Jewish Journal


March 27, 2008

When the rabbi talks politics from the pulpit


In 2006, Rabbi Nancy Myers of Westminster's Temple Beth David used her Rosh Hashanah sermon to address the horrors of the Abu Ghraib scandals.

She was about to make a point about acting morally as Jews when a congregant walked down the sanctuary's aisle with his hands crossed in a time-out signal. Myers, new at the time to the Reform synagogue, thought the interruption was because someone had had a heart attack, so she stopped talking.

Instead, the man shouted out, "You have no right to get up there and say those things from the pulpit; you have no right to talk politics!" The rabbi heard some murmurings of approval from the congregation and considered for a moment simply walking out herself, thinking her views were in conflict with her new congregation.

But then another congregant stood and said, "I was finding it interesting what the rabbi was saying, and I want her to finish." This was followed by some applause. So Myers continued where she'd left off, and the angry congregant was escorted outside.

As it turns out, he did not leave for good. "He was angry for about a year, and now he loves coming here," Myers said recently. "He's one of my strongest supporters."

Although Myers said the incident taught her "about being more sensitive to my audience and about the diversity of my membership," she continues to believe rabbis should comment on current events. "I believe it's an important part of the rabbi's job to raise a whole host of different issues," Myers said.

In recent weeks, as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama came under fire for incendiary remarks made by his now-former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, new interest has arisen in how controversial statements made by clergy can play out. Obama, in his speech in response to the outcry, talked about healing racial divides, but he also admitted that he had been aware of remarks harshly critical of America and of whites made by this man who had been his longtime spiritual guide. "Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely," said Obama, who went on to suggest: "Just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed."
So what happens when rabbis make controversial remarks offensive to their constituents? Do people leave, or do they, like Obama initially did, stay on out of loyalty even when they disagree with the comments? How do such situations play out in the Jewish community?

There are, to be sure, many religious positions in Judaism that offend some people, and the reactions depend on the individual.

For example, Liz, a social worker who preferred not to give her last name, attended High Holy Day services with a friend a couple of years ago and was shocked by the rabbi's sermon. "He was talking about all the terrible things going on in the world -- Iraq, global warming, disease -- and then he said, 'You know, a lot of interfaith marriages are happening,'" she said, paraphrasing the Orthodox rabbi, whom she declined to name.

"Did he just connect the Iraqi war and global warming to intermarriage?" she wondered at the time. As the child of an interfaith couple, Liz said, "it was very offensive to me that he would take catastrophic things and connect it to a personal choice." She has not returned to that rabbi's -- or any other -- synagogue since.

When it comes to world politics, too, Jews have many opinions -- and many aren't afraid to voice them. Yet rabbis who take stands on political issues often face objections from congregants who disagree. Indeed, one of the first rabbis in America to make a political statement that offended congregants almost paid with his life.

In 1861, the Reform Rabbi David Einhorn vociferously denounced slavery to his congregation, Har Sinai Congregation of Baltimore, which was a pro-slavery state. A mob threatened to tar and feather him, and he had to flee north.

Yet his call for social justice was historic, according to Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. "He established freedom of the pulpit. Rabbis have the right to preach what they feel is appropriate to their congregation," Diamond said. "But they have to deal with the consequences."

Most rabbis aren't so literally chased by mobs, but there is a modern-day equivalent in the outraged congregation, or in public responses to a rabbi who takes a strong political stance.

That's what happened after Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of the Modern Orthodox B'nai David-Judea congregation in Pico-Robertson, delivered a sermon about the need to consider a divided Jerusalem. He published his remarks as an op-ed in this newspaper, which was followed by a Los Angeles Times article covering the outrage caused by the scandal. In the aftermath, Kanefsky held closed-door meetings with some upset congregants.

Although Kanefsky declined to talk about the specific incident, he said that in general a rabbi has to maintain a precarious balancing act.

"The balance between saying what, as a member of the clergy, you think needs to be said and respecting the diverging opinion of the congregation, is an extraordinary balance to maintain," he said, adding, "I'll be clear it's something that I think, and not some God-given proof."

When to be political is a judgment call, agreed Rabbi Leibel Korf of Chabad of Los Feliz. "If it's necessary to take a stand and make a point about something, I will not hesitate to take a stand," Korf said. But not all the time. "If you're a rabbi trying to do outreach and bring people closer to Yiddishkayt, it's not my responsibility to bring up every single issue or the more unacceptable issues as constant preaching."

But he added, "I say the truth. I believe in my uncompromised opinion rather than what people want to hear," he said. "When we are suffering in Israel, and I truly believe we have a right to be there -- and if people will be offended by it -- I'm not going to change my topic." Korf doesn't believe that people will leave, even if they don't like his opinions on everything. "It's spiritually uplifting, and even if some discussion may be offensive, they realize Judaism has much more to offer, [and thus don't] abandon it."

Many rabbis believe that more important than a specific position of a rabbi -- or a congregant -- is the need for civil debate. "Whenever we had an issue to discuss, I would tell people where I stood, so if I was revealing a bias, people could call me on it. I never said it was the only position or the right position," said Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah Congregation, a nondenominational synagogue in Los Angeles. "I would guide people on how to conduct proper Jewish moral debate," he said, noting that the Talmud is noted for its discourse. "I try to lower the temperature of the political debate; I am very careful not to preach a position," Finley said. "When it comes to Israel, I am open about my advocacy of a Jewish state."

When it comes to Israel, most rabbis have an opinion, but whether it is on the political left or right, they believe they are "supportive" of Israel.

"There are some people who just don't like the idea that their rabbi doesn't have the politics they have, and they have the right to go to a synagogue where the rabbi's politics are the same," Finley said. "The main thing I hear is great appreciation of presenting information in a balanced way."

In Israel, too, rabbis engage in political debate. After Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1996, national-religious rabbis came under fire -- and even under criminal investigation -- for incendiary remarks that may have led to the climate of the assassination. Indeed, the Israeli film, "Time of Favor" (2000) -- the first by director Joseph Cedar, whose "Beaufort" was nominated this year for a foreign film Oscar -- was about two students who take their rabbi's fiery sermons too seriously and attempt to blow up the Temple Mount.

But Israel does not make America's separation between church (synagogue) and state. And in America, rabbis are not allowed to endorse a candidate without losing their synagogue's status as a non-profit. "We always remind people at this time of year [election time] it is absolutely inappropriate for a rabbi or priest or minister to openly endorse a candidate," Rabbi Diamond said.

So some rabbis choose to avoid politics, but without losing the ability to provoke.

"I always feel like religious ideas are fair game," said Sinai Temple's Rabbi David Wolpe, who offended a number of people in 2001 with a Passover sermon that cast doubt on whether the Exodus really happened.

"My intention was not to offend," Wolpe recalled seven years later, as he was about to prepare this year's Passover sermon. "I knew that some people would disagree," he said, "but I was surprised by the enormity of the reaction, particularly because this was nothing new." His position, he said, is a well-known position of the Conservative movement, yet some of his congregants were "surprised or hurt," he said, though nobody left the congregation, Wolpe believes.

"Over time we've come to understand each other," he said. "I don't regret the episode,"

Politics, on the other hand, "is not fair game," Wolpe believes. When discussing Israel, which he supports unequivocally, Wolpe makes a point of bringing in speakers from all sides of the spectrum. "I don't think rabbis should [advocate politics] in general," he said. "And when I make a political pronouncement with the authority of the rabbi, I'm misusing my authority for political reasons."

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