Rebecca Sirbu in a blog post a few days ago entitled “Why Rabbis Should Talk About Israel” made a compelling case for the necessity for rabbis to emulate civil, honest and respectful discourse on the topic of Israel. Israel can be such a divisive and explosive topic that it becomes all the more important for rabbis to demonstrate how one can engage in a dialogue about it without resorting to hurtful and destructive language. This idea, of course, makes a lot of sense. However, I have come to believe that talking about Israel, and for that matter, talking about politics in general is counter-productive for most congregational rabbis.
The members of our community who come to synagogue at all do so either only once a week or perhaps just a few times a year during high liturgical moments like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. These are people who for the most part live an existence that is dominated by discussions of current events, domestic and international politics. Many of them attend Federation or AIPAC luncheons, where the topic of conversation is almost always on Israel, more than they attend a Shabbat lunch.
Torah is the heart of the Jewish people. When I use the word “Torah” I mean the age-old wrestling with our tradition, striving for a connection to the Divine and the encounter with holiness. We, as rabbis, have a limited time with our community. We have the opportunity to engage many of them for a few hours a week and the great majority only a few times a year. As we grapple with the limited time we have to impact our community, one needs to truly determine what is the best use of that time. I have come to understand that for my rabbinate talking about Israel, that is to say talking about the political realities of Israel, as important as that is, is not the most productive use of my time with my congregation in the context of synagogue.
What do I talk about instead if I don’t talk about Israel? I speak about the Torah concepts and Jewish values and wisdom that must be the foundation of any conversation on matters of immense importance. Instead of addressing specific current events in Israel I address the underlying values. This is an area that I believe, as a rabbi, I am uniquely suited to address.
Rabbis can use their limited time with their congregants to model how Torah rests at the center of everything we do as Jews and how its lessons can inspire profoundly deep ways of examining our lives and the world around us. This, to me, is what being a rabbi is all about.