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David Wolpe: Fearless Rabbi

After 26 years of leading Sinai Temple and dealing with some of the most difficult issues in our community, Rabbi David Wolpe is ready for new challenges.
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May 25, 2023

“Life is so much more interesting when you say yes,” Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple David Wolpe told me on a recent Zoom call. Indeed, I’ve known Wolpe, who is retiring this month, for most of the 26 years that he’s been at Sinai, and I can attest to his affinity for saying yes.

If I called him mid-week and told him I have a great speaker in town that I can bring to Sinai for Shabbat, he’d say “sure.” If I called him from a recording of a rap-reggae song about Jewish unity and asked him if he’d join us as a background singer, he’d say, “why not?” If I called him at the last minute for an article on Kabbala for OLAM magazine, he’d jump right in.

Many years ago, during the Second Intifada, while Israel was reeling from suicide bombings and its streets were virtually empty, he called me about an emergency solidarity trip to Israel. Within a week or two, he was leading a large group to Israel to show support.    

This embracing of opportunities applies also to his intellect.

I recall being at a Shabbat lunch a few years ago in Pico-Robertson, when the subject came up about the tendency of some rabbis to quote only their favorite rabbinic source during their sermons. I happily interjected and told them I had recently heard a sermon that quoted the Kotzker rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Lubavitcher rebbe and perhaps a few philosophers or poets whose names I forgot. When they asked who it was, I told them it was a Conservative rabbi named David Wolpe.

“I learn from anyone who has something to teach,” Wolpe told me. “If you have Torah to teach, I’m willing to learn.”

He called me once from the road after attending a small memorial in honor of my father, just to tell me that he was deeply moved by the words of a Haredi rabbi who spoke that night.

This intellectual openness landed him in hot water many years ago, when he suggested during a Passover sermon that based on academic scholarship the Exodus story may not have happened as it says in the Bible. This came across as heresy to many of his synagogue members, and it caused enough of a stir that the Los Angeles Times ran a story on its front page.

In a statement to the Journal at the time, Wolpe clarified his point that doubts about the literal veracity of the Bible doesn’t mean a Jew is no longer obligated to follow the tradition.

“The point of the sermon,” he told me on our call, “was actually that I celebrate Passover exactly the same way, no matter what the historians say.”

Looking back on the controversy, Wolpe regrets not better preparing his congregation for the sermon. He used that lesson a few years ago when he gave a series of classes to prepare his community for his acceptance of gay marriage.

“I learned my lesson from the Exodus,” he said. “You have to prepare people. If they’re upset, they’re still upset, but you have to give them a chance to know what your approach is before you talk about your approach.”

Wolpe has had a tendency to tackle sensitive subjects. He has weighed in more than once, for example, on the delicate issue of division between Persian and Ashkenazi Jews in his congregation. 

Wolpe has had a tendency to tackle sensitive subjects. He has weighed in more than once, for example, on the delicate issue of division between Persian and Ashkenazi Jews in his congregation. He has passionately urged both sides to put unity first and engage in communal exchange and friendships. With so many more things in common now between the groups, he believes much progress has been made.

He took heat from some fellow rabbis a few years ago when he wrote a piece in the Journal titled, “Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit.”

He took heat from some fellow rabbis a few years ago when he wrote a piece in the Journal titled, “Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit.”

Responding to a letter from his critics, Wolpe wrote, among other things, that “Politics and campaigns are inherently divisive, and never more than now.” While acknowledging that every rabbi should preach values, the rabbi noted that values are not policies. “This past Shabbat,” he wrote, “I spoke about Judaism and the sin of racism. But policies to combat racism are a more complex matter.”

I’ve never heard him say this, but my hunch is that Wolpe finds politics not just divisive but repetitive and impersonal. He prefers to challenge his flock with more difficult stuff—like becoming better humans. 

To confront the post-COVID phenomenon of Jews preferring to follow services on Zoom rather than show up in person, Wolpe gave an impassioned sermon that would have been relevant in most synagogues. He called on his flock to “stop being observers and start being participants … and be a community again like we have been for thousands of years.”

He reminded them that a synagogue is not called a Bet Tefilla, a house of prayer, but a Bet Knesset, a house of gathering, and that “without gathering, there is no community.”

“We have arranged the world to maximize our individuality and minimize our community, and we know…that the single most important thing in terms of your mental health are relationships.”

In the wake of the loneliness and mental health crisis that has spread throughout the country, in a recent sermon he doubled down on the value of nurturing communal relationships: “We have arranged the world to maximize our individuality and minimize our community, and we know…that the single most important thing in terms of your mental health are relationships.”

His words brought to mind a recent essay in The New York Times by Brad Stulberg, which cited redwood trees. These trees may stretch some 200 feet into the air, but they run only six to 12 feet deep. “Instead of growing down,” Stulberg wrote, “they grow out, extending dozens of feet to each side, enmeshing themselves with the roots of their neighbors. This is why we never see a lone redwood: They can survive only in a grove, bound together in obligation.”

This is an apt description of Wolpe’s ideal for a community—bound together in obligation. If you’re getting too comfortable in your living room on Saturday mornings watching services on Zoom, the rabbi will challenge you to leave your comfort zone and show up for your community—because they need you and you need them. 

Wolpe’s penchant for dealing with how we treat one another is rooted in the one thing he says he hates the most.

“I’ve always had a deep, visceral hatred of unkindness,” he says.

I recall a comment he made to me years ago at a shiva while someone was speaking about the departed. He noticed a man whose head was buried in a book, oblivious to the speaker, and he told me how much that bothered him. He must have seen it as a sign of unkindness, however subtle and indirect.

This sensitivity to unkindness may also connect to why he keeps politics out of the pulpit. It’s easy to complain about Trump and Bibi and Biden and Newsom and others at a Shabbat table, but a lot harder to work on improving our relationships.

It’s no surprise, then, that one of his fondest memories of his years at Sinai, in addition to the Friday Night Live events he ran for many years with Craig Taubman, was hosting the Dalai Lama, who famously once said, “My religion is kindness.” As Wolpe recalls, “Basically his message was, be better Jews. He was like, I don’t want you to be Buddhist. I want you to be better.”

The notion of “being better” has fueled Wolpe’s drive in anything he’s touched. In one of his final sermons, he weighed in on the fool’s gold of material riches.

“If you know your self-worth, if you really know it, then you know it isn’t measured in dollars,” he said. “The sages of our tradition never thought that being poor was being worthless or being rich was being worthy but I have had members of the community in my office crying because they couldn’t afford a big bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah for their children or a big wedding and they thought their children would be devastated and they felt ashamed and these are kind people, smart people, good people but they have bought into this idea that your self-worth is to the right of a dollar sign.”

He added: “They’re terrified at how they will be seen by other people in the community if they don’t have the right venue or the right food or the right flowers. Now I have nothing against Jews doing well. I actually want Jews to do very well because wealth in this world is power and Jews in a dangerous world need power.

“But the poets and teachers and sages and rabbis that I have quoted to you from this bima for the last quarter century, almost none of them was rich. It didn’t make them less worthy. It didn’t matter. So my first reminder to you is simply this. Don’t be deceived and don’t be led astray. Being worth less is not being worthless.”

In trying to better understand Wolpe’s affinity for weighing in on delicate subjects, I asked him where he thinks it comes from. He credits his late father, also a rabbi: “I learned from my father the blessing of being even-keeled,” he said. “A sense that everything will be fine.”

His two battles with life-threatening illnesses have surely contributed to his positive disposition. This perspective has enabled him to deal with crises without engendering fear and alarmism. “This is a problem, we must do better, but it’s not the end of the world” is how I would characterize the Wolpe way.

We saw this in recent months when Wolpe weighed in on the situation in Israel. One week, he gave a sermon that had nothing to do with politics. He reminded his community that they’ll never see on the evening news what has made Israel such a miraculous accomplishment: the arts, the music, the food, the multicultural rainbow, the innovation, the vibrancy, the people.

A few weeks later, however, he made an exception to his “no politics” rule and gave a hard-nosed address on the potential dangers of the judicial reforms as they were initially proposed. But instead of leaving it there, once again he challenged his flock to get into the weeds and study the issue before getting into arguments.

Helping the Jewish community argue with more dignity may turn out to be Wolpe’s essential legacy.

Helping the Jewish community argue with more dignity may turn out to be Wolpe’s essential legacy. There’s almost a contradiction between fearlessness and dignity. The fearless are often assumed to be loud and aggressive; the dignified are often assumed to be polite and reticent. Wolpe has managed to marry both. He will confront raging storms and say the most difficult things without losing either his cool or his decency.

He will confront raging storms and say the most difficult things without losing either his cool or his decency.

While his focus for the past 26 years has been his beloved Sinai Temple, the digital revolution has helped his wisdom spread far and wide. All his sermons are available online. He has been writing for years a brief weekly gem, many of which are collected in a book titled, “Floating Takes Faith.” He’ll even share the occasional thought-provoking and inspirational insight on Twitter.

There’s rarely been a time in his adult life when he hasn’t been working on a book. One of his early books, “Why Be Jewish?” has become a classic introduction to the Jewish faith. Among others, he has written books about grieving, faith, the power of speech and silence, and the flawed and complex King David.

Perhaps his most poignant example of fearlessness is how he has written and spoken about God, at a time when the very idea of a Creator can engender not just skepticism but apathy. For Jewish leaders who prefer to focus on more easily relevant missions like repairing the world and Jewish peoplehood, discussion of God is generally seen as a needless complication.

Wolpe welcomes that complication. Going against the grain, he has put God at the heart of his books and sermons. Reviewing his “Healer of Shattered Hearts: A Jewish View of God,” Publishers Weekly called it “A profound, often lyrical rethinking of Jewish faith…wrestling with the problem of widespread evil and suffering . . . Wolpe concludes that belief in God is an existential choice.” 

Part of Wolpe’s fearlessness is that he admits his weaknesses. “I’m not always a socially attuned person,” he says. “I live in my head and I live in books. There are times when I didn’t respond to someone the way they wanted or needed, and I regret that, too, even though that’s just me.”

As he said that, an anecdote occurred to him.

“It’s funny. It happened this morning,” he said. “There’s an old woman with her caretaker who sometimes comes and sits on the stone steps, and I was coming back from minyan and she said something to me and I said, you know, thank you and whatever, whatever.

“After I walked halfway up the path I realized I had completely neglected her caretaker, as if she didn’t exist. So I walked back down and I thanked her caretaker for taking such good care of her. But another person wouldn’t have neglected the caretaker in the first place. They would have seen that there were two people there.”

One reason Wolpe feels so optimistic about the future of Sinai Temple is that his successors, the married couple Rabbis Nicole Guzik and Erez Sherman, have built a reputation at Sinai for their community work.

One reason Wolpe feels so optimistic about the future of Sinai Temple is that his successors, the married couple Rabbis Nicole Guzik and Erez Sherman, have built a reputation at Sinai for their community work.

“Their focus is community building, and they’re better at that than I am,” Wolpe says. “I think it’s going to be a tremendous thing for the synagogue to have that as the core, you know, of their rabbinate.”

As he prepares for his next chapter, Wolpe will be in high demand. He will teach at Harvard Divinity School for a year, and has already accepted a rabbinic fellowship position with the Anti-Defamation League and a senior advisor role with Maimonides Fund. He also has taken on the role of Jewish Future Pledge’s 18,000th “Chai Pledge Ambassador,” where people commit to donate at least 50% of their charitable giving to support the Jewish people and/or the State of Israel. 

In the meantime, he will be honored at a gala dinner at Sinai Temple on June 4, along with former Executive Director Howard Lesner.

Given his continued immersion with Jewish issues, I asked the rabbi what he felt was most missing in the Jewish world today. He said, simply, that he wished “there was more mainstream Jewish wisdom in the public sphere.”

I don’t know if it was intended or not, but I can’t think of anyone better suited to inject more mainstream Jewish wisdom in the public sphere than the man I was speaking to.

Especially when that man is a fearless rabbi who embraces difficult subjects and loves to say yes.

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