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Politics from the Pulpit? (Nov 2016)

     The Forward recently ran two opinion pieces that offer contradictory perspectives about whether or not rabbis should be speaking about politics and the recent elections from the pulpit.  These articles caught my attention, as I have been giving this much thought in recent weeks and have been somewhat torn.  Both writers offered what for me are valid perspectives on the topic.  I want to share my inner conflict with you and how both writers resonate with me even while expressing opposing sides. The titles of their columns tell it all. Rabbi Ysoscher Katz' is entitled "I Vowed Never to Talk Politics from My Pulpit, Then Trump Came Along," while Bethany Mandel's is "Spare Me the Terrified Jewish Sermons about Steve Bannon." 

     Rabbi Katz of Brooklyn describes the dilemma he faced when the "Access Hollywood" tapes were made public, in which a presidential candidate was heard repulsively boasting about violating women.  It was a Friday afternoon, and he was on his way to synagogue, having already prepared his sermons or remarks for that evening and the following Shabbat morning.  He recalled how he had a pre-existing commitment to himself that he had made when he entered the rabbinate to not talk about politics from the pulpit.  At the time, he felt strongly that "politics is best left for the political professionals, and the rabbi's job is to provide [Jewish] legal instruction and religious guidance." But as he looked at his congregants he realized that they "demanded comfort and were in need of healing," and he felt compelled to break that vow to himself.  

     Katz reflected, "When your wife is afraid to listen to the news, you have to speak up! When your daughter cries upon hearing the results of the election, you have to speak up! When your LGBTQ friends are terrified about what the future holds, you have to speak up! When your Latina nanny is frightened, afraid that her family will be deported, you have to speak up! Their fears negate the need for fidelity to your vow. Their worries are genuine, personal and immediate." Rabbi Katz concludes, "This election is a watershed moment in our history, and religious leaders need to lead the sacred charge of unequivocally condemning those who would pit us against one another. That is our moral duty. Remaining silent is professional malpractice."

     Bethany Mandel focuses on Donald Trump's appointment of Steve Bannon as a chief strategist in the White House.  Bannon, I'm sure you are aware, is the former CEO of Breitbart News, which he made a voice for the "alt-right," which for some reason has become the new term for white supremacists, white nationalists, and groups like the KKK.  Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have been openly critical of Bannon's appointment and have unsuccessfully asked Mr. Trump to reconsider.

     Nonetheless, Ms. Mandel asserts that "I do not want to hear a single terrified synagogue sermon about him (Bannon)."  She then describes her journey from being a Reform Jew to becoming modern Orthodox, and her parallel political evolution to the "right."  She describes her irritation sitting through countless (Reform) rabbinic sermons about blatantly political subjects, in which she increasingly felt unwelcome and uncomfortable as a political conservative, and eventually stopped attending.  The "politicized, liberal bend on religious topics in the Reform movement" became too much for her and prompted her shift toward modern Orthodoxy.

Mandel asks, "How will Trump-voting Jews feel about walking into these (liberal) synagogues in the coming weeks and months?  Will they feel welcome among religious leaders and congregations who treated the victory of their preferred candidate as a national tragedy, and who are now poised to rend their garments (a Jewish sign of mourning) over Bannon from the bimah?"  She argues that the synagogue has to be a welcoming place "even" for Republicans, and "even the Republicans who feel just fine about Trump and Bannon.  They're Jews too."  The synagogue, she argues, must be a true sanctuary for all Jews, regardless of political beliefs or choices at the ballot box.

     In recent months I have struggled between the two poles of Katz' and Mandel's assertions.  Both express valid arguments.  I withheld expressing myself before the election, although E.J. knows more so than most how difficult that was.  

     I changed course in my first post-election newsletter column, and then again in my remarks last Shabbat.  I ultimately landed on the Rabbi Katz side of the spectrum.  I have tried to limit my critique of our now President Elect to the area of moral character from a Jewish values perspective: using one's words carefully and responsibly, treating people with dignity and respect, and showing empathy towards other people. Mr. Trump, in my opinion, has failed the test in each of these areas, and thus is lacking in essential moral qualities that we should expect from our leaders, especially the leader of our country and the free world.  This concerns me deeply.

     His hateful rhetoric has aroused hateful people like Richard Spencer, whose National Policy Institute held a meeting this past weekend in Washington, D.C. in which he led chants of "Hail Trump!" (read "Heil Trump!") which were accompanied by the Nazi salute.  Who could have imagined, even a few weeks ago, a gathering of white supremacists in our nation's capital where "Heil" and the Nazi salute were front and center?  I expect they will show themselves on the D.C. Mall on Inauguration Day, and I truly dread the prospect of that spectacle, for the whole world will be watching.  Sadly and regretfully, it is very difficult not to conclude that the emergence from the shadows into the open of hate groups, and the increase of hate speech and hate crimes against minorities, is a direct result of the irresponsible, divisive and dangerous hate speech of our next president throughout the recent campaign.

     Still, I hear the voice and the concerns of Bethany Mandel.  I worry that by expressing these views I may be making some people in our congregation feel unwelcome or excluded.  Joe Savitt and I had this very conversation after services last Shabbat.  This is certainly not my intention, and I wish it could be otherwise.  But given where we are at this moment, to remain silent would be professional malpractice.

Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780