I am very careful not to officially endorse or oppose candidates for political office from the bima, on temple stationery or temple e-mail. In
26 years as a congregational rabbi, I have only lent my name formally in support of candidates four times (I am disinclined to ever do so again) and never in my capacity as a rabbi of a congregation. I do not believe that partisan political activity belongs in the synagogue setting.
I bring this matter to your attention in the wake of an investigation begun by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) against All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and its emeritus pastor, the Rev. George Regas. The IRS began its query subsequent to a sermon the Rev. Regas delivered two days before the 2004 presidential election.
Possibly prompted by a misleading story in a newspaper, the IRS alleges that the Rev. Regas advocated for the election of Sen. John Kerry and against the re-election of President Bush during church services. The agency says he violated restrictions that bar nonprofits from endorsing political candidates. As a result, the church's nonprofit status is at risk and the church faces steadily mounting legal fees.
In fact, Pastor Regas did nothing wrong. His was an anti-war sermon. He simply urged his parishioners to take their Christian values on peace into the ballot booth with them and to vote according to their moral and religious principles. He emphasized that he was not telling them for whom to vote and that reasonable people will vote for different candidates.
After news of the IRS investigation of All Saints was reported in the Los Angeles Times this past November, some of our congregants asked me if I had not crossed that line into partisan political advocacy in my sermon on erev Rosh Hashanah. I had spoken about where I believe the current government's political ideology has led the country -- specifically with respect to the social safety net for poor and vulnerable people and where that ideology diverges sharply from Reform Jewish moral values. (The sermon can be found on our temple Web site -- www.tioh.org -- "Our Hands Have Not Shed This Blood.")
In my address, I deliberately did not mention any leader's name. Rather, I appealed to our deepest Jewish values and urged that we apply those values in the public arena and measure them against how public policy affects the working poor and the most vulnerable members of our society.
The IRS places legitimate limits on clergy and religious institutions that wish to qualify for 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax-exempt status. The IRS does not permit a religious institution or its clergy formally to take partisan positions on candidates for elected office if the synagogue or church wishes to maintain this status.
The IRS does permit, however, congregations and clergy to take stands on community issues and ballot propositions that touch on our moral, ethical and religious values, including such areas as separation of church and state, bioethics, end-of-life dilemmas, abortion, capital punishment, stem cell research and war, to name a few.
There is a long Jewish tradition of "speaking truth to power" on the great moral and ethical issues of the day and advocating for social change. The biblical prophets and the rabbis of the Talmud always did so.
Our own Reform movement has a particularly distinguished history of advocacy on virtually all the major social justice movements throughout our nation's history, including the abolition of slavery, unionization of workers, women's suffrage, civil rights, gender equality, economic justice, judicial appointments, the environment and war and peace.
I became a Reform rabbi, in part, because of our religious tradition's commitment to social justice. If Judaism is to be true to its mission of effecting tikkun olam ("repairing the world"), then we, as its practitioners, must reach beyond family lifecycle and holiday celebrations, beyond culture and religious rite, beyond heritage and history and effectuate the moral and ethical values that we have received from 3,500 years of Jewish tradition. Understood in this way, political activism based in our moral and ethical values is a calling.
Historically, we Jews have been agitators for decency and goodness wherever we confronted hard-heartedness and evil. Rabbi Jacob Weinstein said it well more than 60 years ago: The Jewish people are "the permanent underground, the eternal yeast, the perennial Elijah spirit, ever willing to plough the cake of custom, to put rollers under thrones and give only a day-to-day lease to authority. Anchored to Torah, rooted to God, Israel feels free to dispense with manmade hierarchies ... " -- all in the interest of justice, compassion and peace.
Judaism teaches that we can never settle with the world as it is. To the contrary, we Jews dream about the world that can be and is not yet.
Over the years, the IRS has issued reasonable and legitimate limits on a congregation's partisan activities. In the case of the Rev. Regas, however, it is the IRS that has crossed the line. The congregants of All Saints Episcopal Church are courageously standing with their pastor against this dangerous government encroachment on his freedom of the pulpit and his advocacy of religious and moral values -- as well they should.
John L. Rosove is senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood. A version of this article appears in the current edition of The Observer, the temple's newsletter.