Governor Bentley’s Response to Rabbi Jonathan Miller’s Letter

Here is the much awaited answer … maybe…

January 21, 2011

Dear Friends,

I am sending you this communication to try to “put to bed” the issues we encountered in the aftermath of Governor Bentley’s remarks on Monday. So many of you responded to me with gratitude for giving vent to your sorrow and anxiety when you learned what our Governor had said at the Dexter Street Church in Montgomery on Martin Luther King Day. His remarks have been repeated over and over again, and I need not restate them here. Personally, I have been on television, on the radio, in the newspapers and in cyber-space more than I would have liked. And I appreciate your support throughout this week. My Temple family is such a source of strength to me.  And I think we are together a blessing to our community and our state.

Through the agency of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, we met with the Governor on Wednesday afternoon. I was blessed to be in the company of my fellow clergy Rabbi Elliot Stevens from Temple Beth Or in Montgomery, Rev. Steve Jones from the Southside Baptist Church, Joyce Spielberger and Lenora Pate from the Birmingham Jewish Federation, and Hope Mehlman, who had been in contact with some of Governor Bentley’s advisors. Our meeting was honest and productive. After a lot of give and take, and learning and growth, Governor Bentley apologized to us privately and then publicly before the news media.

Governor Bentley’s remarks on Monday were alarming. Many of you do not know what to think or how to assess our Governor. I want to share with you my impressions of our meeting and what I hope will happen in the future.

I believe our Governor spoke “church talk” without thinking of the ramifications of what he was saying. He is not a career politician, and he is new to this role. It must have been an exuberant moment for him, to be speaking in this historic church in the immediate aftermath of his inauguration. His remarks were not scripted. And in light of the fact that he and his staff moved so quickly to put out the fires that he lit, I believe the heat generated by his words were unwelcome and unwanted.

My purpose in meeting with the Governor was to assess as best I could if this is where his heart is leading him. In our discussion, he was torn between his evangelical faith and his role as Governor. And I saw in his voice and demeanor that he was truly sorry that his first moments of governance brought about controversy and division.

Governor Bentley apologized to us and then, in front of the news media, to the State of Alabama. Some of you have expressed to me your doubts that the apology was not heartfelt, that it was contrived or coerced or not genuine. I do not know how to respond to that. When people apologize, I take their apology at face value. What is important is how a person speaks or behaves after the apology is rendered.

Governor Bentley’s theme is that he wants to be the governor for all Alabamians.  I hope he will. We will judge his apology and his motivations by seeing how he governs over the next four years. This was a difficult misstep in the first moment of his term. After meeting with him, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt. I want Governor Bentley to be successful in bringing us together and improving our lives. For me, his apology was the right step after his stinging words. And I have heard from some of you the good news that some of our fellow Alabamians are now more sensitive to the way their words are heard by others. Sometimes good things can emerge from trying moments.

I have been your rabbi for twenty years. I have seen that people can change and grow and become better and wiser. You have taught me that, and hopefully I have shown you that in my own rabbinate. Let me encourage us all to give the Governor the benefit of our trust and hope. And we should watch him carefully, as we watch all those who are elected to public office. And we should offer him our prayers too. Traditionally, we pray for the government and our elected leaders. And if we are not satisfied with Governor Bentley’s performance over the next several years, then we can turn to the ballot box in 2014.

For me, for now, his apology is accepted.

Shalom, and see you at Temple,

Rabbi Jonathan Miller

Temple Emanu-El | 2100 Highland Avenue | Birmingham | AL | 35205

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About martisima

After over 50 years of teaching literature to undergraduate and graduate students, I feel I have earned my retirement (it happened when I was 72, five years ago). I do miss the classroom, however, but not the meetings and all other requirements of the profession. I love teaching, and wish I could still do it. But now I read for pleasure, and watch films, and listen to all kinds of music (no TV, though). I love to travel, and hope I can resume doing it soon. I need to get over my health issues caused by thyroid surgery three years ago!
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2 Responses to Governor Bentley’s Response to Rabbi Jonathan Miller’s Letter

  1. Rafael says:

    Martha, permit me to be the devil’s advocate for a moment. I don’t think any of this back and forth matters nearly as much as the larger problem. And what could that possibly be, you ask? Simply that we (that is, humans) still organize our feelings in terms of tribes. Let’s call it the ‘problem of tribes’, if you like. Bentley’s evangelical tribe(s) vs. the Jews (I recall 12 historical tribes!) vs. the various Islamic variants vs. Hindus vs. Buddhists (perhaps only a quasi-tribe, but heck, let’s not spare anyone!)… There’s the light-skinned versus the dark-skinned, the northerners against the southerners, the Hatfields versus the McCoys. And who can forget Germans, French, Britons, Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Egyptians, Mexicans, Indonesians, etc. I think the only geography that doesn’t have a tribe is Antartica, and you know why. Heck, even the Belgians have three main ‘sub-tribes,’ but probably still consider themselves at least nominally Belgians! And so on and on. And anyone from any tribe can feel insulted by the careless remarks from someone of another tribe.

    I’m not saying an apologist for Bentley. But I am saying that we’re doomed to tribal rivalry, or at least tribal tit-for-tat as long as we believe we belong to tribes. If there’s one problem that will probably prevent us (we homo sapiens) from overcoming our very real existential challenges, it will be tribalism. There’s no way I can see to establish tribes that won’t exclude other tribes, even when they try. America (the idea and the nation) may be the largest single best experiment in ‘de-tribalism,’ and I don’t know anyone who would call this experiment even “mostly” successful.

    At least sports tribes are usually non-lethal, and insults there are expected and moderated by non-partisan ‘judges of play.’ But we just can’t get away from the phenomena, can we? Your tribe, their tribe, my tribe. I say, to hell with all of them. I don’t want to belong to any tribe that would have me (apologies, Groucho!).

    I guess that even God must tire of all the tribalism–although so many tribes, big and small, relish invoking God as a member of their own tribe! Don’t you love the irony?

  2. martisima says:

    I love the end and its irony — God should remain objective and not accept membership in any tribe, even though he has become tired of all the tribalism, like you!

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