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What wasn’t said in the first presidential debate

The most glaring? Four simple words: “I denounce white supremacy.” But denouncing white supremacy wasn’t the only statement absent from the evening.

President Donald Trump speaking during Tuesday night's debate held on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
President Donald Trump speaking during last Tuesday's debate held on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

According to Jewish tradition, God presented the Torah to Moses, written with black fire on white fire. Though this may sound like a far-fetched supernatural image, the rabbis interpret this to teach that we can derive meaning from both the letters (the black fire) and the space around the letters (the white fire). Or better stated: That which is not said is as important (and perhaps more important) than that which is said.

Many have referred to this election season’s first presidential debate as a “dumpster fire” and a “trainwreck” – something certainly not rising to the spiritual plane of Torah. However, referring to it as such creates a false equivalency between the actions of candidate Donald Trump and candidate Joe Biden. Indeed, one can argue that the uncivilized decorum came more from candidate Trump. However, while putting this behavior aside, we can and should still apply the black fire/white fire teaching to the transcript of the debate. Because what wasn’t said troubles me far more than what was said.

The most glaring white space? Four simple words: “I denounce white supremacy.” When asked to denounce white supremacy, Trump did not — neither implicitly nor explicitly. This space was then coupled with name-checking the Proud Boys, whose former member Jason Kessler organized the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville where Heather Heyer was murdered.

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Such an omission alone is enough for me as a rabbi and leader in the Jewish community to have grave concerns for our future should Trump win the election. But as I reflected more deeply about the back-and-forth at Case Western Reserve University, denouncing white supremacy wasn’t the only statement absent from the evening.

Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky
Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky

We didn’t hear candidate Trump say: “I am not a racist” or “Racial sensitivity should be a core value of this country.” We didn’t hear him say “I support the precedents set by of Roe vs. Wade.” We didn’t hear him say “Science is paramount.” We did not hear “Voting is a civil duty,” and even more troubling, absent was any form of “I will accept the outcomes of the election after the ballots have been counted.”

I worry about what this silence indicates — and I wonder how both those undecided and decided voters  are assimilating this silence. Will this shift their support? Does it give them concern for the future of our democracy — or worse, the future of our country? Because I am deeply scared. I am scared that these omissions (and others) forecast a very specific, treacherous path for this country.

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A generation before Resh Lakish uttered those words about the black fire and white fire, the great rabbinic sage Shammai shared the aphorism: “Say little, do much.” But this was not about the “white space.” This was about action.

Now is the time for action – from both candidates. But also for we as the electorate. Now is our time to invoke our civil duty to vote, and respond to this silence. Now is the time for our actions to reassure a future for this country that unites us and does not divide us. Now is the time for our actions to invoke the golden principle of “love thy neighbor.” Now is the time for us to remember President John F. Kennedy’s charge: We must never forget that the highest form of appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park. 

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