An earlier version of this piece appeared on The Huffington Post.
In Ta-Nahesi Coates’ latest cover story for The Atlantic, My President Was Black, he weaves his poignant reflections on the last eight years in this country with conversations he has had with President Obama. Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, characterizes the piece as being emblematic of a clash of world views. Obama, following Martin Luther King, Jr., believes that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Coates, on the other hand, believes that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends towards chaos. These world views are in no small part a product of the two men’s life experiences. Obama, as the article lays out, was raised in an America suffused with kindness across racial lines, where acceptance and love were the norm, no matter the color of your skin. Coates’ America was anything but, and he was constantly reminded that black Americans were second class citizens. As is true for all of us, Obama’s and Coates’ life experiences have shaped them into the people they are today. That being said, these radically different world views have not left either one depressed or unable to fight for the change they feel the world needs in order to be a more just place. Instead, what is impacted is the optimism with which they view the future, especially a future that now includes a 45th predisent that that fits Coates’ vision of the arc of the universe much better than Obama’s.
I tend to recoil from the locution “Judaism says x.” As a rabbinical student, I have learned that it is rarely true. Yet Judaism unequivocally sides with MLK Jr. and Obama, believing in the inevitability of a better future. The twelfth of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith is the faith in the coming of the Messiah (a version of which I sung as an elementary school student), and one of the classical formulations of heresy is the belief that “there is no Justice and no Judge” (ein din ve’ein dayan).
In this political moment in history, and, if i’m being honest with myself, for years now, I, against the overwhelming voice of my tradition, have sided with Coates. I understand the heresy of classical Judaism to explain something deeply true about the world, not something that should set one outside the pale. As I read it, when rabbinic literature labels something as heretical or outside the pale, many times the authors are working something out that they are not yet sure about, in a literarily safe way (e.g. by putting opinions considered heretical into the mouths of philosophers or Roman leaders). Like Coates, this does not lead me to despair, but it does lead to pessimism, especially when confronted by a period of time when the arc seems especially long. I admire MLK and others who seem so sure that, even if they don’t make it, the world will be a better place in the future. While a secular version of this belief strikes me as simply optimistic, a theistic version of this belief is offensive to me. If there is a God bending the world towards justice, what exactly is God doing when the arc is zigging and zagging far from justice? The fact that the world will land on its feet in the end does nothing for Freddie Gray, Reza Banki, or the roughly 290,000 women who died from childbirth in 2013 alone.
So I am left to wonder where the wellspring of hope will come from for me, and those whose theologies align roughly with mine. I also wonder whether the pages of the history book — whether from MLK Jr., or Jesus, or the early Rabbis who experienced the destruction of the Temple c. 70 CE — could provide guidance for how to keep such hope alive in the face of such moral, physical and spiritual challenges.