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Sunday, April 18, 2021

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).

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).

I thank my colleagues and friends Rick Jacobs and Noah Farkas, and many others, who wrote in response to my opinion piece “Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit” in the June 9 edition of the Jewish Journal. I offer the following points:

1. “Moral issues” are almost always “political stances I agree with” and “partisan politics” are stances with which I differ. Self-righteousness is a potent drug, and politics has enough of it without adding religion, as our Founding Fathers knew. The passion with which you hold a conviction says absolutely nothing about its correctness. Nothing. Even-handedness feels tepid and uninspiring, but for that reason it is all the more important. We demonize each other by pulpit pounding proclamations of “Torah true” positions. Using the rabbinate to promote policies is exploiting one form of authority to enforce another.

2. Every rabbi should preach values, of course. Values are not policies and not embodied in politicians. This past Shabbat, I spoke about Judaism and the sin of racism. Policies to combat racism are a more complex matter. There are studies, statistics, successes, failures — in other words, solutions best left to those who master the field and know something, and to our capacity to argue as citizens. I’ve spoken and written about immigration, war, poverty and other issues to clarify values but not to endorse policies. Congregants often know more about specific policy issues than I. Rabbinic training does not provide the gavel to judge between the economic contentions of John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman. Gun control measures, however much I may favor them, were not outlined in the story of Korach or the Book of Proverbs. Colleagues who miraculously locate the policies of their party in each week’s Torah portion are no more credible than so-called kabbalists who find in the Torah’s “codes” predictions of the future or confirmations of the past.

3. I’ve asked several correspondents a simple question and received not one satisfactory answer: What policies do you support on major questions that differ with what you would believe if you were not a religious Jew? If Judaism supports all the policies you believe anyway, can’t you be at least a little suspicious that your politics are guiding your Torah, and not your Torah leading to your politics?

4. Politics and campaigns are inherently divisive, and never more than now. If as a rabbi you have a perfectly homogenous shul, then I congratulate you on your frictionless life. But I have too often heard of people leaving shuls feeling politically disenfranchised by the rabbi’s preaching. Synagogues should not be tax-exempt campaign offices.

5. Yes, I know Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Honestly, I do. But issues like slavery and civil rights are very rare, once in a generation, and invoking them for everything from social welfare policy to Dodd-Frank to the methods of vetting immigrants is both dishonest and cheapening a great moral legacy. If you are using the march on Selma to religiously validate your views on the minimum wage, shame on you.

6. Many people privately ask about my political views and I’m happy to answer. But not from the bimah. As a rabbi, my task is to bless, to teach values and texts and ideas and rituals, to comfort, to cajole, to listen and learn, to grow in spirit along with my congregants, to usher them through the transitions of life, to create a cohesive community, to defend the people and land of Israel, and to reinforce what most matters. The great questions of life are not usually political ones. When political questions do arise, the rabbi should clarify the Jewish values involved and expect congregants to decide which candidates and policies best fulfill those values. Aren’t there enough disastrous examples in the world where clergy set public policy for us to be humble about our political wisdom?


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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