On the moral imperative of politics: A response to Rabbi David Wolpe
I write in response to Rabbi Wolpe’s editorial from June 7, “Why I keep politics off the pulpit.” Rabbi Wolpe’s erudite defense of an apolitical pulpit captures wonderfully the rhetoric of the Right and Left – on Israel or America – that insists on the Jewishness of their particular position. He argues that Jewish tradition does not speak definitively to either side, that neither support for Trump nor opposition to him necessarily contradicts the Torah.
I applaud his call for rabbis to focus their public teaching on texts and Jewish traditions – on Jacob and Rachel, not Pence and Pelosi, as he put it. Too often rabbis focus their sermons exclusively on contemporary politics – whether American or Israeli – and squander their weekly opportunity to teach Jewish texts to a semi-captive audience that does not regularly study our traditions. However, Rabbi Wolpe’s argument that rabbis should avoid politics almost entirely – whether on or off the pulpit – contains at least two fundamental flaws that I hope he, and others, consider.
First, there is no neutrality in politics any more than there is neutrality in Sabbath observance. Sabbath comes, and one observes it or not in whatever way they choose. So-called political neutrality is itself a form of political expression. It is support for those in power, or for those destined to be victorious without the voice of the rabbis. Moreover, countless times rabbis have indicated to me that they do not take stands on political issues – even compelling ones – but then happily supported various political causes that they understood to benefit Israel or the Jewish community. Well, that is a circular argument that labels certain actions as non-political because they seemed so self-evidently beneficial. Those were, in fact, political actions that reflected the Jewish values of the rabbis in question, and their refusal to advocate for other issues was equally a political act.
Second, there is no single Judaism today. Judaism is split between competing denominations with different core values. For most Reform congregations, for example, the prophetic teachings about social justice and common humanity are far more important than familiarity with how the Talmud derives that a man can “acquire” a wife via a written contract, to cite Rabbi Wolpe’s example. (To be sure, many Conservative and Orthodox congregations – who are more committed to Talmudic texts and law – likewise believe the Torah’s key message is to defend the defenseless.)
In contrast, other congregations are bound together primarily by a shared sense of ethno-nationalist identity, and certainly there are texts and traditions to support this. Their Judaism is focused on rituals and texts that express this identity, while downplaying or reinterpreting other texts. Whereas public flaunting of religious law might lead to various levels of exclusion in other observant congregations, here it is instead public opposition to the West Bank settlements – not to speak of support for a bi-national democratic state – that might lead to ostracization.
In short, insisting that neither support for Trump nor opposition to him necessarily opposes the Torah is itself setting the Jewish values of one’s community in a specific way. Rabbi Wolpe’s brilliant caricature of the Jewish claims of the Right and Left does not prove that a rabbi must avoid these positions. Rather, each rabbi and community must decide if the Torah in fact does support one position.
It is perfectly legitimate, for example, to argue that a rabbi must rally Jews against Trump and his agenda, and it is also valid to argue that the rabbi must rally Jews behind him. Equally, it is valid for a rabbi to preach the immorality of the occupation, or instead to advocate for greater oppression of the Palestinians. The choice reflects the “denomination” of Judaism represented, and the texts and traditions they choose to emphasize and ignore. Rabbis and their flocks must decide which “denomination” seems most authentic. Rabbi Wolpe’s call to ignore the issue is itself a political act, separate from either camp to be sure, but no less a political – and thus moral – choice for it.
Finally, in a rejoinder on facebook (cited here with his permission), Rabbi Wolpe added that there are exceptions to his argument, but that they are “very rare – slavery, civil rights,” adding that a rabbi should “invest his or her political views with Jewish sanction [only] once in 100 years.” I appreciate the concession, and it is true that Judaism does not speak to every political debate, but it merely begs the question of whether we now live in such a moment. Remember, those views in their time were extremely controversial, and as a result many rabbis in both the North and South refused to address them based precisely on Rabbi Wolpe’s logic. Only with hindsight do we applaud those rabbis who took up the mantle and – perhaps – bemoan the failure of others to join them. It is up to each Jewish leader – indeed, each and every Jew – to decide for themselves whether the current crisis in America warrants a religious response. Personally, I cannot imagine a more obvious Jewish cause in my lifetime.
College of Charleston