I was teaching high-schoolers in a Jewish day school in the early ’90s when I first began to hear about Rush Limbaugh. I taught Biblical and rabbinic texts and other topics relevant to a Jewish religious education.
I viewed politics through the prism of religious values. Prime among those values was not taking the certainties of partisans as seriously as they took themselves. Secular salvation usually turns out pretty badly. Lenin takes power promising a clean sweep of all the old stuff — no more czar, no more religion. But he ends by installing himself as a greater despot than any czar and on his death becomes the object of a new non-religious religion.
The 20th century was filled with such people. It was all just a modern from of idolatry.
It’s a principle of rabbinic thinkers that life entails seeking balance. There is the extreme of individualism and the extreme of social organization. We should avoid them both.
So when I heard of this very unapologetic conservative becoming the big voice on the right, I was not impressed and assumed his was one more passionate but unbalanced voice.
I still had vivid memories of the Goldwater campaign in 1964. My dad had been a fan of the eastern moderate branch of the GOP, but supported the party’s choice after Barry won the convention. In seventh grade, I wore a little pin of a gold elephant with Barry-style black glasses on, and another button proclaiming “Au H2O.” I also remember the humiliating sense of defeat that I suffered when Barry went down in one of the biggest landslides ever in a presidential election. He had been effectively tagged as an extremist, and to be extreme, I realized, or even to be perceived as so, wasn’t very good.
But as a teenager and as a college student, I became fairly radicalized. I cast my first vote for George McGovern in 1972 and watched someone effectively tagged as an extremist on the other side go down in a huge landslide as well. It seemed to me that the country was best served by someone balanced.
Rush was willing to go to the extreme to restore the Founders’ concepts of liberty and freedom.
My own life at this point turned away from the secular world in search of spirituality and meaning in my religious tradition. I was accepted in rabbinic school and spent the first year of it in Jerusalem. It so happened that that was the year of the Yom Kippur War, and I was caught up as a volunteer helping as needed in a bakery, in a hospital, and in a home for special needs children as we all pitched in during the emergency.
Gradually, I learned that there are deep and central things in life to which one must be committed totally. Moderation there does not have a place. The survival of a whole nation faced with existential destruction was one such thing. I became deeply committed to the survival of Israel and to its quest for peace in the midst of intense and uncompromising hostility.
Disappointment with Jimmy Carter’s ever more apparent lack of sympathy for Israel led me to vote for the other guy, the actor and extremist. I was not happy the Republicans had nominated Reagan, but I felt I had no choice. How pleasantly surprised I was by his personality as president and by his marked friendship with Israel. Seeing the goodness in him led me to reevaluate my opinion of him as an extremist. More and more, his commitments seemed reasonable and positive, and most of the criticisms against him seemed like sloganeering rather than sober assessments of the man. He got and held my support for his full two terms despite some things I did not agree with.
But after Reagan, Bush snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the first Gulf War, put the anti-Israel James Baker in State, and spectacularly backtracked on “Watch my lips.” Clinton promoted Yasser Arafat as if he was a credible peacemaker, Israel seemed to believe he could be, and no one remained in the political arena who spoke to my concerns.
And then one day as I was driving and moving the radio dial, I came across Rush, and he was talking about Israel. That persuaded me right away, and he never changed in his unwavering support. I pushed aside my pre-judgment and began to listen to him with an open mind.
I was taken by his humor and by his intelligent wit from the get-go. I had always enjoyed good irreverent satire, believing very much that tyrants are afraid of humor, that good people enjoy it, and that its overall effect is to strengthen our humanity.
As time went by, I began to sense something else as well. The rabbi, philosopher, and jurist Moses Maimonides taught that one must also consider the whole question of balance from a larger perspective. A person who sees that the world is in a state of imbalance must not conceive balance in isolated and local terms. Rather, the truly committed person aims to balance not just the self apart but the self as part of the whole. If the community as a whole is tipped in one direction, one should aim towards the other extreme in order to bring balance to the whole.
Rush saw clearly the long push of our society towards increased dependence on government to do just about everything of importance in ever-greater measure. He was able to communicate that perception to many people who had been lulled by the stealth of the long, long project of the Left and had accepted the altered status quo as the new baseline, or, as cliché would have it, the new normal.
Rush did not flaunt his religiosity, nor did he devote much time to religious apologetics. But his love of freedom came from the same place as it has in our long constitutional tradition. Neither Adams nor Washington nor Jefferson nor Selden before them specialized in conventional piety, but they all saw that human liberty springs from the direct relation between God and humanity. Because the core of the human soul reflects the image of God, as Genesis tells us, we do not need to receive our political rights from the sufferance of other people or to beg for their toleration.
Rush was in awe of the Founders and in awe of the vision of America that lives in the hearts and souls of its people. He was willing to go to the extreme to restore the Founders’ concepts of liberty and freedom.
As the years went on, he became a familiar and beloved part of the discussion that I participate in with others and within myself about who we are and where we are going. Even when I disagreed with him, I loved and appreciated his stand for freedom. To stand for freedom is to stand for love, because love, above all things, is free. And that came through with Rush time and again, before disagreements ever became so strong that they overpowered the bonds of affection.
Thanks for the education, Rush. Thanks for the laughs. Thanks for the commitment to America and to Israel. I’ll be paying it forward, trying to restore that balance, and living with the humor, insight, commitment, and love that you so generously strengthened in all who would give you a fair listen.