As I began to contemplate appropriate topics for my Shabbat sermon last week, it felt like that the world was feeding new and urgent things for us to worry about almost every day.
Brexit, the imminent (now accomplished) restoration of diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey, followed closely by the carnage at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, ongoing problems with the arrogance of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate… There are some weeks when it feels like nothing of any import is happening in the world, and others when a variety of topics seem to compete loudly for more serious attention and further thought. Where if not in synagogue can leaders of our spiritual communities address the issues that most impact us?
But there is also the equal and opposite compelling voice of the “person in the pew,” who comes to synagogue on Shabbat to find peace of mind and spiritual solace, and for whom the discussion of difficult topical issues either political or spiritual is harsh on his/her soul. “Teach Torah,” those voices say. As it is, they would say paraphrasing the Wordsworth sonnet, “the world is too much with us.” We are so overwhelmed by news, unrelenting and usually worrisome news coming at us 24/7, that Shabbat takes on additional meaning for us of sanctuary from the noise of imminent danger. Synagogue should be a place of calm not of roiling unrest.
Who is right?
Being a Jew, and a professional Jew at that, I’ll give you the most traditional Jewish answer. They’re both right, and both wrong, all at the same time.
I have friends in the rabbinate who tell me that, in their congregations, there are strict rules against addressing political topics in sermons. It is simply not acceptable to speak to “the issues of the day” in a manner that smacks of any kind of partisan politics, regardless of which way the inevitable tilt might manifest itself. Shabbat and holiday mornings are for prayer and study, and not for opining from the pulpit about controversial issues, no matter how pressing.
And then there are other colleagues who are renowned for their political outspokenness, facing the great issues of the day head on, damn the torpedoes. They may not go as far as some clergy in the African American community, who actually endorse candidates from the pulpit in their churches (I’ve never understood how they do that without jeopardizing their 510C3 status as a tax-exempt organization), but it’s clear whom they are supporting and which candidates are the targets of their derision.
I have always felt, and I feel it more than ever in this critical political season when so much of what is happening in this country and the world is unprecedented and terrifying, that a rabbi who abandon’s his/her “prophetic voice” in synagogue is derelict in his duty.
The reason why a rabbi has a right to the pulpit is first and foremost of course to teach Torah, but one of the critical ways in which a rabbi teaches Torah is by refracting and reframing the great issues of the day through a Torah lens. To get up on the pulpit and sprout opinions about political issues without that refraction is an abuse of the office, and besides, there are surely others in the congregation who might be just as qualified to give a learned opinion on political matters as the rabbi, perhaps even more so. But if someone is pandering for votes by playing fast and loose with the truth, or using language to demean and belittle opponents as opposed to differ with them, or spewing fear and distrust based on racist ideas, then a rabbi must feel obliged to speak out and bring the truths of Judaism into the broader marketplace of ideas. Separating religion and state does not mean that religious ideas have no role to play in how we see the world. It means that the government cannot force the ideas of one particular religion onto all citizens. There is a world of difference between the two.
I am always aware of the patterns of the subjects I choose to address from the pulpit. If I present one or two sermons in a row that touch on political issues, I am likely to consciously choose to stay away from any political subject for the following week or two. People do indeed need respite. But I cannot imagine feeling hamstrung to avoid political issues at all costs. That is to limit the scope of Torah, which is exactly the opposite goal that we should be striving for.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.