From the Rabbi’s Study

SPECTACLE OR SUBSTANCE: THOUGHTS ON THE 2020 ELECTION

In a recent Friday evening D’var Torah I reflected on a fascinating passage in Chapter 13 of the biblical book of Deuteronomy. The passage goes like this:

If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or a portent, saying, ”Let us follow and worship another god” – whom you have not experienced — even if the sign or portent that he named to you comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For the Lord your God is testing you to see whether you really love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. Follow none but Him; observe His commandments alone …”

What is the test to which the author refers? Simply, whether our decision about whom to follow is based on substance, the content of belief and conviction, or spectacle, that which titillates, that which appeals to our eyes and ears. Who are the “other gods” to which the author alludes? These are the powers that we see and feel all around us … the sun, the source of light and warmth and growth; the fertile earth that gives rise to the ripened crops and the fruit-bursting trees; the thunder and lightning that make us tremble at the awesome, fearsome power of nature. These natural forces have often, from time-immemorial, become objects of worship. These are powers that we see and hear and feel; they arouse our senses and persuade us of their significance. Thinking of them as divine, as gods, is but a small step for those so inclined.

The Bible rails against this very seductive form of idolatry, an idolatry that makes gods out of material entities. The Bible’s monotheism, on the other hand, insists that nothing material is divine and that which appeals only to our senses can lead us astray. What is the Bible’s alternative? In a word, the G-d of Ethical Monotheism. The G-d who stands for values, who points us to ethical imperatives, whose concern is the substance of life and its shadows. To worship a transcendent G-d is to turn from sights and sounds to what is substantial and to obligation, from captivating stagery to deep values and goals.

This passage has something to teach us about the challenges and opportunities that the current (and interminable!) election season presents to us. For, in our media-saturated age, spectacle is what mesmerizes and spectacle is what we get in abundance. A candidate who beguiles captures our attention and holds it. Sights and sounds, sensationalized barbs, seductive promises … these are calculated to lift a candidate above the crowd. And these are tactics that all too often work.

But, our country now faces enormous challenges: income inequality, climate change, unresponsive government, sagging infrastructure, corrosive racism, a corroding educational system, inadequate health coverage. during this season, we cannot afford to be diverted from the necessary agenda by those who seek to captivate and entertain. We must insist that our candidates deal in substance and offer real solutions to the many problems we as a society face.

L’Shalom, Rabbi Roger C. Klein