When Rabbis Go to Washington: a response to Yair Rosenberg

A couple of weeks ago, Yair Rosenberg wrote a thought-provoking article in the online Tablet Magazine, entitled ‘America’s Anti-Gun Theocrats: Should rabbis and other clerics engage in politics? Only, it seems, if they support liberal policies.’

clergy gun violence

Mayors against illegal guns/Youtube

The starting place for the article is a reaction to the lack of critical commentary to a group of clergy going to Washington to bring attention to National Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat. Imagine, Rosenberg asks, if a group of prominent religious leaders went to Washington to promote a campaign advocating against abortion. There would, he contends, be an outcry from liberal commentators and politicians about such a religious encroachment on national politics. And yet there did not appear to be any such outcry to the clergy speaking out against gun violence, and the legislative demands that went with it.

Rosenberg goes on to examine what he sees as a double-standard in public response when religious conservatism is expressed in the public square vs religious liberalism. He argues: “In truth, however, there is little functional difference between the activities of a conservative evangelical pastor affiliated with the Christian Right and a liberal rabbi at the Religious Action Center. Both individuals seek to bring their deeply held values to bear on the political process. Substantively, the contents of their views are vastly different. But the way their faith informs and affects their advocacy is the same.”

Ultimately, Rosenberg calls for more honesty and consistency when talking about the role of religion in politics. He makes a good point. As someone born and raised in the UK, where there is no constitutional separation of church and state and yet the country as a whole is far less driven by religiously-based interests, I have always been struck by the extent of religious presence in the public sphere in the USA. Presidential candidates are examined for signs of an authentic religious life, and this seems to matter in political commentary. Over time, I have come to understand the importance of my contributions to public conversation on many issues that have a political dimension – I believe that to abstain from all of these issues is to render ourselves irrelevant.

Legislation is one response to shaping the kind of society we want to live in, but to abstain from bringing one’s religious heritage and wisdom teachings to that conversation is to present Judaism as having nothing to say about daily communal life. And Judaism, especially but not uniquely, has always been a religion that embraced life holistically, with laws and wisdom on how we do business with each other, how we take care of the vulnerable in society, as well as how we pray and celebrate Jewish festivals.

But Rosenberg isn’t arguing for abstention from the political realm. He’s simply asking for equal treatment of those who draw on their understanding of religious wisdom to present more conservative viewpoints as those who present liberal ones. I agree with the general premise – surely we should allow all contributions to stand on their own feet in the public square? And I think they do. That also means that we must be willing to hear all of the responses that we will hear when we voice these opinions. There is no organized cabal that is critiquing one set of religious viewpoints but not another. The kinds of responses we hear tell us something about the society we live in, and the other competing perspectives that are being brought to bear on the same core questions of life and community that clergy, politicians, social workers, teachers, journalists, and private corporations are all addressing in very different ways.

But for me, there is another component to consider when I think about how and when I draw on my understanding of our faith-based wisdom to offer commentary on matters that are currently being debated in the political realm. And here, I believe, there is often but not always a difference between more conservative and more liberal religious voices that shines a light on the juxtaposition of religion and politics in a different way. It is often the case that conservative voices, by their nature, advocate for a more restrictive perspective on a range of issues – a more limited definition of marriage, a more limited view on when life begins and, being conservative in nature, tend to lean toward preserving the status quo.

As a more liberal leaning rabbi, I often find myself asking two different questions: 1) does my faith tradition have wisdom to offer on how I and/or my faith community should act in this situation? 2) what kind of framework in my secular society enables me to achieve 1)?  So, for me, I’m going to speak out against more conservative positions on abortion that deny me the right to make choices based on Jewish wisdom. However, the existence of more liberal laws on abortion in this country do not prevent someone, guided by a more conservative faith, from making more restrictive choices. I, personally, guided by Jewish wisdom, am against assisted suicide. But when legislation in the state of Massachusetts was brought up at the last election that considered a way of permitting some form of this, the study and conversation that I had with my congregants both shared and explored the ideas behind Jewish teachings on this topic yet also raised the question of whether our choices based on our beliefs should lead to legislation that limits everyone else in our State to our religiously-informed position.

If someone truly believes that aborting any fetus is murder, and that preventing this is more important than all other considerations, then they will feel compelled to advocate for national, secular laws, that prevent such as act. I can understand why this belief leads to this outcome, but I can also understand why they will face powerful opposition from a large proportion of Americans who do not share their belief. And this, I believe, is where Rosenberg’s call for fairness in treatment is too simplistic. Depending on the issue at stake, a position that makes restrictive choices for all in national legislation demands a different level of scrutiny than a position that is less restrictive (but still allows for individuals to make more restrictive choices).

Another element that plays into these debates, independent of whether a position is liberal or conservative, is whether the issue affects individual freedoms or the community as a whole. And this one is much more complex. In fact, what we often see played out in the political sphere is the framing of an issue in different ways that emphasize these different frameworks. For example, a proponent of gun rights is likely to emphasize their individual rights according to the constitution. A proponent of gun control is likely to argue that some of those individual rights have to be restricted when the effect of exercising them leads to the deaths of innocent victims – a communal framework.  Proponents of gay marriage emphasize the civil rights of individuals within our society. Opponents draw on arguments that emphasize their perception of the changes it will bring to society as a whole. In a country that, culturally, heavily emphasizes individual autonomy, political positions that emphasize individual rights tend to play better in the public square. When they don’t it is because the case for the greater good has been powerfully made.

Where does this leave us as clergy contributing to these debates in the public sphere? Ultimately, I believe it leaves us as offering the wisdom that we have gleaned from our faith traditions as useful and legitimate input to the public square. Self-awareness and, perhaps, some humility, will enable us to discern how best to use our voices and understand the larger landscape of which we are just a small part.

Posted on April 3, 2013

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