Religious Leaders Need to Exhibit Moral Leadership

The election is over and a new president has been elected.

Now, his new administration must confront policy issues that have engrossed and embroiled the country for months, such as tax reform, financial regulation, global trade, and healthcare. Such issues are best left to policy experts to discuss.

But other pressing issues go beyond policy and have significant moral components about which Jewish tradition provides guidance. How should our country: Treat, and ease the fear felt by, immigrants, refugees, or Muslims? Balance killing innocent civilians during warfare or torturing accused terrorists against security needs? Speak and think about our opponents, women, the LGBT community, the disabled, and minorities?

These issues are impacted by some of our most cherished religious moral values: That all of humanity was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27); that we are enjoined to love the stranger (Deut. 10:19) and seek justice, alleviate oppression, defend orphans, and plead for widows (Isa. 1:17); that Hillel reduced the whole Torah to the maxim “that which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor” (Shabbat 31a).

I thought of this as I read, and was deeply disappointed by, the full-page ad the Rabbinical Council of America placed in the New York Times. It was signed by 160 of its members; about 40 percent of the ad consisted of the rabbis’ individual names. The rest — headlined by one verse from Psalms (122:6-7) (“. . . For my brethren and companions’ sake I will now speak out peace be with you”) and another from Isaiah (52:1) (“For the sake of Zion I will not be still . . .”) — first congratulated President-elect Trump, wished him success in healing a divided country (an idea repeated at the end), and noted that Jews will continue to recite as part of our liturgy the prayer to grant our country’s leaders “the strength to lead all Americans to a prosperous and terror-free future.”

It then decried the recent UNESCO resolution about Jerusalem, and sought the president-elect’s support in recognizing that city as Israel’s capital, standing against hateful and discriminatory anti-Israel resolutions in the UN, and not changing U.S. support of and policy vis-à-vis Israel.

I agree with much of the substance of the ad, so why was I so very disappointed? I’ll let an email I wrote to several rabbis who signed the ad, and whom I personally know and continue to admire and respect, speak for itself: “A prayer that the president ‘lead all Americans to a prosperous and terror-free future’ period? That’s it? 160 moral leaders and they’re concerned only with prosperity and lack of terror? Is that what the Torah and the prophets concentrate on? ….

What about loving the stranger? What about justice, charity, kindness, fairness? All were issues in the campaign, and while people in our community might have differed over the candidates, these moral issues should see no dissent from our rabbinic leadership. Yet not a word about them. When Reb Chaim [Soloveitchik] said that the main job of a rabbi is to do chesed, I don’t think he was referring to prosperity or even a terror-free future. . . . . Unfortunately, [the ad] didn’t demonstrate the moral leadership that many crave. It was an opportunity that was sadly missed.” I added in a later email that while many serious moral issues were raised in the campaign, and “personal invective and insults had, in many cases, pushed aside civil discourse and disagreement, 160 Orthodox rabbis, intentionally or not, gave support to the canard (at least I hope it’s a canard) that all we care about is Israel.”

One of the signers replied that he thought I was “grossly overreacting,” and added that I should recognize “that the thrust of the ad focused on the Israel-America relationship and the special status of Yerushalayim. It did not focus on dozens of other significant issues which the new administration will confront. To accuse 160 rabbis of lacking moral clarity based on one word not at all connected to the theme of the ad is patently unfair.”

I also forwarded my comments to several non-signers, one of whom wrote: “I was invited to sign the ad, but could not in good conscience be quite that self-centered, nor quite that subservient, nor quite that materialistic and vacuous and devoid of spiritual vision.”

The RCA issued a press release in connection with the ad that included statements from several of its members. One, by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, who is the vice president for university and community life at Yeshiva University and one of the ad’s organizers, caught my eye. “In addition to our grave concern about Jerusalem and Israel, this is the time to heal our divided country and work together with our President-elect,” he wrote. “As religious leaders, we wish to make a statement protecting the rights of all and restoring unity and civil discourse in the United States.” Not quite as detailed as I would have liked — but, I thought, at least someone got it. Significantly, though, that statement did not appear in the ad.

Rabbi Brander later sent an email calling the ad nuanced, and arguing that his statement was a reflection of the RCA’s concerns, and that the quote from Psalms and the double request for unity was sufficient to make his point. I didn’t agree, and said so in an email. He responded by graciously offering to discuss these issues on the telephone.

And so, as the sun was about to set at the beginning of last week’s very early Shabbat, Rabbi Brander answered his phone and generously gave of his precious time to honestly discuss this matter with a stranger. (While we both live in Teaneck I don’t know him personally, but will be sure to introduce myself next time our paths cross.) Though we ended up continuing to disagree on several important points, I still think he gets it; unfortunately, many of his colleagues do not.

We don’t need religious leaders to make political statements. We need them to be moral visionaries, whose public statements provide moral leadership. This ad, political rather than religious in nature, didn’t do that.

I reiterate, it was an opportunity that was tragically missed.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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