October 16, 2011
Rabbis, Politics and the Bimah: an Unholy Mix
Every year the question of preaching politics from the bimah arises just before the start of Rosh Hashana. This year it was radio host and author Dennis Prager’s turn to criticize the practice, which he believes is promoted exclusively by liberal rabbis. While I have not heard enough sermons to be able to judge whether liberal rabbis are the only offenders, as an interested outside observer I agree wholeheartedly with Prager’s assertion that rabbis who use the pulpit to push their political views are doing their congregants and Judaism a real disservice.
In fact, my objections to rabbis preaching politics from the bimah have little to do with Mormonism and everything to do with Judaism. Based on my experience, Judaism is grossly distorted by this regrettable practice, which has the added disadvantage of producing Jews who know and care more about abortion and gay marriage than they do about Jewish learning. I have witnessed examples of the conflation of political, especially social, issues and Judaism in a way that leaves one speechless. Three will suffice here.
A feminist Jewish activist who worked for a national Jewish organization insisted that abortion was the most important Jewish issue. When she was then asked to choose between a female Democratic candidate who was pro-choice and anti-Israel, and a female Democratic candidate who was pro-life and pro-Israel, she said she would “have to sit this one out.”
A Reform rabbi in the Midwest who proudly admitted to preaching his political views from the pulpit was asked in a public forum what affirmative obligations a Jew has according to the Abrahamic covenant. His response? Not to eat mammals.
A gay rabbi declared to a group of LDS and interfaith leaders that his parents had survived the Bergen- Belsen concentration camp so that he could marry another man. [I was so outraged by this statement that from that day I have been unable to use his title, preferring instead to call him by his first name.] He then went on to sign a rabbinic petition condemning Glenn Beck for – you guessed it – inappropriate references to the Holocaust. I’m pleased to report that this “rabbi” no longer has a pulpit from which to preach such nonsense.
It’s been my experience that congregants in these activist rabbis’ synagogues know less about Judaism than their counterparts in synagogues whose leaders concentrate on teaching Torah, Talmud, Jewish history and philosophy. I’d love to conduct an experiment in Los Angeles to prove my point: Prepare a 10-question quiz on Judaism, then administer it to 20 randomly selected members of Leo Baeck Temple (whose activist Reform rabbi publicly criticized Dennis Prager for his opposition to preaching politics from the bimah) and 20 members of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue whose senior rabbi refuses to mix religion and politics. I’d bet my salary that the average VBS congregant knows more about Abraham, Herzl, and the Vilna Gaon than his counterpart at LBT.
Of course, this dynamic is not restricted to Judaism. All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California is a church with an active social justice ministry. I just finished reviewing its online adult education schedule for this month. Among the offerings are “The Basics of Tibetan Buddhism Through American Eyes,” “American Veda: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West,” and “South Africa: A Nation in Transformation.” It’s hard to believe that the church’s members are getting a solid grounding in the traditional texts and traditions of the Christian faith, though their knowledge of Buddhism and Indian spirituality is probably better than average. By way of contrast, LDS congregations in Pasadena will be studying the New Testament during Sunday School lessons this month.
There is no question that rabbis with visions of bringing justice to an unjust world have brought to pass an enormous amount of good. We have a lot to learn from them. My only quarrel here is with efforts made by some of them to hold the congregation’s Jewish learning hostage to their personal political agendas. Abortion is not the most important contemporary Jewish issue, God did not order Abraham to be a vegetarian, and Holocaust survivors didn’t suffer for the cause of gay marriage. Rather than trying to convert congregations to their political agendas, it might be better for activist rabbis to convert their followers to the timeless texts and traditions of Judaism, and then let them decide for themselves how to think about contemporary issues.
Committed, knowledgeable Jews are a powerful force for good in the world. Conflating Judaism and politics is not a way to produce more of them.