Hailed by many as perhaps the greatest senator of the 20th century, Ted Kennedy died following a 15-month-long battle with brain cancer. I don’t know if he really was the greatest senator, but he was a model of how to combine passionately held views and genuine civility toward even those with whom he passionately disagreed.
In a world of increasingly mean-spirited politics and polarizing politicians who sit on both sides of the aisle, Sen. Kennedy’s death is a loss for all Americans. His combination of passionate liberalism and respectful engagement with even the most strident conservatives was rooted in an approach to life about which he spoke often and which can be traced to ancient biblical and rabbinic teachings.
Ted Kennedy regularly referred to the fact that “the work is unfinished.” Perhaps that sense of unfinished business was connected to the legacy of his two brothers’ lives, which were ended by assassins’ bullets. Or perhaps it was connected to the grand image of the good society which he sought to create, but was never fully attained. But whatever it was, Kennedy’s sense that there was always more to do allowed him to accept those with whom he disagreed and to make pragmatic deals with those same people.
Since the work to be done would always be unfinished, Sen. Kennedy never worried about ideological purity or being compromised by making compromises, as long as things were moving in a direction with which he could live. That kind of pragmatism is anything but soulless. It is actually animated by the pursuit of really big goals, which are always pursued and never fully attained. And in that, whether he knew it or not, Kennedy’s politics were rooted in the Bible and the words of the rabbis of the Mishna.
Deuteronomy 16:20 teaches, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” While we all may not agree about his vision of a just society or how it was to be attained, these words are ones that Ted Kennedy lived by. And like his vision of work so grand that it would go unfinished, this verse from the Bible appreciates that justice is never fully attained, but must always be aggressively pursued.
The Torah can live with unfinished work, but not with workers who fail to be engaged in the project. Sounds like Ted to me and it brings to mind a famous teaching from Pirke Avot, the Mishna tractate devoted to practical ethics.
Avot 2:20, referring to the work of connecting to God and healing the world, teaches that while we are not obligated to complete the task before us, neither are we free to give up that very work. Again, the message is clear. We need not be bothered by that, which is not accomplished, as long as we are truly engaged in moving things forward. In effect, we are told to lighten up on the anxiety caused by the need to succeed, in order to contribute to the ultimate success.
Ted Kennedy not only understood the message of Deuteronomy and of the rabbis, he lived it. By doing so, he helped create a passionately engaged and profoundly civil form of politics — one that we need more than ever. He will be missed.
(Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. A version of this piece appeared on his blog, “For God’s Sake” on newsweek.washingtonpost.com’s “On Faith.”)