Eight years ago, when President Bill Clinton was running for a second term, he sent out letters to L.A. synagogues wishing them a happy Rosh Hashanah with a spiritual message for Yom Kippur.
"I liked what the letter had to say for Yom Kippur, so I read it at the opening to a sermon that I gave," said Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. "At the end of the night one of the members came up and said, ‘Why’d you read a letter from a Democrat? I’m a Republican.’"
"It was all in good spirits," Bouskila said, "But he said, ‘You should read something from a Republican, too.’ I told him I [simply] read a letter from the president of the United States. Then he tells me, what about if I get you a letter from the speaker of the House, who at the time was Newt Gingrich. ‘Would you read that?’ he asked. I said, ‘Maybe in our auxiliary service.’"
In the fall of 2004, the High Holidays are coinciding with a hard-fought U.S. presidential election at home and the beginning of a fifth year of the intifada in Israel. Rabbis writing their holiday sermons will soon be making the inevitable decision about whether to incorporate talk of these events, or not.
What’s at stake is control over the influence that rabbis wield over Los Angeles congregations, and, in a way, what type of control congregations have over their leaders. Rabbis who avoid the subject completely might be seen as irrelevant; but rabbis who push their own views too stridently might risk turning off those who don’t think the same way.
Without exception, all the rabbis who spoke with The Journal noted that they never endorse particular candidates for public office. Besides their personal objections, doing so would endanger a synagogue’s nonprofit status.
But beyond that point, clear differences emerged. "I will not talk about politics per se, I’ll not recommend a political position," said Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, an Orthodox congregation.
"I don’t think that my membership needs to hear a regurgitation of the op-ed page of the Los Angles Times," Muskin said.
Although Muskin has led seven missions to Israel and the West Bank during the intifada, he flatly refuses to define his concern for Israel as a political issue.
"I know some colleagues from the East Coast who took [politically] diametrically opposing positions on Israel, and they both got burned," Muskin said. "A rabbi has a tremendous ability to influence, but he has to choose it wisely, and to be very careful what he says."
Rabbi David Wolpe of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Westwood echoed Muskin’s sentiments.
"My general principle is that being a rabbi gives me no special political insight," he said, "not into Israel and not into America, [so] using the pulpit to announce my political positions is illegitimate."
Both Wolpe and Muskin say that they lead congregations both politically sophisticated and diverse, and that it would be unwise to underestimate congregants who may have better informed ideological stances than their rabbis.
"What I can do is enunciate values and hope that those values will inform other people’s political decisions," said Wolpe, who added that he is pleased that many in his congregation probably don’t know his personal political leanings.
Muskin and Elazar’s stance on politics from the pulpit reflects a similar hesitancy from congregants who lay down clear guidelines about when they would — and would not — like to hear about politics on Friday night.
"Rabbis are entitled to express their opinions freely from the [pulpit], but they should restrict [those] opinions to areas of their expertise and to where it is relevant to clear Judaic principles," said Arthur Jablon, a congregant at Temple Judea, a Reform synagogue based in Tarzana with a campus in West Hills.
That position holds the politically minded rabbi to a significant burden of proof to demonstrate that his discussion relates to Jewish tradition. The variable is how broad one defines what "Jewish tradition" actually is.
Generally speaking, rabbis seem to enjoy more freedom with political issues perceived as having severe or obvious ethical consequences, especially to Jewish communities, such as laws against anti-Semitism or terrorism. Similarly, in those situations, the rabbis are also likely to give themselves more leeway.
"The only time I believe a rabbi has the right to speak on those issues is when he feels there’s injustice on an issue. As far as an ideology, he has no right to talk about [that]," said Ray Mallel, president of the congregation at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, summing up the caveat he imposes.
"I believe a rabbi should try to be as nonpartisan as possible unless there’s an overt right versus wrong that he could speak about," Sephardic Temple’s Bouskila said.
Bouskila pointed to clear warning signs along the path to rabbinical over-politicization visible in Israel "where you find rabbis and spiritual leaders who, rather than seeking to enhance the spiritual life of Judaism, are more concerned with the borders of Israel, and are now once again entering the arena of potentially assassinating the prime minister based on the Gaza pullout."
In domestic politics, Bouskila walks a fine line of political openness and limitations.
"[The congregants] don’t want to come to the synagogue and watch ‘Crossfire,’ but in obvious cases like four years ago where you had [Connecticut Sen. Joseph] Lieberman running, they wanted to know, ‘Is that good for the Jews?’" he said.
This year, Bouskila has composed letters to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry and President Bush, asking to summarize their positions on weapons of mass destruction, the economy, the Middle East and — appropriately — the relationship between religion and the state.
"I plan on using that as the basis for one of my sermons on the High Holidays under the theme, ‘We have choices to make, this is the year of decision,’" said Bouskila, although he also plans to apply the theme of "choices" to congregants’ personal lives.
For those who seek it, however, there are clear alternatives in the Los Angeles Jewish community to the limited view of rabbinical discussion of politics. Arguments for more political openness range from those who desire to see Judaism as a truly universal force in ethics to those who simply want it to remain relevant in world affairs.
"If people’s minds are going to go to contemporary events, and I ignore them in my sermon, it makes my sermon almost irrelevant to the world," Temple Judea’s Rabbi Donald Goor said. "I once had a professor in seminary who taught me that if you don’t address their questions, they won’t hear yours."
But even with those sentiments, Goor takes issue with providing political "guidance," which, in his view, would be inappropriately crossing a subtle political line.
Rabbi Lisa Edwards at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) doesn’t use the word "guidance" either. In her Reform congregation, which is supportive of all sexual orientations, she’s more likely to provide political "validation."
"We do make attempts on Shabbat to keep things not very political, but we’re really up against being relegated to second-class citizenship and we’re facing politicians that have blurred the lines between church and state," Edwards told The Journal. "I will talk quite a bit about that over the holidays."
At BCC, political issues weighing heavily on the congregants’ personal lives, especially same-gender marriage, has eliminated most — although not all — of the political discordance in the congregation.
"I would say ideologically, most of them agree — except around the subject of Israel, [where] they’re all over the map," Edwards said.
It’s wide discordance within the congregation that reminds most rabbis to tread lightly in political matters, lest they offend part of the group. The consensus within BCC allows more highly focused political action.
"It’s not just a [political] opinion that we hold, but actually tasks in front of us that we need to be doing. I’ve already reminding people in my letter that went out with High Holiday ticket information, ‘Are you registered to vote?’" Edwards admitted that was an unusual step, but that this year, it is particularly important to her.
Even in synagogues without BCC’s wide consensus, there are rabbis who consider it essential to take stances on public policy.
"I do take public stands on propositions and other pressing issues where I believe Jewish tradition has something to say," said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who will be speaking at a congregation over the High Holidays.
He pointed to his public stands on more stringent gun control legislation and his work to improve the lives of Jewish prison inmates and others who need help.
For Diamond, the justification for that sort of political action is clear: "I think God judges us by what we do for the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised in our society. This is very much in my mind as we approach the High Holidays."
Taking political action during this year of election and war, however, need not be antithetical to appreciating political disagreements.
"Now more than ever it is incumbent upon rabbis to speak out, and it is also equally incumbent on rabbis to recognize that the political landscape of American Jewry is changing," Diamond said of the increasing political conservatism among Jews.
"The contrarian culture of having different [political] perspectives is very Jewish and I’m very comfortable with that," said Janice Kamenir-Reznik, a congregant at Conservative Valley Beth Shalom, who is also an ardent supporter of rabbis speaking politically, regardless of whether she agrees with them.
"I think that if their [political] point of view is based on their ethical perspective, then speaking, for example, on homosexuality or workers’ rights or war is the very definition of their job. I totally disagree with those critics who have said that rabbis are only informed on halachic issues," she added, referring to Jewish law.
She, along with several other congregants and rabbis, referenced the current situation in the Sudan as an example where a broad perspective on what is a "Jewish issue" politically is needed to direct more attention to help those in need. They defined Darfur as a political issue begging for Jewish attention.
In fact, for some who advocate broader rabbinical attention to political matters, the very connotation of the word ‘political’ is different.
"I have no problem interchanging the word ethical and political," said Mark Novak, a member of Temple Judea.
"I think it’s always appropriate [for a rabbi to discuss politics], because every political issue has an ethical aspect, whether it’s our taxation system, capital punishment, a woman’s right to choose or what we do about the environment as it relates to health," Novak said.
But there is always the chance, given that sort of discussion, that some in the congregation will go astray. When Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Harold Schulweis fought for gay inclusion at the synagogue about 11 years ago, he and disagreeing congregants sat in a committee on the issue for nine months. Some threatened to leave. But Schulweis held his ground.
"I don’t think he really cared whether the congregation was or was not going to rally behind him," Kamenir-Reznik said. "I think he did because he thought it was the right thing to do."
"It’s a deeper question than politics," Schulweis said. "I talk about the need in an age of globalization for Judaism to respond, to be aware of the fact that there is an agenda out there much larger than just the Jewish people."
Schulweis said he believes Judaism must take its place as a religion of the world, consulted widely for moral guidance.
"[When] genocide happens, people have always said ‘Where’s the church, where’s the pope?’ I don’t hear anybody asking ‘Where’s the synagogue, where’s the rabbi?’" Schulweis said.
He plans to raise precisely these concerns during the High Holidays. Schulweis said he will propose creation of a Jewish World Watch to his congregation, bringing statespeople, politicians and academicians to the synagogue because, in his words, "provinciality is counter to my understanding of Judaism."
Schulweis said rabbis supporting specific candidates plays into exactly the sort of narrowness he tries to avoid.
"What I have in mind is something grander, the elevation of the synagogue as what it was I think meant to be," Schulweis said. "Giving the world conscience."