To be or not to be political: That is the question for rabbis

September 20, 2017

Rabbi David Baron of Temple of the Arts learned the hard way the lesson of discussing politics on the High Holy Days.

Years ago, before the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Baron invited Larry Greenfield, a future California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and David Sadkin, senior counsel to Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, to participate in a community discussion on Yom Kippur afternoon about why they supported their respective party’s candidate.

The result, Baron recalled in a phone interview, was disastrous.

The speakers, he said, “were gentlemen, but their supporters were yelling epithets. It was totally contrarian to the spirit of Yom Kippur. The fangs were out. I said I would never do anything like this again.”

This year, as the Jewish community is consumed with events unfolding in the U.S. and beyond, rabbis are considering how to acknowledge those events during a sacred holiday period otherwise focused on personal introspection and renewal.

There is no rabbinical consensus on this topic — for the High Holy Days or any other time of the Jewish year — as evidenced by a debate over politics on the pulpit that unfolded in the Journal this summer after Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe wrote an essay denouncing how “the litmus test for religious legitimacy has become political opinion.” A colleague, Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom, disputed Wolpe’s view, saying it is incumbent on clergy to provide guidance on the “urgent issues our communities, our nation, Israel and the world face today.”

These same choices face rabbis as the Jewish year 5778 approaches and the churn of disruptive events continues to occupy daily thoughts and conversations.

Stephen Wise Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback told the Journal that while he does not want to preach politics from the bimah, he will strive to follow the advice from his temple’s founder, Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, in delivering High Holy Days sermons that are timeless and timely.

One of several rabbis who said he will acknowledge the challenging times while refraining from expressing a political viewpoint, Zweiback said he intends to discuss how Judaism — specifically, engagement with the religion, its traditions and values — helps make a person better equipped to handle what’s happening in the world.

“I will touch on what Judaism and what the Jewish community teaches us about how we can disagree but still be in community with each other; how Judaism teaches us about compassion for the other at a time when we see Klansmen protesting in the streets and Dreamers wondering what their status will be in the next few months,” he said in a phone interview. “In that sense, it can be timely without being partisan.”

Taking an alternative approach, Rabbi Sarah Bassin of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills plans to address politics and call her synagogue to action. Her Rosh Hashanah sermon, “Un-Fracturing,” conveys how stunned she felt this year as anti-Semitism spiked; when an LGBT rally in Chicago kicked out three women for carrying gay pride flags with Stars of David on them; when death threats targeted Jewish journalists in unprecedented numbers; and when Nazis marched in Charlottesville chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”

Though it is in the DNA of the Jewish people to worry for the future, Bassin will preach that the way to counter darkness is with light.

“It’s not preaching politics, but it is very much about how do I engage in the public sphere right now,” she said. “I have had a couple of congregants across the political spectrum review it just to get their thoughts and input, both from the left and the right, and I’ve made a few tweaks. I want people across the spectrum to be able to hear it. It’s not my intention to offend or be off-putting, but to give people a positive message.”

Her sermon draws on a theme selected by Temple Emanuel synagogue clergy that will tie together all of their sermons. This year, the theme is from Pirkei Avot, or “Ethics of the Fathers,” teaching that “In a place where nobody is acting human, strive to be more human.”

Temple Emanuel Senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, for his part, will not be going into politics.

“I kind of feel the synagogue is a place to get away from that,” he said, adding that he supports Bassin’s decision to address controversial issues.

“I believe she has the right to speak about what she wants to speak about,” he said.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard of the Conservative synagogue Adat Ari El in Valley Village said his sermon will draw inspiration from an August New Yorker article headlined “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?” He plans to talk about the polarization in the country, which he described as a “low-level civil war, with occasional bursts of violence,” and “what I think religious people, and therefore Jews, can do to address that situation.”

The rabbi doesn’t want his politics to turn off people, but he feels the need to be true to his convictions.

“There is a responsibility on the part of clergy to be thoughtful about what they are speaking about while also taking stands and putting themselves out there and sharing a point of view and not just being totally pareve,” he said, referring to food that can be eaten with meat or dairy dishes in accordance with kosher laws.

Like Bassin, Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood said she will discuss what is going on in the world in a way she feels is apolitical.

“I will address a bit of what happened in Charlottesville on erev Rosh Hashanah because I think it is on everyone’s mind, but it is not the main focus. It is: What do we have to do Jewishly at this season and within ourselves to overcome the hatred and the bigotry and the racism that’s become so openly present,” she said. “That’s not a political message.”

Senior Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood plans to deliver a Kol Nidre sermon he described as “political, but in a very high-minded sense.” He said he plans to focus on how Western liberalism — not liberalism in the political sense — appeals to the impulses of the Jewish people.

“I try to give people faith and hope and renewal about what is important to us as Americans,” he said.

His colleague, Rabbi Jocee Hudson, will address issues of racial justice and intersectionality — the concept that people of different minority groups have a shared struggle. Speaking to concerns of activists of the millennial generation, she, like Bassin, plans to call on the community to become involved, “to engage in justice work, and to do it as members of an organized Jewish community, not just as individuals who happen to be Jewish.”

Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Steven Leder’s approach falls closely in line with Wolpe’s and Zweiback’s. His goal in delivering a sermon, he said, is to provide a timeless and timely message, but being timely doesn’t have to mean a discussion of current events. He believes his congregants want something more.

“My general approach to preaching, and in particular on the High Holy Days, is to create insights for people to transcend the news of the day that are both deeper and more transcendent, because the news of the day on any given day fits into a much broader picture,” he said.

On Rosh Hashanah, Leder said, he will examine the art of letting go, going beyond what he called “the kabuki of change” — earnestly compiling, but not acting upon, intentions to do better in the new year — to actually work at achieving personal and societal transformation. On Yom Kippur, drawing on what he has experienced in his 57 years of living and his 30 years serving Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Leder plans to talk about death — a central theme of the day.

He will offer 10 lessons he has learned over the past three decades, a time during which he has seen approximately 700 corpses. What could be morbid, he explained, will be a plea to live life to the fullest.

“The rabbi does not write your eulogy after you die,” he will say in the sermon. “You write it with the pen of your life.”

The sermon will touch on larger themes, he said, and won’t mention Charlottesville, hurricanes or DACA.

“You’re dealing with something that transcends the headlines,” Leder said. “Not that the headlines are absent, but they ought to be illustrations for something more important on the holidays.”

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of the Orthodox, young adults-oriented synagogue Pico Shul, said he plans to leave politics out of the discussion when he delivers sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“I am working hard on increasing people’s sensitivity to others and inspiring people to deepen and maximize their Jewish experience,” he said. “That is my goal.”

Rabbi Elazar Muskin, senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City and president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox membership organization, has had a policy for more than 35 years of separating politics from the pulpit. This year, he said, he will discuss faith in God and the importance of family, topics he insisted are relevant and appropriate for the bimah.

“In my experiences, every rabbi who speaks about politics ends up in trouble because he will alienate his congregation and he isn’t doing what he is supposed to do,” he said. “A rabbi is supposed to teach you.”

Baron, of Temple of the Arts, said he will talk about the hurricanes in Texas and Florida and the fires in California, despite his weariness of politics during the Holy Days.

“I wasn’t going to talk about hurricanes and the impact on our lives, but the words [from the High Holy Day poem, ‘Unetanah Tokef’] never rang more true: ‘Who by fire and who by flood,’ ” he said. “The Western part of the country is burning up, and the East Coast is flooding out. Human frailty to violence in nature is something I think we talk about on the chaggim [holidays]. It’s one of the central prayers.”

Still, he considers expressing political opinion to be unwise.

“It’s a minefield, because I guess the level of discourse has so degenerated,” Baron said. “It’s something we get too much of all year long. The holiday needs to be an alternative to that. It needs to be an alternative universe to the one we inhabit.

“This is about our inner journey. The trial-and-error of politics is not worth getting into, unless it is something that is so core, so vital to the survival of our Judaism, of American Judaism in general.”

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