Rabbis Balance Politics on the Pulpit

(Reuben Schulz; Getty Images)

The fractious nature of American politics in 2018 has not escaped the American Jewish rabbinate. With the High Holidays and their requisite sermons approaching, rabbis who want to take a broad view of America, Israel and the world at large are in a bind. How does one address the compelling political issues of the day without alienating someone in their congregation? Should those issues even be addressed at all? And is it getting harder for those who want to take that chance?

Rabbi Ari Goldstein of Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold, Maryland, is considering all of these issues.

“I typically don’t speak about politics, or at least American politics,” he said. “At the same time, even though it’s my practice not to talk about politics, when what’s going on politically in America is as nuanced and complicated and disturbing at times …” Goldstein paused. “Yes, there is a side of me that wants to speak about it very much, but I recognize that I still fall back to my place of, ‘I don’t talk about it.’”

He refrains from political talk for a couple of reasons.

“My job is to unify and be a consensus builder in our congregation and not be a person who stokes division,” he said. “I think that I’m better off serving my congregation’s needs by not going to that place.”

Also, Goldstein said, while his knowledge of Israeli politics is such that he feels he has something to actually contribute to a conversation, his understanding of American politics is not so far beyond that of his congregants.

Longtime Beth Tfiloh Congregation Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg takes a different approach. “What some people call politics,” he said, “I call life. The plight of immigrants. The position of Republicans and Democrats in regard to Israel. The division in our country. The issue of racism. You can call that politics, I call that life, and I think all of things have to be dealt with and discussed.”

Wohlberg partially credits his ability to deal with politics from the bimah without reproach to his 40 years of service at the synagogue. “If they haven’t gotten rid of me now,” Wohlberg joked, “I don’t think anything I say in my sermon will cause that much of an uproar.” Of course, he noted, “not every rabbi finds themselves in that comfortable of a position.”

One method he’s found useful for talking about politics during his High Holiday sermons is to not make it the focal point of all of his remarks. Two of his three sermons, he said, will focus on his primary objective for the season: “Get people to take their Judaism more seriously and take their family more seriously.”

“The third will touch on more of the issues in America and in Israel, but I think what I say on the first two gives me enough credibility that no matter where you sit on the political spectrum, you’ll respect my opinion,” Wohlberg said.

Rabbi Daniel Burg of Beth Am Synagogue is also inclined to reflect on politics.

“For me, it’s never been difficult to talk about political issues in my sermons,” he said. “What’s changed is the political landscape. We’re living in a more hyper-partisan era where there’s greater sensitivity around not only politics, but political party affiliation, and for some people, that makes disagreement about ideas, values, policies, legislation, also about disagreement about who can make the better moral claim, and that makes talking about politics more difficult.”

“My job is to unify and be a consensus builder in our congregation and not be a person who stokes division.” — Rabbi Ari Goldstein, Temple Beth Shalom

His own personal guidelines, he said, don’t prohibit him from speaking about politics in his sermons, High Holidays included. But there are some boundaries. “I avoid partisanship from the bimah. It’s not about political party affiliation, it’s about policies and values and advocacy on behalf of at-risk communities, and sometimes about advocating for certain legislation,” he said. Still, he said, “it’s hard to make a claim that the Torah is in favor of a living wage, or a marginal tax rate … but it is much easier to make the claim the Torah believes in workers’ rights. That was in last week’s parsha!”

There’s also the question of how much weight to give politics in his sermons. “If I were only talking about what’s happening in Washington or Annapolis and we’re not giving voice to people’s need to talk about what’s happening in their own families or in their own minds or souls, then I’m also not doing my job, so it’s a balance,” he said.

“What I’ve come to,” said Rabbi Geoff Basik of Kol HaLev, “is a recognition that everything is political.”

For that reason, he said, politics has to be a part his discussions during the High Holidays, and in his sermons more generally. The trick is not to be explicit. “Instead of talking about immigration or ‘build the wall,’ I would talk about the stranger and kindness to the other as a value and let people draw their own conclusions.”

What Basik wants to do is to strike a balance between the ephemeral and the timeless, he said, to “address the headlines of the moment” as well as “the more transcendent universal themes that all human beings struggle with.”

Ultimately, the political positions he delivers to his congregation can be boiled down to a single line from Pirkei Avot, Basik said: “Where there is no person, be a person. Where there is no humanity, be a human.”

“There are those who claim,” Burg said, “that the Torah is a liberal document, a progressive document. And there are those who claim that the Torah is inherently a conservative document, and of course they’re both right.”

“We need to have the humility to say that God is big enough to hold multiple points of view,” he continued. “And our tradition is robust enough and complex enough to have brought together thousands upon thousands of different voices over hundreds and thousands of years in a conversation with one another, that through that the contradictions and tensions and productive discomfort of that cacophony of voices, we in the 21st century can tease out some specific guidelines for how we walk in the world in a godly way.”

“That’s the difference,” Burg said, “in saying God is a Democrat or God is a Republican. I refuse to believe that God is either. I’d like to think that God is bigger.”


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