An unworthy debate
May 4, 2012
Politics has always been a bit nasty, a bit dirty. There is no question about that. But recent attacks on Sen. Frank Lautenberg — including name calling, ageism, and EZ Pass distractions — raise the question as to whether or not there is any limit to which those in politics will go these days. It is distasteful and it is offensive. And with so many critical issues facing us today, it is yet one more meaningless distraction from the real work that needs to get done.
A point of transparency: I know Sen. Lautenberg and have for many years. When I grew up in Berkeley Heights, my parents were active in state and national politics. I was 17 when the senator was first elected and my parents could not have been prouder. They had also grown up in working class Jewish families and were proud to see someone who built a successful business now turn his attention to public service.What could be better? Over the years the refrain of “Dan, did you hear what Senator Lautenberg just did?” was heard over and over from them. And for good reason; Sen. Lautenberg has, time and again, stood up for those most vulnerable in our society.
When I first came to my synagogue, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, in 1992, I was surprised to find that it had as its member, Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Early on, he invited me to join him and open a session of the Senate. It was one of the great honors of my life, and I could not have been prouder, especially since, at that very moment, my senator was at the forefront of breaking the tobacco industry’s stranglehold over our nation.
It is against that backdrop that I write this letter. Because, quite simply, the recent barrage against Sen. Lautenberg has been unfairly harsh and inappropriate. The senator has a long and distinguished record of philanthropy, leadership, and good works. To refer to him — a WWII veteran who has served in the Senate with distinction for nearly 30 years — as a “partisan hack” or to obliquely and in a rather brash manner suggest the senator is too old to serve is unbecoming the governor of the Garden State. (And, having spoken with the senator numerous times in recent months, I can state with certainty that the man is not too old for anything!)
I have no issue with Gov. Christie criticizing the senator’s voting record. None. And I have no issue with him debating their differences on the current university merger. None. The two men come from different ends of the political spectrum and as a result they have widely divergent views on both the role of government and various social issues. It is that tension, that difference of approach and viewpoint, that can make America great. But that will not happen, it cannot happen, when one side or the other resorts to name-calling, bullying, and spurious attacks that detract from the real substantive issues.
The rabbis of the Mishna taught, “An argument which is for the sake of Heaven (i.e., worthy of debate) will have a positive outcome, and an argument which is not for the sake of Heaven will not have a positive outcome.” When, time and again, we resort to the lowest form of discourse in the public arena, is there any doubt what the outcome will be?
Rabbi Daniel M. Cohen
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel