CHARLOTTE, N.C. (JTA) — Republicans and Democrats may not have much common ground this election year, yet their national conventions shared one feature: Both gatherings were blessed from the podium by prominent American rabbis.
The Democrats had Rabbi David Wolpe, a best-selling author and leader of a prominent (capital-c) Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. The Republicans had Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, a rising star within Modern Orthodoxy and a regular contributor to (small-c) conservative publications.
But beyond the kipot that they both wore on their heads and the Hebrew sprinkled through their addresses, the rabbis used their remarks to highlight very different themes. Indeed, each of their blessings spoke powerfully to the contrasting political ideologies of the parties that they were addressing.
Soloveichik, in his invocation to open the first full day of the hurricane-delayed Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., invoked themes that resonate deeply with Republicans — freedom, liberty, faith.
"We Americans unite faith and freedom in asserting that our liberties are Your gift, God, not that of government, and that we are endowed with these rights by You, our Creator, not by mortal man," said Soloveichik, who has made common cause with religious conservatives on issues such as abortion.
His reference to the primacy of God over government, and the notion that our rights are derived from the former rather than the latter, garnered applause from the delegates at the convention, where many speakers went on to assail what they see as President Obama’s trespasses against religious liberty. Among the main sources of ire is the administration’s application of the health care reform law’s birth control coverage mandate to employees of religious-affiliated institutions — a policy that Soloveichik himself had testified against before Congress.
More broadly, the finitude of government’s rightful purview is an animating theme of conservative politics and a notion that Republicans think Democrats do not get. (Though when it comes to civil liberties and abortion rights, many Democrats would say the same about their GOP opponents.) Republicans lambasted a video shown at the Demoratic convention asserting that "Government is the only thing that we all belong to. We have different churches, different clubs, but we’re together as a part of our city or our county or our state." Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney responded on Twitter: "We don’t belong to government, the government belongs to us."
In his closing exhortation, Soloveichik hinted at the notion popular among conservatives that we are in danger of losing, and must recover, a proper understanding of liberty.
"And help all of us as Americans renew our dedication to the principle of God-gifted liberty, so America can remain a beacon of faith and freedom for generations to come," he said.
Wolpe — in addition to working in a sly reference to Jerusalem, the Democratic convention’s topic du jour — had a different focus in his benediction late Wednesday night in Charlotte.
Speaking to a largely empty convention hall after the roll call vote to renominate Obama, Wolpe acknowledged that America is "founded on the highest principles of freedom and resourcefulness and creativity and ever-renewed strength." But individual freedom, for him, is not the sum total of America’s mission.
Indeed, Wolpe immediately added, "And we understand that those worthy ideals stand alongside the commitment to compassion, to goodness, our sacred covenant to care for those who are bereaved and bereft, who are frightened, who are hungry, who are bewildered and lost, who seek shelter from the cold."
Our responsibilities are not only to ourselves, he suggested, and similarly our nation has obligations to the world as both a refuge and an example.
"As your prophet Isaiah has taught us, ‘Shiftu yatom, rivuh almanah,’ defend the orphan and fight on behalf of the widow," he said. "We know that our lamp is lifted not only to illuminate our way but to serve as a beacon to others that here, this land, is a place where the dreams of a weary world flourish and endure." (Soloveichik had referred not dissimilarly to America’s calling as "a beacon of freedom to the world, and an ally of free countries like the State of Israel, an island of liberty, democracy and hope.")
Democrats, of course, have railed against the philosophy of hyper-individualism that they see as reflected in Rep. Paul Ryan’s admiration for Ayn Rand and as embodied in Republican budget proposals. Former President Bill Clinton in his Democratic convention address painted this election as a choice between "a winner-take-all, you’re-on-your-own society" and "a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibility."
While eschewing any overt partisanship, Wolpe in his benediction made a similar distinction, noting the importance of community and hinting at the vulnerability of the lonely individual.
"You have taught us that we must count on one another, that our country is strong through community, and that the children of Israel, on the way to that sanctified and cherished land, and ultimately to that golden and capital city of Jerusalem, that those children of Israel did not walk through the wilderness alone."
Liberty and community — the tensions between these values have long animated American politics and become pitched battle lines in the current elections. And they provided two rabbis with very different themes for their addresses to two very different parties.