A presidential inauguration has always been a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power. This year, after a crude and divisive election campaign won by Donald Trump, the idea of a peaceful transfer has emerged in high relief.
That’s what we read into the words of Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who explained why he accepted the invitation to offer a prayer at the president-elect’s inauguration on Jan. 20, and why he will not accede to the demands of Trump’s Jewish critics: “There are no tanks, no planes, no guns and that’s the way it is, so I was deeply honored and I accepted.”
Although our country was founded on principles that did away with the bowing and scraping before monarchs, we have developed our own pomp and circumstance relating to our elected leader, with particular emphasis on the president’s installation ceremony, called the inauguration. That process has more to do with honoring the office of the president than with the person elected to that role, and is one that has played out for nearly four dozen men who have filled the position, irrespective of their party, their religion, their particular personalities or even their policies. Quite simply, the inauguration celebration focuses upon the presidency itself. And, while individual office holders come and go, the presidency remains.
For that reason, we agree with Hier’s decision to accept the invitation of the president-elect, and to bring a Jewish voice to the peaceful transfer of power.
We recognize that Hier could have gone the other way. He is the founder of a well-known and respected organization which teaches about the Holocaust, confronts hate and promotes human rights. The Jewish critics who want Hier to reject the inaugural invitation say he should do so because Trump’s presidential campaign fostered the very hate and anti-Semitism that the Wiesenthal Center fights against every day.
Last summer, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York, was sharply criticized when he agreed to deliver an invocation at the Republican National Convention. He ultimately withdrew his acceptance under intense pressure from congregants and his past and present students. Whether you agree with Lookstein’s decision or not, we are no longer at the convention. The presidential inauguration is different.
On Jan. 20 our nation will turn to the steps of the Capitol as we install our new president and honor the office in which he will serve. Hier said that he gladly accepted the invitation (along with five other religious leaders) to participate in the festivities because it “was the menschlichkeit thing to do.” He added, “I am proud to do it.” He should be.