Ann Coulter wants to see me “perfected.” How nice. I’d love to see myself perfected, too. I wish I were a bit thinner. I wish I could do everything I want to do as a Rabbi: pay the perfect pastoral calls, deliver the perfect sermons. Most of all, I wish I were a perfect husband, parent, son, friend. So Ann Coulter and I agree about something: we both think I need “perfecting.”
If you haven’t been watching the news closely over the last couple of days, the Coulter reference might seem a bit foreign. Let me unpack it. On Monday night, conservative political observer Ann Coulter appeared on CNBC’s “Big Idea” with Donny Deutsch, and described her vision of a perfect world as one in which everyone is Christian, and in which Jews are “perfected” by getting on the “fast track” to perfection which is Christianity. Her understanding of Christianity (which is shared by many though not all Christians) has no room for the possibility that someone living “under the law” can be entirely right with God. “Law,” which is how Coulter translates torah, is in nearly all cases a dead-end. Coulter’s Christianity teaches that the death of Jesus meant the death of sin for those who believe, and that a fast-tracked ticket to heaven is the reward for that belief. Coulter, like others who travel that road, is amazed that anyone would be offended when they point out the deficits of all non-Christian belief.
Coulter’s remarks have drawn the predictable firestorm of comment and condemnation. I’m not interested in condemning Coulter for her belief that I’m living with a deficit as an unperfected Jew. She’s entitled to be wrong about that, as she is about so much else, and she’s entitled to share her opinions with the whole world, even as her hosts and sponsors are entitled to make money by putting her in front of camera. But Coulter’s latest episode does provide us a way into our Torah portion, and for that I say, “Thanks, Ann.”
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Coulter has a point when she says that the story of the Hebrew Scriptures is the story of “God…constantly getting fed up with humans for not being able to, you know, live up to all the laws.” From the Garden to the Golden Calf, from Assyria to Babylon, that is indeed an important theme in the Bible. An early and striking example of God’s “getting fed up” is the subject of this week’s portion, noach. Water, usually a symbol of healthy cleansing, is a deathblow to humanity as God floods the world, destroying all flesh. Listen to the closing verses of last week’s parashah, which set up the story (Gen 6:5-7):
When the Eternal saw how great was the wickedness of human beings in the earth, that the direction of their thoughts was nothing but wicked all the time, the Eternal regretted having made human beings on earth, and was heartsick. So the Eternal thought: “I will wipe the humans whom I created from off the face of the earth – the humans, and with them the beasts, the reptiles, the birds of the sky – for I rue the day I made them.”
Fed up, indeed.
And so the earth is flooded, save Noah, his family, and the animals charged to his care. All flesh is destroyed, and a fresh start is undertaken. God, having first regretted creating human beings, now seems to show some regret at destroying them, and so God thinks:
“Never again will I bring doom upon the world on account of what people do, though the human mind inclines to evil from youth onward; never again will I destroy all living beings, as I have just done. As long as the world exists, /planting and harvesting,/cold and heat,/summer and winter,/day and night,/will never end.”
Did you notice the subtle shift in God’s assessment of human nature after the flood? Where the first citation has God regretful of creating a species that is “nothing but wicked all the time,” the second says that the evil inclination exists “from youth onward.” Jewish tradition sees in that language an important statement about our propensity to do wrong and our capacity to do good. Bad behavior is learned, not inherent in us. We are not born sinful. We are born pure and whole. Elohai, neshamah shenatata bi, t’hora hi, we say each morning:“My God, the soul that you placed within me is pure.”
Apparently Ann Coulter disagrees, and her particular brand of Christianity – which, I stress, is not the only brand – emphasis simple faith as a way to salvation. In the interview, she called it “the FedEX way” which avoids the hard work of obeying an inscrutable and ultimately impossible law. “Believe and be saved” is the one-note faith that Coulter espoused on Monday night. Whether her own faith is more nuanced I cannot say, and I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that it is. But in holding up the quick-fix version of religion, so perfectly suited to her soundbyte universe, she did us a terrific favor, allowing us to contrast that path – which some Jews believe in as well – with the truer and more satisfying faith that we teach here.
We believe that individuals can strive for fulfillment, that the Jewish people can strive for redemption, and that the whole world can be perfected in a universal fulfillment of God’s highest hopes and dreams for us. We also believe that the path from here to there is the path of Torah. No outside agent needs to die that I might gain my eternal reward. I need to live a life a mitzvot, and that life is its own reward. S’char mitzvah, mitzvah, we learn: “The reward for doing a mitzvah is, you did a mitzvah.” This path is more challenging, and ultimately more fulfilling, than Coulter’s. According to the effort, so is the reward.
Turn with me to page 83 of your prayer book. There you’ll find a free and expressive translation of the prayer hama’avir sheinah me’enay, thanking God for awareness and for conscience. It’s one of my favorites. I say it each day in the Hebrew, though lately I’ve switched to this version. Let’s read together.
As I awaken, let this be my thought:
may my day be filled with acts of lovingkindness.
Let me be drawn to learning and discernment,
and may my actions be shaped by mitzvot.
Keep me from iniquity, disgrace and sin;
May I not be overwhelmed by temptation or despair.
Distance me from evil people and false friends.
Let me cultivate a life of goodness.
May my hands reach out in kindness,
and I will serve God through acts of righteousness.
Today and every day, may I merit Your mercy,
by living my life with compassion and love.
Holy One of Blessing, draw me to Your words;
teach me the art of sacred living.
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Television is the perfect medium for Ann Coulter and those like her who believe that religion should offer its benefits at the speed of “FedEx.” Coulter’s version of faith is best suited to those who look for quick fixes in other areas of life as well. If you believe that you can have a body like Ann Coulter’s in seventy-two hours by drinking the right energy drink, then it’s no stretch to believe that you can have her blessed soul in an instant as well, by professing a particular dogma. Thoughtful Jews and thoughtful Christians have every reason to reject such nonsense. You get Ann Coulter’s body by going to the gym and eating healthy, and you get God’s compassion and love by showing compassion and love to others. The body comes in time, and so does the soul. FedEX can’t deliver them to you.
My prayer: God, save me from this sort of perfecting.