In the days and weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, 5777, most Jewish newspapers and more than a few secular ones featured articles on how rabbis would integrate the current American presidential elections into their sermons, if at all.
This is not, of course, the first time the question has arisen. After all, the High Holidays fall close to presidential elections every four years, and the current race is hardly the first to come along that presents challenging choices.
And yet, something about this year’s race is clearly different. Regardless of which party one has historically affiliated with and/or voted for, there is no great groundswell of positive feeling for either party. Neither candidate from either party has laid claim to a commanding lead, and in fact, both candidates have record levels of unpopularity. They are two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in American history. That’s quite a statement, considering that one of them is the first woman to head a major party ticket, and her opponent is a colorful reality television personality.
But beyond all this, perhaps the most unprecedented aspect of this campaign is that one of the candidates has repeatedly made statements and policy pronouncements so outrageous and uninformed that, in other years, would surely have disqualified him from the race and forced him to resign. He has, at one time or another, intentionally insulted Mexicans (all of them), Muslims (all of them), and women, not to mention his fellow primary candidates and just about anyone else who happened to be on his mind at the time. But no matter what he says, no matter how outrageous the comments and egregious the sentiments he utters, his supporters have refused to see him for the man, and candidate, that he is. Their support for him only grows, confounding experts and moving this very important election into completely uncharted waters.
There are multiple levels on which rabbis need to be careful before addressing political issues from the pulpit, and more to the point, before taking sides. There is a legal/moral issue, in that the separation of church and state in this country– something we Jews should be grateful for every day– mitigates against using the pulpit, which is the epicenter of clerical authority, to espouse political opinions. Additionally, the Internal Revenue Service does not look kindly on the process, and being overtly political from the pulpit can endanger a synagogue’s or churches status as a 501-C3 tax exempt organization.
Then there are the practical reasons to be careful before politicizing the pulpit. It might fairly and significantly be said that Jews come to synagogue for spiritual sustenance, not political commentary, and no opportunity to teach Torah should be subverted. Additionally, when a rabbi offers comments that tilt towards a certain political philosophy or candidate, he/she is immediately alienating, and probably angering, those in the community who feel differently.
All true, and generally speaking, I agree with these considerations. But that said, there are dimensions to what is happening this year that are the political equivalent of a one hundred-year flood– an event so unlikely to repeat in our lifetime that it demands our attention, and so potentially threatening to the welfare of our country that a rabbi has no choice but to address it. The political issue has become a spiritual issue. In this instance– at least to my rabbinic eyes– it would be an abdication of rabbinic responsibility to fall back on these considerations.
So, after due considerations and cost-benefit analysis, I decided to face the issue head-on, but with two caveats. The first was that I spoke about the election on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, not the first, and made sure to focus purely on the spiritual dimension of the holiday on the first day. And second, I assured the congregation that, no matter what I said, it would be grounded in Torah, and not just another op-ed.
Here’s the link to the sermon; I hope you find that my decision was justified.
A G’mar Tov to all!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.