Partisan Or Political?

It is difficult to know where values end and politics begin.

There have been a number of articles recently declaiming that rabbis should not speak about politics. Sometimes they have clarified that they do not mean that rabbis shouldn’t speak about values; values, they say, are quite different than politics.  It is difficult to know what someone actually means when they say this.  I think we all agree that rabbis – indeed clergy in general – should not tell people for whom to vote, and it is certainly the case that speaking about policy can be more complex than what a given person’s knowledge can address. Policies are often complex, relying on deep knowledge of a subject.  Although it is also true that it is not uncommon for the people voting on said policies to not have deep knowledge of a subject, whether the vote is on a referendum or by a politician in office. One hopes that one acquire some understanding of a subject when it seems important by reading widely and deeply.  So it can’t be the complexity of policy that should prevent us from speaking about them.

I suspect that it is rather the feeling that speaking about policy is, in itself, partisan.  It certainly can be, but it need not. Speaking about politicians is partisan, but speaking about policy should be a form of speaking out about the implementation of values. For that is what policies are: the implementation, in the world, of our values. For example, if there is a policy that disenfranchises voters based on race, when we fail to speak against that policy, we are failing to support the value of equality under the law.

There are certainly grounds to speak with caution: “Preaching the newspaper headlines,” as it’s sometimes called, often seems to be a sort of intellectual laziness. One finds a position with which one is in agreement or disagreement and then brings a generic verse in its favor or disfavor. A million citations of “Tzedek tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice you shall pursue)” testifies to the weakness of this kind of preaching.  One might also argue that in speaking about difficult societal problems, we would be far better off teaching in a “flatter” mode – not from the bimah on Shabbat morning, but afterwards, sitting together so that people have an opportunity to respond and discuss. These are worthy caveats. The power of authority that lies in a clergy person’s speech shouldn’t be abused, but that is a far cry from claiming that issues important enough to speak of from that position only come along once in a lifetime.  Even to say so is surely the voice of a privileged person, one whose children do not risk being shot down in the street because they were the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood, or of a person who does not flee an oppressive government looking for a country which will take them in – or any of many, many topics which the Torah explicitly addresses: refugee status, oppression, poverty, a just society, the role of government in addressing these issues: these and more are all matters that have been addressed in the Torah, the Talmud, the Midrash, Halachic Responsa (Jewish legal writing) the many commentators throughout history.

It is not merely that the Torah is a political document, Torah –Torah broadly- is a policy document (or actually, many, many policy documents). This is not to say that Torah should be used lightly to support specific political actions, and we should always acknowledge both that there are many people of good will who differ in their approach to how to solve problems, and also that Torah itself often – if not always- lives in the place of tension between opposing impulses: universalism and particularism being one set of these opposing principles, and they are applied in all kinds of ways based on the time and the place and the judge who judges and the kind of society that judge lives in. But what we cannot do is claim that avoiding making judgments is a Torah value, or that there can be the teaching of Torah without bringing attention to the conflicts in values and to the way that our society can and should try to address them.

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