September 19, 2019

Rabbis should aim higher than politics

We’ve all become obsessed with politics. Politics now colors every aspect of culture, including our personal lives. It colors how we see friendships, how we judge each other, how we judge ourselves.

So, naturally, it’s tempting for rabbis to follow suit and inject politics into their Shabbat sermons. The problem is that politics also has become ugly and divisive. That ugliness and divisiveness consumes us all week, assaulting our email inboxes and Twitter and Facebook feeds.

When I come to synagogue on Shabbat, do I really need to be reminded of all that ugly and divisive stuff? Or do I need spiritual nourishment to help me rise above it and get to a deeper place?

As much as we can try to make politics holy, the reality is that politics is inherently divisive. That’s because we always will disagree about how best to use the power to govern.

If a rabbi, for example, speaks against illegal immigration because it violates the “Jewish value” of honoring the law of the land, what will he or she have accomplished except trigger a congregational food fight? Liberal congregants are sure to scream about other Jewish values such as “caring for the stranger,” and then the gloves are off.

It’s my Jewish value against your Jewish value.

Keeping politics off the pulpit doesn’t mean shutting off the synagogue from the outside world. Rather, it means filtering that world through a spiritual and unifying lens. When my rabbi spoke after the Bernie Madoff scandal, he unified us with his electrifying talk on Jewish ethics. When Jews were murdered brutally in suicide bombings in Israel, he helped us grieve and talked about defending ourselves with strength but without hatred.

He wasn’t picking sides on political choices.

A rabbi can light up our compassion and our humanity without introducing politics. If the issue is the homeless, for instance, the rabbi can inspire us to open our hearts and not ignore their plight.

As soon as the rabbi starts endorsing a certain proposition against homelessness, however, that’s when it becomes divisive. Why? Because well-meaning people will disagree about how best to address the problem, and some congregants may even be upset that the rabbi did not present “the other side.”

But here’s the good news: A synagogue is not just a place for sermons, it’s also a place for debate. So, during the week, any synagogue can host a lively discussion on any number of controversial issues, including how best to fight homelessness. People can bring their own ideas and argue it out.

That debate is perfectly appropriate for a Tuesday night. But for Shabbat? I don’t think so.

Shabbat is about the sanctity of separation. It’s about tasting eternity. It’s an opportunity to experience our unity with God, with one  another and with humanity. From their pulpits, rabbis ought to help us taste that unity and that eternity. That’s hard to do when the topic is the latest political controversy in Congress.

As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote recently in the Journal, “All we hear all day long is politics. Can we not come to shul for something different, something deeper?” That something deeper also means something more uplifting and unifying.

For the past few years, political controversies have torn our community apart. Families have been divided, friendships have been strained, Shabbat table conversations have been poisoned. If anything, rabbis ought to use their pulpits to help us heal from those wounds.

Rather than remind us of our political divisions, which we experience all week, spiritual leaders ought to challenge us to look for the validity and the humanity in those with whom we sharply disagree. Of course, that can be difficult, but isn’t that when rabbis earn their keep — when they help us do the difficult?

It’s easy to talk about changing the world; it’s a lot harder to talk about changing ourselves. It’s easy to rail against a politician to a congregation that already despises him; it’s a lot harder to inspire that congregation to transcend their contempt for a higher ideal.

Politics will never make us more humble. It can consume us, but it will never unite us. Politics is not there to inspire us to become better parents, better children and better friends. But when I come to hear my rabbi speak on Shabbat, that is precisely what I’m looking for.