Why my friend David Wolpe is wrong: A ‘politics free’ pulpit is an empty pulpit
There are few colleagues for whom I have more respect than Rabbi David Wolpe. His books, sermons, articles and his personal character and warmth show all of us what being a rabbi means. I count him as both a teacher and a friend.
Which is why I was struck by Rabbi Wolpe’s recent op-ed in the Jewish Journal (“Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit,” June 7). How could someone who is usually so right be so wrong on something so important?
Rabbi Wolpe is, of course, correct when he writes “You can love Torah and vote for Trump. You can love Torah and think Trump is a blot on the American system. What you may not do, if you are intellectually honest, is say that the Torah points in only one political direction.” But I want to suggest that although one can certainly love Torah and follow different political paths, one cannot claim to be a lover of Torah and not care about how our society treats those in need, the weak, the vulnerable, the stranger and the oppressed.
Let me be clear: Our synagogues should never be places of partisanship. People of all political stripes should feel welcome within our walls. For that reason, I have argued against repealing the Johnson Amendment that bars clergy and houses of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates or parties. Repeal would turn synagogues into just another partisan tool, when in fact we should be moral goads, always free to speak truth to power and lift our voices to affirm our 3,000-year-old mandate to “Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy” (Proverbs 31:9) as an expression of our care and concern for the world around us.
Sermons that “speak up” on the great moral issues of our world and our lives may address politics and policy as a means of addressing such moral issues but they are not about politics. On the contrary, they are about our Jewish values; the values we teach and the values we pass on to our children; the values that have kept us together as a people for centuries.
The role of the rabbi is not to eschew such issues in their sermons but rather to lift up the insights of our tradition that can illuminate these debates and model civil discussion in a manner that shows respect for differing views and avoids divisive language or ad hominem attacks on those who disagree.
The Judaism that I believe in does not limit Torah lessons to the parchment of our sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls), nor to the tables around which we convene for communal Torah study. The Judaism that I live compels me to use those lessons to understand the most urgent challenges we face. And since the beginning of the enlightenment, rabbis of all streams have felt compelled to use the evolving institution of the sermon to bear prophetic witness to pressing societal and communal challenges their congregants faced.
As Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of America’s most influential rabbis of the first half of the 20th century, responded to criticism by those who made the argument Rabbi Wolpe made, that he should not address political issues from the pulpit, such as the power of monopolistic corporations and the abusive treatment of their workers:
“If, however, there is a larger and a higher duty, it is the duty of the Synagogue pulpit. … [T]he pulpit of the synagogue is charged with the responsibility of the prophetic memories and prophetic aspirations. If the Jewish pulpit ought to speak out at this time concerning the industrial situation, then upon the pulpit in which I stand, pledged to the truth-speaking under freedom, there lies a most solemn and inescapable duty. I could not with self-respect remain silent. … ”
Now, more than ever, with millions of refugees suffering the crushing burden of wars and dislocation, the planet on the verge of confronting the irreversible, devastating consequences of climate change, Muslim and Jewish Americans fearful in the face of escalating hate crimes, and millions at risk of losing lifesaving health care access, rabbis cannot — nor should not — abdicate the call of the prophets and the teachings of the rabbis by “standing idly by the blood of our neighbor.”
Rabbi Wolpe refers to our “tradition of argument, debate and compromise.” Those are indeed core values of our tradition. While our sages welcomed the debate, ensuring that majority and minority opinion were respected, in the end, despite differing viewpoints, the decisions were made on what the law would be; guidance was given to the Jewish community, even when compromise and common ground were elusive. Our rabbis should do no less nor offer any less guidance regarding the urgent issues our communities, our nation, Israel and the world face today.
I am moved by Rabbi Wolpe’s referencing that the mezuzot at the very doors of our homes are hung not horizontally nor vertically but rather at “an angled compromise.” He is right about the importance of compromise, but we must not miss the key lesson here: the mezuzot are, in fact, hung!
RABBI RICK JACOBS is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.