Rabbi Josh Feigelson, of Ask Big Questions, recently exhorted us in this new era of politics and media “to keep thinking in complete sentences, whole paragraphs, and long essays.” I want to take some space to lay out a case around the issue of attending/watching vs. boycotting President Trump's inauguration.
Where I've arrived: I would like all the officials who represent me and for whom it is traditional to attend an inauguration to be there on Friday. And to stand when it is appropriate to stand. It's up to them whether to smile or not, or applaud or not. And I urge all of us as citizens to watch the inauguration, however we regard the new president. I am hoping to do that with other people.
There are certain shared civic norms and rituals that don't belong to any party or political philosophy or program. They are the bones of our shared government, our social contract. Inauguration ceremonies, the Fourth of July, the American flag. The Capitol and the White House. These aren't owned by any individual or subgroup, ever. The fireworks don't belong to the committee that puts on the show, and the Capitol and the flag and the inauguration don't belong to the people who are elected temporarily to govern.
Bones, in and of themselves, don't do anything. Bones don't kick you in the shins, and they don't carry your neighbor's sofa up five levels of stairs when you want to be helpful. Bones just want to be strong. No matter what we're doing on a given day, we need the same recommended daily amount of calcium.
The muscles of our politics are how we debate, influence, pressure, protest, govern. Muscles most definitely do things, and they most definitely have owners. We use them to operate our bones. Muscles want to push on things which push back. You want your muscles to be stronger than what they push on, or stronger than the muscles that are trying to push you. We want to influence better, legislate better, effect better changes in our world. My political muscle definitely belongs to me and my group, and yours belongs to you and yours.
We need the bones of America to be strong. We need to believe in our institutions, and to continue to be inspired by our symbols to believe in freedom, democracy, and the potential of our union to be more perfect. Even if, at a given moment, someone else's muscles are moving the bones.
Without good bones to attach to, all our great muscles wither away. Boycotting the inauguration doesn't strengthen anyone's muscles, but it does weaken everyone's bones.
President and Secretary Clinton are attending the inauguration because that's part of keeping the bones strong. Nobody expects them to be delighted to be there. Nobody mistakes their presence for an endorsement of even a single executive order or legislative proposal that might become effective that very day.
They will be there because the presidency itself is one of our bones. They want it to be strong so it will be worth controlling with muscle, when a vision for society more like theirs wins out one day down the road.
I give their due to the 63 million people who voted for the new president, the pluralities in sufficient states. I can watch the president they voted for, the chief executive of my country, and stand when appropriate. And I think they will understand the times when I don't applaud. Most of President-elect Trump's voters are people I have something in common with, and this is how I will show it. I need and hope and even expect to have their muscles pushing with mine during these coming years some or a lot of the time.
I do not want to make our justified fears into self-fulfilling prophecies about the decay of our bones. And at the same time, I am committed to building up my muscles. I have hope for persuading others, so that they will use their muscles with me and not against me.
And I believe there is something special in the bones of our American democracy. In our Shabbat prayers, we quote this from the psalms: “All my bones say: Adonai, who is like You, rescuing the poor from the stronger one, the poor and lowly from the one robbing him.” The bones know, even when the muscles are weary.
So watch the inauguration, and applaud or not. Protest Saturday if you aren't applauding Friday. But let's somehow be there all together Friday. Just as Election Day brings us all together, win or lose, so does Inauguration Day.