While interviewing for a pulpit many years ago, I decided to consult with the chair of the search committee before settling on a topic for my Shabbat morning sermon: I thought if I got a better handle on the community, I could choose something particularly relevant to their congregational culture. My first suggestion was a sermon on Kashrut and its transformative impact on Jewish identity. The chairperson (whom we’ll call Mr. Schmaltzkopf) was less than lukewarm. “Rabbi, only a couple of our people keep kosher, and most of the congregation isn’t likely to find the topic compelling.” “Okay,” I said, “How about Shabbat and its centrality to Jewish life?” Mr. Schmaltzkopf hesitated and then answered, “Well, most of our members don’t observe Shabbat eithr, and the last thing you’d want to do is make them feel bad about it.” So I tried a third idea: “Maybe I could talk about in-marriage, inter-marriage and why raising kids with a strong Jewish identity is important.” This time there was no hesitation. “Way too controversial; Rabbi, you’ll be touching the third rail.” At this point, I started getting a little exasperated. “Mr. Schmaltzkopf, why don’t just you tell me what you think I should talk about?” “Rabbi, it’s simple,” he replied. “Just talk about something to do with Judaism!”
I am going to talk about Judaism, but first let me share with you an actual political dilemma faced by a community in which respect for the rule of law had disappeared. In the face of flagrant and public breaches of law, government became paralyzed, powerless to re-establish its authority. One citizen, however, disillusioned by the timidity of local leaders, took it upon himself to restore law and order by force of arms. Circumventing a legal system which could be cumbersome at times, he killed two offenders and restored the peace. Liberal pundits were horrified by what they saw as Rambo-like anarchy; was taking the law into one’s own hands any better than replacing the police with citizen militias? Conservatives, on the other hand, felt vindicated. Big government with all its taxes and its deep reach into people’s lives had failed, while an ordinary citizen, exercising his God-given right to bear arms, had saved the day.
So where did this take place? Ferguson, Missouri during the riots of 2014? A small town in Europe where Muslim refugees were running amuck? Not even close.
The story is in the biblical book of Numbers. As many of the Israelites descended into a pagan orgy with Midianite women and as a divine plague to punish the people ensued, Moses and Aaron, representatives of the establishment, were powerless to contain the mayhem. It was Pinhas, Aaron’s grandson who, without sanction of any kind, grabbed a spear and killed two of the ringleaders. The sages of later generations lined up on the opposing sidelines, much as liberal and conservative commentators might today. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rav Hisda held that had Pinhas lived in the time of the rabbis, the court would denied him permission to take the law into his own hands (Sanhedrin 82a). On the other side, Rabbi Moshe Sofer of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, better known as the Hatam Sofer after his major work on Jewish law, praised Pinhas for his zeal to do the right thing, even if it meant going outside the limits of the law.
Webster’s dictionary defines politics as, “Activities that relate to influencing the actions and policies of governance or government; the work or job of people who are part of governing; or the opinions that someone has about what should be done by government.” Should abortion be legal? What should government be allowed to tax? To what extent is a person ultimately responsible for her own well-being, and to what extent should society guarantee a level playing field through legislation? Can the right to bear arms ever be circumscribed by restrictions for the greater good? To what extent? Who decides?
These are all political questions, but they also possess a religious dimension. Judaism has something to say not only about ritual mitzvot, but the way in which we interact with others in the street, in commerce, and through our communal institutions. The stories of Moses and Aaron in the Torah and how they handle crises of public confidence or rebellions against authority are political stories. The Talmud and the major codes of halakhah deal with torte law, the limits of government authority, welfare, law-and-order, and a hundred other issues that are political. Judaism offers a way to influence how we think and behave as individuals and as a society — and if that ain’t political, I’m not sure what is. This is the reason why God gave us the Torah, and it is why we study Torah not just for its own sake, but to know how to make the world a better place through our recognition that we are God’s subjects and partners in all facets of life, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are at home and when we are in public, to quote the first paragraph of the Sh’ma.
Of course, certain things are off-limits to sermonizers. Any and all organizations exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code — and that includes houses of worship — are prohibited from participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for elective public office. What does this mean? A 501(c)(3) organization cannot support or oppose any candidate, political party or political action committee in any form, shape or manner; they are also forbidden to solicit financial support, offer loans, loan guarantees or in-kind support for any candidate, political party or PAC (which is why I cannot write a check from my synagogue discretionary fund to AIPAC, for example).
As a rabbi, I have preached on the issue of abortion and referred to texts from Exodus and from the Mishnah to demonstrate that Judaism permits abortion for the physical and emotional health of the mother, and that we should therefore oppose efforts to outlaw it. As a rabbi, I have quoted Torah, Talmud, and rabbinic responsa about the authority of government to infringe upon an individual’s autonomy, including the right to bear arms, if doing so is for the sake of safeguarding human life. As a Conservative rabbi, I have spoken about our own movement’s struggle with the competing values of human dignity and fealty to tradition as it shaped a new approach to marriage equality for same-sex couples.
When I speak about issues I quote Jewish sources and make my case on the basis of what the texts of our tradition have to say. Mine is not the only voice on such matters. Indeed the fabric of Jewish teaching is woven on a loom of debate — as Pirkei Avot puts it: ”כָּל מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם — Every disagreement for the sake of heaven is of lasting value” (Avot 5:17). Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Shmuel, Rava and Abbaye, and countless pairs of sages sharpened each other’s intellect by respectful debate, sharing point and counterpoint.
Yet when someone disapproves of a sermon, rather than simply say “I disagree with the rabbi,” he will judge the message as “too political.” By contrast, when congregants concur with a homily, they will never say (at least to my knowledge), “Oh my gosh, that sermon was sooo political, I just loved it!” “Too political” is code for “I don’t agree with you.” A synagogue whose members always agree with the rabbi is a terrible thing, for it means either the rabbi is a milquetoast whose timid soul is incapable of uttering anything besides platitudes; or the congregation is made up of mindless sheep unable to think for itself. While it’s not for me to say what kind of rabbi, I am; I am thankful that the members of this congregation can and do think for themselves, and I am eager to hear when and why you agree or disagree with me.
You will never hear me endorse a candidate for office or a political party from the bimah. In fact, even though it is perfectly acceptable to express my personal support for a party or a candidate in a private capacity (after all, the JJC is a 501(c)(3), but I’m not!), I have made it a habit not to put candidates’ bumper stickers on my car, signs in my yard or campaign on my own time for particular candidates. I refrain from doing so because I want the freedom to focus on the issues rather than be pigeonholed as a mouthpiece for one political party or the other.
To be sure, in its all-encompassing character there are aspects of Torah that have little to do with with the ethical dimensions of social, economic, or legislative agendas. I have preached about grief and death, gratitude, the struggle to find faith, fear, love and family, the gift of memory, and the responsibility we have to make Jewish choices in our personal lives to preserve the heritage of a 100 generations and honor the martyrs who died that we might live as Jews. The stirrings of the heart and the troubles of the world are the canvas on which I strive to paint words of Torah. From the observance of Shabbat to the flaws of our criminal justice system; from the significance of Sukkot as a lesson in environmental stewardship to our tradition’s insistence that we respect all God’s children, regardless of their physical challenges or their sexual orientation; from a love of Israel that worries about the erosion of her Jewish soul by maintaining the current status quo in the West Bank to the opposition I have expressed to the nuclear treaty with Iran, my messages from the pulpit will sometimes align with one party, sometimes with the other, sometimes with neither . . . but these are mere labels, not matters of substance.
A living Judaism cannot be attenuated from the pressing needs and challenges of the hour. Fifty years ago there were individuals who believed that Martin Luther King Jr. was too political because of his engagement in the struggle of civil rights; that Abraham Joshua Heschel was too political for his opposition to the Vietnam War. In our time outstanding religious leaders such as Pope Francis to the Dalai Lama address political issues, but always in moral terms, quoting sacred writ not political factions.
God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, and the sacred texts of our tradition hew to no party platform. And when I stand on the bimah, I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but a Rabbi and a Jew who believes the Torah is our North Star, helping us navigate a ship of faith on an uncharted current of events toward the promise of safe haven. I can’t tell anyone that I will never deliver a controversial sermon; I can’t promise that my messages will always be crowd-pleasers. I hope and pray that my listeners and readers want more than crowd-pleasers, sermons to which one can nod yes or nod off. But I promise that I will strive to root my messages in the soil of Torah. May God help me to marry the eternity of Jewish tradition to the ever changing societal challenges we face as Jews and human beings, as God’s partners and messengers in the sacred task of healing a shattered world, a mission that can never, ever be too political.