I’ve always had the temptation to use my position as a rabbi to go hit the streets and pushing some serious political agenda. I’m not talking about pontificating at the Shabbat table or side comments to congregants. I mean really getting out there, endorsing candidates, slamming politicians in public etc… Most rabbis are very wary of this, especially those leaning right where they believe public opinion may not be on their side where they are, a concern that is especially germane to the College Rabbi.
My first inclination was that this might be a good idea. Rabbis really do have a perspective on the world that is quite different from anything else you might hear. The Talmudic mind is a beautiful thing that is able to dissect issues and get to the core of problems. Let’s also not forget that moral considerations are sorely lacking in the political sphere, and in principle bring rabbis, or any clergy for that matter.
Like a good rabbi, I decided to discuss the issue with a couple of colleagues. One of them spoke about how yucky and messy they are, and how a rabbi shouldn’t sully himself this way. He also made the astute point that rabbis for whatever reason have great answers for problems, except those answers are coming 50 years late while the rest of the world has moved on. I wasn’t convinced back these arguments, because rabbis deal in all kinds of yucky business and younger rabbis may be a little more with the times, also I am willing to admit that might not be the case.
Then conversation drifted to Israel, where the relationship of Church and State is somewhat different. We can’t speak of a “wall of separation” like we do in America. The Chief Rabbinate is an official institution within the government and the government runs a religious school system. There are rabbis in the Knesset, clearly bringing their religious views into the legislative process. It’s far from a theocracy, and yet even what is there has been met with by a visceral reaction by the secular left in Israel who wants to abolish the entire Chief Rabbinate, move to secular marriages, and basically purge Israel of anything that even smells of religion. I always thought this was extreme and that the situation in Israel was a good balance between a fully secular democracy and a government that is informed by Jewish sensibilities.
Less than a month ago I got to experience the frustration many Israelis experience when they read about Knesset members weighing in on religion and politics. Rep. Elliot Engel, a representative of my state though not my rep, decided to cross a line no American politician should and used his office to attack the Chief Rabbinate. Specifically, he wrote the letter to vouch for the credentials of one of his constituents, a controversial rabbi who has found himself in a spot of bother over certain actions that have been deemed past the pale of Orthodoxy by many in the Orthodox rabbinate.
My first thought when I saw this was “How dare he! Who does this guy think he is telling the Chief Rabbinate who’s a good rabbi and who’s not?” Had he just been acting as another Jew voicing his opinion what he did would have been fine. However, I considered this to be a vulgar display of power to use his office to promote his constituent’s agenda. What about all of the Orthodox Jews in Riverdale whose opinions he had to disregard in order to do this? Could a clergy member on the right side of the spectrum expect this same kind of proctectzia, as they say in Hebrew?
It’s been over three weeks since I filed a complaint with his office requesting a public apology, and to date none has been forthcoming. Not even so much as a letter has graced my mailbox. This experience has certainly soured me on the idea of rabbis entering the political arena. Of course what Rep. Engel did was by far worse since he went the other way and used his power as a politician to push a religious agenda.
Still, I understand a little better why the “Wall of Separation” has become such a popular and powerful concept in America despite the fact it’s a bit of a stretch from the actual wording of the Constitution. As a religious minority, I know my rights will be protected and the agenda of a larger religious denomination won’t infringe on my interests.
On the flip side, it’s clear to me now I have a responsibility to help support this fragile wall, for my own benefit. Anyone who knows me knows I am not shy about my political opinions and I love to argue my points as well. My big realization has become that the pulpit isn’t the place to voice those opinions. I just wish Rep. Engel would show the religious community the same courtesy.