Yes, to those who spotted me, I was at the Compassion Forum in Messiah College last night, courtesy of the Orthodox Union. They found me a very good seat, too! (You can see me in the lower left corner at 00:20, here.)
Lots of interesting names in the audience, and I’m pretty sure I spotted Congressman Steven Rothman, from last week's event at Muhlenberg College, in the crowd. (I have to admit I wouldn’t have recognized most of the big figures by face, but I saw their names on their seats, so that helped.) I sat next to one of former President Clinton’s advisors, and he very patiently answered my million questions about the way these events work.
A lot to process from the experience, and I’m somewhat tired from the drive home, but here are some thoughts:
The Messiah College folks were, for the most part, sensitive to the needs of non-Christians in the crowd. They warmed up the audience with gospel singers whose choices were fairly non-denominational (except for one point in the second song; not sure if that was an ad-lib or part of the script). Oh, and there was one reverend who, concluding his very pareve introductory remarks, veered into the ultimate goal being joy in the father, son, etc.
One particular thought: Religion has really become safe ground in the past several years, I suspect in large part due to President Bush’s approach of letting it all hang out on his own faith. I was taken aback by the pointed religious questions: “Do you believe Gd punishes nations, in real time?” “Why does Gd permit suffering?” “What were specific moments when you experienced the spirit?” This aside from the more ‘normal’ questions, like, “Do you believe life begins at conception?” (I'm not sure whether I'm disturbed or encouraged by the acceptability of these questions in political discourse.)
The whole evening actually reminded me quite a bit of a proba, a rabbinic job interview, at which anyone could ask you anything, and you’re sitting or standing there, expected to come up with a response which is both true to your principles and satisfying to your many audiences.
The candidates themselves were very impressive in handling these questions. (That’s not really a surprise; you don’t get to this point unless you are very, very intelligent.) While they must be able to guess many of the questions in advance, they still, very visibly, think well on their feet.
I had two favorite answers of the night:
1) When Senator Clinton was asked her favorite biblical story, she answered by talking about Esther and Purim. I asked my neighbor whether he thought that was a planned, politically balanced response. He didn’t think so. I’m not so sure, but I must say that she explained it well, talking about women’s opportunities to take heroic action on a public level. She also mentioned receiving divrei torah on the parshah; I’ll have to add her to my email list…
2) When Senator Obama was challenged to pledge to reduce the national poverty rate in half within ten years, he replied in the affirmative, accepting that responsibility.
Frankly, the challenge itself was foolish; a president can commit to many things, but there is so much beyond his control on this issue that it's absurd. We're not talking landing a man on the moon, we're talking controlling a million conflicting issues that don't come under your jurisdiction.
And the answer he gave was actually much less than a pledge, hedged with comments about humility and needing cooperation from so many others
However, the fact that he made the pledge at all was bold. It would have been legitimate for him to have stopped short of the pledge itself, but he did not – he confirmed that he would do this, and he did mention some concrete ideals toward that goal. I would love to see that pledge fulfilled; what can I tell you, it satisfies the socialist in me. אפס כי לא יהיה בך אביון, right?
Two other quick notes:
A) The Middle East, interestingly, was off the list of topics. I'm relieved, frankly, but I would have liked to have heard them talk about the mix of religious beliefs and the Middle East.
B) Hillary came around shaking hands, and when my hand wasn't out she handled it very smoothly. She knows how this works, of course. A Muslim fellow behind me was a bit surprised, though, and asked me about it afterward.
More coming as I digest the experience… and probably a Yizkor derashah as well...