"A More Perfect Union": Comments on the Obama Speech


We have received a number of comments on Senator Barack Obama's speech on "A More Perfect Union," delivered across the street in Philadelphia from Constitution Hall, where the Constitution was written.,

Among them were two public letters from two women with different outlooks on the Presidential campaign.

Lilly Rivlin is a journalist, writer, and filmmaker, co-founder of the original Feminist Seder, immediate past president of Meretz USA, a support group for the Israeli progressive Zionist party.

Rabbi Phyllis Berman founded and directs the Riverside Language Program, a 28-year-old English-language school for adult immigrants and refugees from all over the world, and is the co-author of two books of Jewish thought and practice.

I will comment after their letters. Shalom, salaam, peace - Arthur


I was sent a link to Barack Obama's extraordinary speech. I had not heard
it in its entirety. And, as I've made clear, I support Hillary Clinton.

However, I took the time to listen, and I urge you to make the time, for it
is inspirational and substantive, and worthy of today NYTimes editorial
caption, it is "Mr. Obama's Profile in Courage."

Whatever happens in the next few months as Hillary and Obama make their way through the rest of the states, at the end, we will all have to come together, we will have to
choose, we will all have to understand each other's point of view, and
Obama's speech goes a long way to making this possible.

Here's a website where you should be able to either watch/hear the speech
or print the text:

Lilly Rivlin
Dear Chevra,

No matter who you are supporting for president, Obama's speech on race and
other subjects yesterday in Philadelphia is a must-read; below is the link to
this amazing speech, nuanced, complex, intelligent, moving.

Oh how I've hungered to be inspired like this by a politician; may he have many allies, and
may we soon live in a time of recommitment to building a more perfect union
by expanding our vision of "we"...

Obama says in this speech that, "for the African-American community, this
path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of the

He also took the trouble to recognize the resentful feelings of many white working-class Americans who feel their own hardships are overlooked when our society tries to redress the racism of the past.

In our Shabbat Zachor extra Torah reading this past Shabbat, we are
told to remember to blot out the memory of Amalek who attacked those most
vulnerable, walking at the end of the long line of march toward freedom from Mitzrayim {Egypt, slavery]..

Barbara Breitman expressed an extraordinary understanding of those words
some years ago. As a therapist, she wisely said -- making a distinction between
remembering to blot out Amalek and remembering to blot out the memory of
Amalek -- that when we finally come fully into ourselves, into our "promised
land", when we are safe and secure, only then can we afford to look back at the
memory of Amalek and the attack on our vulnerability; only then can we work
through that trauma so that we are not forever living in the imprisonment of
our unresolved past hurts.

This is also what Obama is saying: there is reason for anger on many
people's parts. Our challenge is to do the work to look at that anger but not get stuck in it, not simplify the causes of our anger and discontent, but to work to change the deep issues that are the true causes of our pain and disempowerment.

If you haven't already read or heard his (self-written) speech, I recommend
following this link...

Rabbi Phyllis Berman


Let me add my own two cents. Long before I became a rabbi, I was a professional historian of the US, with a special interest in race relations. I wrote my Ph.D dissertation on a series of race riots in 1919, and it became part of one of my early books, called FROM RACE RIOT TO SIT-IN. And the racial volcano that erupted in the days from the murder of Martin Luther King to the first night of Passover in 1968 changed my life - opened up the path that has made me a rabbi.

So I have read scores of fine speeches of American leaders of all sorts, especially those on the issue of race.

And I have only read about ten speeches of ANY type or person or topic in all of US history that I feel equal or surpass that speech of Obama's yesterday. That includes one of Jefferson's, two of Lincoln's, one of Roosevelt's, two of Martin Luther King's.

What makes the speech astounding is its ability to embrace what seem in ordinary politics to be opposites, without turning wishy-washy. Lifting a vision that embraces real change, specific changes, deep change, difficult change, without rejecting large parts of the body politic that will have to change. Which means, will have to grow beyond where they, we, now are.

The speech lets NOBODY off the hook. It pats no one on the back. This assessment is not abstract, about some other people. I myself feel challenged by it to rethink my own worldview, as well as invited by it.


The speech doesn't automatically, by itself, make Obama the best candidate for President, any more than Dr. King's great speeches made him the best candidate for President. And it remains true that the grass-roots of America are the place where change most needs to happen, and vigorous action most needs to grow, no matter who gets elected President. But the speech points strongly in the directions that we as a nation, grass-roots and tree-tops, need to grow. – Arthur Waskow



I appreciate your recent post about Obama's speech yesterday. Yes, it was truly extraordinary.

I want, however, to note one small disappointment that indicates one serious omission.

The Constitution's original sin was not just slavery, but exclusion of women, and this dual sin became very evident when black men received the vote, but all women, including black women, did not. He did not have to discuss gender to have just mentioned he was aware of the limits of the definition of humanity at the founding of the republic, esp since both sins have promulgated violence and oppression and affect the current polarizations of Obama vs Clinton.

He slipped by omission into the current polarization of race and gender, when he could have forged new ground by being in solidarity with his wife and black women, as well as his white grandmother and women of all colors. There are sins of omission in Christian theology, not just sins of commission. And Christians, esp. have a lot to answer for, still, with regard to women.

While I am deeply grateful for the honesty and clarity of his speech, it would have been stronger on its commitment to unify the country, if he had mentioned women as well.

Blessings to you and all the good work you do,
Rita Brock

Arthur, you wrote:
"The speech lets NOBODY off the hook. It pats no one on the back."
I beg to differ with you. I was mesmerized by Obama's speech, but when it came to Israel, I'm afraid he absolutely DOES let Israel "off the hook," placing all responsibility on radical Islam. I am sure that in the political climate of America today, he "had" to do that, but it struck me as the only dishonest note in the speech.

Eric Gordon, Los Angeles
Rabbi Waskow, thank you for sending this message. I have despaired at the resistance by many of my fellow Jewish Americans to really hear what Barack Obama is trying to say, and at their stubborn attachment to the false claims of anti-Semitism, despite all factual correction.
I'm happy to vote for Hillary Clinton in November if she secures the nomination; but yesterday's speech makes me feel that a President Obama could help heal some of the tragic rifts that developed between the Jewish and African-American communities at the close of the 1960s.
Best, Matt Ruben
Al Sharpton's long-time pastor and mentor, the Rev. William Jones ... had written what [Pastor] Wright and many other blacks of their generation believe: that a true black Christian is a race man. "Though not a racist, the race man is the embodiment of racial pride and has absolute distaste for the system. He begs no favors from the establishment but demands justice for his people."
Like Wright, Jones had joined at times with Jesse Jackson to pressure white businesses in black communities to hire blacks. But he wrote also of "an interim ethic of black asceticism," in which blacks withdraw from white society psychologically and culturally to plumb their own history, arts, and religion, "a step in the movement from [being] property to pride to power."

It's easy to imagine how thinking like this can take wrong turns, and Obama cautioned in his speech that "The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism [but] that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made."

It's a bit harder to understand why the purse-lipped, finger-wagging scolds we'll be hearing from can't acknowledge that men of offended dignity such as a Jones' or a Wright might talk sometimes as if the racist world they knew in their formative years hadn't changed -- and that younger blacks like Obama might listen to them but move on.

It's especially hard to understand why certain Jews -- of all people - can't acknowledge this and, in fact, actually emulate the worst of it by peddling or succumbing to fears of an anti-Semitic Obama that are far more fanciful than a black preacher's fears of, say, a racist Republican leader or two.

The answer is that some Jews, rather like Jones and Wright, can't get past memories of having been classic urban intermediaries between urban elites and the black poor. In New York and Chicago in the 1950s and early '60s, Jews often decided whether blacks could get credit at the store, a job, an apartment, a passing grade, an acquittal. But those Jews, too, were struggling and vulnerable; they were white folks whose skin blacks could get under, the first to take alarm at black rage.

No wonder that every so often, some Jews, no less than Wright, Farrakhan, Jeffries, or Jones, ushers listeners of a certain age into a psychic landscape flickering with old, familiar demons. No wonder that neither side admits that Louis Farrakhan has been in eclipse since 9/11 made "The Nation of Islam" a difficult place to be, and, indeed, since 1995, when hundreds of thousands of black men turned his Million Man March into a poignant manifestation of hope unlike anything he'd intended or understood.
* Jim Sleeper
* ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^


I am less impressed than most...

Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.'s speech, characterizing the United States as fundamentally racist and the government as corrupt and murderous, was much more honest and profound. I could have imagined Obama, however eloquent, distancing himself from King after he remarked that the greatest purveyor of violence in the world was the US government, and that his dream had become a nightmare.

I listened to Obama's whole speech. I recognize that he had to make it, and I understand the political reasons why, but lets not fool ourselves. It was neither fully honest, nor profound. Wright's statements were both.

Peace -- Matt Daloisio