A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Is a Political Rabbi a Bad Rabbi?

The Tikkun Olam Committee at Har HaShem recently sent out a letter advocating support for the health care bill and encouraging congregants to call their Congressional Representatives and Senators to encourage the bill's passage. It was signed "Rabbi Rose and the Tikkun Olam Committee."

I have received four responses from Congregants saying, essentially, "It was inappropriate for the Rabbi to advocate a particular political position and to encourage congregants to adopt that position." I'm not capturing the nuance of the letters, some of which were particularly thoughtful, but that is the gist.

First, I want to be clear that, as we said in the letter, you can certainly be a good Jew and oppose this legislation. The Jewish tradition does not require anyone to support this bill. Going further, there are some people who will find that Jewish values require them to oppose this legislation – that is a legitimate perspective. I want everyone to feel that the Jewish tradition and Har HaShem are foundational to their spiritual lives even if they disagree with others in the synagogue about any particular issue.

Second, though, I wanted to open this for discussion. Is it ever appropriate for a Rabbi in a synagogue to encourage passage of a particular piece of legislation? If so, under what circumstances?

Guidelines: keep responses brief and respectful. This is not a place for anger-filled polemics.

My argument is
All Jews, rabbis included, have obligation to make their voices heard when their tradition calls upon them to speak out.

Because we live in a diverse democracy, all people must use neutral language that is not particularistic in their political discussions. Though you may feel that “God wants me to support/oppose this or that legislation,” in a diverse society you must use rational, secular language to be persuasive.

There is no such thing as a moral issue that is not sullied by the particulars of legislation. The civil rights debate in the 50s and 60s were not just about “Inequality is immoral and must be stopped!” It was about legal language, constitutional powers, the balance between state and federal power. So, a Jew can’t seriously advocate/oppose a moral position on issue X without rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty with particulars.

Finally, Judaism is a religious tradition oriented toward not only the cultivation of individual spiritual life but also toward the creation of a just society. It requires us to look after the well-being of other people. One may say that conservative or liberal policies are the best way to achieve this, but my argument is that Judaism does not want us to disengage from political issues – which, I’m arguing, are actually moral issues.

What do you think?


  1. I think rabbis can be political to a certain extent, depending on the open-mindedness of the rabbi and of the community. If a rabbi told me that, as a Jew I should vote for or against something, I would probably feel the need to clarify that not all Jews have the same opinion an everything.

    But, if a rabbi said that the Reform movement has decided that voting a certain way will support Jewish values, and encouraged me to vote that way, and explained why it supports Jewish values, while at the same time stating that "of course, you should only do so if you feel this is right for you" (which was, I believe, clearly stated in Rabbi Rose's email), then I would consider the subject carefully, make a choice and do as I see fit. This is not a case where people will be judged or shunned for not following the rabbi's suggestion. He even made the case that if someone's values require them to vote differently, then they should absolutely vote that way (paraphrasing his email to the best of my recollection).
    A rabbi expressing his political opinion might seem unusual, and some might be concerned about a rabbi's power of suggestion getting out of hand. I think the best situation possible is for a community leader to share what they feel would be good for the community, and have the courage to make those statements publicly, and stand behind them, while at the same time allowing others to hold on to their beliefs without having to hide them, acknowledging that it's okay to have different beliefs.
    It seems to me that the rabbi in this case has openly welcomed different beliefs and accepts them wholeheartedly. If only the rest of our political world could work this way, what a difference it would make. Well done Rabbi Rose and the Tikkum Olum Committee.

  2. I am heartened by Rabbi Rose’s article “Is a Political Rabbi a Bad Rabbi.” Rabbi Rose is following the leadings of Adonai to enlighten his congregation into what is best for all people, and thus what is in the best interests of everyone, even those people who would make a windfall of money and power from the failure of the health care reform bill.
    If Rabbi Rose did not make known what he knows is best for Jews, all people, the county and the congregation he would eventually become an enigma with little respect, including self-respect.
    Rabbi Rose is putting into action what he teaches in Mussar class.

  3. It is easy to agree with political activity when it is accord with one's own ideas.
    We should, as jews, agree that everyone in need should have medical services.
    We don't necessarily agree on the proper course to get there.

  4. Thanks for your feedback. To the second "Anonymous": I would just alter that to read "If Rabbi Rose did not make known what he THINKS is RIGHT."

    Moepackman. Good point. But I'm interested in the limits of that kind of generality. What if it were the civil rights era and the nation was debating civil rights? Could I do no more than just say "Equality is our goal but I'm not going to take a position on the historic legislation to bring that about"? My thought is that if I stay at that level of generality - that is, at the level where there is no debate - I'm remaining far too remote in a critical moral situation.

    To be slightly more provocative, why bother taking a position on an issue at that level at all? I mean, who would say that they DON'T want people to have access to health care?

  5. Would it be okay for a Rabbi to tell congregants to vote for a particular political candidate?

    The answer is no, he can't, because it's against the law. If he did, the congregation could lose it's 501c3 non-profit status with the IRS.

    Why do you think it's illegal for a religious leader to endorse a political candidate? Is that any different that advocating for a particular piece of legislation? You can make the same arguments that it would be a moral issue, etc. You can make that argument about anything actually.

    Legally, it is legal for a religious leader to endorse legislation. But it seems to me to be inappropriate.

    Furthermore, I think there is a difference between Rabbi Rose stating HIS political position on an issue, and asking congregants to take a certain action on a political issue, in this case, lobby Congress for passage of a certain piece of legislation. That's where it crosses the line for me.

    Rabbis hold a lot of sway with people. With that power comes a lot of responsibility to use it carefully and wisely. While it may seem wise or attractive to try to use the position of Rabbi to influence people's political beliefs, and ultimately attempt to influence passage of legislation the Rabbi finds attractive, I think that's overstepping the bounds of what I would consider appropriate use of a Rabbi's position.

    In my opinion, a Rabbi should provide spiritual and religious guidance, should challenge me to ask difficult questions of myself and others, and even to challenge me to question my political positions if the Rabbi feels strongly. But what I DON'T want my Rabbi to do is to tell me what conclusion to come to, or how to think politically. I want him to challenge me, make valid points, and let me come to MY OWN conclusions. That's how I think a Rabbi should behave in regards to political issues.

  6. Comment about Jeremy Goldsmith’s repudiation of Rabbi Rose’s attempt to bring reason to the congregation
    Rabbi Rose was not telling his congregation who to vote for. Rabbi Rose accommodates all opinions (right of wrong). I am grateful that Rabbi Rose attempts to enlighten people from all the false information that is pounded into the majority of people in America.
    I find it better that a Rabbi, who is closer to the Almighty, influence a few in his congregation (I wish it were the entire world) instead of the majority in the media who are malevolent political people and who influence the entire country.
    It might be better if Jeremy investigated the many laws that are broken by the politicians in this country and other countries, instead of suggesting that it could be appear that Rabbi Rose is breaking the law. Maybe, he should concentrate on the Christian media which uses every tool it has to convey its politics.
    Would Jeremy be as benevolent as Rabbi Rose in his acceptance of other people’s political positions? Who knows? Maybe the differences might be like that of the bullying President Bush vs. the more diplomatic President Obama.

  7. Jeremy,

    Thanks for your insightful comments.

    Here's my response. First, you're right on the law: 501c3s (non-profit organizations) can endorse legislation but not candidates (or parties).

    You think that there's no moral distinction between the two forms of endorsement, but here's why it matters. If a 501c3 attaches itself to a candidate or party, that candidate or party can have too much sway or power over the organization.

    This could make a mockery of the non-profit status of the organization, because these organizations - upon which the state has conferred special tax status and tax relief - could be used for the political ambitions of a public figure.

    While it's true that there may be a gray area in some cases, the reason that 501c3s are allowed to speak about issues is that, well, we live in a democracy. The tax breaks offered to these organizations encourage collective democratic action. They encourage like-minded citizens to come together to try to address political issues. This is a benefit to organizations right and left.

    OK, so enough about non-profits in general. You argue that for the benefit of their congregations, rabbis shouldn't speak out on issues.

    Three points.

    1) I think a rabbis' actions have to be part of a rich context. If a rabbi's only relationship to his/her pulpit is through legislation, I would be inclined to agree with you. One hopes that a religious leader is doing all of the other things that you say you want (basically, being a spiritual leader).

    2) Having said that, I disagree with your premise that there is not political context to our "private" spiritual realities and that the political realm does not have religious significance. When a religious leader speaks out on public issues, he/she is not leaving the spiritual realm - at least not in the Jewish worldview. "Render unto caesar what is caesar's" is from the New Testament, not from the Jewish tradition.

    Your claim that in addressing issues of public good/evil a rabbi is leaving the realm of the religious is, in my opinion, based on a distinction between private and public that does not exist in Jewish religious life: not in the Torah, not in the Talmud, not in later medieval Jewish thought, not in modern Jewish thought.

    In Nevi'im (the books of the Prophets), the Jewish prophets rail against precisely this distinction. They criticize the Jewish religious elites/priestly class for emphasizing religious ritual and the Temple cult even while those elites failed to address the needs of the poor and the socially vulnerable (widows, orphans). The Torah also addresses the needs of the vulnerable and makes it a religious requirement - i.e. a commandment from God - to care for them.

    I want to be very clear: I am not arguing that Jewish religious ideas find expression in liberal versus conservative policies. Our argument is about whether there is a public/private distinction in Jewish life.

    3) Just to define the boundaries of our debate: what about legislation about, say, Israel? Imagine that Congress considers legislation that the US cut funding to Israel drastically. Can I really only speak as an individual regarding this issue of vital concern to the Jewish people? And, in case you would make the argument that "on issues where there is unanimity/uniformity of Jewish belief, a rabbi can speak out," I would remind you that there is no such thing. We have congregants who strongly object to the amount of support the US gives to Israel.

    What about anti-discrimination laws that would protect Jews? Again, Jewish religious leaders can't speak out as religious leaders on this? That would seem impossible to me.

    Just some thoughts; thanks,

    Rabbi JOsh

  8. In response to Rabbi Rose, I think you might have misunderstood me a bit. I didn't say (nor do I believe) that Rabbis shouldn't speak out on issues. To the contrary. Here's what I think is appropriate: a Rabbi giving his/her opinion on an issue they find important, or challenging congregants to think and question their own beliefs about an issue, such as Israel, discrimination, etc. Here's what I don't think is appropriate: a Rabbi asking congregants to take a specific action, or come to a specific conclusion on an issue. There's a line there, and it has to do with advocacy of a position. In my mind, it's fine if you state your position and even build a strong case for why you believe it and ask me to think about it. It's another thing to ask me to take a specific action, call my Congress-person and lobby to pass a specific piece of legislation. That to me is crossing the line. It's using the pulpit to push a political agenda, and that's not what I come to a synagogue to hear. I hear that everywhere else. And even in the synagogue, I would expect to hear it from others, committees, other congregants, etc. But from the Rabbi, I want a little more moderation. I want to be challenged to learn, question, pray, because it's good for me, for my mind and my soul, not because the Rabbi has a political agenda. That cheapens it for me a bit, even if the intentions are good.