By Nathan J. Diament, Executive Director for the Institute for Public Affairs
As has been widely reported in the press, earlier this week the OU was privileged to have our lay and rabbinic leaders meet at The White House with President Barack Obama and his Chief of Staff, Jack Lew.
The press reports are, mostly, accurate in relaying the key issues discussed. Since this was a private meeting however, it is hard for them to capture the “atmospherics” – which I believe are worth conveying.
Of course, one would expect the tone of such a meeting to be civil and respectful. Despite the passionate and, yes, sometime overheated, rhetoric we have in political debates – including in the Orthodox community – especially over issues related to the security of Israel, it would be shocking, not to mention a chilul Hashem, to employ such an approach in The White House.
But the conversation we had with President Obama was more than civil – it was serious and thoughtful, and even warm at times. This is not to say we minimized our disagreements or concerns and “sang kumbaya” – we did not. Both with regard to the President’s policy toward Israel and key domestic issues, we noted the Orthodox Jewish community’s disagreements with some of his decisions. But as forcefully as we did so, it was on substance not personal, and it was with an acknowledgment that people of good will can disagree deeply in an honest way.
President Obama returned as much in his responses to our queries. He did not recite boiler plate bullet points, but spoke to us at length revealing to us his thinking and principles on each issue – and also acknowledging the legitimacy of our alternative point of view.
In truth, our 45 minute conversation with the President was a model of how civic debate and discourse should take place. It is unfortunate that circumstances do not allow more people to have the opportunity for this kind of engagement. But that is why the OU took it upon ourselves to seek this meeting – so we could do it on behalf of our community and report back.
In his commentary on Parshat Breishit, Onkelos famously translates the “breath” that God created Adam with as “the spirit of speech” – that what sets apart man from the beasts is our power of speech and, thus, communication with one another which leads to understanding, even if not agreement.
The June 5 meeting of Orthodox Jewish leaders with the President of the United States was a historic reinforcement of the power of conversation as a bridge between us all.