What’s a Rabbi to Do?

Aron: Over the past few months, I’ve heard a couple of rabbis say that they didn’t want to be overly partisan. For some, it’s a matter of practicality: they argue that appearing moderate is a useful took for convincing their conservative congregants to oppose illiberal policies. A rabbi I spoke with the other day said that unless he referred to Democrats and Republicans as “equally shameful,” he wouldn’t be able to get his community to oppose Trump’s immigration ban. Writing on this phenomenon just after the election, Jewish scholar Yehuda Kurtzer stated:

“We need to make the case for precision in the subtle distinctions between moral, political, and partisan forms of leadership… There is a difference between advocating for universal and obligating moral principles, and insisting on singular political strategies… it will only be in helping leaders refine [a moral] voice, and in refining the climate in which leaders are meant to lead, that they will be able to speak in a way that people can hear.”

For other rabbis, it’s a matter of priorities: they see their primary duty as fostering community, and harshly criticizing Trump might be divisive. In the weeks leading up to the election, Rabbi Nissan Antine of Beth Shalom Congregation in Potomac said,

“I’m not going to say that a rabbi should never speak out on a political issue, but I just think that a rabbi has to weigh very carefully the degree of anger and alienation they will have.”

There’s also the matter of shuls’ 501(c)3 status: rabbis can’t formally endorse particular candidates. Obviously, neither of us is a rabbi, and we have the luxury of being able to express ourselves without fear of losing our jobs or getting harangued at kiddush. Still, I think we — as Jews, congregants, and members of various Jewish communities — should have a say in this. What do you think of these arguments? How do you want our rabbis to approach our communities? To what degree can — and should — we separate the moral, the political, and the partisan?

Allen: You know I roll my eyes every time you quote Heschel, so I’ll give it a try for a change. In his last interview before his death, Heschel expressed his astonishment at the Jewish lay members and clergy who urged him to keep religion out of politics. Surely they’d never read the prophets, he rejoined, since the prophets were nothing if not political.

The trouble here stems in part from an impoverished account of what, precisely, politics means. Post-Enlightenment, metastasizing nation-states forced  Jews to make a choice: abandon religion entirely, or take it indoors. Y.L. Gordon’s refrain —  “a man in the streets and a Jew in the home” — carried the day. Religion became a ceremonial affair, divorced from the messy realities of the wider community. But this shift effectively neutered the Jewish body politic. The split between street and home, “politics” and “spirituality”, is entirely arbitrary. Anyone with a passing acquaintance of rabbinic literature knows that it’s always  concerned with issues that we would today call “political”: What are the legitimate boundary lines between insiders and outsiders? (Bava Batra.) How should the economy run? (Bava Metzia.) Who should serve on the Court? (Sanhedrin.) That’s only to be expected; It’s not for nothing that Aristotle calls us “political animals”, since politics in its broadest sense — the conversation over how achieve our fullest potential in the context of community — is an inescapable part of being human.

Hearing Kurtzer’s advice, one might assume clergy should have kept quiet over, say, the early twentieth-century child labor reform movement, which was certainly a “singular political strategy.” Indeed, many clergy probably did, quite possibly out of reluctance to “anger and alienate” their constituencies, in Rabbi Antine’s words. But we should not mistake silence either then or now for anything other than  what it is: inaction in the face of what we know to be right.

As for the rabbi you spoke with the other day, his or her strategy isn’t just morally bankrupt; it’s practically ineffective. Show me one congregant ever won over by a tepid, watered-down, boilerplate political sermon. Lack of passion is less likely, not more likely, to persuade. Furthermore, by taking a safe middle ground, that rabbi marginalizes those who vocally oppose the Muslim ban. He or she diminishes the very position he claims to champion. That’s not leadership; it’s acquiescence.

In the relatively normal political world of two years ago, the debate felt more nuanced. Needless to say, it’s been a long two years. What do you think? Is Kurtzer right in making “subtle distinctions between moral, political, and partisan forms of leadership?” Are there any fraught issues on which a Jewish leader should stay publicly silent — say, abortion, or fiscal policy?

Aron: Though it makes for a less interesting conversation, I’m fully with you on this one. Moral beliefs often (though not always) have logical political conclusions. If I believe that we have an obligation to help ill people pay for their treatment, I should vote for candidates who want to lower prescription drug prices and increase healthcare coverage. How can we have a conversation about the executive order on immigration without admitting that, despite opposition from a handful of Republican lawmakers, this is a partisan effort being carried out by a Republican administration and supported by a Republican Congress and Republican voters?

Separating the moral, political, and partisan realms also serves to exculpate the moral consequences of political decisions. Consider the fact that the Republican party is engaged in a nationwide voter suppression effort. 14 states introduced new voter restriction in 2016; in 12 of them, Republicans had control of the governorship and the upper and lower houses. Someone who votes for the Republican party (a partisan and political choice) must justify why these efforts are not a deal-breaker (a moral choice).

Allen: Your question brings up another troublesome trend, which none other than Daniel Gordis (normally not my go-to guy on political matters) noted in the journal Conservative Judaism twenty years ago:

“None of our classical models of leadership based their religious vision upon puk hazei mai ama debar [“go out and see what the people are saying”]. That was certainly not the genius of the prophetic model, nor did the Rabbis– for all that we speak of their democratization of Jewish law– abdicate their responsibility to lead […] The Conservative Movement allows its laity to set its agenda; but that means that we do not lead, do not enrich, and do not challenge. What mandate is left for us?”

Gordis puts his finger on the problematic assumption you describe above: that popular opinion alone confers legitimacy. Practically, this framework leads to moral relativism. True, 49 percent of Americans oppose allowing Muslims from specific regions to enter the country; but need we point out that 48 percent of Americans opposed allowing Japanese citizens to return home from internment camps in the aftermath of World War II? The parallel is nearly exact. Rabbis would do well to follow the example of their Tannaitic forebears, whom, as Beth Berkowitz argues, formed a tiny opposition party within wider Jewish culture; or for that matter, the example of our patriarch Abraham, of whom Genesis Rabbah recalls: “The whole world stood on one side, and he on the other.”

It’s helpful here to introduce a distinction made by Daniel Landes, dean of Pardes, in a different context: that of “pluralism” and “tolerance.” In his view, pluralism entails accepting all opinions as equally legitimate. Tolerance means extending respect to all members of the community while maintaining that some positions are simply out of bounds. The term “tolerance” may have fallen into disrepute, but it’s what’s called for at this moment. Rabbis have a responsibility to empathize with their congregants; but they also have a responsibility to define the communal limits of morally acceptable conversation — yes, even at the risk of getting cornered at kiddush.





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