The longshoremen’s brawl of modern politics is being slugged out weekly on some synagogue pulpits. Do some synagogue sanctuaries no longer feel like a sanctuary? Are rabbis correctly flexing their neo-prophetic voices in political opposition, and isn’t that what prophets — assuming modern clergy have that gift of prophecy — always did?
For most of Jewish history, the liturgical spell of Shabbat morning prayer and meditation was unbroken by the half-hour “speech,” awaited by some, slept through by others. Back in the day, rabbis only made an elongated address twice a year, on Shabbat afternoons adjacent to Passover and the Days of Awe, and the topic was precisely those holy seasons, not a rabbi’s political musings. One rebbe might support the czar against Napoleon, others disagreed, but they didn’t discuss it Shabbos morning. Shabbos was reserved for brief drashot, clever interpretations of text. But Judaism was a seven-day lifestyle in those days, with plenty of time to hear rabbis or maggids argue about Alfred Dreyfus on Monday or Thursday.
What Jew, particularly one with a pulpit, hasn’t been primed to voice an opinion about the dangers or delights of American politics?
Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because that’s where the money was, and these days, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, of the Conservative Forest Hills Jewish Center, jokes, Sutton-style, that rabbis speak on Shabbat morning because “that’s where the Jews are. People are primed to listen on Shabbat morning.” And what Jew, particularly one with a pulpit, hasn’t been primed to voice an opinion about the dangers or delights of American politics?
“I don’t come to shul chomping at the bit to speak about politics,” says Rabbi Skolnik. “I do a cheshbon hanefesh [a personal accounting, or introspection] on an ongoing basis. I talk to people who I think are most likely to be bothered.”
And Jews can be bothered. Jack Lew, when he was President Obama’s secretary of the Treasury, got up and walked out of a sermon at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale when a visiting rabbi’s sermon strongly critiqued the Obama administration regarding Israel. A rabbi who was present excused Lew: “Jack did what he felt he had to do, in a most menschlach way.”
Elsewhere, one convert to Judaism, a Republican, no longer goes to his Queens synagogue because, he told us, he was made to feel as if his conversion was fraudulent because “everyone knows” that real Jews only vote Democrat. So much for inclusion.
“When politics veers into moral and ethical issues…then the divide between the pulpit and the world has to be re-evaluated. There was always a conflict between Kohen and Navi. Is your rabbinate a priestly function or a prophetic function?”
Rabbi Meir Fund, spiritual leader of the Flatbush Minyan, recalled, “I grew up in a shul where the rabbi spoke about politics. I ran away like I was running from a fire.” Today, Rabbi Fund never makes political speeches. “It can only be divisive. A rabbi has a few minutes; you can talk Torah and change someone’s life, or you can talk about yourself. Talking about politics is talking about yourself. It’s an abuse of the congregation; the end of the world.”
Rabbi Skolnik explains that “under ordinary circumstances, a rabbi has to count to at least 1,000 before using the pulpit for political commentary.” But Trump’s presidency, he feels, is not an ordinary circumstance. “When politics veers into moral and ethical issues,” or violations, as he sees it, “then the divide between the pulpit and the world has to be re-evaluated. There was always a conflict between Kohen and Navi [priest and prophet]. Is your rabbinate a priestly function or a prophetic function?”
With the ascent of Trump, this is precisely the time, say some liberal rabbis, to assert the prophetic prerogative.
“If we’re reading Mishpatim,” with its reminders that we were strangers in Egypt, said Rabbi Skolnik, “then it’s a gross misreading of the separation of church and state to imply that the ‘church’ has no perspective to offer” on immigration policies. Will people disagree? A rabbi that no one disagrees with is not doing his job.”
Of course, a text’s meaning may be elusive. “At the seder,” said Rabbi Skolnik, “when we talk about seeing ourselves as if we left Egypt, then we have to cultivate empathy [even for Syrian migrants], even when it doesn’t come naturally.”
And yet, that same Haggadah text asks God to “pour out Your wrath” against Israel’s enemies, and without empathy, “pursue them with anger and destroy them.”
Textual support for immigrants is elusive, as well. In 1945, the Reform movement’s American Council for Judaism, a respected member of the New York Board of Ministers (now Board of Rabbis), in its rabbinic wisdom declared that illegal immigration, even by Holocaust refugees attempting to find refuge in the Yishuv (pre-state Israel), was inappropriate. The ACJ urged that “immigration procedures… be controlled by representative bodies of all the inhabitants of Palestine,” giving local Palestinians inevitable veto power over Jewish immigration. Holy texts are eternal but rabbinic interpretations may be prophetically flawed.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, rabbi emeritus of Kehilath Jeshurun, said “KJ” is not a Democratic shul or a Republican shul “and the rabbi shouldn’t be either. (Yet politics intruded when alums from Rabbi Lookstein’s Ramaz day school pressured him into declining an invitation to give a benediction at last summer’s Republican National Convention, which nominated Donald Trump as the GOP standard bearer.) “I carry it over to Israeli politics, as well. Whoever the government of Israel is, it’s the job of American Jews to support the Israeli electorate. I disagreed with Rabin” regarding the viability of the Oslo Accords, “but I never indicated that from the pulpit.”
And anyway, said Rabbi Lookstein, “I’m not a bigger expert on politics than my congregants are.” He cited a text from the Mishna, “Pray for the well-being of the government, for if not for fear of the government, we would swallow each other alive.” It seems we already are, said Rabbi Lookstein. “It is frightening to see the antagonism of those not respecting the president of the United States.” Having respect for the government, said Rabbi Lookstein, is text-based, too, “whether you agree with the president or not.”
“Our shul has always made room for the clergy to do activism that is meaningful to them beyond the framework of the shul.”
The problem with political sermons, said Rav Steven Exler of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a Modern Orthodox shul, is that “the political can be divisive and alienating, when a central tenet of our shul is to be inclusive and welcoming. At the same time,” said Rav Exler, “when there are issues that call for a moral stand, our approach is to talk about values without getting bogged down in issues.”
Not every act of rabbinic leadership, he said, has to be trumpeted from the pulpit. “Our shul has always made room for the clergy to do activism that is meaningful to them beyond the framework of the shul.”
Rabbi Rachel Ain of Sutton Place Synagogue, a Conservative congregation, takes a Talmudic approach, exemplified by Hillel and Shammai’s respect for the other’s encyclopedic differences. Rabbi Ain recently said in a sermon, “We are a divided country… I know that that extends to this room; there is no uniform response to what it means to be an American and what it means to be a Jew and how both of those identities impact on how we understand leadership and policy.”
Rabbi Ain is openly political. “I certainly didn’t become a rabbi to remain on the sidelines,” she says, but how she sees the world is “informed by Torah.” At the same time, she acknowledged the counterpoint, that how we see Torah is informed by how we see the world.
The rabbi joined the Women’s March on the Shabbat after the inauguration, not marching against Trump but for her own values, she said. She reminded congregants that Jews “have protested all leaders” on behalf of civil rights and Soviet Jewry, and there were those “who protested Obama during the Iran deal negotiations,” and after Obama abstained from “the abysmal security council vote.” However, she challenged, “Are those with whom we disagree by definition evil? What are we to do when, for example, a president acts in such a way that it might imperil … the security of an ally?” The important thing is, said Rabbi Ain: “Don’t cut friendships just because someone voted for the other side.”
“To speak in way that half the community shuts down is a disservice to the community, a disservice to the tradition, and a disservice to the conversations we need to have”
Rabbi Ain told us, when speaking from the bima, “I try to be balanced, to speak in a way that people can hear; for people to feel that everyone can be heard and everyone will listen. To speak in way that half the community shuts down is a disservice to the community, a disservice to the tradition, and a disservice to the conversations we need to have.”