The Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, is the beginning of the 10 Days of Awe, a solemn period of reflection and repentance. One of the key moments in the Rosh Hashanah service is the reciting of the prayer (U'netana tokef, in Hebrew) that discusses the possibilities individuals face in the year to come:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquillity and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But REPENTANCE, PRAYER, and CHARITY remove the evil of the decree.
President Obama oddly quoted from this prayer in his conference call with 1,000 rabbis yesterday, at least according to a twittering rabbi, Jack Moline, who later pulled down his Tweets from the call. The purpose of the call was for President Obama to enlist the rabbis to support his health-care reform efforts: "I am going to need your help in accomplishing necessary reform." The reference to the "who shall live and who shall die" prayer was strange in two respects. First, as Paul Bedard noted, the Jewish New Year won't take place until September 18th. In fact, today marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month before the New Year begins. And yet the president said "shanah tovah [happy new year] to all of you." This is kind of like wishing people "Merry Christmas" on Thanksgiving.
Second, and more surprisingly, is this really the context in which he wishes to discuss health reform — a powerful and unseen being making determinations of life and death? One would think that he would want to avoid anything that could raise the specter of rationing, death panels, or the like.
The Washington Jewish Week noted two further interesting things about the call. First, while they were waiting for the president to join, the rabbis held a discussion about whether to mention the Jewish community's displeasure with the president's selection of Durban conference pasha Mary Robinson to win the Medal of Freedom. The rabbis apparently decided not to go beyond the planned discussion of health care, but the pre-call conversation is a good indication of the communal mood.
(When I served as the White House Jewish liaison under Bush, a technical glitch once put me on the line during one of these calls for a few moments before the participants realized I was on, and I sure heard an earful.) Second, the hold music on the line, through no apparent fault of the White House or the Religious Action Center, which sponsored the call, was "Deutschland Über Alles." A number of rabbis apparently expressed discomfort with this choice of music as well.
Overall, the mistakes here are minor. But these missteps indicate a continuing tone-deafness in the White House's political dealings with the Jewish community. This extends to a variety of issues, including the settlement freeze in Israel, the aborted nomination of Israel critic Charles Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council, and the Mary Robinson medal. The powers that be in the White House may feel that, since they won 80 percent of the Jewish vote in the last election, the Jewish vote is unshakably Democratic. Perhaps so. Nevertheless, it seems as if the Obama administration is going to try very hard to test this proposition.