Friday, November 15, 1996

A Question of Character

A Question of Character
(In a Place Where No One Behaves Like a Human Being)

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach

Item: You are a photographer for a major news service.
Your job is to get the picture, to put a face on the news.
Item: A major presidential candidate is speaking at a rally.
He leans forward the railing gives out he falls on top of you.
Question: Do you a) help him to his feet,
 Or b) leave him on the ground while you get up to snatch a picture?

In October, in the height of the presidential campaign, in Chico, California, this sudden ethical question faced three photographers as Republican Candidate Bob Dole fell on top of them. Two snapped the picture. One helped the man to his feet. Different decisions in the same situation.

The spiritual dilemma is not as distant as it may seem. It is a question which confronts us all. For who are we first and foremost? Are we defined by the jobs we do, the tasks we perform? Or are we human beings above all, capable of responding to others, to lending a helping hand? Usually the two are compatible. But not always. And what then? What do we choose? Who are we?

Here, the character question so consistently raised by Bob Dole at the end of the campaign struck those around him, if in a sudden and relatively minor way. By several weeks after his fall, however, a similar kind of character question could be raised ... not by the Republican candidate ...but about him.

In very recent days, Bob Dole appeared on Letterman and on Saturday Night Live. His appearances reveal the grace, the wit, the charm that those who know him well claim was there all along. They are the qualities that has earned Bob Dole loyal friends, and a devoted following. They are qualities that, for whatever reason (I'm not a political analyst, and I try not to play one on the pulpit ...but there is a Jewish angle here which I will arrive eventually) barely came across during the election. Except, we did get glimpses of this side of Bob Dole in his humor during the first debate. In his restraint, for a time, in issuing personal attacks.

But then the test came. It came late in October. Because, frankly, and with apologies to all those who cited Dewey, by then, the election was over. Not for Congress. But the presidential race was done and finished. And this placed a character question squarely ...on Bob Dole’s plate.

He spoke of one last mission. Let me tell you what that mission could have been. He could have ridden out on a losing cause with grace and dignity. He could have accepted that he was not going to win, and set about the task of restoring the people’s faith in the political process by sticking to the high ground. He could have convinced someone, somewhere, that he believed in something by actually sticking to a theme as if it was a conviction , rather than jumping for whatever would work, and grasping , in the end, the biter, personal , negative attacks of which are effective , and repugnant, and immoral, all at the same time .
It would have been a blow against cynicism (not a fatal one, and with far more battles to fight on that front before it will be safe to be idealistic about public service again). It would have been, in the midst of a political battle, the ... "menschlik” thing to do.
Hillel said: "In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human."      What better place where no one seems to be behaving like a human being than in a nasty political campaign. So much talk about being religious. So little demonstration of it.

And I'm pretty sure  that the subject of so much attention, the Sovereign of Existence and Master of the Universe, God neither a Democrat nor a Republican. (Nor Likkudnik nor Laborite).

Politics and religion are both, in their own ways, about the use of power. Politics is about particular policies. Religion is a reminder to sanctify the moment, the relationships, and the human face on the coin of whatever policies we pursue. It is a constant call, telling us that power, too, is an expression of holiness we never know when the moment will come, when we will be asked to make a choice between what we do and who we are. But it will come. And then: may each of us choose well.

A sad salute to a candidate who could have carried himself differently. And, on the other hand, cheers to the man who helped the candidate back to his feet. Even if there had been no one else there at all to take the picture.