Since the onset of the primary season about a year ago, I’ve noticed many of my rabbinic colleagues taking strong stances in favor or against particular candidates, especially in their online conversation. I’ve been troubled by these posts, but have also struggled to understand exactly why I find them disconcerting. Surely, as private citizens, these rabbis are entitled to their political beliefs—in fact, I would be shocked if anyone could be dispassionate about the current election cycle. More often than not, the views I see expressed in social media line up with my own convictions; shouldn’t I feel validated to see that other rabbis share my beliefs? Passionately advocating for or against a candidate, though, goes against our primary mission as rabbis: to foster and build community. How does endorsing a candidate on Facebook subvert this goal? Here are my thoughts; while these points apply primarily to rabbis in pulpits, I think they might be good guidelines for rabbis serving in other contexts as well.
1. Your power does not belong to you.
In 1959 John R.P. French and Betram Raven famously outlined their 5 bases of power. They argued that leaders achieve their influence in different ways: a person might achieve leadership through their skill and knowledge, through their relationships, through charisma, through fear and coercion, or through a combination of those factors. Rabbis—especially those of us early in our careers—are often able to influence because of our positions and our titles. Editors are receptive to my writing not because I am a private citizen, but because they see me as representing a broader constituency. While I may put disclaimers in my writing, people will always understand my views in relationship to my congregation, denomination, and ordaining body. It is an inescapable truth of our profession: like it or not, we always represent more than ourselves.
2. Endorsing candidates might jeopardize your organization’s tax exempt status.
The IRS rules on tax-exempt organizations endorsing candidates could not be more clear. An exempt charity (including a house of worship) cannot “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” While a rabbi posting a position on her Facebook page is likely not a violation of these rules—she’s probably writing as a private citizen and not in her position as rabbi—I believe that we should strive to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
This year’s Republican National Committee platform calls for changing these rules—a position that I believe would further extend the reach of dark money in American politics. As John Oliver recently noted, houses of worship enjoy unparalleled exclusions from the IRS code. While all other tax-exempt organizations must undergo an annual outside audit and file a form 990 with the IRS, houses of worship operate from year to year absent such scrutiny. If synagogues were allowed to make direct contributions to political campaigns, one could easily imagine the Rabbi’s discretionary fund becoming a vehicle to circumvent federally mandated contribution limits. The Southern Poverty Law Center designates scores of houses of worship as hate groups; do we want these already unaudited groups making unrestricted gifts to candidates with no concern for transparency? While it might be difficult for rabbis to maintain silence—especially during such a contentious election— the price of such speech might be far greater than the price of our discretion.
3. There are enough advocates; we need more conveners.
Early in my career, a union activist visited me. He was trying to organize food workers a local college where one of my congregants happened to be a trustee. He had prepared a letter in support of his cause, which he was asking local clergy to sign. I was personally sympathetic: my family tree includes a good number of union folk. But singing such a letter would create at least some discord in my community. I sought out a friend, a leader in a national labor union, who offered me guidance: “We have enough advocates,” she said, “Spiritual leaders can be most helpful when they are able to bring opposing sides together.” If rabbis are seen as above the fray, they can be trusted allies to people on both sides of an issue. But if we are seen as being deeply partisan, we lose the ability to advance the causes we are passionate about.
If rabbis should not be talking about candidates, what should we be doing during an election year?
1. Discuss issues and ideas, not individuals.
Perhaps the most remarkable value of Torah, writ large, is its ability to be continually applicable to our modern situation. Judaism has something to teach us about the issues of the day, and we would be failing in our task as transmitters of our tradition if we did not try to share a Jewish perspective on contemporary issues. Judaism has powerful and important messages about Israel’s security, refugee and immigration issues, women’s reproductive health, gun control, and scores of other political concerns. As long as we realize that, like Jews themselves, the Jewish tradition seldom speaks in one voice about any given subject, we should feel confident in bringing our tradition to our communities. By sharing the complexity and nuance that Judaism demands, we are often able to break free of the artificial divisions that seem to dominate our political discourse, and to promote real, authentic conversations.
2. Foster dialogue by establishing common ground.
Several years ago, I was fortunate to spend some time learning from public radio personality Krista Tippet. At the time, she was at the beginning of her work with the Civil Conversations Project—an initiative to foster dialogue around the most contentious issues in contemporary society. In these conversations, her goal was to break down the binary oppositions of our political process by reframing the narrative. Often she accomplishes that task by focusing on the ends instead of the means. When discussing women’s reproductive health and abortion, for instance, she began her conversation by focusing on children. Advocates on both side of the issue, she contends, are interested in protecting children and ensuring they are born into safe environments. Both sides want to reduce unwanted pregnancies. Once her dialogue partners realized that they were approaching similar goals from different directions, conversations emerged that were warm, thoughtful, and civil—even if the dialogue partners continued to disagree.
I’ve found Tippet’s approach useful when discussing Israel in the Jewish community: most everyone in the Jewish community wants a safe and secure Israel with defensible borders. We may disagree, though, on what strategic solution might best secure that end. Some in our community feel that concessions on territory will weaken Israel’s security position by placing threats in closer proximity to civilian populations. Others feel that a prolonged military occupation of the Palestinian people is not sustainable, and poses its own kind of existential threat. Both sides, though, are responding to the same challenge: how do we best insure Israel’s long-term stability. Understanding these shared goals can make our congregations centers of dialogue.
3. Pick your battles.
There are occasions when conscience demands action; we remember the many great rabbis of the 20th century as much for their principled stands as for their spiritual teachings. Abba Hillel Silver’s Zionism, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s advocacy in support of civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, and Avi Weiss’s work on behalf of Soviet Jewry serve as compelling examples for today’s rabbis. Many of us chose to become rabbis, in part, because we were inspired by their heroic work, and the historic movements they helped to lead.
If, though, we lend our name to every cause we personally support, we may find ourselves far afield from our communities. To maximize the value of our political capital and to maintain the goodwill that makes our advocacy effective, we must be strategic about our choices. By being selective, we increase the impact of our calls to action.
Earlier this summer, I was discussing the election with a friend whose political views I know to be different than my own. I asked him how he would like rabbis and congregations to address the election cycle; he offered what I think was the wisest path for our communities. “You should remember two things,” he said. “On November 8, a good number of people will be casting their vote against the candidate they dislike, as opposed to in favor of the candidate they support. The next morning, many people will wake to find themselves sorely disappointed in the election’s outcome. Our rabbis and synagogues should be invested in rebuilding the goodwill, civility, and love of country that have been so greatly diminished by this election.” If we heed this advice, we will find ourselves on the right path come November