April 4, 2012
Politics on the Bimah
“Keep the politics off the bimah.” We hear this in the synagogue whenever a rabbi speaks on a topic nearing the intersection of Jewish values and public policy. While argued most vociferously by those who disagree with the rabbi’s message, the critique itself that “politics has no place on the bimah” is a decidedly false characterization of the essence of Judaism and Jewish textual tradition. (Note: I am not speaking about endorsing a candidate for public office.)
Judaism speaks to every issue
From our earliest incarnation as the faith of Abraham, our tradition has spoken truth to power. Who can forget Abraham preaching at God when the Holy One seemed to want to act wholly unjustly toward Sodom and Gomorrah? Later, as we became the Children of Israel, we accepted a legal tradition that set ethical standards for every aspect of our lives. Jewish tradition could not contemplate a separation between the personal and the public.
So when critics — Jews and non-Jews alike — argue that rabbis should be silent on matters of public policy, they are defying the essence of religion from the time of Moses and before. When complainers cry “politics” every time the rabbi speaks out against the status quo, they forget that we Jews have always been the agents for ethical living.
Moses, the ethical agitator
Who was Moses? Rambam characterized him as a rationalist religious thinker. Chasidic rebbes saw him as the ultimate tzadik (righteous person). There are those in every age who want to remake Moses in their image. But to reduce Moses’ influence to intellectuality or spirituality is to do revisionist history. Moses wasn’t content merely ministering to the broken souls of his people; he spoke out for a community oppressed. Moses wasn’t just a pastoral leader; he was an agitator, working for the freedom of his people.
So let’s stop trying to cleanse from Moses’ story — our story — the very essence of his leadership. Moses was a kind of visionary prophet. Like the prophet Nathan, who called King David on his unethical behavior, and Queen Esther, who went toe-to-toe with Haman, Moses saw reason for hope, and with deep faith spoke out against injustice.
This Passover, be Moses
It is no accident that the Exodus features prominently in all movements for freedom and equality, from the anti-apartheid movement to the anti-slavery movement, from women’s suffrage to the American civil rights movement, to freedom for Soviet Jewry. The Exodus narrative, while profoundly spiritual and dripping with mystical insights, is at its root the story of injustice confronted.
Of course, to tell the story is to reimagine ourselves simultaneously as slaves moving toward freedom and also as Moses leading them there. Passover declares that inequities and injustices must be confronted and corrected.
Hear the call of the seder
Hearing this call is often uncomfortable. But Passover is not about feeling good; it is about being ethical. Not about consuming good food, but feeding our hunger for righteousness. Pesach calls us to critique our world, our country, our homeland and our community. It pushes us to imagine a better way. It goads us to remake the world as it could be, as it should be.
So make your Passover meaningful. Hear the call to justice. And demand our leaders help bring it to fruition.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. He is co-editor of a CCAR Journal issue on “New Visions of Jewish Community.” He blogs regularly at rabbipaul.blogspot.com and Tweets @RabbiKip.