President Obama’s Yom Kippur moment

US Politics
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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Will President Obama observe Yom Kippur this year?  Don’t laugh. 

Though every American President has to be a religious person for political reasons, by all accounts Obama has a moderate Christian religiosity.  Besides, he’s very close to Jews and holds the Jewish tradition in high regard.  He also wants a post-Presidential life, including a fantastic fully-funded Presidential library that high-flying Jewish donors will support.  Observing Yom Kippur is an Obama no-brainer.

Whatever a person’s faith or level of religious observance, the Beltway synagogues are the right place to be during the most sober day on the Jewish calendar.  Whether you’re Jewish or not, being Jewishly observant has become a political plus.  Jews who hold or want to hold power will be there.  The intermarried power brokers – of which there are many – will be in synagogue, too.  Politicians from both sides of the aisle don’t want to rain on the AIPAC parade.

Rest assured the leaders of AIPAC won’t be taking Yom Kippur off.  Our Jewish paragons of virtue will be lobbying inside Washington synagogues.  After all, AIPAC’s “redemptive” work is unfinished.  The missiles aimed at Syria need promoting.   Iran’s threat to Israel – and America – has to be boldly highlighted.  Burying Iran is AIPAC’s version of the last great hope of humankind.  Otherwise, God’s judgment on America is assured.

Working the synagogue crowd isn’t exactly AIPAC’s cup of tea but if you have to don a kippah and suck up a couple of hours of religious tedium well, think of it as part of the job.  That doesn’t mean Yom Kippur can’t be jazzed up and made more media friendly.  I’m wondering if a red carpet Yom Kippur watch like the Academy Awards ceremony might worth pondering.

Think, for example, how televised interviews could enlighten the nation on the virtue of religious observance with political import.  My personal favorite would be Joan Rivers interviewing the intermarried Samantha Power, a wannabe Jew. Since Power has confessed her earlier sins for questioning Israel’s righteousness and now holds forth at the United Nations with such high mindedness on striking Syria for its sins, she’d make for a powerful Yom Kippur interview.

Joan Rivers could frame it this way:  It takes a repentant sinner like Power to recognize the power of God’s forgiveness.  Repenting of her sin against Israel, God granted her a second chance political life.  Second chances speak to the larger Christian audience about the power of God’s forgiveness.  In fact, Rivers could move into Christian “born again” territory.  Power might have a future as an iconic figure in Christian evangelical circles.

The day of confession and judgment is indeed a challenge for Jews and our new found fellow empire travelers. Weighing in on God’s judgment day is the place to be.  But, though, confession is good for the soul, when we’re faced with that judgment moment we often freeze.  Called to confess we go silent.

President Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday could be an occasion for the beginning of his confession – and our nations.  I doubt he’ll take advantage of the opportunity.  Instead, the President will seek the moral high ground, speaking of the sins of the Syrian regime and the righteousness of those who just say no to the use of chemical weapons.

But what if at the last moment the President stood up for himself, America and the world and confessed that his redlines have shifted toward a peace to be shared in justice by all?   What if he told the nation, the Jewish community and AIPAC that justice for Palestinians and the lifting of martial law in Egypt was a prerequisite for further discussions on Syria?  What if the President said that with Yom Kippur upon us, people of all faiths should join in discernment about our nation’s foreign policy and seek another direction?

On Tuesday night, President Obama has the opportunity to turn a superficial politically advantageous Yom Kippur into the real thing.  Then Yom Kippur would be a confessional surprise for everyone – including God.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and

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