Independent Jewish Synagogue in Asheville, NC
It’s mind boggling, really, that popular opinion has it that religion and politics can be kept separate. Religion is astonishingly potent. Amazingly, a devout Mother Teresa spends her life wrapping bandages on lepers in the slums of Calcutta. Tragically, religious ardor inspires suicide bombers. Humans are capable of taking the lives of others and of even giving up their own lives in the thrall of religious zeal. Civil rights leaders, such as the reverend Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, “prayed with their feet.” Faith guides parents and school boards to censor books and challenge the curriculum. For the abortion issue currently riling the nation, beliefs about ensoulment and moral autonomy are central to the debate. How can religious leaders remain silent on that? What about the issue of the acolytes of a particular religion imposing their beliefs on everyone else? Religion, a certain enthusiastic strain of it anyway, brashly and unapologetically inserts itself into the grit of politics. Why expect contemporary rabbis to abstain from entering the fray?
We spoke yesterday about how 2 prominent rabbis navigated politics during the civil war period. David Einhorn had no qualms about making his rabbinate overtly political. Isaac Meyer Wise, however, was staunchly opposed to sanctioning even a whiff of politics from the bima. On the merits of the issue, abolishing slavery, Einhorn proved to be on the side of history. But on the matter of principle, Wise’s approach bears serious consideration.
Wise offers 2 reasons for rabbis to always avoid politics. One, politics undermines harmonious relations and Jewish unity. Two, politics is a contaminant in the precinct of the holy. To which we may add a third: Since religious texts are wonderfully elastic and open to interpretation, why should any rabbi feel entitled to impose their particular political view?
Wise’s generation experienced the ultimate human ugliness, war, but his reticence about politics could easily apply to occasions of less dramatic emotional trauma. We instinctively abhor feelings of ickiness. Going back to Talmudic times we can find examples of ordinary Jews objecting plaintively, and effectively, to otherwise deeply respected rabbis who allowed religious arguments to devolve into personal acrimony and power plays. At a time when politics is so polarizing and co-opts our core values, the risk of an individual taking offense is high. For many, political affiliations aren’t about policies, they’re about identity -who we are and who we are not. Even if we manage somehow to “agree to disagree,” we still face the problem of Jewish unity. Who are we? Are we as one?
The Torah tells us that once upon a time at Sinai, all Jews agreed to accept the Torah. It’s been pointed out that Jewish unity has eluded us ever since. A more modest but not necessarily more reasonable goal is “unity” within a local congregation. American Jews comprise around 2 percent of the general population. Christians, by way of contrast, constitute about two thirds of the US population. Christians have the numbers to divide up along political lines. It wouldn’t surprise us to find consensus on a number of political issues in an inner city African American congregation or in a rural, white fundamentalist church. If, on the other hand, Jews were to make political congeniality a priority in choosing a shul, in many cases we might never find one or communities would be forced to host an unsustainable number of synagogues.
Really, this is besides the point. In truth, it’s a fundamental Jewish value to be able to strongly disagree and yet remain unified. The Talmud relates stories of scholars who were relentless and implacable opponents while debating principles and laws, but embraced one another with mutual respect and affection immediately upon rising from the study hall table. The Talmud cites a theoretical concern that unsettled debate may lead to confusion as to the true meaning of the Torah. It answers that we have an obligation to hear every viewpoint, to pour them all into the hopper of a discriminating ear. We are asked to take solace in a leap of faith that the call to debate somehow unites the competing truths.
Invocations of religious authority are often countered by opponents who are able to just as passionately invoke that same authority in support of the opposing view. Recall David Einhorn’s dispute with a learned colleague over slavery. On the one hand, the Bible clearly recognizes slavery as an accepted fact of ancient life, even legislating its details. On the other hand, one may easily find scriptural support for abolishing slavery. There’s “betselem elokim”- all humans deserving of the dignity of having been made in the image of God. There’s, “what is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” The central narrative of the Book of Exodus is about God’s championing the yearning of the enslaved to be set free. And so on. Modern political disputes fare no better. A rabbi representing a traditionalist perspective will give a very different answer to questions about sexual orientation and gender identity than a rabbi voicing a religiously progressive view. Rabbis, invoking the same core religious values, drawing from the same canonical texts, might easily and stridently disagree on matters of economic policy, environmental stewardship, immigration, guns… the list goes on. As a teacher of mine used to say, “Who is a Jew?- someone of a different opinion!”
Would political expression somehow contaminate our otherwise holy place? Or be an unwelcome distraction from our spiritual pursuits? I think the compartmentalization embodied by “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” has always been more of a Christian sentiment than a Jewish one. That said, there are Jewish roots to the idea that rabbis should stay out of politics. The Talmud preserves Rabbi Akiva’s ethical will to his children. In it he admonishes them, “Never dwell in a town governed by rabbis!” Rashi explains, “Rabbis are preoccupied by the study and dissemination of Torah. If you want a scholarly analysis of the halachic ramifications of potholes, ask a rabbi. If you want the potholes actually fixed, live in a place with a secular government.” Of course today, politics isn’t only or even mostly about administrative matters, such as fixing potholes. It’s about our identities, it’s about who we believe ourselves to be and what our society ought to look like. Religious leaders deserve to be heard on such issues. Their congregations deserve to hear them.
Torah without politics, Jewish spirituality without politics, was tried and failed in the period of the Judges. It devolved into a chaotic period of spiritual anarchy, where every Jew did what was right in their own eye. Sometime before the year 1000 BCE, Jews demanded a king and, ever since, politicians have jousted with priests and prophets, and politics have become an integral part of Jewish life. Talmudic rabbis served on delegations to the Roman senate. Medieval rabbis advised feudal lords and sultans. Even Rabbi Wise joined a delegation to successfully petition
President Lincoln on the behalf of Jews who had been mistreated by an antisemitic order from General Grant.
I think our reticence is a modern phenomenon and disproportionately affects the Jewish community. Rabbis may be the clergy group in America most enthusiastic about the rule that crossing a certain line with politics jeopardizes a religious institution’s tax exempt status. While we’re scrupulously avoiding the grip politics has on the hopes and fears of our congregants, some Christian ministers are videotaping themselves breaking the rules and sending the video to the IRS daring them to mete out a penalty.
Perhaps there’s a fragility to ritual and prayer. Maybe spirituality thrives like a greenhouse plant-blooming beautifully in a pristine environment but quickly wilting when thrust into the real world.
Politics, however prevalent, risk an unwelcome intrusion into a peaceful, sacred moment. Moreover, if I preach a message, and it’s contrary to what you believe politically, it’s fair to ask, can I really be your rabbi? Certainly we’ve long had shul-choice in the Jewish community over differences of doctrine and religious practice. There is no reason not to suppose political views, if held strongly and personally enough, aren’t equally salient.
Personally, I imagine I’d like a shul featuring provocative, highly politicized sermons. I actually enjoy hearing stuff I disagree with. I’m occasionally one of those people who yells out loud at the newspaper editorial or television talking heads. However, in deference to the customary rather more bland status quo, I try to avoid weaponizing the bima. I realize people want to leave synagogue reassured, not beaten up. I really don’t want to use my bully pulpit to be an actual bully. It’s not fair to use the sermon for an agenda that isn’t strictly religious or in support of the community.
Like many, I have deeply held personal opinions. I believe some of them find ample support in Jewish texts and tradition. For example, I confess to you that I am “pro life.” The Torah says, “choose life!” So of course I’m pro life. However, I’m not without qualification pro fetus – I’m pro life because I prioritize the life and welfare of the pregnant woman. I’m pro the lives of families in need of food and shelter even after the baby has been born. I’m pro life because I favor limits on guns. I’m pro life because I’m pro vaccines. I’m pro life in the debate over climate change legislation. I also have views about threats to our democracy…
But! I’m also pro a vibrant, diverse community. And I’m staunchly pro the exchange of ideas. I don’t particularly care if you talk to me about it if you happen to agree with me. If you disagree, however, I’m desperate to hear from you. I need people who think differently than I do. Those differences sharpen the mind, they clarify the issues, they are the hopper that separates the wheat from the chaff. Join me in a leap of faith, affirm with me that only in contrasting our opinions do we earn confidence in the veracity of our beliefs.
I’m torn. I admire David Einhorn. If it’s a choice between Mt Sinai and justice, let justice pierce the mountain! On the other hand, I value and respect diversity and want our synagogue to include those whose political leanings may differ from my own. I guess there’s more Isaac Meyer Wise in me than I’d like to admit. So, I have a proposal.
Let’s figure out a way to have both. Let’s build forums for the robust exchange of ideas. A sermon is a monologue but a class can and should be a dialogue. Let’s make learning time relevant and open ended. Let’s make it political when current events make the issues germane. Let’s argue at Kiddush lunch, but respectfully and open mindedly, giving those who disagree equal time and opportunity. I’m not sure persuasion is a reasonable goal, but it needn’t be. Let’s resolve not to feel let down when others persist in feeling differently. Let’s make preserving our rich, passionate community and being unafraid of disagreement our aim. Let’s define, in part, the word “Jew” as “one who is of a different opinion.” Paradoxically, that’s real unity. And it’s the Torah way.