‘We’re not a Democratic shul, we’re not a Republican shul,” Rabbi Joseph Lookstein often said of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, home to that iconic Modern Orthodox leader for more than 40 years. It was one of the many lessons learned by his son, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who leads the prominent Upper East Side shul today: “My politics remain with me. But there are exceptions,” he says of the nuclear agreement with Iran, a deal he opposes, “and this is that exception. This is life and death for Israel.”
Just across Central Park, Rabbi Robert Levine of Congregation Rodeph Sholom, the landmark Reform temple, holds a diametrically opposite, but equally passionate, view on the Iranian deal. Not only does he enthusiastically support it, but “I don’t even understand the arguments on the other side.”
Across the city, across the years, no one, it seems, can remember another political issue that had American rabbinic opinion ranging from apocalyptic to optimistic, with both sides finding the other unfathomable.
The political tempest has taken place in summer’s slow season for synagogues, but with the coming of Elul (Aug. 15), the traditional kick-off to the High Holiday season, rabbis have started crafting sermons regarding Iran, while considering the question of how to be a rabbi to congregants who may disagree, though almost all rabbis we spoke to report remarkable support from congregants, leaning to rejection of the deal among the mostly conservative Orthodox, and support for the deal among the mostly liberal Reform. There is more fluctuation within the Conservative movement, with support for President Obama tempered by apprehension about the deal.
The movement’s Rabbinical Assembly stated: “We recognize the hard work by the Obama administration … notwithstanding our reservations about the deal as it is currently being reported. … [We] turn to Congress to carefully review and assess this proposed agreement … .”
The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America were more forceful. “We will mobilize our member rabbis and synagogues throughout the nation to urge Congress to fulfill their mandate and disapprove the agreement.”
The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, and affiliated groups, called for “carefully considered approaches before rushing to conclusions. As the Congress moves forward, we will share our opinion on the viability of this agreement to achieve our goals,” preventing a nuclear Iran and protecting American and Israeli security.
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center (Conservative) and a Jewish Week blogger, said he told his congregation, “I am against the deal. I have been very involved with AIPAC, with lobbying.” Nevertheless, “I have, as many rabbis have, a difficult job in speaking about [the deal] because I have the responsibility to be the rabbi to those whose opinions I don’t share. I’m never out to make someone feel that if they disagree with me then there’s something wrong with them, or that they’re less loving of Israel. But I have very strong feelings.”
His congregants have strong feelings, too, volleying opinions on the shul’s listserve. “I let them go at it,” said Rabbi Skolnik, “until I finally said, ‘You’re not going to convince each other. Let’s just agree that there are multiple opinions.’ I had one or two people who wrote to me after I spoke [on the deal] and said, ‘I really think you’re wrong.’ That’s fine. I try to lead by teaching what the issues are, based on my own reading of Jewish history and the situation, and framing it in ways that I hope will resonate.”
Rabbi Skolnik is cognizant of the well-publicized issues (religious pluralism, for one, an issue the rabbi has fought for) that have alienated some of his congregants from Israel “and complicate all other issues,” such as Iran. For one of his High Holiday sermons, Rabbi Skolnik, a passionate Zionist, said, “I’m thinking of using Natan Alterman’s poem, ‘Magash HaKesef,’ [‘The Silver Platter’]. Chaim Weizman once said [in 1947], the State of Israel will not be given to the Jews on a silver platter. And Alterman wrote this powerful poem about a battle-weary boy and girl emerging from [the smoke] as the people were beginning to celebrate the state. The people look at them — filthy, exhausted, barely standing — and don’t know what to make of them. The people ask, ‘Who are you.’ And they answer, ‘We’re the silver platter.’
“You know,” said Rabbi Skolnik, “Israel is always going to be about struggle. It’s not going to be given on a silver platter to Israelis or to American Jews.”
He said that if he speaks on these issues during the Days of Awe, he intends to be “meta-political,” beyond party or politics. “That’s the great challenge.
“I have people in my shul, people that I know love Israel, who challenged me after I spoke against the deal. A past president of my shul who was in the [IDF] unit that … [liberated] the Old City in 1967 came up to me and said, ‘I couldn’t disagree with you more.’ I couldn’t challenge him. He put his life on the line.”
The rabbi added, “Mixed up with all of this this is people’s [negative] feelings about [Prime Minister] Netanyahu, but I wouldn’t want to sleep with his responsibility. I’m not a Bibi fan, but on Iran I think he’s right. That’s my problem. I think he’s right.” (The prime minister said Tuesday, in a speech organized by the Jewish Federations of North America, that “this deal will bring war.”)
The day after the Iran agreement was announced, Rabbi Levine of Rodeph Sholom posted his support for the deal on the temple’s website. “I didn’t want people to have to wait until the High Holidays to know how I felt.” He deliberately did not mention either Obama or Netanyahu in his online essay. “I wanted to deal with the issue itself, beyond politics,” he told us.
“I never had such a response to anything I’ve written, 85 to 90 percent positive,” said Rabbi Levine. “I did get some negative reaction, some of it ferocious, from staunch right-wing Republicans and from Israelis.
“There has been a monolithic response from the Israeli political establishment that I do not understand,” said the rabbi.
“Yes,” he added, “there are aspects of the deal that I’m sure we all would craft differently.” As for the $150 billion going to Iran as part of the deal, with some of that likely going to Hezbollah and Hamas? “Well, it’s Iran’s money. It will be a very interesting thing whether they use that money to better their society. There is a side of Iranian society that hungers for normalcy. Let’s see what can come out of this.”
He wrote on the website, “Trust me, I have no illusions that Iran will curb its virulent anti-Semitism or hatred of Israel. But I do believe that this agreement further opens the path for Iran’s leaders to focus their energies on building a viable economic and social structure and less time supporting Shiite aggression.”
Rabbi Lookstein was only 6 years old in 1938, the year of the Munich appeasement when Nazi aggression was the threat of the day, but he remembers the chilling spectacle of the German-American Bund, supporters of Hitler, marching through the Upper East Side. He fears, “This is 1938 all over again.” Iran vows to annihilate Israel’s 6 million Jews, only it took Hitler several years to do that, says Rabbi Lookstein. “It will take Iran only one bomb. You have to take people at their word when they say they want to destroy you.”
He, too, has been using the Internet to inform and alert his congregants that the deal was “fundamentally flawed.” He sent out articles on the Iran agreement by Leon Wieseltier and Jeffrey Goldberg, and urged congregants to call their senators and representatives to “oppose the Iran nuclear deal because it will not block Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. No deal is better than a bad deal, and this is a bad deal.”
Rabbi Lookstein said he rarely gives sermons or promotes political issues, but “in this case I have to lead; this is maybe the most critical moment since the Shoah. We’re putting billions of dollars in the hands of murderers. The Iranians are not just people with whom we politely disagree. They support Hezbollah, Hamas and terrorism around the world.”
One congregant emailed Rabbi Lookstein, “‘Would you send out articles with which you do not agree?’ My answer is, ‘Not really. I don’t usually send out any articles of a political nature, except now, because I believe this is life or death.”