Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, was one of the religious leaders who offered prayers during the inauguration of President Donald Trump on Friday.
"Dispense justice for the needy and the orphan, for they have no one but their fellow citizens, and because a nation's wealth is measured by her values and not by her vaults," Hier said in an inaugural blessing.
He told KPCC that he chose themes from scripture that would resonate in the 21st century.
"It was quite an event to see so many presidents of the United States — political opponents — sitting on the dais," he told KPCC afterward. "That’s the greatness of America on Inauguration Day."
The man who was once named as the "Most Influential Rabbi in America" faced criticism from many people upon his acceptance to attend, but he told KPCC he also received a lot of praise.
Were you nervous at all?
First of all, it wouldn’t be honest if I said I wasn’t nervous. Fortunately, there’s good material in the classic sources of the Talmud and the Torah and the Psalms. One is never short of a good idea that they postulated thousands of years ago. My only problem was making sure we pick something that would resonate to a 21st-century audience.
You mentioned something about "vaults and values."
That's right. A nation's wealth is not what's in their vaults, but in their values. From the point of view from the experience of the Jewish people ... for 2,000 years, the Jewish people had no homeland and they had no army. We're different than China, because in China, they have a 3,500 or 4,000 year history in their land. But the Jewish people were in exile. So, how did they survive, with no army and no land? The answer is: on core values. Community. Family. Scholarship. Learning. The love of learning. Faith that the future will get better – never give up. That's how the Jews survived, so that was a very important idea.
There were a lot of people who preferred that you not be there today. Obviously, you didn't listen to them.
When we play that kind of game, that's like a game on a seesaw. When you get on a seesaw, everybody has to hit the bottom – 364 days a year of bickering is enough. Everybody can spare a day for the peaceful transition of one government into another. If he stole the election, that's different ... The posh bickering between Republicans and Democrats, 364 days a year of that should be sufficient. On one day of the year, we ought to come together as Americans and say 'You know what? Leave all our differences at home. Today is for America.
I know there are many iconic figures amongst those who refused to attend. My answer is this: What you're doing is setting up a new game of politics, where you made the first move, but the others on the other side will remember that move. They'll play your game, and they'll boycott a president in the future, not attending the inauguration. So now we will have a full year, with not a day of respite, from the bickering on both sides.
The second reason I attended ... Jews have flourished, thanks to the system of government we have here. To refuse the request of a President-elect of the United States to offer a prayer – he didn't invite me to give a political discourse – would be an insult to the country where Jews are flourishing. And I wouldn't consider insulting the United States of America.
These responses have been edited for clarity.