Clinton vs. Trump: What Should Rabbis Say on Rosh Hashanah?
Should rabbis endorse Hillary Clinton in their High Holiday sermons?
This might seem like an absurd question. There is a broad consensus in the Jewish community that specifically partisan politics have no place on the pulpit. And IRS regulations stipulate that the endorsement of a candidate by a clergyman from his or her pulpit can lead to the loss of the congregation’s tax-exempt status.
But then again, perhaps the nomination of Donald Trump creates special circumstances that merit an exception. Perhaps the danger that he poses to the American Republic – not to mention the Jewish community and Israel – is so profound that daring remedies must be sought, including speaking against him from the bimah.
If I were a pulpit rabbi, I suspect that, with the High Holidays approaching, I would be struggling with this matter. One of the most memorable sermons that I ever heard was delivered on September 7, 1964, the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, New York. My grandparents lived in Albany, and my family often spent the holidays there. Beth Emeth’s senior rabbi, Alvin Roth, made the case that Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for U.S. President, was a threat to the security of America and the well-being of all her citizens, Jews included. He urged the congregation to vote for U.S. President Johnson.
The sermon was brilliantly done. As a 17-year-old regular shul-goer, I was dazzled by the rabbi’s words but also uncertain about their appropriateness.
I remember a contentious discussion at lunch following the service. No one argued for Goldwater. There were no Goldwater supporters in my family. And no one argued that religion had to be separated from politics. We knew that for Jews, the idea that faith should be separated from justice is an affront to Judaism itself. To insist on such a dichotomy is to distort Judaism’s essence and to sever religion from life.
The heart of the argument at the family table was whether the rabbi had gone too far by explicitly calling on us to vote for Johnson. Roth had argued that Goldwater’s extremism required a departure from the usual constraints of pulpit etiquette. Hadn’t Goldwater called for the use of “tactical” nuclear weapons in Vietnam and said that desegregation was not a national moral crisis but an issue for the states to decide? Some in the family thought Roth was right to back Johnson; others thought that the political endorsement was a step too far. I was unsure.
Jump ahead 52 years to Donald Trump. Now a rabbi myself, and never having endorsed anyone in a sermon, I find myself wondering if Roth’s reasoning should be applied to the current election. Donald Trump is far more of a threat to America than Barry Goldwater ever was.
Goldwater was a hard-right conservative but a principled one. A member of the Senate club, he understood that there were political rules, and he played by them. The constitution, as he understood it, meant a great deal to him, as did America’s commitment to individual liberty.
Trump, on the other hand, while he cannot be called a fascist, skirts the edges of fascism. He incites violence and does not abide by the normal conventions of American political life. Goldwater supported gay rights long before it was acceptable, while Trump pours out derision on virtually every category of outsider. Whether Muslims, immigrants, Hispanics, women, or refugees, he is forever threatening to punish them, deport them, and limit their freedoms. And while Goldwater’s principles were not to my liking, the distinguishing characteristic of Donald Trump is that he has no principles whatsoever. His campaign is a clever mélange of nativist appeals, ego-driven rants, and off-the-cuff ideas that emphasize the indispensability of his personal leadership.
And what of the Jews? Goldwater had Jewish ancestry, but specific Jewish issues played little part in his campaign. Trump has a Jewish daughter, making him immune to charges of anti-Semitism. But Jewish concerns loom large for him in two ways. First, the heart of his campaign is stoking fear and resentment among the white working class and broadcasting a message of national weakness. In the modern era, provoking anger in this way leads invariably to backlash against the Jews. The anti-Semitic strands of the so-called ‘alt-right’ provide ample evidence that the mean-spirited parochialism of the pro-Trump forces will have serious consequences for Jewish Americans.
Second, Trump’s approach to foreign affairs is catastrophic for Israel. Israel requires a stable, predictable, American foreign policy, anchored in a commitment to American leadership in the world. Trump offers a come-home-America message, rooted in belligerent isolationism, Muslim-bashing protectionism, and wholesale abandonment of treaties and long-time allies. There is no scenario in which Israel emerges strengthened by a Trump victory.
In short, Trump is running a gutter campaign that threatens America, endangers Israel, and compromises the values and security of American Jews. So perhaps it is time for rabbis to put the usual niceties aside, recognize the emergency nature of our situation, and come out for Hillary on the holidays.
As for the tax code, the IRS rules are rarely enforced. The pastors of conservative, evangelical churches and left-leaning African-American churches frequently endorse candidates and suffer no consequences.
It is a tempting thesis, and if I were a congregational rabbi, I might give in to the temptation. Trump is a would-be tyrant, a bully, and a con man. If ever a jolt to the system were called for, now would be the time. Still, I admit, I would probably reluctantly resist, for two reasons.
First, the overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Jews are already voting for Mrs. Clinton, and not a lot is to be gained from a rabbinic endorsement. And the taboo against a pulpit endorsement is so strong that it would likely generate attacks on the rabbi instead of thoughtful reflection on the dangers of a Trump presidency.
Second, the IRS rules have value, and if they are not enforced they should be. Much has changed in our presidential campaigns since 1964. If clergypersons are entitled to back candidates without restriction, they will be increasingly pressured to do so. And the same big givers who pour money into political campaigns will direct their dollars to houses of worship in return for political endorsements. No matter how frightening the specter of a Trump victory, the blow to our synagogues, churches, and mosques would be too great.
But if I were on the bimah on the High Holidays, there are many things I would say. I would talk of my love for Israel, and the need for America to be the leader of the free world if Israel is to be safe. I would remind my congregants that Jews do not bash immigrants or tolerate bigotry and extremism. And I would express my belief that, despite the tensions of the moment, Americans still aspire to be united in a high sense of national purpose and common cause.
We Jews are an eternal people and a blessing, I would say. And American Jews care not only for their own country and their own people, but for the injured of other countries, other tribes, and other races. And we need leaders who offer us ethical leadership and who summon America to its highest calling as a champion of liberty, humanity, and decency. And I would mention no names and make no endorsements, but there would be no need to. My message would be clear.