When rabbis take the bima next week to deliver their Rosh HaShanah sermons, the gulf between a spiritual leader’s two roles — the prophetic and the pastoral — will yawn about as wide as the one between Trump supporters and Trump resisters.
And in the back of their minds might lurk a quote they probably know all too well. It was Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the 19th-century founder of the Mussar movement, a Jewish ethical, cultural and educational movement, who famously said: “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is not really a rabbi, and a rabbi who fears his community is not really a man.”
Should the rabbi be a moral voice, especially at a time when issues like the administration’s policy of separating parents and children at the Southern border seem to have a moral dimension? Or should the rabbi be someone who carves out a safe space for congregants to search their souls free of the political divisiveness of the day?
That is the bind rabbis find themselves in as they contemplate their most important sermons of the year before sanctuaries full of congregants who themselves are likely divided about the Trump presidency and rabbis’ responsibilities in such a polarized climate.
Many are treading lightly, to say the least.
“I avoid anything remotely political,” said Rabbi Rafi Rank, spiritual leader of the Midway Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation in Syosset, L.I. “I would like to talk issues, like immigration and the separation of children and parents. But in these politically charged times, addressing that kind of subject, given the diversity of the congregation I’m talking to, is dangerous and unwarranted.”
Rabbi Susie Moskowitz of Temple Beth Torah, a Reform synagogue in Melville, L.I., confessed that she too has been “struggling with it. … My biggest concern is the partisan nature and the divide we have created. We can’t have rational conversations without people getting so defensive. A sermon I gave five years ago and that did not cause ire — if I gave it today it would be criticized because it would sound like I’m anti- or pro-Trump when I’m just trying to teach Judaism.”
Rabbi Reuven Stengel, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Sunnyside, Queens, said that “when it comes to politics, I try to stay clear. As a rabbi, the only political issues I speak about are when it comes to Israel. I have congregants on both sides of the aisle, and I don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”
But interviews with other rabbis and scholars found a variety of views on the subject, with some saying that it is now perhaps more important than ever that rabbis speak with moral clarity on the pressing issues of the day.
“Not since 9/11 has our mission been so clear,” wrote Rabbi Joshua Hammerman in The Jewish Week. “Feel-good sermons always feel good, but Rome is burning, and we’ve no choice but to talk about it. To ignore the proverbial elephant in the room would amount to spiritual malpractice. …
“Rabbis are engaging in subversive acts every day, simply by doing our jobs. Just by standing up for decency and honesty — for being a mensch — I’ve become an accidental insurgent. Homilies that I have been delivering for decades, emphasizing basic values like humility and generosity, all now sound like a call to arms.”
Rabbi Howard Buechler, spiritual leader of the Conservative Dix Hills (L.I.) Jewish Center, said he plans to address some of the controversial issues of the day without mentioning Trump by name.
“We can speak in ways that are not political yet profoundly articulate core Jewish values and wisdom that transcends the metrics of politics. … Rabbis need to be advocates for integrity, justice and menschlikeit. Judaism has a voice, a powerful voice about every aspect of our life, and the role of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur sermons — every sermon — is to probe deeply and provide the authentic Jewish voice of how we understand the world around us.”
“Rabbis should speak without trepidation to ensure that our values are beautifully conveyed to our people and to the world,” Rabbi Buechler added.
On the other hand, Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said he believes it is “OK in this hyper-political moment for rabbis to be creating spaces in their synagogue where people can be in a non-political space. Rabbis might want to be pastoral and not speak in political terms.”
“If politics is now such a source of anxiety for people,” he added, “why does the synagogue need to be a place where that anxiety is reinforced? Not speaking about partisan issues does not mean that Torah can’t be political. Talking kindness and moral courage and loyalty is talking politics. … Rabbis might be serving their people by helping them see the bigger picture.”
And Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, questioned why rabbis would use the High Holy Days for political sermons.
“Rabbis need to seriously ask themselves what value add-on would there be besides fanning the outrage and anger that people on all sides feel these days,” he said. “Right now, religion — whether you are liberal or conservative, red or blue, hawk or dove, Zionist or non-Zionist — is being used to cheerlead one side or another. Simply by bringing Torah to support their side adds nothing to the congregation. All it does is say that those in the congregation who agree with my views are right, triumphant and that the Torah is on our side. All the others are alienated and distanced.”
“And it does not help people accomplish the central job of the High Holidays — which is psychological, spiritual and moral renewal [and to] judge myself and not judge others,” he added.
Rabbi Shai Held, a theologian and chair of Jewish Thought at Hadar (an educational institution that empowers Jews to create egalitarian communities), observed that rabbis are facing a “prophetic-pastoral split.”
“The rabbi as moral voice versus the rabbi as pastor who still has to make a shiva minyan at the Trump supporter’s home the next night,” he explained. “There is a tension between the two. Many rabbis I have spoken to are afraid to speak their minds. We live in a time when rabbis are expected to be moral beacons only if they agree with their wealthiest or more outspoken congregants. I had a rabbi call me before the last [presidential] election who said he wanted to give a sermon about how he believed it was halachically [according to Jewish law] forbidden to support [Donald] Trump. But, he said, ‘I have children in high school and I don’t want to be fired. What should I do?’”
Rabbi Lester Bronstein said he has heard the same thing.
“It’s not that Trump has silenced the rabbis, but I think on some level rabbis’ congregants have silenced them,” he said. “There are congregants who think Trump is great for Israel, so they make a lot of stink every time a rabbi opens his mouth [to speak against him].”
Asked if he believed rabbis have lost their “moral authority” to speak about the vital issues of the day, Rabbi Bronstein, a Reconstructionist rabbi at Bet Am Shalom Synagogue in White Plains, replied, “It’s more a problem of contemporary Jews losing their willingness to listen to that moral message. Our Jews dare their rabbi to say something slightly askew from their own politics, holding over them the threat of walking out or quitting the shul.”
As a result, some rabbis avoid controversial topics while others speak in “broad strokes — big themes — about human dignity, the image of the Divine, the Torah’s call for respect, the Psalms’ plea not to give up hope,” he said.
In the view of Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, a Reform rabbi and spiritual leader of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, a “rabbi’s role is not to avoid upsetting people … [but to] speak boldly and publicly about our understanding of Jewish values. Since the way the community determines values is through policy, we have an obligation to participate in the public formulation of policy that represents our collective approach to social problems.
“Therefore, we have no option but to participate in the political process. But we insist on doing so in a non-partisan way. We do not endorse political candidates and we do not identify exclusively with one political party. We are interested in policies because they contain the essence of moral values. That is a critical responsibility of rabbis, especially today in our troubled and polarized and confusing times.”
Rabbi Held added one word of caution for those who “talk about not wanting to bring politics onto the pulpit — they have to be careful that they are not avoiding bringing Torah to the pulpit. Good people can disagree about the Jewish position on a particular political question, but they ought not think that Torah does not have something to add to the conversation.”