Ask the Rabbis
Does Politics Belong on the Bima?
Politics is inappropriate for discussion in mixed company. Political opinions are considered highly personal and extremely sensitive in our culture. The advocacy of any particular viewpoint in a place of worship is almost certain to cause offense and is likely to alienate congregants who disagree. To ensure that our synagogues are warm and comfortable “homes away from home,” it is imperative that the pulpit not be used as a political soapbox.
On the other hand, a rabbi’s primary role is to serve as a teacher and spiritual guide, and any light that the Torah’s wisdom may shed on political matters is certainly worthy of being shared with one’s congregation. Thus, the approach I adopt is twofold. I attempt to model the application of traditional Jewish methods of critical thought and moral analysis to matters of public policy by demonstrating how one must try to penetrate beneath the surface of political debate, cast aside the rhetoric and then clearly identify and precisely define the issues.
Furthermore, I like to encourage my congregants to assume full responsibility for their “take” on a given political point, diligently studying it from all sides, contemplating its nuances rigorously and not allowing the media or “spin doctors” to do their thinking for them. All the while I strive to keep my personal views out of the picture and hope that the tools with which I equip my congregants help them in their quests to develop well-informed and reasonable ideas.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof, Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Rockville, MD
This question offers a classic case of on the one hand…and…on the other hand. On the one hand: Judaism asks us to live religiously in every aspect of life. The prophets challenged kings’ moral failure, royal exploitation of the people and favoritism to the powerful and wealthy. Therefore, rabbis should discuss burning political issues, apply Torah principles to them and maybe even endorse (or reject) candidates.
On the other hand: Most rabbis know less about politics than well-informed analysts—who may be their congregants. So rabbis are likely to dissipate their credibility by indulging in political analysis.
Furthermore, religious interventions frequently harm the political process. Democracy depends on negotiations and compromises amid constantly changing conditions. Religious approaches tend to wrap issues in the mantle of absolute values and eternal, unchanging divine commandments, which block compromise. Religious interventions have led to extremist, sometimes violent politics. Who can forget how right-wing, religious rabbis denounced Israel’s offer of territorial compromises and two important Orthodox rabbis spoke menacingly about the right to kill Israel’s prime minister?
In the U.S., polarization, government gridlock and the culture wars of the past two decades reflect, in part, the evangelical intervention in American politics. Jews also worry that “Christianization” of American politics may roll back Jewish gains in becoming fully equal in American public life.
So on which hand should we act? Since it is illegal under American law for non-profit, tax exempt organizations to take part in politics, rabbis in synagogues should not be in politics.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, New York, NY
Recently, I was urged to teach my congregation about the developing situation between Israel and Iran because it may be a mortal threat to Israel. Since I have no greater expertise than many members of my community, I responded, in part, by speaking of “the belief that I share with all my rabbinic predecessors that knowledge of Torah and Jewish spirituality are the bedrock of strength and tenacity in any Jewish community. That’s my post, and I shall not abandon it to take on someone else’s assignment. God forbid that we should ever turn all of our rabbis into political analysts and military advisers. Judaism, and thus Israel itself, would be dangerously, if not disastrously, impoverished.”
On the other hand, when it is argued—to take one example—that torture can be tolerated in extraordinary times because mortal threats to the nation override normal legal and ethical constraints, I am duty bound to teach that (a) Judaism has never believed that all steps are legitimate when attempting to save a life; (b) one may not simply assume without argument that threats to a nation are different from threats to individuals in this respect; and (c) torture in interrogation desecrates the divine image in every human being to which an abundance of classical texts testify.
On such issues, I do preach and teach. When one does so, however, one should never lose the ability to say to oneself those four very civilizing words: “I might be wrong.”
Rabbi Gordon Tucker, Temple Israel Center, White Plains, NY