Should congregational rabbis lead or follow? Should they be prophetic figures or pastoral ones, consensus figures or divisive ones? And should they wade headlong into thorny political territory?
These are some of the questions being asked this week in the wake of the backlash created when the rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan sent an e-mail to congregants heralding Palestinian recognition by the United Nations as “a great moment.” The letter has spurred a discussion of the role of a congregational rabbi, and how they are educated.
“Rabbis are unprepared in their education for the political complexities in the world,” said Steven L. Spiegel, a professor of political science at University of California Los Angeles and a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum. “I wrote a paper in the ‘70s saying that rabbinical students should have some political science preparation courses for dealing with international and domestic issues — and particularly Israel. Congregations are divided and look to rabbis for guidance on everything — and of course on Israel.”
Rabbi Jack Moline of Alexandria, Va., has just started teaching a class in rabbinic leadership to rabbinical students at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
“What happened at BJ would fall under the rubric of what we teach in class,” he said. “We have talked about how a leader leads and what to do when your personal priorities may not be reflected among your constituents.”
“Do I think rabbis have an obligation to mix in the affairs of the world outside of their institution?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes, I do. But when you are the rabbi of a synagogue, your pastoral and educational responsibility to your members trumps your personal opinion.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization that is often at odds with mainstream Jewish groups, said he believes the backlash to rabbinic comments often comes from “a very limited subset of people who have significant means and whose support for the institution is critical for its ongoing work.”
“But the extent to which the speech of our spiritual community leaders should be limited by the politics of those who fund their institutions is an important one and one I’m sure has been struggled with over the millennia,” he added.
While the rabbis at B’nai Jeshurun were calling upon their congregants to “celebrate the process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition,” seven White Plains rabbis took a different tack. They said the UN vote should be “greeted with cautious optimism and not simply recriminations, finger-pointing and expressions of despair.”
“We didn’t want to be divisive and thought this kind of statement would pull together those who had doubts about the official American and Israeli and American Jewish communal responses, which were staunchly pro-Israel,” said Rabbi Les Bronstein, spiritual leader of Bet Am Shalom Synagogue.
In fact, in a note accompanying the rabbinic statement, Rabbi Bronstein wrote that their e-mail was a “sane — even creative — response.”
Although declining to comment on the B’nai Jeshurun e-mail, he said he did not believe the UN vote was historic because the Palestinians were recognized only as a non-member state and that they still don’t have a functioning state.
“All that happened is that it opened a conversation and we were cautiously optimistic that it would be used for good,” Rabbi Bronstein continued. “The people I work for do not want anything that even suggests — that would allow anybody to think — that Israel is a bad place or that it has bad people. I would never do anything to hurt the Jewish state.”
The rabbis at B’nai Jeshurun issued a clarifying e-mail a day after their initial one in which they said they “regret the feelings of alienation that resulted from our letter.” They said they are “passionate lovers of Israel [and] … have spent significant parts of our lives there. … We are unequivocally committed to Israel’s security, democracy and peace.”
“While we affirm the essence of our message,” they continued, “we feel that it is important to share with you that through a series of unfortunate internal errors, an incomplete and unedited draft of the letter was sent out which resulted in a tone which did not reflect the complexities and uncertainties of this moment.”
Calls to their office Tuesday were not returned.
One White Plains rabbi who elected not to sign the letter his colleagues composed, Rabbi Chaim Marder, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, said that although it was a “very well-crafted” letter he had some reservations.
“I realized that I didn’t share some of its implicit perceptions of the factors responsible for the ongoing non-resolution of the conflict, nor of the best path to secure peace,” he said. “I decided that I was not sufficiently comfortable to participate.”
In addition, Rabbi Marder said, “I had misgivings about issuing large statements about Israel. I’m uncertain about where my pulpit ends and where the national scene begins. Rabbis should share their views with their congregation; yet, electronic letters to the congregation on something like Israeli policy can easily become much more widely spread; the larger audience easily misses the nuance and context of such a communication that one’s own community grasps. For that reason as well, I chose to adopt an extra degree of caution.”
Rabbi Shira Milgrom, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami and one of those signing the White Plains letter, said nothing she has ever e-mailed to her congregation “generated the amount of response this letter did. And the overwhelming response was one of gratitude.”
One congregant wrote: “This is the first sane reaction I’ve seen anywhere. Of course why would we want to have peace when we could have warring factions for the next 5000 years!!!”
In another e-mail a congregant expressed his thanks for an “articulate, thoughtful, and compassionate commentary on yesterday’s UN vote. I don’t know if people generally comment or respond to such notes, but it seems important to me to reply to the e-mail with an expression of support for their words of wisdom.”
Rabbi Milgrom said she believes her congregants “long for a Jewish response rooted in values and not only politics. And they understand that love of Israel can be expressed in many different ways. The institutional Jewish community has imparted the message that support and love of Israel can only be expressed one way, and I think people want to express a love of Israel in other ways.”
“A person can be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel, and the support of one people does not mean a denial of the other,” she added. “If we play a zero-sum game, we are the ones who are going to lose, and I worry about Israel’s survival.”
Rabbi Moline pointed out that the “pressures on us [rabbis] from all different directions are significant. … In general it is not enough to know yourself; you have to know your values and your context — your community or constituency. When you are a leader, it is not simply enough to run out in front of the crowd and try to gauge where they are going. You have to have some sense of direction where you expect they will follow you.”
He added that if he were the rabbi of a hotel owner’s synagogue and he believed that hotel workers were being mistreated, “I might have to make a calculation about how I would say that. If I felt strongly enough, I wouldn’t be a leader if I didn’t speak out. But you can only do that so often before you and your community come to the conclusion that it is a bad match. You have to be careful when you buck the majority and be conscious of dissenting voices — and be skillful in responding to them.”