As election season nears, the Reform movement is helping its rabbis navigate the fraught landscape of politics and the pulpit.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis published a special issue of its quarterly journal with 13 essays delving into the moral, practical and historical implications of rabbis and congregations taking on political issues.
An Oct. 7 panel at Leo Baeck Temple will open the topic to the public.
“There seems to be a growing sense that anything labeled as political is somehow not appropriate for discussion in synagogues,” said Rabbi Richard Levy, who served as guest editor for the journal.
The essays offer nuanced perspectives on the complex topic, but, with only a few exceptions, most authors seem to agree that rabbis have an obligation to discuss the social and moral issues of the day — in other words, politics.
“ ‘Political’ is that which deals with the ‘polis’ — the social community,” said Levy, rabbi of the campus synagogue and director of spiritual growth at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “Therefore, when there are moral or sometimes religions issues that the community is dealing with, its members and especially its leaders — for the synagogue, that means the rabbi — have to address those issues, and to address them out of the tradition.”
While most Reform rabbis and congregants tend to be politically liberal, Levy said issues such as health care or immigration reform can be addressed in a nonpartisan way by bringing in all sides of a debate, and couching all discussion in Jewish tradition.
But Rabbi Clifford Librach, rabbi of the United Jewish Center in Danbury, Conn., challenges the movement to make room for those who dissent from Reform’s liberal hardline.
As a dissenter, he wrote, “I have found that the Reform landscape, ironically itself born of ideological dissent, to have been breathtakingly intolerant.”
The difference between partisan and political is key, wrote Rabbi Marla Feldman, interim director of development for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). While she may advocate for certain positions, she wrote, she chose not to join Rabbis for Obama.
“Once we are publicly associated with a particular political party or candidate, we cannot expect those in the pews to simply disregard that information when they listen to us preach,” she wrote.
The founding of Rabbis for Obama was the impetus for the journal. Rabbi Susan Laemmle, editor of the CCAR Journal/Reform Jewish Quarterly, reached out to rabbis Samuel Gordon and Steven Bob to write about founding Rabbis for Obama during the 2008 campaign. She then invited Levy to issue a call for more papers on the topic and edit the issue.
Laemmle, emeritus dean of religious life at USC, will moderate the Oct. 7 panel. Levy will be on the panel, along with Ellen Aprill, professor of tax law at Loyola Law School, whose essay discusses the legal implications of pulpit politics; Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, chair of department of marketing and business law at Loyola Marymount University and rabbi of the Community Shul of Montecito and Santa Barbara, who wrote about same-gender marriage and the intersection of faith and politics; and Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, California lead organizer for the URJ’s Just Congregations initiative.
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