When I read about your predicament as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, presiding over hearings on the Bush administration’s next Supreme Court nominee, I think of Queen Esther. The biblical Book of Esther tells the story of a young Jewish woman who wins a beauty contest to become a queen of Persia. As time passes, one of the king’s advisors declares himself a sworn enemy of the Jews, plotting to murder them all. Esther’s foster father visits her in the palace to ask her to intercede, but she hesitates, fearful of standing up to the king.
Her foster father’s reply deserves to be remembered by every person who attains high office or privilege. First he reminds Esther that her cozy position will not necessarily save her, and then he says this: “Perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”
That is also my message to you in the defining moment of your political career. Esther’s opportunity and destiny was to save the Jews, but yours is even greater: to save the civil liberties and foundational freedoms of an entire nation, all its citizens of many faiths and creeds. I write to you today not only in the hope that the wisdom of our shared tradition will guide and inspire you, but as a fellow American who cherishes freedom and believes that if you meet this moment with courage and integrity, your name will be honored for generations.
You and I have several things in common. Both our families are immigrants — uneducated people, who fled the Cossacks with little more than their own desire for freedom to sustain them — who made their lives in this country through hard work. As Jewish custom is to name children after beloved ancestors, I was given the all-American name Arlene on account of my father’s late father Aaron. I imagine there was an Aaron in your lineage too.
I don’t know whether we also hold in common an affection for the deep wisdom of our shared tradition. For me, the directive for judges from Leviticus 19:15 rings true: “You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.” Our nation is in the grip of a great money-madness in which pleasing the rich takes precedence over the fairness that is essential to justice, and lobbyists gloat that they have been invited into the highest chambers of government to dictate legislation favoring their interests. The advocates of this agenda have grown increasingly confident of their success, and now believe they can capture the Supreme Court. Toward that end, they have floated a candidate best-known for justifying the torture that has already made our country infamous around the globe, and from within their ranks, the only objection so far has been that he may favor reproductive choice.
When it’s time to nominate a new Supreme Court justice, we are often reminded that the office exerts an unpredictable influence, that once seated, justices don’t always vote as expected. Some of the Court’s most inspiring voices were men who displayed authentic repentance and redemption, who turned away from darkness, seizing the ever-present opportunity for \t’shuvah\ — turning, reorientation — that our tradition prizes so highly; for instance, Earl Warren, who had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
We can work and pray for a nominee who in the end surprises us with his or her awakening, but right now, my prayers are for an earlier, much more pivotal and important turnabout: one in which you draw the line on behalf of each and every citizen. All it would take is a few truths to be spoken aloud, a few words like those Joseph Welch used at a 1954 committee hearing to end the shameful career of Senator Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
There is a rumor abroad that to secure your current position on the Judiciary Committee, you promised to support the judicial agenda of the far-right ideologues who wield increasing influence in this administration. I know that in the past you have earned a reputation for independence, leading me to question this rumor. I have also read that at age 75, having given so much of your life to public service, you have been facing the challenge of Hodgkin’s Disease. I pray that your life is long and strong. But none of us can number our days. Putting myself in your place, I see that political horse-trading cannot possibly be your foremost consideration. When we face our own mortality, our minds are more likely to turn to questions of the world to come than to prospects for increased campaign contributions or ambitions for even higher office.
May you be granted the courage to stand up to tremendous pressure from colleagues and pressure groups alike, to speak truth regardless of the cost to yourself, and to accept gladly the heavy mantle of redemption that has been placed on your shoulders, knowing that like Esther, your name will be remembered with gratitude until the end of history.
Proverbs 9:8-9 tells us to “Reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he will grow wiser.” May you rise as a wise man to meet this ultimate challenge, knowing you hold all of us in your hands, and we hold you in our hopes.