I Just Heard Barbara Boxer!

I just heard Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) at Hebrew Union College. I found out yesterday that she would speak about how Judaism influences her public life. This intrigued me because I’m interested in the relationship between religion and public life–or church (in this case, temple) and state.

I was surprised at how easy it was to hear her speak. I expected masses of people to be lining up outside the chapel, trying to get a seat. But I walked right in and sat down. And Barbara Boxer was like one of the congregants. She didn’t put on any celebrity airs.

I was a little disappointed because her speech was a rehearsal of the typical liberal talking points. I almost fell out of my seat when she blamed the current financial crisis solely on the Republicans, pointing out that Phil Gramm helped deregulate the financial industry. For whatever reason, I tend to expect a more nuanced viewpoint from our public officials. I mean, the few congressmen with whom I’ve interacted could talk circles around me–with all their rhetoric and knowledge. But I wonder if she remembers that Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Gramm-Leach-Bliley, and that President Clinton signed the bill. What’s more, Clinton still says it played little role in the current financial crisis! To her credit, however, Barbara Boxer was one of the six Democrats who voted against it (see here).

She didn’t endorse Barack Obama, since she couldn’t in that setting. But she said that her religion taught her to value the poor and the needy, to see everyone (including gays and lesbians) as God’s children, and to beat swords into plowshares. That influences her stances on welfare, gay rights, discrimination, and the Iraq War.

I was hoping that she’d quote rabbinic texts, or more Scripture, or something like that. But her Judaism seems to be more cultural than textual, although the texts did give her certain values. When I walked in, I wasn’t planning to ask any questions in the Q and A. I pretty much expected the audience to be liberal and Democratic, and I was prepared to handle that. But I wanted to hear more about how her Judaism affected her public life.

So I raised my hand, and she called on me. “Hi Senator Boxer,” I said. She greeted me back. I asked her this: “Do you ever work with Senator Lieberman, and how does his Judaism’s influence on his public policy positions compare to how your Judaism influences your public policy positions?” I was curious to know how an orthodox Jew and a Reform Jew approach public policy. Do many of the same values come into play? Would the traditional Jewish texts play more of a role in Lieberman’s approach?

To my surprise, the room chuckled! It must have been a provocative question. I could have asked a more hostile question, such as “What do you do with all the pro-life positions in the Talmud?” But I was interested in gaining insight, not in cornering a U.S. Senator.

She opened her response with, “Well, fortunately, not all Jews are the same.” She said that she doesn’t understand why Senator Lieberman believes fighting wars is the way to solve things, yet she pointed out that she supported the wars in certain areas–in Kosovo, Rwanda, and Afghanistan–but that she doesn’t prefer war as a general policy. She also expressed dismay that Joe Lieberman supports Sarah Palin, an “extremist.” She called him “Joe,” which indicates she’s on a first-name basis with him. But I doubt that the two of them have had a big discussion about Judaism. They probably know each other from work, and that’s about it.

I liked it when she said that we cannot neatly compartmentalize our faith and other aspects of our life, since our faith shapes our values and who we are. At the same time, she affirmed her support for the separation of church and state. A good question would have been, “Where do you draw the line?”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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