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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The way things are going, it’s going to be a long four years.

The election of Donald Trump as 45th president of the United States this past November has launched a virtual civil war across the country that is very real and very uncivil. The displays of hostility, contempt, disgust, bigotry, prejudice, arrogance, intolerance, frustration and aggravation—from both sides—is unprecedented, and amplified by the ubiquity and anonymity of the internet.

It is also exhausting. Does anyone think we can go on like this for another four months, let alone four years?

In particular, as it affects our Modern Orthodox Jewish community, how do we react? How are we conducting ourselves as we discuss our opinions and preferences with one another online and off? We are bound by more than Facebook’s “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.” The Torah’s laws, such as those forbidding lashon hara and ona’at devarim, are not suspended for the sake of heated internet exchanges.

What is truly unfortunate is that the very thing—dialogue—that ought to help bring us together is actually fracturing us. It’s making a bad situation worse, not better. Dialogue, the exchange of ideas, perceptions and opinions, ideally allows us to compare our notes, challenge our beliefs and modify our positions. But it doesn’t seem to work that way anymore. Instead, we have been reduced to chest-thumping and name-calling.

We all seem to have fallen into a feedback loop of what the social scientists call confirmation bias—we only allow those with whom we already agree to “sway” us. One side reads the Wall Street Journal and watches Fox news while the other reads the New York Times and watches CNN. Never the twain shall meet.

The Modern Orthodox Jewish community faces this challenge on a smaller, more intimate level. Shabbos morning conversations after shul don’t give us the protective distance of Facebook posts. Fortunately, the synagogue also doesn’t lend itself as a venue for overly stimulated conversation. We are forced to be menschlich.

A good friend told me that whereas he did not want Hillary Clinton to win, he nonetheless could not cast his vote for Donald Trump, and was disappointed that so many did—and did so gleefully. He admitted that had he lived in a swing state (as opposed to true “blue” New Jersey) he would have pulled the lever for Trump, out of necessity. But otherwise, why cast your vote for someone whose personal behavior was so at odds with Torah values? I hear his cheshbon.

At the same time, I hear the other cheshbon: that if you truly believed Trump should be president, for all his flaws, real or imagined, then your obligation was to cast your vote for him.

Now that he’s won, however, whether you voted for him, voted for Clinton, voted for Johnson or Stein or didn’t vote at all, the fact remains that Donald Trump is President of the United States. Here are some other facts, as I see them, particular to U.S. Jews:

On Israel: Trump will be a strong friend to Israel. He will absolutely have Israel’s back on security issues and will support the Jewish state’s own decisions in deciding her own destiny. Having said that, I’m not convinced he will move the embassy to Jerusalem. And I’m fairly confident that Jared Kushner will not make any major breakthroughs vis-à-vis “Peace in the Middle East” (though not for lack of trying).

On the Supreme Court: This is an issue that often is the decisive one for religious voters of all stripes. As is underscored by his choice this week of Neil Gorsuch to join the Supreme Court, Trump will lean conservative on this front. Overall, that should be welcome news to Jews who care about Torah values.

On the Economy: Yes, Trump got a leg up from his father. Yes, he declared bankruptcy more than once. But he has also built an empire—not just a real estate empire, but also a media empire and a branding empire. These are no small feats. The man knows business and knows how to run a large organization. He’s not the village idiot. It’s foolish to assume that he’s unlikely to help push the economy forward. Having said that, the notion that he will bring back manufacturing jobs to any significant level is a pipe dream.

On his tweeting and his antics: While many see this as “unpresidential” and others dismiss it as “Trump being Trump,” what gets lost in the fracas is the man’s unassailable ability to cast the spotlight as he sees fit. There is, I believe, a method to the madness. While the media chases after the latest ball tossed across the yard by Trump, he is busy making policy and directing the country. Here is someone who succeeded by bypassing the traditional media on the one hand, and by manipulating them on the other. Having said that, his narcissistic tendencies and his insistence on the validity of provable falsehoods are worrisome.

At the end of the day, we are left with a complex president. Republican-Conservative-Trumpsters ought to admit that Trump’s flaws—of personality and policy—are disconcerting at least, and frightening at worst. His behavior and decisions at times reflect more than just a lack of polish, but betray a lack of experience that can be dangerous for someone sitting in the most powerful office on earth. At the same time, Democratic-Liberal-Progressives ought to concede that Trump is a successful businessman whose lack of political experience may actually be an asset, and who will, with God’s help, bring his talents to bear for the good of the country.

By Srully Epstein

 Srully Epstein, a financial adviser, lives in Bergenfield, New Jersey.