Since the eve of Rosh Hashanah, print journalism and the blogosphere have abounded with conversations about what rabbis will be talking about when congregants sit in the pews during the holiday season.
After this summer, there is no shortage of material. A rise in anti-Semitism worldwide; an increase in violence on college campuses; the murders of four teenage boys, three of them Israeli and one Palestinian; a 50-day war with Hamas in Gaza, where more than 75 percent of Israel was within reach of rockets, not to mention the worsening situation in Ukraine and the growth of ISIS – all this should be enough material for any rabbi.
Thus, I was surprised to see an article in the New York Times that claimed that many rabbinic colleagues – most maintaining anonymity for fear of their views affecting their positions – would not broach Israel, or events surrounding Israel, as a sermon topic, for fear of offending the right or left.
Further to the point, Peter Beinart wrote in Haaretz that rabbis should steer away from sermons about Israel these High Holidays because they are “B-grade pundits.” His point expressly implies that rabbis are ill equipped to speak about Israel effectually. Additionally, Beinart said, the real issue with the Jewish world today is illiteracy with Jewish texts, not Israel, and that is where rabbis should concentrate.
My response to Peter Beinart and the many anonymous rabbis quoted by the New York Times is simple: Don’t wimp out.
What congregations around the globe want from their leaders is simple. They want courage. They want leaders with convictions and principles and passion. Congregants want to be infected with that passion by their rabbis. As clergy members, we have been deputized to share our interpretation – both of texts and current events – and to lend a Jewish voice and lens to the situation in which we find ourselves living. Few people want to come to synagogue to hear a tofu-flavored thought about the Torah portion these days. They want to know what you think and why you think it. That is, after all, why they hired you.
As with all things that require courage, speaking up and out might make you vulnerable. That is a good thing. I contend that the very openness that is fostered in being honest is the secret ingredient that allows us to be sensitive and thoughtful in crafting our message, so that other views and opinions can be heard and tolerated, even if disagreed with. Walking that line and making many feel included is sacrosanct. Clergy members can finesse that line better than most.
Isn’t that why we heard the calling to join the cloth in the first place? Didn’t we want to change the world and make it a better place? I chose to be a rabbi because I wanted to lend my voice to the shaping of this planet. Religion is not a sideline sport. It necessitates me getting on the field and being open and raw. Our shying away from the hard conversations will not make that change, and it most definitely will not inspire our flocks. That silence leads rabbis to a career limited to hatch ’em, match ’em, and dispatch ’em. While those touchstones are sacred, I know that my job calls for more from me.
In my congregation, I speak about Israel as much as I speak about any topic. Everyone who walks through our doors knows that we have unconditional love for our Israel. But they also know that we can ask tough questions and be lovingly critical in an effort to make our homeland better and ourselves too. Isn’t that the essence of religion? Shouldn’t that be the ideal we strive for?
To my colleagues in the pulpit, I encourage you to ignore the New York Times and brush off Beinart, who is at best a B-grade rabbinic adviser. Instead, muster the courage to speak your heart and your passion these High Holidays. Infect your congregation with your courage, and challenge them to lead. Let them know whether you are left or right, critical or complimentary. Your baring your own soul will help effect change. That is the core component of the High Holiday season. I posit that doing so will stoke your members to make a difference in their workplaces and among their friends. And frankly, after all that has happened in our world recently, I think the courage to speak our mind is what we need most right now.
Let’s celebrate that courage and not squelch it. That would be a sin too great to burden this season.