Guest Post: Should Rabbis Be Political?

December 7, 2012 § 3 Comments

After the controversy that erupted this week over the email sent by the rabbis of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun to their congregants celebrating the Palestinian statehood vote at the United Nations and their subsequent apology for the email’s tone, I was talking about it with my close friend and college roommate Ephraim Pelcovits and I asked him to write a guest post for me on the proper role of rabbis in politics. Ephraim is uniquely qualified to speak on this issue since not only is he one of the smartest and most erudite people I know, he is also the rabbi of the East 55th Street Conservative Synagogue in Manhattan, and so this is an issue with which he grapples on a daily basis. He has an interesting take on the larger picture at play here, and so without further ado here is Ephraim:

Behind my desk in my synagogue study sit three photographs: The first is of my two little boys, three year old Alexander giving his infant brother Lev a kiss on the cheek. That picture reminds me to hurry up and get my work done at the synagogue so that I can spend time with the two of them.  The second photo on that shelf is of the sanctuary of a tiny, but wonderfully warm, Buffalo synagogue – Congregation B’nai Shalom – where I served as student rabbi my senior year of rabbinical school, and it reminds me of the enormous potential for rich communal life with incredibly limited resources. And finally, there is a third photograph, of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – the great 20th century theologian and activist – marching in Arlington National Cemetery in 1968 together with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath. While many American Jews recognize the famous photograph of Heschel and King marching arm in arm during the Selma-Montgomery March in 1965, I have deliberately chosen to display a more obscure photograph of these American heroes, protesting yet again, this time against the Vietnam War.

The reason that lesser known photograph speaks to me is because it shows these great religious leaders willing to speak out a second time – breaking with some of their closest allies – when their consciences told them that their country faced a second moral crisis. While many of Rabbi Heschel’s colleague’s supported his heroic efforts on behalf of the Civil Rights movement, quite a few of them – including his disciple and right hand man on his trip to Selma in 1965, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman –  disagreed vehemently and publicly with his opposition to Vietnam. Heschel’s appearance at that rally in Arlington in Febuary of 1968 caused an uproar, when photographs of his Reform colleague Rabbi Eisendrath holding a Torah scroll in a cemetery, in contravention of Jewish religious law, appeared in the press. Heschel did not cower from these attacks, and instead argued that under these circumstances a Torah most certainly belonged in Arlington National Cemetery. In response, Heschel quoted a noted 18th century rabbi who had argued that, “a Torah should be taken by the community to the cemetery to pray…to stop a plague.” For King too, opposition to Vietnam was not easy, and he waited until his famous “A Time to Break the Silence” address at Riverside Church on April 1, 1967 to speak out against the war. That public attack on the Johnson administration tore apart his alliance with a president who had worked so hard to pass the Civil and Voting Rights Acts through Congress just a few years before. But as King put it in that address, “Men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy… We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

Last Friday, my esteemed colleagues, the rabbinic leadership of New York’s second oldest congregation, B’nai Jeshurun (BJ) issued a letter in support of the Palestinian Authorities approved bid for enhanced status at the United Nations. My own feelings about the Palestinian delegation’s status change are more subdued and less celebratory then theirs were, but I certainly followed this vote with hopes and prayers that this latest diplomatic gesture would, against the odds, advance the cause of a peaceful Palestinian state for its people in the West Bank and Gaza, alongside the Jewish people’s homeland, the State of Israel. While neither the BJ letter nor the excitement about it in the press were particularly surprising to me, I was surprised at the reaction of my own congregants and family to the coverage of the letter in the New York Times. What I heard from them was dismay that these rabbis had spoken out on what they dubbed a “political” issue, one which they argued was beyond the purview of clergy. That repeated theme left me pondering Heschel and King, and why and whether their support for civil rights or Vietnam might be different than this situation? Was this rabbinic stance any different?

The US Tax code allows a far wider range of political activity by houses of worship than many people understand, including speaking out on specific social issues and organizing congregants to vote. But synagogues, churches and mosques may not endorse specific candidates nor engage in partisan advocacy, or risk losing their 501(c)(3) charitable status. Clearly the statement by BJ rabbis will not affect their synagogue’s tax status, yet there are several other questions, more important (or at least interesting to me) than parsing the intricacies of our tax code, which I try to consider before taking such a public stand on a controversial moral issue.

1. “Do I have a broad and deep understanding of the issue I wish to comment upon, and can I clearly filter my thinking about the issue through the prism of traditional Jewish study – which is my specialty as a religious leader?”

Here I look to Heschel’s example yet again, this time in his essay explaining his involvement in the anti-war movement, which he carefully grounds in Biblical and Rabbinic text. “There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.”

2. After considering this first question, I then ponder, “Will I be able to best address this issue via a public statement – a community letter or sermon – or might I do a better job of persuasion by discussing the problem with a smaller, more informal group, or simply by setting an example of the conduct I think is best?” Most of the time this is the course that makes the most sense to me, and which I choose to pursue

3. Finally, and this is most critical as I consider a thorny issue like Israel and Palestine, I ask myself, “Am I getting too far ahead of my community?” As a mentor once pointed out to me, “A rabbi should always be one or two steps ahead of his or her community – to keep pulling them forward – but if he or she gets further ahead than that, the community will be left behind.  They’ll never be able to catch up with you.”

The rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun are deep thinkers whom I have no doubt asked these, or similar, questions of themselves before writing their letter to their community. While it is not a letter I could or would have chosen to sign and send to my community, I have no doubt that they wrote that letter with the same conviction that Dr. King had when he decided to speak out against the Vietnam War, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” May the hopes and aspirations that were expressed in that letter for peace and prosperity for all of the inhabitants of the Holy Land be speedily accomplished.

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§ 3 Responses to Guest Post: Should Rabbis Be Political?

  • Rabbi Gideon Estes says:

    Incredibly well said. I think Rabbi Pelovits explains quite well the intricacy of speaking out on an issue one considers a moral imperative.

  • Rabbi Burt Visotzky says:

    I am proud to have Rabbi Pelcovits and Rabbi Matalon as my colleagues.
    Rabbi Burt Visotzky

  • Eric Weber says:

    Excellent essay, Ephriam. Fascinating to learn how you reason out a decision. And those certainly are adorable little boys to rush home to.

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