A Politics-Free Synagogue Abandons Jewish Values
Keep politics off the pulpit. Don’t give sermons on political matters. Resist the temptation to address issues of public policy in your comments on the weekly Torah portion.
His views are not mine, and are not shared by many in the American rabbinate. But the Jewish community, for good reason, has taken notice. Rabbi Wolpe is one of the giants of American Judaism. He leads a large, dynamic Conservative congregation, and he produces books on Jewish tradition that are scholarly and elegantly written. When he expresses his opinion on issues of the day, people listen, and rightly so.
The Wolpe article generated something of a firestorm. The Journal published a powerful response by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism (and my successor in that position). Almost immediately, a large number of rabbis and congregants – most Reform and Conservative – jumped into the debate. Since much that was written took issue with the original piece, Rabbi Wolpe produced a second article a week later, responding to his critics. While he offered clarifications, he held firm to his initial argument that politics and the pulpit do not mix.
The debate has been civil and serious, and a lot is at stake. The question being considered is not only political sermons but the role of the American synagogue. How are American Jews to understand their role as a unique people? How are they to balance inner spirit and ritual with outer tasks and a passion for justice?
Rabbi Wolpe offers a number of reasons for keeping politics off the pulpit. He wants the synagogue to be a refuge from the pressures of everyday life. He wants to avoid the divisiveness of politics and the demonization of others that so often accompanies it. He wants to focus on “texts, ideas, and rituals.”
And he pleads for a certain humility about politics that he finds lacking in our Jewish world. He suggests that rabbis who claim to be applying the Jewish tradition to political issues are very often using the tradition selectively to justify personal beliefs – or prejudices. And he deplores the self-righteousness that he sees everywhere, with Jewish liberals and Jewish conservatives each convinced that their take on “what Judaism teaches” is the only correct view of things.
These points, as far as they go, are reasonable enough. The synagogue does, in fact, need to provide a refuge from the everyday world. A synagogue is not a political club but a community of holiness, with study, prayer, and Jewish celebration central to its being. And neither liberals nor conservatives are entitled to see their view of tradition as being the only “authentic” one.
Nonetheless, none of these factors is an argument against rabbis applying the teachings of Judaism to critical political issues, including from the pulpit. They are an argument for doing it cautiously, responsibly, and objectively. Jewish sources must be seen as they are, and not with a predetermined political bent. Rabbis should present a full range of sources, including the views of Jewish scholars with opposing views. Still, on critical issues of the day, the rabbis must ultimately speak, offering their best judgment as to what our tradition expects of us.
And the reason for this is that American Jews do not live in a vacuum. As most rabbis know, we are part of a noble tradition that commands us to survive as an immortal people, but also to reach out and get involved in the arena of life. That is true because we cannot be safe in an unjust and angry America. But it is also true because our tradition commands us to fight not only for Jewish interests but for a decent America and a better world.
Is it urgent for the Jewish community to reach inward, deepen our Jewish sensibilities, and answer the yearning for God? Yes. But in the end, it is not either our Jewish concerns or our universal concerns that we must choose. It is both/and. If we are to live as a religious community, we must be equal to both demands. Only such a Judaism, vibrant, engaged, and yes, political, can inspire our young people. If Torah does not lead us to both study and action, we are lost.
It is true, as Wolpe suggests, that some congregants will take offense at any reference by a rabbi to political matters in a sermon. If the rabbi speaks respectfully of those with opposing views, angry reactions will be minimized. But some who disagree will make their voices heard. Some will threaten to withhold contributions. Some will even leave the congregation. Still, it is best not to overstate these pressures. Most congregants will respect and admire rabbis who interpret the tradition thoughtfully. And if there is a price to be paid for saying what you feel in your bones is right, so be it. Rabbinic leaders in all eras have been prepared to pay such a price.
Rabbi Wolpe, in developing his case, does eventually make room for politics from the pulpit in a limited way. He acknowledges that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel threw himself into the battle for civil rights. So why is this not a precedent? Wolpe contends that political engagement was acceptable on slavery and civil rights because they were “very rare, once in a generation” issues, and he proceeds to rebuke Jewish social activists who invoke them for everything from “social welfare policy to Dodd-Frank.” His ultimate judgment is: “if you are using the march on Selma to religiously validate your views on the minimum wage, shame on you.”
But Heschel himself never saw civil rights as a “once in a generation” matter. A living exemplar of Torah, he forged a connection between personal piety and commitment to social transformation that involved a wide range of issues. He was personally engaged in anti-Vietnam war activism and nuclear disarmament campaigns. My view is that he would be appalled by the notion that civil rights was the exception, and that religious Jews should avoid other causes. For Heschel, the embrace of Torah meant study and activism, both intended to sanctify God’s name.
And finally, who is to say exactly what constitutes a morally compelling public concern? Rabbi Wolpe fears a slippery slope, opening the door to every problem being seen as a Jewish crisis entitled to consideration from the pulpit. I fear the opposite: Reluctance to do battle because of indifference, pressure, or fear.
In the coming weeks, the United States Senate will vote on a bill that would most likely cause tens of millions of Americans to lose their health insurance. I don’t believe that our tradition provides guidance on whether insurance should be single-payer or offered by insurance companies. But there is a strong case to be made that Judaism supports the government’s responsibility to provide a reasonable measure of baseline care. (See Yorah Deah 336:1: “If the physician withholds his services, it is considered as shedding blood.”)
Is this a matter of overriding importance, deserving of rabbinic attention from the pulpit? Rabbi Wolpe may not agree, but I think it is. And I can’t help wondering: What would Rabbi Heschel say?