Michael Harvey
Former Congregational Rabbi

Should Rabbis be Political?

“Ineluctable.  Unavoidable.  Obligatory.  Commanded.  These are just a few words that describe Judaism’s relationship to speaking out politically.”

These were the powerful and important words of Rabbi Seth Limmer, senior rabbi of the Chicago Sinai Congregation and one of the strongest rabbis in our movement.  I carry these words with me with all the work that I did as a proud Reform congregational Rabbi.  Over the last five years, the congregants who have sat in the pews or read my writings knew that I did not shy away from political or politicized topics in sermons and newsletters.  I preached on topics affecting our world, our nation, and our cities, religious and secular alike, and there was hardly an event, rally, or march in which I was absent.  The social action and social justice presence in the communities had never been stronger, with more drives, more events, and more connections with interfaith learning opportunities and joint programs.  And I was continually reassured by congregants that the direction we were headed in is was positive one, with many members joining me at community events and spearheading social justice causes.

Still, I was aware that for some congregants, having their rabbi engaged in topics and actions that are political could be uncomfortable. I understood the discomfort. For many congregants, shabbat is, as Rabbi Ilana Baden describes, “a time to seek refuge from the storms of life.” Bringing politics into Shabbat can feel like an affront to that refuge. Nonetheless, to remain silent on the issues of our day, to ignore the turmoil that surrounds us, would be a denial rather than an embracing of our faith.

Our Tanakh, our Bible, is full of politics.  As Rabbi Limmer writes:

Jonah has no hope of escaping God’s ineluctable call to change the behavior of the king and citizenry of the ancient polis, Nineveh.  Joseph has no option but to engage with a series of political players from Potiphar through Pharaoh during his sojourns in Egypt.  Proverbs speaks of the obligation to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, explicitly stating we need to advocate for the rights of others.  Time and time again we are commanded to establish judges, to pursue justice, to establish a society of benefit for all.  Judaism knows, and Judaism teaches, that foremost amongst our religious obligation  is the need to engage and speak out in the political world.

And let’s not forget that our patriarchs were immersed in a political world, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all negotiating with leaders and forming tribes. Moses was a political spokesperson, negotiating with Pharaoh, setting up a system of judges, organizing leadership and heads of tribes.  This is to say nothing of the books of Joshua, Judges, and Kings, which deal almost exclusively with political formation, leadership and kingship, and military organization.

Our rabbinic codes, the Mishnah and the Talmud, further the relationship between Judaism and politics by suggesting that it isn’t just our history that is political, but also our rabbis.  As Professor Jennifer Grayson of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, writes:

Rabbis have always defined themselves in relationship to the political…the history of the rabbinate is inseparable from the history of the varied political contexts in which rabbis lived.  […] Political involvement is intrinsic to the rabbinate.  Politics and the rabbinate have intersected for as long as there has been a rabbinate, and rabbis have always adapted themselves to the political institutions of their own day.  The notion that the rabbinate is or should be entirely separate from politics is not borne out in the historical record.

In other words, to have a rabbi who abstains from politics and who remains silent on the issues of our day would be an exception, not the norm.

So why do most rabbis speak out? Well, while we may not realize it, everything Judaism teaches can be political or politicized.  In seminary, I was taught about a legendary Reform rabbi whose president told him to no longer bring politics to the pulpit.  The next Shabbat, he stood up on the bima stating, “I have been told to not speak about politics from the pulpit. Here, therefore is my sermon.”  The rabbi then stood in silence for 10 minutes, not saying a word.  The point was made.  There is nothing that cannot be politicized or found to be political in our teachings.  Think about it. What is not political?  Judaism teaches us to pursue justice.  How are we to do so without engaging in ideas of law, criminology, and human rights, all of which are political?  Our Torah portions and prophets tell us to end hunger, homelessness, poverty, and violence. Is the Torah telling us to do so individually?  Hardly. The point of the Torah is to create a society, a peoplehood, that can, together, erase these plagues from the earth. The goal in learning Torah is that each individual understands the system for helping the stranger, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan so that, together, a people can tackle these problems at scale.  And how do we end world hunger without engaging in political conversations on food regulation, farm bills, and SNAP benefits?  How do we end poverty without discussing wages, the ethics and regulations of businesses, welfare and tzedakah?  How do we end violence without understanding political motivations, the power of speech, and political groups?  And how are we to pursue peace, God’s greatest hope and gift, if we cannot speak of political alliances, treaties, and warfare?

The truth is, whether we like it or not, politics have always been in our synagogues and our temples, since the priesthood of old, the kings and the prophets.  Is it any wonder that our liturgy contains phrases such as “Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency; make us dissatisfied”?

By embracing, not shying away from, politics in our world, we follow not only the traditions of the CCAR, URJ, RAC, and WRJ, who have put out political statements for decades, but also the traditions of our people, since the very beginning–the patriarchs and matriarchs, the prophets, judges, and kings, the rabbis of old.  We may disagree, we may engage in productive discomfort, we may even argue, but as we do so, we continue the millennia old traditions of our people.   The Talmud states, understanding the beauty of differing opinions: “eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chaim hein” (both these and those are the words of the living God).  In closing, friends, there is no need to fear politics from the pulpit or within our walls.  It has always been with us, sitting next to us in the pews, as we sing and pray about justice, righteousness, and peace.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey was ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, and earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Enrolled at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program. Founder of "Teach Me Judaism": educational and animated Jewish lessons on scholarship: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4vNAB0lVE4munW_znGdEtQ
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