March 27, 2008
When the rabbi talks politics from the pulpit
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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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