Ask the Rabbis / Religion & Politics
Are there times when a rabbi must express his or her political opinion from the pulpit, even if it is likely to spark controversy?
When someone once asked me where I stood on Israel, I responded: “Mostly in Safed, and then a week in Jerusalem, and, where possible, on the sidewalk.” And when recently I was asked if I believed in same-sex marriage, my response was: “I believe married couples should try to be more creative and not have sex the same way all the time.”
During all the years that I served as a pulpit rabbi, I never once introduced my personal political opinions. It is my deep, deep belief that rabbis should use the pulpit as a rare and precious opportunity to share the richness of our ancient tradition. The pulpit is the only venue through which most Jews these days are likely to get a smidgen of a semblance of Jewish knowledge. Political opinions they can get from the opinion-saturated media, Jewish and otherwise. When national or world politics affects us as Jews, the rabbi’s role is not to pontificate personal political opinions but to help the congregation explore what is so unique about being Jewish that it should matter to us at all. It is not our place to sway but to inspire. And that is my personal political opinion.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
I have always thought congregations ought to be open communities where a range of views can be tolerated side by side. We don’t all hold the same theological beliefs, and we don’t all subscribe to the same political opinions. In my community, while there may be a preponderance of atheists and agnostics, there are also those with abstract god-beliefs, albeit not ones that include personal prayer. Likewise, we may be mostly center-to-left in our politics, but we have members who sit on both sides of the aisle—even within the same family.
Rabbis have a special opportunity, by virtue of their unique bully pulpit, to speak out on an array of topics from the mundane to the controversial. While I believe in the idea of a “free pulpit,” I don’t think a rabbi’s voice has much weight or credibility unless it is already bolstered by the overwhelming support of the community that has engaged his or her services. In this sense, rabbis really are hired to preach to the choir. A congregation doesn’t generally hire a leader for the purpose of sparking controversy. Excitement, maybe, but turmoil, no. More active participation, certainly. Deeper and more honest self-accounting, sure. But castigation and condemnation and taking highly unpopular positions, not at all.
I know that some rabbis seek out opportunities to be provocative. This is not my style. I prefer to examine issues on a meta-level. Why, for example, is such an issue so controversial? What is at stake? What makes it so difficult for opposing sides to hear each other? How do we resolve our differences if there is such a divide? Can we find common ground? And if not, how do we manage to coexist? These, in my mind, are the real provocative questions.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
“Rabbis and politics.” To get an animated discussion going in a group of rabbis, just say those three words. The same thing would happen if I were to say these words to members of my congregation. My president would start to wonder what I was planning and whether I might endanger our precious 501(c)3 status.
Despite all of that, I believe there are indeed times when a rabbi can, should and even must discuss a political opinion. If there is an issue (not a candidate) about which a rabbi is passionate, and if there is a solid tie-in to Jewish ethics or tradition, then I believe the rabbi owes it to the congregation to be open and candid. A topic for me that strikes this chord is LGBTQ rights, and I have talked about this issue at different times, especially in connection with marriage legislation. It was my topic for Yom Kippur afternoon this year. I made clear what I felt and why I felt that way, and I invited others to consider my opinions. However, I never suggested how someone should vote—just that they need to do so every election they can, whether they vote for or against any issue or person.
Rabbi Shafir Lobb
Temple Beth El Israel
Port Saint Lucie, FL
Rabbis must, at times, be political. As Jewish educators and organizers, rabbis are social visionaries and communal leaders. Being engaged with the world enriches our Judaism, which in turn is the deep soil from which “political” views sprout. Torah makes demands on us: lo tuchal l’hitalem, “You must not remain indifferent” (Deut. 22:3). We should interpret humbly, check assumptions and never claim to be policy experts; still, some of what rabbis teach and model will seem “political.” What are politics, after all, but values applied to society?
Effective, authentic Jewish leaders will periodically be “political” even as we’re “pastoral.” To paraphrase columnist Finley Peter Dunne, we must sometimes afflict the comfortable, not just comfort the afflicted. For all the greatest spiritual leaders—Isaiah and Akiva, Gandhi and King, Heschel and Kaplan—politics and religion are ultimately inseparable. Religion informs politicians, who then lead and legislate in the secular arena. Likewise, we religious leaders will, as spirit and text draw us, wade into the sacred shallows where politics and religion meet.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Reform Judaism attempts to follow in the footsteps of the prophets, and one of its hallmarks is the emphasis on leading an ethical life, incorporating ethical mitzvot into our daily deeds and activities and striving always to create a world of peace, justice and freedom. Reform Judaism calls upon each of us to find within Judaism the moral and ethical lessons that can guide our behavior and our decisions. It is with these moral teachings in mind that a rabbi can—and sometimes should—address political issues from the pulpit. Without expressing her own personal opinion, a rabbi has the responsibility to teach her congregation about Jewish values and the Jewish obligation to act justly. A rabbi need not tell others what to believe. A rabbi should not abuse the pulpit to benefit one political position over another, which, by the way, could jeopardize a congregation’s tax-exempt status.
Like the prophets, a rabbi should lead his congregation in wrestling with the issues and in speaking up and speaking out when peace, justice and freedom are at stake. Those moments are not always so clear-cut, though. What appears unjust for one might seem just to another. So, as Reform rabbis, we should bring our congregants to Torah so they can make meaning of it for themselves.
Rabbi Laura Winer
I do not shy away from controversy. Sometimes my role as rabbi demands that I say things my community does not want to hear. I understand that I am a leader in the community and that this means sometimes taking an unpopular stance.
Rarely, if ever, do I express my political views publicly. I think it presumptuous to suggest that I know the right course of action when considering issues as complicated as national security and economic competitiveness. I am proud that my congregants do not know how I vote.
Several years ago, as our country debated health care reform, I noticed that many of my colleagues were endorsing President Obama’s proposed legislation and encouraging their congregations to do the same. I was uncomfortable taking such a stance. I believed that my role as rabbi was to show that Judaism has wisdom to consider when debating health care. I wrote an article that outlined how Jewish values might inform a conversation about health care, and I gave a sermon in which we studied some relevant texts. I suggested that both access and affordability are Jewish values, and I encouraged my congregation to apply these values to the public debate and decide which proposal would cause a reality most in line with the Jewish values we had discussed.
My practice is to teach Jewish texts and encourage my congregants to draw their own conclusions about the political issues of our times.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Yes, there are moments when a rabbi must speak out from the pulpit—whether on a political question or on a spiritual/moral/religious one—even though this will spark controversy or even strong backlash. Rabbis are meant to be spiritual, moral and communal leaders. If they never challenge their congregants, they are not leaders. They are schleppers—or panderers. On the other hand, if they are clueless or overdo this confrontation—if they cannot judge the limits of their people—they may lose their congregation, or even their job. The classic statement on this issue is Rabbi Israel Salanter’s: “Any rabbi whose congregation never considered firing him [her] is no rabbi. Any rabbi whose congregation does fire him [her] is no mensch.”
I can’t write a general description in advance that will identify the moment when it is mandatory to speak out no matter what the cost. But, as with pornography, I will recognize it when I see it. I believe that rabbis with genuine stature have an inner compass that tells them: Now.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
The answer is, of course, when those political opinions directly affect values issues. Support for Israel is an obvious example. If President Obama demands a halt to building in Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal and undivided capital, rabbis must speak out. Conversely, if George H. W. Bush wanted to tie Israel’s hands with regard to Soviet Jewish immigration, the same was true.
And consider the recent gas attack in Syria. The Jews are entrusted by God in the Torah with the commandment, “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” How can we allow innocent Arab children to be gassed to death and do nothing? Rabbis have an absolute responsibility to speak out against genocide and mass murder. We should, for instance, push the United States to respond to the continued slaughter in Sudan.
The same applies to many other issues. Take, say, the persecution of gays in Arab countries, where they are murdered as alleged collaborators with Israel. Or the debate over whether Egypt should receive military aid, or whether the United States has a responsibility to object to Vladimir Putin’s continued encroachment on human rights in Russia. Rabbis must be values exponents.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Judaism never saw itself as a religion with a specialized interest in just spiritual matters. It is a tool for living that informs and enriches all areas of life, private as well as public, personal as well as civic.
So, should a rabbi address issues that are being debated in the public arena and present the perspective that Torah and Judaism bring to these issues? The answer is: Of course! What should he talk about—things that have no bearing upon people’s lives? Things that are of no practical consequence to us as a society?
That an issue “is likely to spark controversy” might at times be all the more reason to speak out and make a difference for a person whose job description is to teach the Torah’s approach to life.
As for speaking out in support or denunciation of a specific person or party, I aspire to follow the principled example set by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who had the ability to articulate a Torah-based perspective on so many issues, including contentious ones, without mentioning names or political parties. I find it more effective to speak about the issues themselves, without the divisiveness and one-upmanship that has unfortunately come to dominate our political discourse.
Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov
Chabad of Northwest Indiana