On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, print journalism and the blogosphere are abound with conversations about what rabbis will be talking about when congregants sit in the pews on Thursday and Friday. After this summer, there is no shortage of material. A rise in anti-Semitism worldwide, an increase in violence on college campuses, the murders of four teenage boys — three Israeli and one Palestinian — a 50-day war with Hamas in Gaza where more than 75 percent of Israel was within reach of rockets, not to mention the worsening situation in the Ukraine and the proliferation of ISIS — should be enough for any clergy person to sink their teeth into and make a meaningful message.
Thus, I am surprised to see an article in the New York Times yesterday which claims many rabbinic colleagues — most maintaining anonymity for fear of their views affecting their positions — will not broach Israel, or events surrounding Israel, as a topic for their sermon for fear of offending the right or left and for an inability to craft a take-away message from the sermon.
Further to the point, Peter Beinart wrote in Haaretz this week that rabbis should steer away from sermons about Israel these High Holidays because they are “B-grade pundits.” His point expressly implies that rabbis are ill equipped to speak about Israel effectually. Additionally, Beinart says the real issue with the Jewish world today is illiteracy with Jewish texts, not issues about Israel and that is where rabbis should dial in their sermonic coordinates this New Year.
My response to Peter Beinart and the many anonymous rabbis quoted by the New York Times is simple: Don’t wimp out.
What congregations around the globe want from their leaders more than any teaching or story is simple. They want courage. They want leaders with convictions and principles and passion. Congregants want to be infected by their clergy with that passion. As clergy members we have been deputized to share our interpretation – both of texts and current events – and to lend a Jewish voice and lens to the situation we find ourselves living within. Few people want to come to synagogue to hear a tofu-flavored thought about the Torah portion these days. They want to know what you think and why you think it. That is, after all, why they hired you.
As with all things that require courage, speaking up and out might make you vulnerable. That is a good thing. I contend that the very openness that is fostered in being honest is the secret ingredient that allows us to be sensitive and thoughtful in crafting our message, so that other views and opinions can be heard and tolerated, even if disagreed with. Walking that line and making many feel included is sacrosanct. Clergy members can finesse that fine line better than most.
Isn’t that why we heard the calling to join the cloth in the first place? Didn’t we want to change the world and make it a better place? I chose to be a clergy person because I wanted to lend my voice and my hand to the shaping of this planet I live within. Religion is not a sideline sport. It necessitates me getting on the field and being open and raw. Our shying away from the hard conversations will not make that change and it most definitely will not inspire our flocks. That silence leads clergy members to a career limited to hatch ‘em, match ‘em and dispatch ‘em. While those touchstones are sacred – my job calls for more from me.
In my congregation, I speak about Israel as much as I speak about any topic. Everyone who walks through our doors knows that our Temple has unconditional love for our Israel. But, they also know that we can ask tough questions and be lovingly critical in an effort to make our homeland better and ourselves too. Isn’t that the essence of religion? Shouldn’t that be the ideal we strive for?
To my colleagues in the pulpit, I encourage you to ignore the New York Times and brush off Beinart, who is a B-grade rabbinic adviser, at best. Instead, muster the courage to speak your heart and your passion these High Holidays. Infect your congregation with your courage and challenge them to lead. Let them know whether you are left or right, critical or complimentary that you bearing your soul will help effect change. That is the core component of the High Holiday season. I posit that doing so will stoke your members to make a difference in their work place and amongst their social orbits with the same valor you exemplify. And frankly, after all that has happened in our world recently – I think the courage to speak our mind is what we need most right now. Let’s celebrate that courage and not squelch it. That would be a sin too great to burden this season.