The new issue of Rolling Stone just arrived in the mail (am I the only rabbi in the country with a lifetime subscription to Rolling Stone?!) and Aretha Franklin is on the cover. A gorgeous shot of her, probably from when she was in her late 20s or early 30s. She was called the Queen of Soul for a reason. She had a powerful presence and charisma, and she was a true artist, with a voice that comes along only once in a generation.
Her signature song will always be RESPECT. Who can ever forget the incredible staccato darts of her voice, shouting out the letters one at a time, while the band behind her laid down a classic Motown groove, all shivering and shaking? She demanded respect and she earned it, but it wasn’t easy. It was a long road, twists and turns, ups and downs, but she never stopped. RESPECT.
It seems more than ironic that Aretha has passed from this world to the next precisely at a time when the sense of respect that she so memorably sang about is virtually impossible to find. I write these words just a few days after the Senate has concluded processing the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination. The deliberations were torturous at best, but also riveting. Americans were simultaneously fascinated and horrified, both compelled and repelled. We tuned in, we read the papers, we watched the late night news shows, we listened to the radio coverage – we were drawn to the event like flies to a carcass.
And regardless of which side you were on, whether you believed him or her or some combination of both, whether you knew that he was lying or wondered if she was misremembering, what was definitively lacking in all of the proceedings was any sense of respect. Instead the Senate, a once (at least in legend) austere and cordial body, was reduced to a caricature of one of the Fox News shows where people scream at each other, all the while belittling and insulting those with whom they disagree.
It would be helpful to us all to remember that respect, or lack of it, is not a political issue. It is not ‘political’ to expect one person to treat another respectfully, whether that person is a Senator, a Supreme Court nominee, or the President of the United States. It is that fundamental lack of respect that we now see at every level that degrades us all, our communities, our culture, our country. It certainly degraded the Senate over these last few days, and the entire nomination of a Supreme Court justice. How any of it will ever be cleaned up is beyond me.
What I worry about most is that we are all slowly being dragged down to that low level. That, almost without realizing it, our language is becoming coarser and our anger more intense That our ability to listen to one another is slowly but surely slipping away. It is a downward trajectory, and the deeper we go, the harder it gets to climb out. These lyrics from the classic Bob Dylan song ‘The Times They are A-Changin’ come to mind:
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.