PRO: Should rabbis endorse candidates?
I celebrate the courage of the more than 613 rabbis who have chosen to endorse President Obama for a second term. It is impossible for me to represent all of them. Each rabbi must make his or her decision based on a number of factors, including the possibility that they could lose their jobs, damage their reputations or alienate donors and board members. There are consequences for each member of Rabbis for Obama in this diverse and distinguished group. Significantly, this group has doubled in size from 2008 to 2012.
I can speak only for myself and give my reasons for endorsing the president through Rabbis for Obama. I note with pride that none of the rabbis endorsing President Obama does so by announcing his or her congregational or institutional affiliations. We are aware that we must observe the law that disallows our religious institutions from endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Each of the rabbinic endorsers does so — to borrow a phrase from Rabbi David Wolpe, who gave a prayer at the recent Democratic National Convention — “off the pulpit.” Rabbi Wolpe did not endorse the president.
But when we rabbis became “teachers in Israel,” we did not forfeit our First Amendment rights. The pulpits of congregations are there for teaching Torah. Rabbis are allowed to advocate from the pulpit for issues and values but not candidates. Even in the area of issues advocacy, prudence and good congregational democratic process calls for us to be sure that a diversity of opinion is presented.
In the 2008 presidential election and again in 2012, we have been confronted with a profound challenge to the integrity of political discourse. The unprecedented level of falsehood, innuendo and demonization spread about President Obama was and is without precedent in our political system. That level of dishonest political rhetoric reminded me of a story of the consequences of the silence of the ancient rabbis. According to our legends, the rabbis stood by silently and allowed an act of sinat hinam (baseless hate) to boil over, and eventually it led to the upending of Jewish history, the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the end of Jewish sovereignty for 1,800 years. This is the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, whose feud had disastrous consequences. The silence of the rabbis is a cautionary tale for our time, too.
In 2008, the whisper campaign that circulated in the Jewish community was delivered through the Internet. The lies claimed that Obama was disqualified from office because he was a closeted Muslim, was anti-Israel, was not born in the United States and was a socialist-radical. All these verbal attacks continued through the campaign and during the past four years. They are beyond the pale of normal political rhetoric. For the second time in 2012, the Republican Party did not break with its “wing nuts” but instead tried to incorporate, fund and appease these factions. These rumors and lies had to be responded to in a public and organized way by Judaism’s teachers primarily because the “doozies” reflected badly on the good name of Judaism.
I grew up in Barry Goldwater’s Arizona and still remember real conservative Republicans. Certainly, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican and now independent, remembers a different Republican Party. He, too, did not take a vow of silence when he left the Republican Party. The two senators from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, issued their demurrals, but to no avail.
In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, the “dark money” groups paid for the distribution of 28 million copies of “Obsession.” This scurrilous movie and the accompanying “culture of lies” mobilized for a new round of Islamophobia. The movie was an attempt to brand Obama as a Muslim and create a diversion from the economic free fall at the end of the Bush administration. The movie stirred up the Christian right, especially Christians United for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition, which launched an unprecedented assault against political and civic norms on the Web site I co-founded, JewsOnFirst.org.
My reading of the underlying message of hate and disdain against the president and the manufacturing of religious hatred toward Muslims impelled me to join Rabbis for Obama. My Judaism cannot countenance sly messages of religious hate toward fellow Jews or Muslims or any religion. Jewish history reminds me of the apostasy committed by the majority of the German Catholic and Protestant churches’ priests and ministers in the 1930s.
Noted philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s new book, “The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age,” analyzes the nature of the fear based on religion with which so many communities continue to grapple. We need to articulate the moral principles and practices to evaluate this fear and to question the actions the fear motivates. No teacher with integrity can sit quietly on the sidelines.
Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak lives and works in Los Angeles and Poland.