In 1982, the rabbi of the congregation where I grew up preached a fiery Rosh Hashanah sermon entitled “If God Were King.” The sermon was a riff on the central High Holiday prayer Avinu Malkeinu, which beseeches the Parent and Sovereign of the Universe to forgive our sins, protect us from all manners of suffering, and inscribe us in the Book of Life. Rabbi Alan S. Green (1907-1989) adjured his community on that holy morning that the proclamation God is our King is much more than a theological statement. It is a call to action. Eight times in the course of that sermon Rabbi Green repeated the phrase “If God were King,” as he railed against poverty, racial inequality, underperforming public schools, and the nuclear arms race. You cannot claim to be a subject of the God described in the Torah and remain passive about these egregious social ills, he argued. I was only 8 years old when this sermon was delivered, but when I was confirmed at 16, I was given a copy of it in a collection of sermons Rabbi Green gave over the course of his lifetime. I have read and re-read these addresses countless times throughout my rabbinate, especially “If God Were King.”
Many of my rabbinic colleagues struggle with the question of whether it is ever appropriate to give a politically charged sermon. Some of our congregants expect it, while many others consider it completely off-limits. “Rabbis should stick to the Torah,” they tell us. “We come to shul to hear about Judaism, not politics,” they insist. But there is something fundamentally wrong with these expectations. The Torah is a profoundly political document! It is brimming with directives for creating a just, compassionate society. Kings, judges, and generals were repeatedly challenged and chided when they came up short or disregarded Judaism’s towering expectations. It is a misreading of our most sacred texts to suggest that Torah should exist in a completely separate domain from politics or society. The whole premise of rabbinic Judaism is that Torah affects all parts of our lives; that there is no aspect of our existence that is beyond the Torah’s capacity to teach, inform, and sanctify. To relegate Torah to a strictly esoteric realm is to hijack one of its most central tenets: the pursuit of mishpat u’tzdakah, justice and righteousness in the world. In the real world, this pursuit most often involves the political process. As Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote in his book Spiritual Activism, “no one is in a better position to sanctify the political process than rabbis…”
It is not politics that does not belong on the pulpit, but partisanship. It is critical not to confuse those two ideas. Politics encompasses the activities, conduct, and policies of government. Partisanship is the endorsement of one candidate or political party over another. It is the latter that must be off-limits for rabbis, not the former. I revel in opportunities to speak about God, about religious observance, about Jewish peoplehood and Israel, about the array of mitzvot and opportunities to enhance holiness in our lives. Sometimes, though, as the legendary activist Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer put it: “I, as a Jew, must fight for human rights, decency, and human sanctity, because God commanded me to do so regardless of whether or not society commands it.” My dear rabbinic colleagues, by all means, avoid partisanship. But don’t let anyone convince you that your teachings, your “prophetic witness” can never be political. Sometimes God commands it.