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.’
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.
Last week, my colleagues Rabbis Rebecca Sirbu and Ben Greenberg shared their opinions here about whether rabbis should talk about Israel, and each presented cogent and well-articulated reasons. I was inspired to respond, in part, by the use of “should” and “shouldn’t” in the headline. I cannot assert that other rabbis should or shouldn’t talk about Israel, but I would like to speak personally about why I don’t talk about Israel.
Israel is a topic that gets people’s blood pumping and, when emotions run high, impulsivity tends to override thoughtful and rational conversation. We sometimes allow ourselves to say things we later regret. As a rabbi who works primarily with adolescents, I strive to nurture the open-minded exploration of questions about Judaism and identity, which requires working against the competing desire to shut-down discussion of gray areas with a single, decisive “right answer.” In my experience, few deep and complicated questions have right answers. However, when teens and young adults talk about Israel, they believe there is only one right answer.
Because I’m not a full-time pulpit rabbi, on Shabbat I often sit as a “Jew in the pew” in synagogue. There I have found many adults who struggle with maintaining a balanced stance when discussing Israel. Occasionally, my colleagues seize the opportunity to express their views stridently in sermons, exhorting the congregation from their bully pulpits to see the “truth.” Later, at the Kiddush lunch, discussions quickly devolve into heated arguments in which otherwise rational and intelligent people present strongly-held opinions as facts. Having witnessed this type of polarization within a synagogue community, I can attest to the pain and alienation that a rabbi’s words can inadvertently cause. For this reason, I am especially careful when I speak about Israel and other issues that isolate listeners so that they metaphorically stop up their ears.
In addition to serving as a visiting rabbi or scholar-in-residence in congregations, I spend my summers working at a Jewish camp that employs many Israelis as counselors. Many of these staff members arrive at camp having just completed their military service in the Israeli army. Although I have acquired wisdom about numerous topics and although I am old enough to be their mother, there is nothing in my life experience that imbues me with authority to teach these young adults about Israel. I believe that it would be presumptuous of me to do so without establishing a relationship of trust and mutual respect, which would allow us to exchange stories of our diverse experiences and appreciate one another’s perspectives.
When I ascend the bima or stand at the head of a classroom to teach, I am keenly aware that I have precious little time to convey the richness of Jewish tradition and the potency of Jewish ritual to a group of strangers. Thus, I must reach deep into my heart to extract the essential teachings from my core and then reach across the vast chasm that separates speaker and listener. I look honestly for what is “my Torah” and attempt to share it. Since I cannot see what is in another human’s heart, since I cannot know what anyone else finds at their core, how can I say whether another rabbi should or shouldn’t speak about Israel? I can merely say, at any given moment, whether I should speak.
Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).
And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.
All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading
There are many directions one can take to answer this question. Yesterday I came across a marvelous teaching of the Netivot Shalom. He frames it in a particular textual peculiarity Genesis 24:1
1. And Abraham was old, advanced in days, and the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything.
The question he raises is why the phrase “advanced in days” is needed. The verse says he was old. Is this not the definition of advanced in days? Basing himself on the traditional understanding that the Torah uses an economy of language, the seemingly needless phrase must teach us something more than just telling us Abraham was old.
He suggests that “advanced in days” is a way of describing how Abraham lived. Each day was lived to the fullest, which for Abraham meant each day was infused with an act of hesed, loving-kindness or compassion. Abraham in Jewish tradition is the exemplar of hesed, the person who opened his tent to wayfarers. The Netivot Shalom says that to live a day without an act of hesed is to uproot the very existence of that day. It is as if that particular day did not happen.
He connects this to a verse in Psalms 89:3 “The world will be built with/through hesed.” (Admittedly this may not be the simple meaning/translation of the verse but it does reflect the Hebrew). He develops this further through the concept articulated in the daily liturgy that God renews creation daily. To renew creation each day means that we must perform each day an act of hesed or loving-kindness/compassion for someone. It is the act of hesed that creates each day anew.
The legacy of Abraham in this teaching is compassion/loving-kindness practiced on a daily basis. This is not to reduce the importance of other commandments or to reduce the complexity of Abraham’s life in any way. Rather it is an expression of the importance of hesed, its creative component, and its accessibility to all. To model Abraham is to be a compassionate human being. To experience God’s hesed is to to practice hesed. The Netivot Shalom also warns us that to act in the opposite manner is to be destructive. Withholding compassion improperly and acting in a negative manner can destroy the day you have lived.
We have all been witness to multiple acts of compassion/hesed that people have performed as a result of Sandy. People of course must remember that many people are still in need and must be hesed personalities each day. But I do wonder in the light of the election how hesed/compassion could be part of the national conversation instead of the millions upon millions essentially wasted on the political campaigns. What if opposing sides on the abortion argument could agree to be pro-life, not as a political agenda, but to work together to provide safe and secure environments for children to be raised independent of one’s belief whether there is a right to abortion. A truly compassionate society does cost money. Imagine if all that campaign money had actually gone to help people and not to bloated self-promotion.
While driving to work the other day I heard a woman interviewed on the radio asked about the “Rape” comments of some particular politicians running for office. The reporter asked if those comments would influence her vote. ”No,” she replied, rather dispassionately, “he is entitled to his opinion about that, even if we disagree.” In other words, she would still support candidates associated with those views, as well as those who articulate them.
I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, channeling my anger into the tightness in my hands. This is RAPE we are talking about — not taxes, not health care or energy policy – all issues about which I have strong feelings, but not nearly as potentially personal. Yes, I know that these issues and several more are serious reflections of our values and therefore personal on many levels. But rape – the heinous act of violence against a woman – is a step above these issues in its import.
Rape is an act of violence. There is no qualifying it. It is a forceful act, a violent imposition of power over a woman. It is as wounding, or more, than a physical act of harm that leaves external wounds. The internal wounds, the spiritual, emotional, psychological wounds left by rape can be longer lasting and more difficult to heal than many other wounds. For the women I have counseled as a rabbi, along with their loved ones, I am anguished by their pain.
Politicians who have used terms like, “legitimate rape” or who have legitimized the violent and forceful act of rape by labeling resulting pregnancies as “God’s will,” are just plain disdainful of women. They may think they are nice people and they may say they are compassionate, but make no mistake about it – the men who have made these crude statements are neither compassionate nor nice. They are soldiers in a war against women.
Partisan politics ugliness has reached a new crescendo with this war on women. It has become acceptable for politicians to speak in crude and demeaning ways about women’s bodies or our ability to make choices for ourselves. How can a bunch of politicians — who appear to know nothing about women — make choices for us? Yes, some of their supporters are female politicians. I have just one thing to say to them: Shame on you!
Personal decisions about birth control and pregnancy are spiritually and emotionally serious and challenging. Rabbis, ministers and therapists are equipped to guide women who are facing difficult choices. But politicians are not, and I think they know that. This is not about helping women. It is about power.
To those who support these insensitive brutes, who say, “It’s just a difference of opinion,” I say: Shame on you. Women waited too long and fought too hard to win our right to equality and respect. We owe each other vigilance to make sure we don’t turn the clock back.
Oh, if only “men and women could be gentle, and women and men could be strong,” in the words of Judy Chicago. Then “everywhere will be called Eden once again.”
This past Sunday was claimed by many churches around the country ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’. It’s the day that the pastors of these churches have chosen to speak not just of the issues that are important to us all, where religious traditions and values may offer some guidance or wisdom, but to speak directly about the candidate that they are supporting.
Wait! What about separation of church and state? You may well ask. What about the IRS and preserving their 501 c3 status, which does not permit the endorsement or political candidates by such organizations?
Well, it appears that this group of church leaders are intentionally thumbing their nose at the IRS. They are making the claim that they have a 1st amendment right to speak freely from the pulpit on any matter. It also appears to be the case, according to a report on PBS’ ‘Religion and Ethics Weekly’ a couple of weeks back, that the department that might pay attention to such breaches and the regional directors who might respond do not currently exist, so it is most likely that pastors who choose to speak out from the pulpit this Sunday will face no consequences for doing so.
Now, its interesting to note the somewhat non-inclusive nature of this ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’. There are no synagogues or mosques identifying with this movement. Although it has certainly sparked some conversation among rabbis, and I suspect that I’m not the only rabbi who spoke on this issue last Shabbat.
And it does appear that there are considerable numbers of religious leaders who are comfortable parsing the difference between their 1st amendment rights as individuals versus their organization’s limitations based on their tax-exempt status. So, for example, while it would be wrong for a synagogue board to vote and endorse, on behalf of the congregation, a political candidate, should or could a rabbi who works for that congregation publicly do so as an individual in their own right?
Over 600 rabbis, from across the Jewish denominations, have signed their names – as individuals – to ‘Rabbis for Obama’. There is no equivalent website with names listed for Romney, although a rabbi has sought to create such a group and can be contacted online too.
I will tell you now, my name is not on that list. And, while I see that many of my colleagues who I deeply respect as rabbis, have chosen to add themselves to the list, I am not at all comfortable with it. I see little difference between adding one’s name to a publicly available list of this kind, and endorsing a candidate from the pulpit. And, while I am no constitutional scholar, and am willing to accept the possibility that individual religious leaders may have a constitutional right to something, that doesn’t mean that, as responsible religious leaders and teachers, we should necessarily exercise that right. Continue reading
“When Did I Say That?”
Countless times I’ve stepped off the bima, and a congregant has come to me puzzled.
“Nice sermon, Rabbi.”
“Thanks,” I say, waiting for the but. There is always a ‘but’.
“But, a few weeks ago I though you said the opposite.”
I scan my memory. Nothing. Who is this lady? Who asked her to pay attention? I thought our tacit agreement was that rabbi talks and people politely sit, and then the service continues.
Finally, I ask, “What did I say a few weeks ago.” After being reminded, I say, “And I meant that too.”
We often say contradictory things… and politicians, as the word suggests (representing the polis – the people, citizens), and for better and worse, are no different from the rest of us. We change what we say from moment to moment for a number of reasons. We’re all flip-floppers. First, most conversations we have are not about conveying a truth or a fact. If human conversation was that simple, we would speak almost exclusively in lists and bullet-points. In fact, most of human conversation is about making a connection, or at least something more elusive than “truth”. This is an idea gleaned from Kamran Nazeer’s remarkable book, Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism. This is why a teenager, in describing a surprising anecdote to her friend, can string together twenty sentences in a row without taking a breath and at breakneck speed pepper in between the question, “…You know what I mean?” a few times, and her friend, “Like, totally does.” Conversation may very well be more about tone and intension than content. If you know the other person well enough, even if they say the wrong thing, you know what they mean.
In the Talmud (Berachot 42b) Rabbi Abaye was seen saying a blessing over each cup of wine he drank at the Shabbat table – implying that he held the opinion that one blessing at the beginning was not enough (which is the general practice). So Rabbi Isaac ben Josef asked him about this, “So I guess you don’t hold by the rule that one blessing covers the blessing for Shabbat and any subsequent cups of wine during the meal?!” To which Abaye replied, “ I changed my mind.”
“I changed my mind…” From the context it seems that Abaye simply changed his mind about wine, first he planned on only having the one cup, but since he then latter wanted a second cup with the meal, and therefore didn’t have that second (or third, or fourth) cup in mind, he needed to say another blessing. Flip-flopper!!
This seems to be a question of personal preference but not of law… Can one simply change one’s mind in more substantive things?
Second, context changes everything.
One of the most common phrases in the Shulchan Aruch, the great compendium of Jewish Law is the phrase of the introduced in explaining changes in law and practice between the basic text, and the Ashkenazi variations: B’medinot Elu, U’Bazman H’Zeh, “In these land, and in this day and age, we do things differently.” And with that the idea of context, the reality that is lived and is understood to be fluid takes a guiding role in shaping Jewish law. Bob Dylan sang that “the times they are a changing,” and he was right. If you haven’t read his most recent Rolling Stone interview, you’ve gotta try – He argued that ‘you can’t change your present, nor the future, but you could change your past,” (bizarre, but provocative). Nonetheless, context, especially time, especially time, changes everything.
Context is Everything…
The late PLO leader,Yaser Arafat, was once caught on tape saying something impolitic about Israel. “That’s not fair,” he suggested, “I said that in Arabic! To an Arab audience!”
The Daily Show has turned the “you said this, but then you said that” into an art form that “real” news organizations are using competing video clips more and more. Where once the subtleties of context was understood, maybe even celebrated, now it’s the political kiss of death, and context is most often left on the ‘news’ room’s cutting room floor. No wonder political punditry so often feels so homogenized and bland.
If You Never Change Your Mind, Why Have One?
The Observer Effect, whether applied to Physics or Psychology, or Politics, or Economics, suggests that mere fact of observing an effect has an effect on that which is being observed. The truth about a specific economic sanction, or a large stimulus, or a large scale public health policy, is that we don’t really know until we try it, and the likelihood is that tweaks or a change of direction altogether will be needed. The idea that a person’s words have to be spoken like the Book or Proverbs, or the Art of War, each sentence a golden and impermeable ‘Truth’, is impossible. There were Hassidic masters who forbade the printing of their talks. Sure facts matter, and so is honesty, but something about the power of context dies a little when it can be fact-checked.
Changing what one says because it’s expedient is disingenuous and usually people can tell. So, that’s not what I’m thinking about. Politically speaking, I am less concerned about a modification of one’s position on a specific topic – changing times and changing context require it – I am more concerned about a consistency of character, and honesty about why a person changed position. Let the reporters ask, “Why did you say ‘X’ this week and ‘not X’ before that?” Let us hear them when they explain the change of context and the necessary development of their ideas.
If in a fit of honesty a politician says, “I changed my mind,” let us not freak out. Let’s just ask a question.
“You know what I mean?”
It’s the week between the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention and I’ve checked out. That’s not usually my way. Politics have always drawn my attention and been important to me. I cherish the opportunity to participate in our democracy and I don’t take it for granted. I find it distressing to hear people who say that they haven’t voted, or don’t vote, either out of apathy or simply because they don’t like the candidates. Someone has to lead and legislate – and if we don’t voice our choice, we lose the chance to make any difference at all. In any election, outcomes could be far worse if we don’t exercise our right to vote.
Politics are, after all, about what kind of democracy we will shape together. It is about being part of nation comprised of citizens who care about the collective state of our communities and our nation. It is about how we shape our world. It is ultimately an expression of our values. At its best, politics is about how we strive to reach consensus or compromise about critical issues that impact our lives.
Which is why I am so saddened by the state of American politics today. Many of the values I hold dear are pretty hard to find. The current uncompromising culture of American politics is counter to all the potential offered to us by our founders. It’s a theatre of battles that are win-lose – there is no win-win; there are few compromises. Even when there are compromises, they are often achieved after nasty and bruising battles, resulting in compromises that are so mangled as to be nearly worthless. Name-calling has devolved into nasty demonization. I can’t bare to listen to it most of the time.
It hurts – so much is at stake that will impact all of our lives and our world. It’s painful to hear the speeches; I hardly read the political news in the morning paper. The TV and radio attack ads just suck the air out of the room. The distortions and rampant dishonesty are sickening. This is what our country talks about, when the world is facing so many serious problems? This is how we conduct ourselves when so many people are suffering and need help?
So I checked out. I have been salving my broken heart with immersion in an honest competition – the US Open Tennis Tournament. I don’t play the sport – but I love watching these two weeks of games. This year I am especially addicted to it – it’s so much more satisfying than the show being presented by the politicians. Couldn’t everyone have the sportsmanship of Kim Clijsters, who ended her celebrated career with a mixed doubles loss — offering smiles and hugs?
I know — there is a big difference between tennis and politics. But at least tennis has manners. In Jewish tradition we call that derekh eretz. If only our political discourse and its decision-making could have some derekh eretz. It’s recognition that we are all equal at our core — we are all created in the image of the Divine.
That should be the guiding principle of our politics –not ego or self-enrichment. With the guidance of derekh eretz our political discourse would be about how we govern our society with regard for all people; men and women, all races, poor and rich. How can we best offer opportunity while caring for the needs of all Americans?
Our country desperately needs campaigns that are about the character of our country. They should be guided by the values of compassion, justice and mercy, and please – humility. It is up to us to demand it.