The Johnson Amendment to the IRS code prohibits 501c(3) non-profits from participating substantially in campaign activities. The price such an organization – including synagogues – must pay for accepting donations that are tax exempt is that they will not use them to support candidates who would benefit them or their concerns. I support the Johnson Amendment, and as an American, you should too. If public endorsements from the pulpit became protected speech, the flow of tax-deductible campaign money to religious institutions would make the Citizens United decision look like a good alternative.
But a rabbi who refrains from discussing current events (in Talmudic Aramaic, inyanei d’yoma) from the pulpit ought to be ashamed.
I understand the struggle. First of all, people come to synagogue for worship. It is why I always tried to avoid teaching or preaching in the middle of any segment of the service on Shabbat or the holidays. If someone wanted to step out before I offered a challenge, they could fulfill their need to pray or say kaddish without interference from me.
And secondly, my conclusions about public policy and values, if they represented only my opinions, were bound to conflict with the considered opinions of some segment of a diverse congregation. What gave me the right to offer twenty minutes of self-indulgence to a captive audience? Only if I had something to offer that was grounded in the tradition.
And that’s where I understand the responsibility to originate. With more than 2000 years of recorded scholarly deliberations behind us, contemporary rabbis could spend any amount of time exploring the intricacies of Biblical verses or Talmudic passages. It is the responsibility of any Jew to know about charging interest on loans, visiting the sick, how much time to wait between meat and dairy, the mandate to rise before a white-haired elder and how to check for mixtures of linen and wool. The peculiar way a word is used in a scriptural passage can fill an entire lesson. There are thousands of stories and rulings that reveal fascinating details about times past and how our forebears understood commandments, customs and conduct.
But Jewish tradition, as we so often say, is not just about preserving the past. It is about living in the present. And we sometimes overlook that all – and I will defend the word “all” – of our past scholarship is about contending with the contemporaneous circumstances of the scholars’ lives. The rabbis of the Mishnaic period didn’t talk about government in general – they talked about the Romans. The decisors of the Middle Ages weren’t merely wondering about the status of a wife whose husband disappeared on a journey – they were answering questions about actual occurrences. Even Rashi, the “plain-meaning” commentator on the Bible and Talmud, put some of his concepts into French so that students would understand them in their own context. (And never mind that his rulings on whether certain wines were kosher might have had something to do with his business as a producer of kosher wine.)
The rabbi of any community has a responsibility to speak to the people who put their trust in her or him in a manner that makes Torah crucially relevant to their lives. To neglect “current events” on the basis that they are political – that is, that they deal with the process of making decisions applying to all members of society – is to compartmentalize Jewish consciousness and imprison Torah in the classroom.
The resistance of some people to hearing a message of Jewish values that challenges their own commitments is nothing new. In contemporary times, just discussing Shabbat, kashrut, tzedakah, Jewish learning and Hebrew language skills is enough to generate resentment and pushback. Public policy is neither sacred nor trefe in that regard – it is part of the stuff that surrounds us just as much as art, science, commerce and every other venue in which we interact as Jews and as Americans.
The resistance of some rabbis to presenting a message of Jewish values that challenges his or her listeners is an abrogation of duty. In my experience, people came to shul with all sorts of yearnings, some personal and some global, some practical and some existential. They all deserve their moments. But what was true when the pews filled to capacity after the 9/11 attacks is just as true when a smaller crowd is living through a policy debate on taxes, foreign policy, social concerns or homeland security: people want to know what my tradition has to say to me about these issues. If the rabbi says nothing, then the impression is: nothing.
Rabbis are not pundits with pulpits. But they are presumed to be fully-formed human beings whose lives are guided by their learning and their piety. To be sure, some few of my colleagues have understood that presumption to be a license to pontificate, but most of them recognize their responsibility to share their own struggles with the often-conflicting demands of our traditions and our society. We have a mandate to be exemplars, not just of ritual rectitude or spiritual sophistication or academic aptitude, but also of navigators of the body politic.
Not to tell people how to cast a vote. Not to tell people how to affiliate with a political party. But indeed to remind people that the authentic Jewish life is one to which the critical issues of current events are as important as what time to light shabbes candles.
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I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession