It has been said that humanity needs religion to help it frame its moral core. Yet, at least in the Jewish world, every so often, someone somewhere attacks a rabbi for using his or her position to “talk politics” when a rabbi’s job is to “talk Judaism” and nothing else. One recent such attack appeared in a letter to the editor in last week’s Jewish Standard.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day The problem, of course, rests in identification of Judaism as a religion, which is what the term implies. We are not “Jews”; we are Am Yisrael – the nation of Israel. While there is a religious aspect to our identity – call it “Judaism,” if you will – it is not what we are. True, as a nation we are commanded to “be holy” (see, for example, Exodus 22:30 and Leviticus 19:2), but the road to achieving that holiness is purposely paved with a great deal of secular asphalt.
Liturgically, we see this in the “For the sin of” litany that we read on Yom Kippur over and again. We do not atone for ritual sins, but secular ones, such as bad speech and offensive behavior.
Biblically, the proof is found to a large degree in Exodus 21-23, which made up most of last week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim. It is there that the “constitution” of the Israelite people is set forth.
The proof is seen with even greater clarity in Leviticus 19, which is the Torah’s short-form guide to how to achieve holiness. The laws cited here come from that chapter. (Note: While I use the term “Judaism” throughout, please understand that I do not mean it in a religious sense.)
First up comes, “You shall revere every man his mother, and his father…; I am the Lord your God.” Later on, the chapter tells us, “You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man, and fear your God….”
We must respect our parents and we must respect the elderly. So if a rabbi gets up to talk about what he or she perceives is the shafting of the elderly by proposed legislation, is that rabbi talking politics, or talking Judaism?
“And when you reap the harvest of your land,” the chapter commands, “you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and stranger….”
Later on, we are told, “The wages of he who is hired shall not remain with you all night until the morning.” If a rabbi talks about our responsibilities to the poor and to the laborer, is that rabbi talking politics, or Judaism?
To continue: “You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie one to another…. You shall not defraud your neighbor, nor rob him…. You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in measures of length, of weight, or quantity. Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall you have; I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
“You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor…. You shall not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood.”
If a rabbi talks about laws that he or she sees as unfair, that give preferential treatment to one group or another, is that rabbi talking politics, or Judaism?
When a rabbi condemns putting private interests ahead of the public good, is that rabbi talking politics, or talking Judaism?
When a rabbi condemns laws that erode a defendant’s civil rights, is he or she talking politics, or talking Judaism?
“And you shall not swear by My Name falsely, nor shall you profane the Name of your God…. You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind…. You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people….”
If a rabbi talks about unfair campaign practices, mud-slinging, gross distortions, is that rabbi talking politics, or talking Judaism? If a rabbi objects to invoking God’s Name as a campaign tactic because he or she sees it as profaning that Name, is that rabbi talking politics, or Judaism?
To continue: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart…; you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord….”
If a rabbi talks about the whittling away of laws designed to protect minorities and women and to level the playing field so that all people can get a fair and equal shot at the good life, is that rabbi talking politics or Judaism?
To continue one more time: “And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself….”
If a rabbi condemns efforts to deny basic services to the foreigners among us, is he or she talking politics, or talking Judaism?
Being Jewish means having to do things God’s way, not our own. Sometimes, that is not going to go well with our own individual interests, but that is too bad.
As rabbis, it is our job to remind our congregants of that.
As rabbis, it is our job to remind the laity of what values we all must rely on when choosing who will be our political leaders.
A congregant may disagree with a rabbi about whether one political party or another, or one candidate or another, better represents those values. A reader may disagree with a rabbi’s take on what responsibilities the Torah imposes on us with respect to environmental and ecological matters. Such disagreements are fine – as long as you have heard what the rabbi had to say and truly weighed it against your own political beliefs.
No one, however, should ever argue that a rabbi has no right to address those issues in the first place. A rabbi has a sacred right, because that rabbi is not talking politics; he or she is talking Judaism.
He or she is talking about what it is that we are supposed to do and why we are supposed to do it: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…. You shall be holy people to Me…. You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” (Exodus 19:6 and 22:30: Leviticus 19:2.)