The Torah is Political – Rabbis Ought to Be Too

Given the contentious nature of public debate in this pre-election year and in light of the presidency of Donald Trump, my own synagogue and the American Reform Jewish movement have been challenged about the nature of our speech and activism.

What ought we to be saying and when should we be saying it especially during the High Holiday season? Should we as a synagogue community speak collectively about the great challenges confronting our nation in the area of health care, economic justice, criminal justice reform, the poor, women’s and LGBTQ rights, racism, immigration, religious minorities, civil rights, climate change, war, and peace?

Or should we refrain, as some have argued in my own community, and concentrate purely upon “spiritual,” religious and ritual matters? What, if any, limitations should rabbis and synagogue communities impose upon themselves?

Before I offer the principles that guided me over many years, it is important to understand what we mean by “politics.” Here is a good operative definition from Wikipedia:

“Politics (from Greek πολιτικός, “of, for, or relating to citizens”), is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs. It also refers to behavior within civil governments. … It consists of “social relations involving authority or power” and refers to the regulation of public affairs within a political unit, and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy.”

The fundamental question before us is this: Should rabbis and synagogue communities be “political” in the sense of this definition?

I believe we should, and that we have an obligation to speak and act according to the above meaning.

There ought to be, of course, limitations.

First: When we speak our words ought to be based upon Jewish religious, ethical and moral principles, and our goals ought to promote justice, equality, compassion, humility, decency, freedom, and peace not only for Jews but for all people.

Second: We need to remember that we Jews hold multiple visions and positions on the myriad issues that face our community and society. Rav Shmuel (3rd century C.E. Babylonia) said “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim – These and those are the words of the living God” meaning that there are many authentic Jewish values even when they conflict with each other.

The American Jewish community holds no unanimous political point of view, though since WWII between 60% and 90% of the American Jewish community has supported moderate and liberal policies and candidates for political office locally, at the state and national levels. We are by and large a liberal community, but there is a substantial conservative minority among us as well.

The Reform movement (represented by the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., the social justice arm of the Union for Reform Judaism – RAC) has for decades consistently taken moral, ethical, and religious positions on public policy issues that come before our government and in our society as a whole, though the RAC does not endorse candidates nor take positions on nominees for high government positions unless specifically determined conditions are met. The RAC’s positions on policies are taken based on the Reform movement’s understanding of the Jewish mission “L’aken ha-olam b’malchut Shaddai – To restore the world in the image of the dominion of God,” which means that we are called upon to adhere to high ethical standards of justice, compassion, and peace.

The following guide me whenever I speak and write:

  1. I do not publicly endorse candidates for high political office and never did so in my 40 years as a congregational rabbi, except once – the 2016 presidential election campaign made it clear to me that statements, tweets, and policy positions of the Republican candidate for President proved contrary to fundamental liberal Jewish ethical principles (note: I am now retired and am no longer limited in endorsing candidates);
  2. When I offered divrei Torah, sermons, blog and Facebook posts, I did so always from the perspective of what I believe are Jewish moral, ethical and religious principles. Necessarily, there are times when my statements are indeed “political” but they are not “partisan,” and that is a big difference;
  3. We as individuals or as a community ought never claim to possess the absolute Truth about anything. There are many truths that often conflict with one another. Respect for opposing views is a fundamental Jewish value and the synagogue ought to be a place where honest civil and respectful debate can always occur;
  4. When I spoke and wrote in the media, I had an obligation to clearly state that I speak as an individual and not on behalf of my synagogue community or any other Jewish organization.

The Mishnah (2nd century CE) teaches “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam – the study of Torah leads to all the other mitzvot.” (Talmud, Shabbat 127a) The Talmud emphasizes as well that action must proceed from learning.

Plato warned that passivity and withdrawal from the political realm carry terrible risks: “The penalty that good [people] pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by [people] worse than themselves.”

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the President of the American Jewish Congress, who spoke in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 963 immediately before Dr. Martin Luther King delivered this “I have a dream speech, said:

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not ‘the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.

America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. … It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, … for the sake of the … idea and the aspiration of America itself.”

Dr. Susannah Heschel, the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, once told my community that her father believed that the civil rights movement of the 1960s (of which he was an active and intimate partner with Dr. King), enabled the American Jewish community to affirm and reclaim its moral voice.

Perhaps the Trump administration and government offers the liberal American Jewish community yet again an opportunity to make our voices heard

Rabbi Prinz ended his speech at the Lincoln memorial that day by saying:

The time, I believe, has come to work together – for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together, to work together that [pledge of allegiance said every morning by children in their schools] from Maine to California, from North to South, may become a glorious, unshakable reality in a morally renewed and united America.”

About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and a past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of 3 books - "From the West to the East - A Memoir of a Liberal American Rabbi" (2024), "Why Israel Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to the Next Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (Revised edition 2023), and “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (2017). All are available at John translated and edited the Hebrew biography of his Great Granduncle – "Avraham Shapira – Veteran of the Haganah and Hebrew Guard" by Getzel Kressel (publ. by the Municipality of Petach Tikvah, 1955). The translation was privately published (2021). John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has two grandchildren and he lives in Los Angeles.
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