I was disappointed, but not surprised, to hear that hundreds of liberal rabbis nationwide have once again decided to publicly endorse Barack Obama for president. Over 613 “Rabbis for Obama” have signed up, twice the number of endorsers in 2008. Although I would love to see those rabbis stick to teaching Jewish values and avoid partisan politics, I realize that their liberal advocacy stems from their desire to follow their interpretation of the “prophetic tradition.” While Mormons have a very different idea of the prophetic tradition, the absence of Orthodox rabbis speaks volumes about the centrality of “Jewish values” in the rabbis’ support for Obama.
If we leave aside Israel advocacy, which is supported by rabbis from all movements and political views, my experience is that only liberal rabbis preach politics from the pulpit. Moreover, it is almost always liberal rabbis who make their political affiliations known. Ever hear of a “Rabbis for McCain” or “Rabbis for Romney” group? As I read the names of LA-area Rabbis for Obama, there were no surprises: All of the ones that I knew on the list have a reputation for advocating progressive causes.
I once attended a panel discussion at Leo Baeck Temple, a liberal Reform synagogue, on the prophetic tradition in Judaism. Several liberal rabbis calmly explained why the prophetic tradition in Judaism authorizes – even requires – modern-day rabbis to speak out on the issues of the day. In other words, because the prophets in ancient Israel spoke out against injustice, a liberal Reform rabbi who preaches progressive politics from the bimah is merely a follower of a great prophetic tradition.
Of course, for Mormons one has to be a prophet in order to speak in the prophetic tradition. Our focus is not so much on what is said, but on who is saying it. If a man is the presiding High Priest in covenant Israel, as we believe Moses was and our current prophet is, then the E.F. Hutton Principle applies: When he talks, people listen. Mormons are currently led by 15 men whom they consider to be prophets, with one authorized to lead the church. Modern Jews don’t have the priesthood or prophets, and they don’t believe in revelation. Still, it’s understandable that liberal Jewish leaders would want to cloak themselves in the mantle of prophetic leadership when speaking out on controversial issues.
My problem with these rabbis is not their theology, but their disingenuousness. One of the greatest advocates for speaking out on political issues in the prophetic tradition is a Reform rabbi who is one of the Vice Chairs of Rabbis for Obama. After the Proposition 8 victory in California, he sent me an e-mail filled with harsh criticism of the LDS Church for – you guessed it—involving itself in politics and taking a public position on what he considered a political issue. For this rabbi, religious leaders are free to endorse politicians and platforms in the prophetic tradition as long as they agree with him.
The other problem I have with the rabbis’ declaration is that there few names of Orthodox rabbis, and none of prominent Orthodox leaders. It could be that Orthodox rabbis are much more reluctant to publicly endorse politicians, or it could also be that they view President Obama’s platforms and principles as incompatible with Jewish values and tradition. I suspect that it’s more of the latter. Liberal rabbis can make believe all they want that liberalism and progressivism are synonymous with Jewish values, but it is very significant to interested non-Jewish observers that those Jews who care most about preserving and following traditional Jewish values and teachings aren’t jumping on the pro-Obama bandwagon.
For me, the rabbis’ campaign is all about hope and change: I hope their candidate loses, and I pray that their conflation of Judaism and liberalism will soon change.