Ask the Rabbis
Issues, not individuals. Policies, not partisanship. Concerns, not candidates. These guidelines should direct synagogues as they chart their critical role in this election season.
Global warming, the Iraq war, Middle East peace, health care reform, the role of government in securing a safety net for Americans in need, immigration policy, confronting terrorism effectively, economic hardship—these are just some of the great moral issues and political challenges confronting America. Synagogues have long been powerful prophetic voices in American public life and must continue to be so. Educational debates and presentations are candidates for rabbinic sermons; adult education classes, social action, social service and advocacy programs constitute appropriate ways of raising awareness of such issues.
Traditionally, Jews vote at much higher rates than other Americans, yet some studies indicate a fall-off among those under 40. Therefore, every synagogue in the nation should engage in voter registration campaigns, ensure that every member is registered when they turn 18 and undertake “Get Out the Vote” efforts, using phone banks, email and listservs. This is particularly important with our young, because habits forged in first elections will last a lifetime.
The key legal limitation on synagogues is that they cannot spend one penny, or one second of staff time, supporting or opposing a candidate or party. It is also good policy: The last thing we need is to tear our synagogues apart over which candidates they should oppose or support. By sticking to issues and not candidates, synagogues can fulfill our obligation of prophetic witness without violating the law.
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Washington, DC
Judaism, as a tradition of values, demands our involvement in public affairs. From Isaiah to Maimonides to Judith Plaskow, thoughtful Jews concur with Elie Wiesel: “Indifference is not an option.”
Where we gather in real time (bet knesset), we address issues of the day. Where we study (bet sefer), the learning must lead to action. Even public prayer (bet tefilah) requires nine others. Every function of a synagogue demands our engagement with current societal needs.
Congregations discuss values, and with them, political issues. But promote political parties? Prohibited. Candidates? We can’t.
IRS regulations rightly steer synagogues clear of endorsing parties or candidates. We should be humble about our own positions, while honoring shuls as “big tents.” Rabbis’ leanings may appear in the paper, but not the pulpit. Resources from groups like the Interfaith Alliance help us walk that ethical and legal line.
Yet we must not bifurcate between “spiritual” and “political.” The yotzer nature blessing should motivate us to stem global warming; our “Redemption Song,” Mi Chamocha, should recall those too impoverished or oppressed to be free. These are political and spiritual concerns in which upcoming elections loom large. Avoiding them, we risk irrelevance.
Bless the tradition that encourages us to grapple, to take respectful action, and to vote for whomever we deem likeliest to heal our country and our world.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD
An evangelical Christian pastor said that Bible-loving Christians come to different conclusions about the issues of our day, including abortion. He concluded that it was not his work to tell them for whom to vote, but to remind them of their loyalty to the Kingdom of God.
I resonate with him. If politics in the synagogue means endorsing one candidate or party over another, then I don’t want politics in my shul. (Besides, its not legal, at least in the U.S.!) However, it is appropriate to focus on the criteria we use to choose our governments.
A congregant asked me whether I would rather live in a town with no limits on wealth where some would always be poor, or where there would be no poor because there were limits placed on wealth. He was surprised when I said the latter. I explained to him that the Torah mandated sabbatical and jubilee years designed to accomplish this purpose and that the higher ethical principle was to minimize poverty. Expressing a commitment to bringing these ideals into practice is a way to evaluate the merits of governments. Without it, Judaism is a hollow shell. With it, it is vibrant, alive with the reality of God and committed to a higher purpose.
Rabbi Daniel Siegel, Director of Spiritual Resources, Alliance for Jewish Renewal, Philadelphia, PA