What Should Rabbis Talk About?

In recent weeks, several of my colleagues both on this blog and elsewhere, have written thoughtful articles on current issues of national concern. Issues such as immigration reform, vaccinations, perspectives on scientific research, and more. Like all the pieces that we share here, these articles are designed to stimulate thought and dialogue. Sometimes they express a strongly-held opinion, but more often they seek to contribute to an ongoing conversation by bringing in personal experience, or pastoral experience from working with others.  Often they bring some Jewish textual wisdom into their writing, usually to demonstrate the existence of Jewish conversations throughout the centuries that might provide ethical or spiritual narratives that embed the contemporary debate in something much larger and older.

As I’ve read these various articles I am, of course, also interested in the commentary – the comments – that are generated by a wide variety of readers. Those who agree and those who disagree. Just as with the commentaries upon commentaries that we find in the Talmud and centuries of Jewish debate, the commentary can add considerably to the depth and impact of the article itself. Many times my own personal perspective on an issue has been broadened when, having read something with which I thought I was in wholehearted agreement, I then read comments that present cogent and thoughtful arguments for an opposing point of view.

However, in recent weeks I’ve noticed a different kind of commentary that, while perhaps not surprising in the broader context of the culture of social media, nevertheless causes me enormous sadness. Commentary that, rather than presenting a counterpoint to the article, responds to the author with utter disdain for their audacity to offer an opinion on the topic altogether as a rabbi. Some commentary seeks to diminish the very essence of people who do their work with care and the utmost of integrity using language that I cannot imagine would be used in any genuine face-to-face encounter.  While I wish to call for all who wish to enrich and broaden the thoughtful debate on issues to do so in a way that holds firm to Jewish ethical principles of human interaction (see teachings on Derech Eretz – respect, Bushah – causing embarrassment, for example), I also wish to address the deeper question of what rabbis speak about, how we speak about them, and why.

When we study Torah, and the vast vault of Jewish literature and wisdom that the teachers of our tradition have generated over centuries, we quickly see that Judaism is infinitely more than a set of ritual practices or ancient stories of our origins. It is a path through life, with wisdom teachings on every aspect of that life, from health and safety issues, to business ethics, to ethical ways of engaging with and treating foreigners, to the obligation to create a just society that takes care of its poor and takes steps to protect the most disenfranchised. Now, it is the case that we often cannot simply lift a quote or a law from a particular moment in time or place in those texts as a proof-text for a particular perspective on a contemporary issue. But these texts often provide us with very worthwhile guidance on how to sift through both the fact and the opinions on a contemporary issue. They can sometimes offer us another way to frame the conversation (a conversation on giving tzedakah that might start with judgments on how the tzedakah will be used, gets broadened to a consideration of the dignity of the receiver when viewed through the lens of Jewish teachings, for example). And yes, sometimes, there is a clearly expressed ethical position in our tradition that, while not perhaps helping us determine whether a specific piece of legislation is well-worded or designed or not, can point to a Jewish way of thinking about what kind of changes get us closer to a vision of the best society we can be.  And it’s never black or white. Society has changed a great deal over the centuries, and the sources we might consult may no longer do what we need them to do in a contemporary situation.

We live in an age when experts of all kinds are being challenged and questioned. That is not a bad thing, although it does sometimes make it harder for a society to chart a clear path forward on certain issues. When rabbis speak on issues of pressing relevance to our lives – issues that are also being debated by scientists, by politicians, by doctors, and more, it is to add to the breadth of perspectives that are to be found in the public square on these issues. Because if we believe that our faith tradition has more to offer than lighting candles on Shabbat, celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or keeping kosher, then it is the job of the teachers of that tradition to bring to light the enormous wealth of material from our tradition that can continue to help us navigate our path through life today. That life is shaped by a myriad of forces, decisions, expert guidance, and ethical choices, each and every day. And that is why rabbis need to talk about these issues too. And if you disagree with what you hear or what you read, present your arguments and offer alternative points of view. I believe that we can do all of that… amicably.

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