Is Political Discussion Bad for the Synagogue?

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Two months ago, I got in a little hot water while giving a drash on Parsha Ki Tisa. I was leading a service as the substitute for the regular Rabbi, at a congregation where I attended Shabbat morning services often.

My comments started by explaining that the portion opens with Moses being told to count the Israelites and collect from each person one half a shekel. In Exodus 30:15, that half shekel requirement is further clarified. “The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel, with which to give the offering to the Lord, to atone for your souls.” Everyone, rich or poor, was to make an equal contribution.

I made my point: “How great is it that each person’s half-shekel is necessary, and therefore of value. It is truly a blessing. It tells us that everyone has something to contribute, everyone’s contribution is necessary to build the Sacred Mishkan, the dwelling place of the divine. 

“We are all pieces of the whole. Unique, and the same. We are interdependent. When we contribute that half shekel, we become an integral part of the community.

“The half-shekel contribution removes our feeling of separation. Yet it also eliminates our arrogance and sense of self-importance. After all it’s only a half-shekel. It saves us from invisibility, yet it makes us indivisible. We are just as important as everyone else, but no more important. That no one was above or exempt from the law was clearly laid out as an organizing principal of Israelite society.”

That was certainly safe to say.

Then I added,” In case you haven’t heard, former president Donald Trump has lost an 83-million-dollar case in NYC. He intends to appeal, which means he has to post a bond in that amount. Everyone who appeals a judgement in the State of New York must post that bond.”

I continued with this commentary: “On Monday, he argued to the court that he did not have to post a bond because he was so rich. I guess he did not read this week’s Torah portion.”

One of the congregants sent me a message in the chat. He basically asked why I had to ruin a wonderful service by inserting my political opinion into the conversation. Then he left. I felt awful. After all, it was not my congregation, and I didn’t want to upset any of the congregants. I spoke to the Rabbi, and he said that the rule of thumb for the congregation was no politics from the pulpit.

As I thought about it, I could not help but wonder if that is a good rule. And if so, how broad a rule should it be?

So, I did some research and found that political conversations have entered our synagogues and been entertained by our clergy for many years.

When Napoleon’s army invaded Russia in 1812, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev came out in support of Napoleon because he would free the Jews from the Czar. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Schneur Zalman, supported the Czar, because he thought the liberation would be a threat to continued following of the faith. Two learned Hasidic Rebbes took opposite positions on a very political issue.

On January 4, 1861, after South Carolina seceded, President Buchanan called for a day of fast and prayer to think about how to save the union. Speaking at a fast day program in Baltimore where he led a congregation, Rabbi Dr Bernard Illowy, a leader of Orthodox Judaism in the US, said, “Who can blame our brethren of the South for seceding from a society whose government can not, or will not, protect the property rights and privileges of a great portion of the Union?”

His views were like those of most southerners. But his sermon was based on Jewish principles, in this case Dina D’Malkhuta Dina, the law of the land is the law. Jews must obey the civil laws of the country in which they reside.

Another Rabbi, Morris Jacob Raphall, the leader at the Greene Street Synagogue in New York (now B’nai Jeshurun), spoke in favor of slavery from his pulpit, taking the position that Judaism sanctioned slavery: amongst other proof texts he cited the Tenth Commandment prohibiting coveting your neighbor’s male or female slave; the fact that all the patriarchs had slaves, and the many regulations in the Bible about how slaves should be treated. But at least he thought the Bible view of slavery was that the slave is a person who has rights.

Rabbi David Einhorn took the opposite position. A leader of the Reform movement, he wrote and preached his anti-slavery views. He made it clear that Raphall’s and Illowy’s positions were not official policy of American Judaism. He argued that slavery was immoral, was not endorsed by Judaism and in fact was inconsistent with Jewish values. His fiery sermon on April 19, 1861, delivered in his own Baltimore synagogue, caused a riot (Maryland was a slave state). Einhorn had to flee to Philadelphia as the mob wanted to tar and feather him.

In our lifetimes, many of us (boomers) watched religious leaders speak out against the Vietnam Nam war. Many rabbis took positions against the war from the pulpit, and some marched in the streets with the anti-war protesters.

I remember my discussions with the Hillel rabbi, who refused to do either. I thought he was in a perfect position to give guidance to the student body. He thought taking a stand might alienate some students, and alienating a single student was an unacceptable result.

Jewish leaders have often found opposing positions about political issues. The rabbis mentioned argued about the largest political issues of their day. They argued the issues on moral grounds, on Jewish principles and on tribal concerns.

It is clear we have to be sensitive to the diversity of views in our community, but don’t we have an obligation to raise all kinds of issues, and then teach about them from a Jewish point of view?

Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter said that the constitution created a “wall of separation between church and state.” The concept came from John Locke, the 17th century philosopher, who argued the state should separate itself from the church. Not the other way around.

The state’s role was to protect the rights of its people. He said the church’s role was to provide the state with citizens of high moral character. How can our religious institutions teach morality if the leaders are prevented from speaking on those political issues that bring a Jewish sense of morality into question?

In reflecting on this, Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin, a Rabbi in Toronto gives an “absolute and resounding yes” to rabbis discussing political issues. He says, “If we listen to the political pundits on Fox News and CNN, whose opinions are informed by their own biases and preconceived notions (and I would add, by their salaries) won’t we want to listen to what our Rabbi says. The Rabbi’s opinion is enlightened by the Torah.”

I assert rabbis should not shy away from discussing the important issues just because they may have political ramifications. But they should not endorse political candidates. There is law on that.

Non-profit organizations, under section 501(c)(3), are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for elective public office. No institution should risk its not-for-profit status. There are also practical reasons why a rabbi should not be making political endorsements. Any endorsement may anger or upset a number of congregants.

Candidate support becomes a membership retention issue and a pastoral availability issue. A rabbi’s office must be a safe place for everyone. As one rabbi remarked, synagogue rabbis should remain politically pareve.

It is often said that the Torah is a political document. It is political in that it calls for people to live life in pursuit of justice, especially for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Our foundational texts condemned evil and spoke on behalf of the vulnerable and the oppressed. 

But although the Torah may be political, it is neither liberal nor conservative. Both liberals and conservatives claim support out of different parts of Torah.

As Jews, we assert multiple positions from single passages. Nowhere in the Torah can we find specific answers to contemporary issues. It could not contemplate appeal bonds, school shootings and border crossings.

But we can receive guidance, and we can be taught about Jewish principles that could be applied to each of those things. I for one welcome conversations from our rabbis that are filled with compassion and reason and speak out against any politics that supports hatred and bigotry, overlooks historical truths, and demands special treatment for powerful people.

Living in the US, which prides itself as a nation of laws, I think that pointing out that no one is above the law is a conversation that could and should place in our synagogues.


  1. Terrific column, Carl, as always. Rabbis and all of us argue about everything – and often use the same text to arrive at different conclusions – or find another text to prove what we want to prove. There is a difference between political and partisan, and it’s the partisan part that limits rabbis’ speech from the pulpit. There is often a fine line, though, or maybe not always so fine, and what is viewed as partisan. Your mentioning the former president by name could easily be perceived as being partisan, while the issue you were discuss was not. Lots to talk about here – let’s schedule some coffee and conversation.

  2. Carl, the problem as I see it is that a sermon by definition is a monologue, the Rabbi or his stand-in speaking to the congregation. There is no feedback or dialog. When you delve into political or other hot button issues, a congregant with differing opinions can only stew in silence or vote with his feet. Perhaps a forum should be held following or preceding the service where such subjects can be breeched, and respectful dialog take place.

What are your thoughts?

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