Politics on the bimah

Every year, without fail, there are congregants who take me to task for not dealing with certain issues from the pulpit. Whether it is health care or a mosque at Ground

Zero, illegal immigration or the war in Iraq, people have wanted me to address these issues — and I won’t, not from the bimah. Don’t get me wrong; these are important social and political issues for us to discuss. But the truth is, they are debated in very public ways, with every news media providing its perspective. Before talking about an issue from the pulpit, I ask myself a number of questions.

First, is there a Jewish perspective to be shared? I believe that sermons are supposed to provide a Jewish perspective or context to an issue. While the political and social perspectives are shared in the public sphere, the bimah is the place for the Jewish take on issues. When addressing a social or political issue, it is my job as a rabbi to add a Jewish dimension. 

Second, by addressing the issue, will I be entering into the world of politics? It is one thing to talk about the problem of illegal immigration, but once I speak about a particular approach to the issue, I enter into the world of politics. If I speak about the need to expel illegal immigrants, I am advocating a view of the right. If I speak about the need to provide illegal immigrants with health care, I am advocating the view of the left. And I will not embark upon this road. We live in a politically volatile world where the line between the right and the left has become an iron curtain, and I know that once I enter the world of politics (as distinguished from political issues), people will become defensive and lose the rest of my message. So, my policy is to avoid the world of politics completely. The humorous part of this is that because I don’t deal with certain issues, people assume that I am on the opposite side of the political spectrum than they are. People on the left believe that I am on the right, and people on the right believe that I am on the left. I consider this a success.

A third issue I must consider is the context of the sermon. For example, I must recognize that Shabbat and festival services are part of a larger ritual celebration. People come to synagogue for many different reasons. Some come for a bar/bat mitzvah, and others attend to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for a loved one. Also, sprinkled into our services are lifecycle events like baby namings, aufrufs (pre-wedding blessings) and anniversaries. I must ask myself how these people will respond to a sermon that is interjected into these personal moments.

And finally, I must consider whether the issue might create a divisive climate within the synagogue. People come to synagogue to feel a sense of community, not to engage in political posturing.

Long ago I learned that the synagogue is the place for spiritual renewal, not political debate. I have come to realize that while some people would like me to rally against the evils of the world, most people come to services to be inspired and are seeking ways to connect Jewishly, to become better people. I believe it is my job to address the issues, but not to advocate a political solution. I will add the Jewish voice, but not say how that voice is manifest in a particular political platform. Where we can, as a synagogue, we will engage in activities that can make a difference in this world. Whether it is through social action programs, advocating for Israel, participating in Jewish World Watch or touching the lives of congregants through our community of caring, we will make a difference in the world. We must be concerned with and address the big issues, but I will not take sides and I will not divide our congregation; this is the balance needed for a true “caring” community — caring and preserving community.