Why we need to talk about politics from the pulpit

We are often told that sex, religion and politics are to be avoided in polite company and many feel that should apply in Shule as well. After all, they would argue that Shule is a place of refuge from the storm, a therapeutic oasis in a wilderness of strife and struggle. Prayer, they would add, should soothe and calm you. And the rabbi’s sermon should make you feel good, inspire you to focus on Torah and Halacha, the joys of Shabbat, the virtue of attending Shule services and the privilege of being part of a robust community.

So why do I persist in pulpitating about the political, in sometimes talking about sex and often darshaning about or addressing other taboos? It’s not that I don’t believe the Shule should be a sanctuary, that community is the glue that connects us, that Torah and Halacha should guide us. It’s precisely because I do believe in these things that I also believe in speaking about politics and other issues of our day. To ignore the turmoil and issues that surround us, would be a denial rather than an embracing of our faith, a disparagement rather than an acknowledgment of our Torah, a weakening rather than a strengthening of our community.

You simply can’t separate religion from politics. Both Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi are attributed with saying: those who believe religion and politics aren’t connected don’t understand either.

You simply can’t understand the Torah fully without appreciating its political messages. Abraham was a master politician and strategist involved in negotiations with kings like Avimelech and the warring nations around him. Joseph is an astute politician and leader, treasurer and finance minister of Egypt.

Moses was a vocal political spokesperson, negotiating with Pharaoh, setting up a system of judges, organizing leadership and heads of tribes. For many scholars, including Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Book of Exodus is one of the most profound and seminal of political documents.

Our Tanach cannot be understood outside of the political: The books of Joshua, Judges, and Kings deal almost exclusively with political formation, leadership kingship, and military organization. Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik of the USA is currently giving a riveting ten-part series on Jewish political greatness which includes talks on King David, Queens Shlomzion and Esther. And how can you understand our fiery prophets and their passionate mission of speaking truth to power?

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 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.”

As an example, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Toronto relates how during the French invasion of Russia in 1812, the great Chassidic leaders were at odds as to which side to support. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Rabbi Yisrael (“the Maggid”) of Koznitz and other great rabbis supported Napoleon, feeling that he would free the Jews from Czarist anti-Semitism and oppression. But Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, supported Czar Alexander I, arguing that while Napoleon might free the Jews from their physical shackles, he’d also “enlighten” them and free them from their religious strictures as well.

We had a heated debate in my Wednesday morning shiur/class on the political teachings of the Book of Esther. Some felt that a shiur was not the place for political opinions.

My response is that the nature of this kind of shiur is that people can respectfully express their opinions (even if radically different from one another) and make connections from the texts that are relevant to the way we live our lives and understand the world around us.

The Megillah is a profoundly political work with messages for our time even if politics (particularly at the moment) is deeply polarised. Alternate views can be unsettling and infuriating. My role is to teach the texts, facilitate different views and stimulate insights even if I don’t agree with them. I don’t endorse a particular viewpoint and the discussion is only as partisan as the individuals who express their opinions.

I know that some are uncomfortable about my political sermonising but I don’t believe that religion is an opiate nor that the role of the rabbi is to just make nice and pander to populism. Jewish spiritual life is not about calm and complacency but rather about debate and dialogue. Yes, it’s about comforting the afflicted, but it’s also about afflicting the comfortable. Like tefillah or prayer, it is not just some kind of sedative, but rather a stimulant. It is born out of pain and questioning and is an engaging struggle with justice, morality and social responsibility; it about inner conflict and the striving for spirituality in a material world.

I like to think I am not imposing my views but rather presenting alternate viewpoints. I have not always succeeded but when it was pointed out, or I recognized, that I was being partisan, I have tried to rectify the record. I abhor cancel culture and its denial and disparagement of differing opinions. I believe in productive discomfort, that we can and must argue respectfully in the spirit of the great tradition of our people. The Talmud states the beauty of differing opinions: “eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chaim hein” (both these and those are the words of the living God). This has been my mantra at Caulfield Shule and why we have invited speakers from across the Jewish spectrum, right and left, religious and secular.

I am guided by The Torah’s code of pleasantness or darchei noam; I am inspired by the politically savvy Mordechai of the Purim story – that we are placed in a particular place at a particular time for a particular purpose; I am amused and chastened by the observation that cataracts are the third largest cause of blindness, religion and politics being the other two; I am uplifted by the insight that: Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion led to a lack of understanding of politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic….

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.
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