Tag Archives: Shammai

Politics and the Pulpit

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

Posted on October 17, 2012

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Bringing the Light

The schools of Hillel and Shammai disagree (surprise!) about the way Chanukah candles are to be lit. Are we to light one candle the first night and then add one each day, or are we to begin with eight candles, and subtract one each day?

The Shammaite approach is understood by later interpreters (BT Shabbat 21b) this way: Chanukah is a reflection of Sukkot, and by starting with eight candles on the first night, and then subtracting one candle each night, we mirror way in which the bulls were sacrificed during the fall harvest festival. The approach also has the advantage of more accurately reminding us of the legend of that little cruse of oil whose light lingered far longer than expected.

And yet, the approach of the Hillelites was accepted. We began lighting our chanukiyot last Tuesday night with one light, and will conclude this evening with eight. The rationale: ”in matters of holiness, we ascend rather than descending.” Our eight nights of celebration have seen the light grow brighter and brighter, and tonight all of the candles will be lit.

Tevet, Sixth Night

Tevet over El Paso, December 26, 2011

There’s an optimism inherent in the light that grows stronger each day, and on the last few nights of the holiday it is as if the very heavens rise to meet our efforts at adding light to the world. The darkest, longest nights of the year are the mostly moonless nights near the end of the month of Kislev, always near the Winter Solstice. These are the first days of Chanukah. As Chanukah ends, a new moon appears in the western sky at sunset, a little brighter and for a little bit longer on each of the last nights of the holiday. With solstice behind us (at least in those years when Chanukah “comes late”), the nights grow shorter; the waxing moon means they grow brighter, too.

Jews in the northeastern states (where the preponderance of US chanukiyot will be lit) may have to take it on faith this year. But those of us in the rest of the country stand a good chance to see the moon of Kislev in the western sky at lighting time. Let’s take a moment — perhaps just after the candles have guttered — to stand in the light of that waxing moon. As this year’s lighting comes to an end, let’s recommit ourselves to the ascent. May we bring light.

Posted on December 27, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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