President Obama’s appropriate acknowledgment of the painful aspects of this moment in history. “But this last year was also one of hardship for people around the world,” he says. “Too many of our friends and neighbors continue to struggle in the wake of a terrible economic recession.”
Fair enough, Mr. President, but then comes the public relations pitch that echoes his recent “warrior for the middle class” rhetoric, melded with a transparent bid to regain his fading support in the Jewish community: “That is why my Administration is doing everything we can to promote prosperity here at home and security and peace throughout the world – and that includes reaffirming our commitment to the State of Israel.”
Will this assertion in a simple holiday greeting reassure Jewish voters as they enter the season of reassessment?
Or will they respond warmly to the President’s peculiar suggestion that the annual “Days of Awe” bring “repentance and reflection” for all Americans?
After his chirpy, “Hello everybody. Shana Tova” opening, the Leader of the Free World declares: “The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time for repentance and reflection. An opportunity to reaffirm our friendships, renew our commitments, and reflect on the values we cherish. As the High Holidays begin, we look back on all the moments during the past year that give us reason to hope.”
Compare this passage to a comparable section in the 2007 greetings from President George W. Bush: “The sound of the Shofar heralds the beginning of a new year and a time of remembrance and renewal for the Jewish people. During these holy days, men and women are called to reflect on their faith and to honor the blessings of creation.”
Notice that Bush speaks about “their faith” – obviously (and appropriately) excluding himself. He makes it clear (as he did in all his Jewish holiday greetings) that Rosh Hashanah represents a sectarian observance, with no suggestion that it’s a secular, universal American tradition. Under Mr. Obama’s predecessor, the White House noted the importance of the season “for the Jewish people” and not for “everybody” (as in Mr. Obama’s greeting).
Two other recent occasions highlight the same important distinction in the approach of the two most recent administrations.
President Obama attracted considerable publicity (and some admiring commentary) for convening the first-ever Passover seders in the White House basement, in which Jewish members of the staff and a few invited guests gathered with the First Family to recount the Exodus from Egypt. This might strike everyone (yes, even an anti-Obama curmudgeon like me) as a magnificently gracious gesture had the president attended the religious ritual and left leadership of the service to a guest rabbi or perhaps one of the Jewishly informed members of his staff (former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, for instance, was raised in an Orthodox home and sends his own children to traditional Jewish schools). Instead, Mr. Obama himself led the seder, posing for photographs at the head of the table, wearing a yarmulke.
This contrasts dramatically with the careful, respectful approach by President Bush to all Jewish (and other) rituals. My family twice had the privilege of attending the wonderfully touching White House Hanukah Parties which President Bush began and which always featured a public lighting of the Menorah. Unlike President Clinton, who recited a few lines of transliterated Hebrew and lit the candles himself at a shopping center, President Bush understood that the religious obligation he honored with the White House lighting applied to Jews, and not to Methodists from Midland, Texas. Mr. Bush always gave the job of reciting the blessings and igniting the menorah to a young son of a Jewish soldier serving our country abroad (most often in Iraq or Afghanistan).
Mr. Obama’s different approach (leading the seders himself, assuming that Rosh Hashanah traditions apply to “us”) isn’t disrespectful or offensive but it does reflect his habit of spiritual shape-shifting. He instinctively assumes different religious colorations depending on the occasion – drawing on his late father’s Muslim heritage when celebrating Islamic traditions, or responding to this week’s heckler at a Los Angeles fundraiser (who called Obama the “Antichrist”) by noting that the interloper also said “Jesus Christ was Lord. I agree with that.”
The Obama Rosh Hashanah message additionally reflects the long-standing liberal conflation of religious obligation and political activism –a confusion as common in some Temples and synagogues (particularly those of the Reform movement in Judaism) as in the Obama White House. If the underlying messages of Rosh Hashanah and Passover and Hanukah are fundamentally political – and liberal – then why wouldn’t Barack Obama be the best possible individual to lead the service at a seder meal, or suggest that his own family viewed the Days of Awe as a time of “repentance and reflection” regarding leadership decisions and world events?
The recent special election in the Ninth Congressional of New York may indicate increasing impatience in the Jewish community with the instinctive equation of Judaic commitment and leftist orientation. When an electorate that’s 40% Jewish decisively prefers a Catholic conservative to a Jewish liberal it could, of course amount to a fleeting aberration. But this time of year these results ought to provide an occasion for more “reflection” (and perhaps even repentance) from the bumbling Obama White House.