November 17, 2018

Rabbis’ High Holy Days sermons to emphasize spirituality, not politics

Over the last several weeks, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation have been gathering signatures from rabbis across the country opposed to the Iran nuclear agreement. So far, more than 1,200 have signed on. 

Bookstein has blogged about the deal, filled his Facebook followers’ news feeds with critiques and even hosted Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a fierce opponent of the agreement, at his synagogue to discuss it with his youthful congregation during a recent Shabbat service. 

When the High Holy Days arrive, however, the Orthodox rabbi said he will take a break from talking about the topic that has dominated conversations throughout the Jewish community. Instead, he plans to return to his principle of not mixing politics with preaching, discussing instead the broader issue of engaging in spiritual activism.

Bookstein said he will  address “the mandate to make the world a better place, help our fellow who is in need and stand up for the Jewish people — as opposed to just focusing on the current Iran situation.”

Rabbis across all denominations and political leanings have been wrestling with the question of whether — and how — to speak about the Iran nuclear deal as they prepare their High Holy Days sermons this year. The debate over the agreement, which was announced in July, has monopolized conversation in the Jewish world. As the Sept. 17 congressional deadline to vote draws close, rabbis who strongly oppose the agreement, and those strongly for it, have not been shy about making their opinions known. They have participated in rallies, lent their names to petitions and advertisements, held lectures and debates in their synagogues and sermonized on the deal from the pulpit.

Judging from interviews with numerous area rabbis, local clergy will be responding to the issue in a multiplicity of ways during the High Holy Days.

At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the leadership sent a mass email to congregants, letting them know that upcoming services will be an Iran-free zone, in an effort to avoid acrimony during this season of repentance and awe. “Looking forward to the High Holy Days, we know that this issue will still be looming large; yet, you will not be hearing about this issue from your clergy team on the bima,” it stated.

Senior Rabbi Laura Geller, who said she supports the deal, said the letter to her congregants was a way to set expectations for people in her community before they come to synagogue.

“The High Holy Days [are] a time for us to focus on our own spiritual work and yet to connect ourselves to the larger Jewish community,” she told the Journal. “It is not the time to take a stand about an issue like this that might be divisive. That’s not what the High Holy Days are for. The conversation needs to take place, but to take place in a multiplicity of voices. In a High Holy Days sermon, there is no multiplicity of voices.” 

By contrast, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad West Coast, said he has no choice but to speak about the topic directly from the bimah. An opponent of the agreement, he plans to bring up Iran during the High Holy Days when he leads services at Chabad West Coast headquarters in Westwood. 

“It’s not politics, it’s [about] the life of our people,” Cunin said.

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, Senior Rabbi John Rosove, who has expressed support of the deal in these pages and elsewhere, plans to reiterate that support only briefly in a sermon he will deliver on Rosh Hashanah morning titled “Fighting for the Soul of the Jewish People.”

 “I’m not arguing the Iran deal; that’s not what my sermon is about. I am arguing the larger issue of the state of the Jewish community vis-à-vis the State of Israel and what we’re doing as a people, what the state of our people is vis-à-vis each other,” he said. 

Whether they feel the Iran deal represents an existential threat to Israel or the best agreement available, many rabbis are opting not to speak about it. Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah said doing so would only take away from the purpose of the occasion.

 “The main thing I talk about is moral and spiritual well-being, how to live well with others, how to solve struggles, spiritual wholeness,” said Finley, who opposes the deal. “If I start advocating positions, if I start saying positions, I alienate people who need to hear other things I want to say.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, one of the synagogues that has sponsored discussions about the Iran deal, said his sermon will express his dismay over the lack of respectful discourse in the community in the wake of the uproar over the agreement.

“What I am going to talk about on the holiday is how Jews argue,” said Feinstein, who has not taken a position on the deal. “What disturbs me the most about it is how divided and vicious this conversation has become, and I think the community has forgotten its core values — why community matters, why solidarity matters, and why you don’t sacrifice Jewish community solidarity and respect no matter how serious the issues we’re debating. That’s what I want to address.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous of the egalitarian spiritual community IKAR supports the deal, but she, like many other rabbis, will focus more on the community’s response to the proposed agreement. 

“I would be shocked if we don’t hear a lot of people in the community talking about growing divisiveness in the community and how dangerous that is,” Brous said.

Conservative Sinai Temple will hold breakout conversations on Yom Kippur, at one of which Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, will talk about how we disagree with one another, especially how we can do so without character assassination. Artson, who is leading services during the High Holy Days in Sinai Temple’s Barad Hall, said he is deeply concerned about the problem of discourse.

“As in a marriage, the important thing isn’t if you fight or not, but if you speak to each other during the fight in a way that makes it possible to hold each other after the fight is over,” he said. “I would like Jews to speak to each other in a way that they could embrace after the fight is over.”

Artson also said that it is difficult to imagine a political sermon about Iran having any of the “rabbinic value” that is essential for any High Holy Days sermon. 

“I have strong personal opinions, but there is nothing of rabbinic value in those, so what I try to do is mobilize Torah wisdom,” he said. “If there are things people can say that enhance people’s lives or help them develop questions for things they need to develop opinions about, I would focus on those.” 

Others concerned about the divide in the community — as evidenced, for example, by the backlash to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ July 21 statement of opposition to the deal, encouraging all in the community to lobby Congress against it — include Congregation Kol Ami’s Rabbi Denise Eger. She plans to lead a prayer of unity on Kol Nidre. 

“Mostly, we will be saying we have permission to pray together with those who support and those who oppose and to try to create one community. That is the only reference I will make to [Iran] during the holidays. It will not be in a sermon. It will be in a prayerful meditation at the beginning of worship on Kol Nidre,” said Eger, who, as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the largest organization of Reform rabbis in North America, signed a letter that declined to take a position on the agreement. 

Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback said he will give a nod to people’s passion about the deal without offering his own opinions. (The Reform temple’s leadership issued a statement on Aug. 19 that declined to take a position.)

 “I think there is a difference between going into the nuts and bolts of the deal and mentioning that moment, and even praying for that moment. Whatever you feel about the deal, whether you are in favor or against or ambivalent, [saying], ‘We join in prayer, with hopes that our elected officials …’ — that kind of conversation — it is referencing the deal and talking about the deal without going into, [for example], the five reasons I am concerned,” Zweiback said. “Because I am going to address it, but not in an ‘I favor’ or ‘I am against, and here is what we should do’ fashion.”

Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said he understands rabbis’ obvious aversion to tackling the difficult topic head-on, but he said he thinks it is possible for a rabbi to deliver a sermon that addresses the issue without demonizing those who may disagree — as long as the rabbi knows the audience.

“I can absolutely see both sides of the argument, and I think rabbis need to know their communities, and they need to understand what their communities can tolerate in terms of discourse and have to really make a thoughtful judgment about that,” he said.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, who spoke at a July 26 “Stop Iran” rally at the Federal Building in West Los Angeles, said he will not deliver a High Holy Days sermon about Iran because he has already made his feelings known in writings and during public appearances. 

“My position is already well known. I have spoken and written about it and … it’s the High Holy Days. It’s not a time, to me at least, for political mobilization [but a time] for people to learn Torah and understand their souls better,” he said. “As important as the issue is, I think both the synagogue, and also I, have done what we need to do, and these are the High Holy Days.”

Still, Wolpe said he is unable to resist discussing broader topics related to the controversial topic.

“Without giving you too much detail,” he said in a recent phone interview, “I am going to talk about the Jewish root of the way we talk about Israel and the debate about Israel. So it has implications for the discussion about Iran, but it’s going to be Torah, not nuclear throw-weight.”

In other words, he continued, “It’s not going to be about reactors. It’s going to be about Torah.”