Admonish, You Shall Surely Admonish: Politics from the Pulpit

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 20, 2019 / 22 Kislev 5780

Summary: This past week, we witnessed the impeachment of a sitting president for only the third time in American history. The results of this surprised no one. Democrats voted to impeach while Republicans did not.

What is a rabbi’s role in this? When and how should rabbis explore political matters? This week’s Oasis Songs will focus on politics from the pulpit. On Saturday morning we will expand on this by participating in a text study during the sermon slot that explores some Jewish values and perspectives connected to this social moment in our nation.

Should rabbis preach politics from the pulpit, or talk about them in their public writings?

From a purely pragmatic perspective, the answer is no. Even in communities like ours, where a supermajority of our congregants are of similar mind when it comes to political affiliation, an important minority holds opposing views. Rabbis are regular people, after all, who often have families to support. So it would be judicious to turn a blind eye to things political if only for job security.

A less utilitarian perspective also would argue that rabbis shouldn’t preach politics. If we are serious about being an inclusive community, we need to ensure that we permit varying opinions and viewpoints. Given that rabbis are spokespeople for all of the community, they risk harming the social fabric of their kehilla when they take partisan positions on contemporary challenges.

There is a different sort of danger to these two positions, however—we rabbis risk silencing the Torah to the key issues and concerns of the day. A Torah which has nothing to say about society or how to improve life for people is impoverished and irrelevant. A Torah that can’t apply moral distinctions to the real world and even offer insight on matters of policy is a pale corpse.

Unlike job security, refusing to teach how Torah values intersect with civil society poses a far greater existential threat. If Torah can’t offer insight on how to live or think about modern times, then being a rabbi becomes a meaningless endeavor and no quantity of beautiful sermons, life cycle events or interesting classes can cover up the hollowness of the role. The seriousness of our kehillot is also diminished, becoming little more than social clubs.

Because that existential crisis threatens both rabbi and community and is far worse than losing a job, many rabbis feel compelled to speak regularly on issues of politics. They adopt what is often called a prophetic voice, invoking the divine inspiration of our prophets to pronounce with certainty what the Torah says about hot button topics such as abortion, gun control, immigration or taxation.

I have to tell you, claiming that I or any other rabbi has prophetic authority to determine public policy is frankly arrogant. It is also an affront to the Torah we claim to represent. It is rare when our Torah or the halakhic tradition offers singular answers to very complex moral decisions (although there are definitely cases where there is a very strong majority viewpoint on an issue, such as immigration, these are rare occurrences).

People who offer such singular answers to pressing issues of the day are either very ignorant of our tradition or more committed to a factional politics than to Torah. And sometimes rabbis still need to take a stand.

A Third Way

There is a third way that neither abnegates political discourse from the bimah nor takes upon itself the certainty of an unearned and presumptuous prophetic voice. This third way actually represents the one quality that the contemporary world desperately needs from our Judaism. It is our robust willingness to entertain multiple positions and perspectives. We do that by requiring of ourselves the utmost in intellectual honesty, an honesty grounded in the rigorous use of logic and rationality and by gaining familiarity with the wide range of opinions that are housed in the sacred and legal writings of our tradition. I have tried and will continue to try to be a teller of truth on the intersection of Torah and politics—even when my personal politics are clear.

With that stated as plainly as I know how, let’s turn to this past week’s impeachments hearings and the House’s vote to impeach President Trump. And let’s emphasize that almost anyone reading this had a set opinion before the hearings began as to whether they believed the president should be impeached or not and whether he was guilty of the charges levied against him.

Given that the results were certain, and given that we can predict with a similar degree of certainty that the Senate will not convict the president, was it wise to impeach the president? Was it necessary? What guidance can Judaism provide us to think about this?

We will explore those issues on Shabbat tomorrow morning by examining some Jewish concepts that can shed some light on this issue. Torah won’t and can’t provide a singular answer on this complex issue, but it can deepen and expand how we think about this historic moment.

I hope you will join us.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach—A joyous festival of lights to all,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

Since it seems close to impossible that the Senate will convict the president please consider the questions asked above:

  • Was it wise to impeach the president? Why or why not?
  • Was it necessary? Why do you think it was or was not?
  • Will impeachment politically strengthen or weaken the president? Does that answer affect your answers to the above questions?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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