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Monday, October 26, 2020

Why I keep politics off the pulpit

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Rabbi David Wolpe
David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple. His most recent book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).

Einstein often is credited with saying that there are two ways to live your life — as though everything is a miracle or as though nothing is a miracle. I’m tempted to believe the same thing about Judaism. There are two ways to be Jewish — as though everything is politics or as though nothing is politics.

I am endlessly besieged by requests to take on this or that political or social issue. After all, does not Judaism take a stand on virtually every aspect of life?  If it is a left-wing cause, I will be rebuked for neglecting prophetic ethics, which is the guardian of the widow and the orphan (and the climate and the transgendered). If it is a right-wing cause, I will be reminded of the primacy of peoplehood and objective moral law (and the sanctity of unborn life and the free market). When the Torah counsels against being a talebearer, it is reminding us not to spread nasty rumors about Barack Obama. Or about Donald Trump. I have yet to hear that it prohibits both.

And when it comes to Israel — oy, when it comes to Israel. If you oppose the settlements, you are a self-hating denier of the triumph of Jewish history. If you support the settlements, you are a brutalizing occupier unconcerned with the rights of others. If you see merit in both sides of the argument, you are a spineless equivocator.

With each new presidential administration, the pressure grows greater. There was a time when a rabbi’s heart would quake at the prospect of a talmudic challenge. I know of a colleague who was stopped in an elevator by an older man who looked at him and said, “Shtar minayin?” — an old talmudic question asking how we know that you can be betrothed with a document. When the colleague confessed his inadequacy, the older man said, “Eh — you’re no rabbi.” Jews can be tough.

But today the question is far more likely to be “What do you think of Trump?” And whatever you answer, the response can be at least as cutting as the older man’s elevator retort. The litmus test for religious legitimacy has become political opinion. In the pages of this very newspaper are those who will pronounce one side of the political debate the source of all our ills, and therefore de facto un-Jewish. It is a sad and narrow conclusion from a tradition of argument, debate and compromise. (Yes, compromise. The rabbis praise compromise and recognize it as a great virtue. Each time you enter your house it is exemplified by the mezuzah, which some thought should be horizontal and others vertical; it rests at an angled compromise.)

I know outstanding rabbis on the left of the political spectrum and others on the right. 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.

So, cut your rabbi some slack. Even better, learn to love people who differ with you on crucial matters. I won’t take refuge in the dodge that each of you may be partly right.  Perhaps, but maybe one of you is flat out wrong.

So, you’ve never been wrong before? You’ve never changed your mind about something important?  Must everyone you love, esteem or befriend agree with your opinions as they are held today?

All we hear all day long is politics. Can we not come to shul for something different, something deeper? I want to know what my rabbi thinks of Jacob and Rachel, not of Pence and Pelosi.

Don’t tie your Torah to this week’s headlines. We are better, bigger and deeper than that.

Jewish leaders respond to Rabbi David Wolpe:

Rabbi Sharon Brous:  What you call politics, we call Torah.

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas: Rabbis must navigate politics and morality

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: A ‘politics free’ pulpit is an empty pulpit

Joshua Shanes: On the moral imperative of politics

Jonathan Zasloff: A(nother) response to Rabbi David Wolpe

Rabbi David Wolpe: A response to my critics


David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple. His most recent book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).

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