The Syria Effect: Mixing the Timeless with the Timely

Of the roughly one thousand rabbis of all denominations who were on a conference call with President Obama shortly before Rosh Hashanah, I would imagine that most- myself included- addressed in a High Holiday sermon the subject that had been a central focus of the call. It was, of course, Syria, and its recent, horrifying use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians. It is what is front and center on everyone’s mind these days, obviously not only within the Jewish community. To ignore it would be to ignore the proverbial eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the living room- or, more accurately, in our synagogues.

There was never a question in my mind that one of my sermons would have to be focused on the Syrian issue, but like many rabbis, I’m sure, I had two issues of concern.

The first was that I was reluctant to write it too far in advance. I still remember how many of us in the rabbinate had our High Holiday sermons completely subverted by the famous handshake of the late Prime Minister Rabin, of blessed memory, and Yassir Arafat, on the South Lawn of the White House announcing the Oslo Accord in September of 1995. No one had a clue that that was coming, and then, right before Rosh Hashanah, we were all thrown into “re-write mode.” Before President Obama decided to seek congressional approval for a military response to Syria, it appeared quite likely that an American attack against Syrian targets was imminent. Why write a sermon that was, as likely as not, destined to become old news? “We won’t be fooled again,” I thought to myself smugly, channeling The Who.

Well, it turned out that the President’s decision to seek Congressional approval made it extremely unlikely that any American military action would be taken before Rosh Hashanah. Though late in the game, to be sure, it made it “safe” to write a sermon about the Syria issue.

But still, the other concern remained, and to be perfectly honest, it had been there all along. How appropriate is it to deal with a “political” topic on the High Holidays? Or, to phrase the question another way, is it proper to superimpose contemporary political realities- even if they pertain to Israel- on the timeless themes of sin and repentance that lie at the core of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

I can’t speak for all pulpit rabbis, but I can say that personally, this issue– balancing the desire to be topical in sermons with the spiritual concerns of any given Shabbat or holiday– is something that I spend a great deal of time thinking about. I have congregants who come to services on Shabbat seeking sanctuary from the world and its worries, and wanting nothing more than to focus on Torah-related issues whether in sermon or study form. And then there are those members and guests who want nothing more than to hear a sermon that focuses on the issues of the day. They want their rabbi to shed light on those issues for them, and they want their synagogue to be “relevant–“ a hard word to translate in this context, but I’m sure you know what they mean.

I think that rabbis have every right to address the great issues of the day from the pulpit, and probably even an obligation to do so. But their right/obligation comes with parameters. If a rabbi delivers a “lecture” on a contemporary subject in lieu of a sermon, then he/she is just another “talking head,” and has no more right to be speaking to the congregation about that topic than any of his/her congregants. They have opinions too, and their own understandings of the great issues of the day. What gives a rabbi the right to address a given topic from the pulpit is his/her responsibility to frame that subject within the perspective of Jewish tradition and concerns. My knowledge of Jewish tradition and teaching is, by and large, greater than that of my congregants. Therefore, my responsibility is to place the “relevant” and pressing topic within a frame that sees it through the lens of Jewish tradition. Judaism has a lot to say about war and peace, justifiable and even obligatory wars as opposed to those that are wars of choice, economic justice, the environment… Judaism has a lot to say about most of the concerns of the modern world. The job of the rabbi is to bring them to the fore when addressing the great issues of the day.

This tension between the topical and the timeless is one of those dialectics that is not resolvable. I don’t think it is intended to be.

Teaching Torah should always be the primary emphasis of a rabbi, and losing track of that threatens the essence of what makes the rabbinate significant and important. But it is equally true that losing the impulse to address the great issues of the day through the lens of traditional Jewish values threatens the prophetic voice that is also a compelling and vitally important aspect of the contemporary rabbinate. Like so much of life, it’s a question of balance. The wise rabbi understands that, and reacts accordingly.

To all, a g’mar tov! My very best wishes for an easy and meaningful fast, and a healthy and peaceful new year.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.