November 20, 2018

Rabbis debate how to address the election

It’s hard to deny that this year’s High Holy Days take place in the midst of a presidential election campaign that is more heated and divisive than any in recent history.

“In the last election, there were two very credible candidates both speaking a similar language. They [may] have [had] different viewpoints about what government responsibility is, a legitimate conversation, [but] in [the] previous election no one said, ‘Let’s take an entire religious group and exclude them from the country,’ said Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein. “We haven’t [had] … someone say something like that since 1860.” 

So what’s a rabbi to do — and say — as congregation members on different sides of the political aisle show up en masse for the best-attended services of the year just over a month before the Nov. 8 general election?

Feinstein said he plans to deliver a sermon during the High Holy Days that reads like an open letter to the presidential candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“I’m going to talk about the day after. I want to talk to both candidates about what they’re facing, the country we have to govern, the divisions — a deeply, deeply divided society — and I want to talk about a general sense of culture that I sense, [of] people who believe their world is out of control,” said Feinstein, who leads a Conservative congregation in Encino. 

His personal displeasure with Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims notwithstanding, Feinstein does not plan to speak in opposition to him from the bimah — or in support of Clinton, for that matter. Politics are best discussed in conversation, he said.

“The pulpit is a monologue. The pulpit is the worst place to do politics.”

Colleagues like Rabbi Daniel Stein of Congregation B’nai Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Walnut Creek, Calif., agree. Stein recently authored the blog titled “3 Reasons Rabbis Should Not Endorse Candidates,” in the Times of Israel. 

“We can talk about a lot of the issues of the general election without having to talk about the particular candidates,” Stein told the Journal in a phone interview. 

Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah, located in Mar Vista, said he would consider discussing what he calls “political spiritual    ity,” or “how to maintain a spiritual presence when discussing political issues.” The leader of the transdenominational congregation emphasized listening over preaching to one another. 

“I’ve learned a tremendous amount by patiently listening to another person explaining their point of view and them questioning me to learn my point of view,” Finley said. “Engaging in the way of thinking of a person who thinks differently from me is the true meaning of diversity.” 

Orthodox Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of the Pico-Robertson congregation, Pico Shul, said he would be discussing the need for unity among those who disagree about the two candidates. 

“People that come to Pico Shul are very diverse in their political and religious beliefs, and I will use the High Holidays to focus on unity, our common destiny,” Bookstein said in an email to the Journal. 

Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback said the “coarse nature” of this year’s election inspired his sermon topic, although he will not be expressing a particular position. 

“I will be speaking about how our Jewish tradition can help us to speak to one another in a more empathetic manner,” Zweiback wrote in an email. 

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood said he plans to stay away from politics altogether on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “because anything you say is polarizing and unhelpful, because it is impossible to make a comment about the election [that people] won’t object to vociferously and because to continue the debate that exists everywhere else in society is to lose the chance to start an argument inside people that is the unique property of the High Holy Days,” he said.

Rabbinic students will also be delivering sermons over the holidays, but the rabbinic studies director at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles said she would encourage them to stay away from politics.

“There are many ways to challenge a congregation, and this isn’t the avenue I would recommend to a student on the holiest days of the year,” Rabbi Dvora Weisberg said.

Still, if Weisberg — who is not delivering a sermon to a congregation during these High Holy Days — wanted to connect the Days of Awe to the election, an appropriate sermon topic could be reconciliation, she said. 

“I would use the idea of teshuvah as ‘turning toward’ or ‘returning to’ to acknowledge the deep divisions in our country (racial, political, economic …) and focus on the need for us to listen to people with whom we disagree and, more importantly to hear the pain and fear of others,” she wrote in an email. “I think this could fit nicely into the themes of the High Holy Days and be an appropriate response to the tenor of the campaign we are experiencing.” 

Even if rabbis did want to express support of a particular candidate, they wouldn’t be able to. Leaders of synagogues are forbidden from endorsing a candidate from the pulpit, according to the IRS website. It states, “churches, as tax-exempt organizations, are not [to] participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” 

Feinstein said a better place for political discussion is at community events. VBS has been holding forums related to the 2016 election throughout August and September, and the events will continue into October and November. The final event, “Beyond the Year of the Angry Voter,” will take place Nov. 2. 

“Off the pulpit, in an environment where we can have civil and deep conversations about the future of the country and culture, I think it’s important for rabbis to engage in these conversations,” Feinstein said.

Feinstein acknowledged that he has wrestled with how much or how little to refer to the election in his sermon.

“People want to know what we think about the election, but no one is quite sure how to say it,” he said. “I think there is a general sense this is a different kind of election than we’ve ever experienced in many ways and it’s shocking, disturbing and overwhelming.

“On the one hand, the impulse is not to bring politics to the pulpit — it doesn’t belong there because people are sick of it — and on the other hand, everyone wants to know what their rabbi thinks. So, no one is quite sure how to handle this.”