What Can We Say? The High Holy Days and the Coming Election

As rabbis contemplate the coming Days of Awe, the season of introspection and inspiration during which people are (in theory) most open to hearing our voice and listening to our words, most receptive to at least putting a foot on the bridge we try to build between the tradition and the modern world, this year, my God, one question looms large: What can we say?

Oh, I don’t mean that the way an Israeli might, shrugging shoulders and intoning a ritual “Nu?  Mah L’asot?”  It is what it is, the gesture implies, with nothing to be done.  Why tilt at the windmills of the way the universe itself works.  What can be said?

No, I mean the question more literally. The law is the law, and non-profits in the United States are what we are, and so, with a clearly historical choice confronting us, with potential sky-is-falling consequences and odious personalities and policies alike all around us, what can we say?  Where is the line between an appropriate spiritual expression of values, and overtly and inappropriate political commentary?  To put the matter in a slightly sharper manner: In this particular election, we know who the bully is.  But what about the pulpit?

The issue here, for any Israeli readers or those in other countries unfamiliar with American election law, is that tax-exempt, non-profit organizations such as churches and synagogues are not allowed to engage in direct electorally-related political activity.  This, even though there are utterly obvious policy implications to the spiritual and religious values each of our traditions proclaim. How many times are we told to welcome the stranger, care for the poor, speak up for the most vulnerable?  Do you really think the tradition meant that this should be done, entirely, by volunteers?  (Yes, by the way, some people do believe that.)

Churches and synagogues have a history of — and, I believe, an obligation to — taking a stand on moral matters.  Slavery (which was defended, to our shame, even from some synagogue pulpits), civil rights, war and peace, life and death, reproductive rights, working conditions, infrastructure and education, acceptance of others, accommodation for difference – all of these arenas of public policy have a rich foundation and important history of debate within religious communities.  That spiritual voice cannot – and should not – be silent or still.  So, addressing the moral and spiritual roots of policy questions, yes.

But electoral politics?  Here, we are told, we are not to interfere.  What to vote for seems to fall in our bailiwick as much as the circle of concern of any other group of citizens.  For whom to vote… does not.

As I understand the issue, we can even — carefully — address fundamental flaws or deep problems on the part of an individual.  Say that “David Duke is an anti-Semite,” yes.  Say whether to vote for him or not, and that crosses a line.

It is well-known, in fact, that houses of worship push up against this line, and, in some places, simply (or deliberately) ignore it.  What some born-again or evangelical churches do for right-wing Republican candidates (I have heard), and what some African-American churches do on behalf of Democrats (same caveat), is more than just a “voters’ guide” to educating about the issues.  Educational voters’ guides are allowed.  But even some of those are so obviously biased that their primary purpose is not pedagogical, but partisan.

Let’s make one thing clear here: this is not a question of free speech, as the conservative right wing regularly complains about.  No one is stopping anyone from saying anything, anywhere.  Say what you want, endorse whom you want, wherever you want.  But if you do so from a pulpit, as part of a service, in a way which conveys that that is how you think the followers of your faith should vote (again, not on an issue but for or against a person in an election), well, you can say it, but your organization should no longer be tax-exempt.  You can say the same thing as a private citizen, in, for example, a blog — but not from the pulpit, not speaking as a clergy person of your organization to your parishioners.  There were Rabbis for (and against) Romney, Bishops for Bush, and I can imagine Cardinals for Clinton.  (Alright, I am not sure about the last two.)  But not in a sermon, not from the pulpit, not in an official role.

It is true, too, that the IRS (the American Internal Revenue Service) rarely investigates violations.  When it did so, carefully, in the early days of the Obama administration, it looked into violations on both the left and the right, but the right-wing screamed about selective persecution (er, I mean prosecution), hiding behind the red herring of “free-speech.”  (Again, to be clear: selective or politically-motivated prosecution of such a violation would, if proven, indeed be a serious breach of trust.)

But this year…

The historic nature, alone, of the first woman (presumably) heading a major party warrants some commentary on the role and function of women in society, and the synagogue alike.  The delicate dance on the issue of Israel after a rocky road for eight-years deserves some attention.  (Reservations about the Iran deal aside, I am among those who believe that the Obama administration has been treated unfairly in the larger Jewish community on this issue, but that is a separate matter.)

But the “elephant” in the Sanctuary, if left unaddressed, is glaring and obvious.

How can a community with a moral mission not take notice?  How can a people who are the inheritors of a prophetic voice for the suffering and scared not speak up against bigotry, misogyny, race-bating and hate-mongering?  How can we not deal with using even legitimate concerns about security… to taint entire religious group?

These are real issues, and they are big ones, and they must be addressed.  Which leads, then, to a third kind of question from that one single phrase.  Not “what can we say?” (the shrug of fatalism), nor “what can we say?” (the boundaries of the codes of taxation and decency) but, finally, “what can we say?”  In this case, the question is how to approach a topic we cannot avoid.

Three quick thoughts, as we look ahead to the High Holy Days.

The first is that there will be a great deal of discussion about ends and means, about campaigning being different than governing, and how all of this hot talk is just a quick path to a different goal.  It is true that, in the past, we have seen many who make a distinction between politics and policy, but there comes a point where if you poison all the streams that leads to the lake, the lake itself will not be what you imagine it to be.  We have passed a tipping point, I think, beyond which we can no longer make the argument that what and how we say to attain office is going to be separable from who we are in office.  When there is this much hurt, no healing will come that easily.

The second is that, normally, we would say that any “political” discussion we have in a spiritual setting should focus on values, and not personality.  I usually believe that.  But this time feels different.  This time it is the personality itself which raises questions of character which run so deep it touches on values.  Let us assume for a moment that almost everything some candidates say is a ploy, that they don’t believe it at all, that it is just about firing up the base and getting past one’s opponents.   Policies can be exaggerated for electoral effect, sure.  But some instant reactions have to be genuine.  The narcissism is real here.  So, too, is the misogyny.  The level of whether one sees everything one does as being all about oneself is a relevant factor.  We want our leaders to lead, and to serve.  If they have no concept of service, though; indeed, if they have no obvious concept of an “other,” that is, it seems to me, psychologically, morally and spiritually relevant.

Finally, we have to remember that though the level of public discourse has slid over time, and the amount of rancor has risen, our tradition is not, ultimately, partisan in nature.  The tradition does outline goals.  It does not give a program or method for how to achieve those goals.  We are obligated to be involved.  We are commanded to aid the poor, feed the hungry, shelter the  the homeless, defend the widow, and befriend the stranger.  But we are not told how to do so.  If your goal is to build a better world, if your motive is to reduce poverty, and you really believe that the best method to do so would be to remove regulations on the rich, enable investors to feel fully free, reduce oversight and cut communal revenue, if the motive is truly to assist those most in need then that position, truly, could be an expression of Jewish values.  It is obvious, I assume, that this is not my personal position, but I am talking about a “Jewish” approach to policy here, not my personal preference.  And who knows?  Perhaps some parts of that approach might work.

Our tradition obligates our effort towards a just and righteous world; one can attempt to build that world in many different ways.  If the motives are right, the methods are kosher.  But, on the other hand, if it’s all about the self, we have a problem.  Self-interest is a Jewish value… if it is bounded, and accompanied, by open eyes, a caring heart, and a hand stretched out to those in need.

This High Holy Days, I hope I — and hope all of us — keep the following in mind.  That this election, more than others, may be about not so much who you vote for, as who you are, and what you stand for.  That not all ends justify any means.  That character counts.  And that we are all in this together.

That, at least, is what I can say.

About the Author
Michael L. Feshbach serves as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands -- the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He also was, most recently, Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had previously served congregations in Buffalo, New York, Erie, Pennsylvania and Boca Raton, Florida. While in Erie, Rabbi Feshbach taught at Allegheny College and served as the summer rabbi for the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, New York. Rabbi Feshbach is the author of several articles and book chapters. Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, he attended Haverford College and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 1989. He is married to Julie Novick. They live in St. Thomas, and have three children: Benjamin, Daniel and Talia.