In My Own Words: A new beginning? by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Editor’s note: This column was written before the January 6 events in Washington, DC. 

A new beginning? Does anyone really believe that 2021 and a new presidency really means a new beginning? Americans believe that we can always start anew, leaving the old behind like clothes we discard. Maybe that’s because we are a nation of immigrants: people changed their names, occupations and class status when they moved to this country. The American myth that says we can all become rich, reach the upper crust of society or become famous still resonates with people today. Bur for many, it is a myth, not a reality.

While the date of the year may change, people carry forward the same beliefs and prejudices that made the past decades so problematic. If you don’t think so, just consider what’s occurred this century. We had an African-American president, which supposedly proved the claim there was no systemic racism in our society. If the events that led to the Black Lives Matter Movement haven’t proven to you how untrue that is, then you haven’t been paying attention. The increased instances of antisemitism (and cries of “Jews shall not replace us”) and attacks on LGBTQ rights show that life has not really changed that much. It seems that for every one step forward society takes, it then takes two steps backward. The problem is that American citizens disagree on what progress means. For those who believe that America should be a white, heterosexual Christian country, then every step forward of which I approve means two steps backward for them. We disagree on something as fundamental as basic human rights and who deserves them.

Think for a moment about personal rights: how do we decide when people can make their own choices without governmental interference and when the government has a right to interfere? Let’s start with something simple: Should people have to stop at red lights? Most of us have no objection to that, although some people will go through a red light if there are no cars coming and no one else is around see. However, we accept the government has a right to make rules of the road, if only to protect ourselves from other drivers. How about guns? Although I don’t want one in my house, I’m perfectly fine with people owning rifles, shotguns and pistols. Do I think the government has any right to limit the type of weapons people can own or place restrictions on who can purchase them? I do because that protects us from military weapons that don’t belong in the hands of civilians or from those who are not stable enough to use a weapon wisely.

Should the government be allowed to decide who you can marry? Governments have for centuries, but the definition of unacceptable marriages has changed. For example, in biblical times and in many countries, first cousin marriages were encouraged to keep property in the family. However, there are some states in the U.S. that forbid first cousins to marry. At one time, Black and white Americans were not allowed to marry – and even where it was not illegal those who did so were often threatened with bodily harm. However, cultural changes occur and there is no going back to a golden age that never really existed. Well, there may have been a golden age for white, heterosexual, Christian men who owned property. The main reason poor, white, heterosexual, Christian men didn’t object was that they someday hoped to strike it rich and figured they would be part of this protected class. But that golden age was never a reality for the majority of U.S. citizens. 

So I am not optimistic that our world is going to magically change. The past four years have revealed just how divided we really are and the depth of anger of those who feel they have lost their God-given privileges – privileges they don’t feel the need to share. The left has also been divisive, saying that if you don’t agree completely with the party line, then you don’t belong in its ranks. That’s left Jews who support Israel’s right to exist – even when they don’t agree with Israeli governmental policy – out in the cold. Of course, I hope that I’m wrong, but – if the last four years have taught me anything – it’s that the American dream I thought we all embraced – the dream of liberty, opportunity and equality for all – is just another myth. Then again, maybe this century is an anomaly and I’ll be proven wrong. Right now, though, I’m left hoping and praying that the country I love will regain its ideals of justice and freedom.