Why Rabbis Must Involve Ourselves in Politics

Last week my friend MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv gave his debut speech in the Knesset.

It was a major moment for our global Progressive movement – the first speech from the first Reform rabbi ever elected in Israel.

But it has also sparked a wider debate. Should our clergy involve ourselves in politics? Should we join political parties to defend our values in the societies in which we live, or should we stay neutral and back away from anything that may cause controversy within our politically diverse congregations?

This topic will form a keynote panel discussion at the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s Connections conference next week (May 19-22) on which I will speak alongside MK Rabbi Gilad.

For me, the answer is simple. Rabbis must involve ourselves in politics. Indeed, it is our duty.

Politics is a good thing – it is the only way we can use power, not to abuse, but to serve and to change our reality and build a more just and safe community for everyone.

Politics is the only way we can help achieve the vision of the Prophets of Israel.

I served as Government Minister in my home country of Argentina from 2015 to 2019 – the only rabbi to ever do so – but I didn’t come into politics through my own decision, I was forced into politics.

In 1994, just as I started my first job as a rabbi, Argentina suffered the deadliest antisemitic attack since the Holocaust when the AMIA Jewish community centre was bombed.

Eighty five people were murdered, and hundreds more injured, but I saw how nothing was being done to catch those who had planned and committed this atrocity.

I had previously wanted to be a rabbi inside a synagogue, but this took me outside to the streets to lead demonstrations and to pursue justice.

I knew that I couldn’t just go to my temple where we would read and teach Torah, we needed to become Torah in action.

Before I made the decision, I spoke to my friend and my teacher Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who is now Pope Francis.

We discussed how rabbis aren’t like priests. Rabbis are secular people, spiritual leaders in our own communities only. If we want to change society for the better, then politics is the only way.

Rabbis, as masters of values, can only transmit them by turning them into action. Politics is good because it is the art of making this possible.

We need to commit to transform reality and not just criticize it. In the saying of Prkei Avot: “If it is not me who assumes it, who am I? If not now when?”

But, of course, someone like myself or MK Rabbi Gilad joining and representing a political party can cause disputes within our communities and our movements.

Jewish people… we never agree! It is not easy and, I know from my own situation, there is a price to pay.

When you are giving general sermons in your synagogue, you can talk about everything and please everyone.

But when you take a personal decision – not one in the name of your community or Progressive Judaism, but in your name only – you know you won’t take the whole community with you. You will never get full support from everyone and you can’t represent everyone.

We don’t have Jewish political parties. We have Jewish citizens who are in, and who vote for, different parties – whether that is in Israel or the diaspora.

It would be much easier for us personally, as rabbis, to stay neutral, stay inside our synagogues and not do anything that would upset anyone.

But the truth is that neutrality is not possible when you have challenges like we have in our societies.

When you have poverty and degradation, conflict and war, climate change and the abuse of our planet… we have no choice but to get involved.

To listen to this and other engaging sessions as part of our upcoming international conference, Connections 2021, “Facing our Jewish Future Together,” please visit www.wupj.org/connections.

About the Author
Rabbi Sergio Bergman is a politician, activist, and author who began his career at Emanu El, epicenter of Argentina’s Reform Movement. He was ordained at the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary and HUC-JIR. In 2015, President Mauricio Macri named him Minister of the Environment. Starting June 2020, Rabbi Bergman is honored to serve as the next President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. He is married and has four children.
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