The pros and cons of talking about current events in the shul.
The sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur give synagogue rabbis the opportunity to influence the largest number of audiences – and to subject rabbis to the most scrutiny. Rabbis from across the spectrum will attempt to connect the classic themes of the season with the lived reality of their community. However, any advice about the lives of parishioners could touch on deep political divisions.
When your rabbi rises to speak this year, would you like him or her to speak about politics?
An argument for avoiding all political issues has at least two supports:
• The rabbi has acquired expertise in Judaism but may not have particular expertise in current controversies.
• Community members join synagogues that reflect their commitment to Jewish rituals. Parishioners may not share political commitments. A political sermon will inevitably make some parishioners feel unwelcome in the very synagogue where they should belong.
On the other hand, the Jewish pedagogue Deborah Klapper says: “If you can’t call out the bad and the good, what’s the point?”
But how do you deal with morality without presenting only partisan arguments? Rabbi Alon Tolwin of Aish HaTorah Detroit in Oak Park explains: “I don’t think it’s wise to talk about politics per se. But in the face of today’s problems, it is very easy to address the morality that Judaism teaches. When the parishioners join the drashah [teaching] on a partisan question, that is their bargain.”
Tolwin finds it appropriate to deepen the discussion when political partisans choose terminology that makes complex problems seem simple. For example, he claims, rabbis may object to describing abortion solely as a “reproductive rights” issue, which ignores all other considerations.
Rabbi Robert Gamer of Beth Shalom Congregation in Oak Park is addressing similar concerns.
“I don’t often stray into political discussions, but lately I have on the issue of abortion access. Many parishioners were unaware that there are times when halacha permits, prohibits, or even requires abortion,” he says.
“I always speak from a strictly Jewish perspective on any topic,” he says, “and I try to present the various halakhic views.
“During the holidays I am planning a sermon on extremism (both left and right) and how it is affecting Jewish life – from Christian nationalism to radical secularism. I think it’s important that as Jews we understand that while there is a separation of church and state, many “political matters are really religious matters. Access to abortion and contraception are two such issues, but so is circumcision, Shechitah [ritual slaughter] and more.”
“Politics has its place”
If some people think rabbis should try to avoid political speech, Bloomfield Hills’ Joe Feldman says, “Bringing politics to the pulpit is an important responsibility.”
He particularly welcomes rabbinic input when organizations have values that are attractive to Jews but also have leadership that is “both anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.”
Max Kresch, formerly of Oak Park, now Israel, warns against rabbinic hyperbole. Kresch observes that last summer, when he was administering vaccinations, some religious Jews either stated that their rabbis ordered them to be vaccinated or forbade them from being vaccinated. While he preferred to hear the ruling in favor of vaccination, Kresch insists that “the only medical advice rabbis should give to their parishioners is, ‘Listen to your doctor!'”
As a parishioner, Allen R. Wolf of Bloomfield Hills accepts that his rabbi will offer advice on party matters, even if the advice is imperfect.
“The Torah is meant to be a guide to life. A rabbi is supposed to be a learned person who helps a person interpret the teachings of the Torah… It is a rabbi’s duty to share his or her insights, even on subjects that may seem political – it is his duty – to To help people in everyday life.”
Whatever the rabbi teaches, ultimately, Wolf said, each individual must come to their own conclusions. “Disagree with the Rabbi? Don’t make him or her wrong and you right or vice versa.”
Rabbi Jeff Falick of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism says, “I’m probably not the core demographic you’re looking for here, but I do talk about ‘politics’ all the time, meaning things that are important to our survival as a nation… Just last week I personally gave an extra long talk on “Christian Nationalism Ascendant” and streamed it to over 200 people.
“Like I said,” he continues, “I’m probably not the kind of rabbi you would compare yourself to, but our attitude may still be instructive. If it concerns us as Jews and humanists, then it deserves a discussion.”
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, Dean of Modern Torah Leadership (and husband of Deborah Klapper), summarizes his thoughts on the subject: “Rabbis cannot and should not view political issues as taboo for congregational members.
“Rabbis are wise to make such statements sparingly and with humility—they should make it clear that even their wisest, most Torah-based judgments do not exclusively or unequivocally represent God’s true will. But they have a right, and sometimes an obligation, to make vigorous efforts to persuade their parishioners to act in accordance with their best judgment as to God’s true will.”
What does the law say?
Can talking about politics get the synagogue in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service? As a tax-exempt religious institution, the synagogue is excluded from political activities. Crossing the line into political advocacy could theoretically jeopardize the synagogue’s tax exemption.
But an expert on freedom of speech and religion laws, Robert Sedler, professor emeritus at Wayne State University Law School, says: “Political advocacy is permitted under the First Amendment. For this reason, the restriction of political activity by tax-exempt organizations must be interpreted narrowly. It is limited to partisan activities. It is only forbidden to endorse a candidate by name.”