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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Orthodox rabbis urge “spiritual resistance” against Trump policies

Eitan Arom is a Jewish Journal senior writer, covering a range of local Jewish issues such as civic engagement, culture, Holocaust memory, faith-based activism, politics and people. Before that, he worked as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem, Washington D.C and Los Angeles. He graduated from UCLA with bachelor's degrees in mathematics/economics and communication studies.

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Eitan Arom
Eitan Arom is a Jewish Journal senior writer, covering a range of local Jewish issues such as civic engagement, culture, Holocaust memory, faith-based activism, politics and people. Before that, he worked as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem, Washington D.C and Los Angeles. He graduated from UCLA with bachelor's degrees in mathematics/economics and communication studies.

Twenty-two Modern Orthodox rabbis signed a statement last week urging their communities to commit “non-partisan acts of spiritual resistance” in order to push back against “an administration that poses a grave threat to our democracy.”

“We call upon our community to pursue righteousness and justice vigorously, challenge oppressive and dangerous policies enacted by the current administration, and to ensure that justice rolls down like a river and righteousness like a never-ending stream,” the rabbis wrote in the letter that went online March 3.

Led by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based founder and president of the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek and a leader in the Open Orthodox movement, the signatories belong to a group of some 70 pluralistic, progressive rabbis who came together during the recent presidential campaign, he said.

While American Jews voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton at a rate of about 71 percent according to some estimates, a Pew Research Center poll in September found that 50 percent of Orthodox Jews favored then-candidate Donald Trump.

“Since the election, the Orthodox community has been silent or supportive of the new administration,” Yanklowitz told the Journal on March 5. “We felt it was time that we called upon the Orthodox community at large to join the rest of the Jewish community.”

He pointed to a long tradition of Jewish spiritual resistance, from Moses and the Exodus, to Mordecai and Esther’s struggle with Haman in the Purim story and finally to the Holocaust.

Today, he said, rabbis can demonstrate spiritual resistance through activism — what he called “the normal stuff,” such as boycotts and protests — and as well as through their positions, by incorporating political consciousness into prayer spaces, for example. He noted that he fasted on Inauguration Day as an act of spiritual protest.

Yanklowitz insisted the letter was aimed not at President Donald Trump himself but rather administration policies that might target vulnerable communities.

“This is not an anti-President Trump statement, but we’re resisting any hateful policies emerging from this administration,” he said, pointing to the ban on travel to the United States from certain countries and policies targeting asylum seekers as examples.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director emeritus of Hillel at UCLA and one of the letter’s signatories, said his goal in signing was not to recruit more rabbis to join up but rather to push Orthodoxy to take stock of its values and how they comport with the administration.

“We’re not making a movement; that’s not what I care about,” he said.

Instead, he sees the letter as a challenge to Orthodox communities to evaluate their Torah-bound responsibility to the vulnerable and needy.

“What are we going to be able to say to the next generation of Jews that are looking at us and saying, ‘You taught us that these are the core principles of Judaism, and now you’re silent?’ ” he said.

To critics who say politics has no place in the sanctuary, Yanklowitz said Orthodox congregations often incorporate right-wing Israel politics on a daily and weekly basis. “Far right-wing politics in Orthodoxy have become as dogmatic as some theological positions,” he said.

He hopes that by activating the American Orthodox community, the letter’s signatories can bring a Torah-centered approach to resisting administration policies they see as hostile.

“This community hasn’t stepped up yet, and they should,” he said. “And there may be a unique approach that this community can offer.”

 

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