Seven rabbis have their say

Seven rabbis have their say

Political forum in North Jersey is first of its kind

At Tuesday night’s forum are, from left, Rabbis Randall Mark, Elyse Frishman, Stephen Wylen, Shmuel Goldin, David Senter, Ellen Bernhardt, and Joshua Finkelstein. Jeanette Friedman

Almost 250 people braved Tuesday night’s storm to hear what seven North Jersey rabbis had to say about next week’s election.

The rabbis – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform – spoke at a forum at the Wayne YM-YWHA moderated by Emmy-winning journalist Sara Lee Kessler.

The discussions covered everything from the war in Iraq, possible confrontations with Iran, the Bush doctrine, the imposition of democracy on the Middle East, and other contributing factors to the current state of affairs.

A series of questions about Israel and its concerns generated a consensus that Jews cannot make this a one-issue election, and that both candidates were strong on Israel. The sticking point seemed to be on whether or not an American president should push Israel toward peace.

Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt of the Gerrard Berman Day School/Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland spoke strongly in favor of making Israel Jewish voters’ No. 1 priority, but she issued a traditional caveat: “The Torah teaches that if a people offers peace, we must take it. If we offer peace, and they reject it, we can go to war. The Bush administration had a laissez-faire attitude that strengthened and emboldened Iran. Now Israel’s security, which must be paramount, is at risk.”

All the rabbis agreed that Jews should pursue social justice, care for the poor and the sick, and be caretakers of the planet. Rabbi Randall Mark of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne said that Maimonides’ Mishna Torah explicitly said a doctor must lower his fee if a patient cannot pay, and that if that is still not possible, the community must pay for him.

No issue was left untouched, even the troubled economy, for which the rabbis had few answers. Asked if “spreading the wealth around” via taxing the rich and giving the middle class a break was socialism, Rabbi Stephen Wylen of Wayne’s Temple Beth Tikvah said that taxing the rich to care for the poor has been part of the Jewish tradition for 3,000 years. Rabbi David Senter of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes said that Jews have to take special care during hard times because people have a tendency to think only of themselves and forget about the needs of others.

On Roe vs. Wade, all agreed that in Judaism abortion is permitted to save the life of the mother, even during delivery. Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes said that if a woman’s right to choose is left to the states, Jews – as a minority – will not have the ability to influence state policy, and he prefers the protection of the federal government on this issue.

All approved of embryonic stem cell research, but Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, who is Orthodox, demurred, indicating that it was problematic because it is forbidden to create and destroy embryos solely for that purpose.

On global warming, all agreed that Jews are biblically commanded to be stewards of the planet. Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes said there are strong political differences on who should regulate emissions and clean-ups, the market or the government. She finds it astonishing that many people believe that global warming is a construct and not reality and worries that economic woes may impede taking care of the planet.

Wylen spoke out against teaching creationism and evolution as if they were both science-based. Quoting Maimonides, he noted that creationism as taught by the Christian right is different from the creation lessons of Jewish tradition, which does not deny evolution.

The rabbis all seemed to conclude, some reluctantly, that following Jewish tradition, halacha, and ethics, one would have to vote for the Democratic ticket.

Two, Goldin and Senter, seemed to be genuinely torn and undecided. Yet in his concluding comments – the only statement of the evening that elicited spontaneous applause – Goldin was the sole rabbi to address the elephant in the room: Jewish racism as a factor in the decision-making process on Election Day.

He said, “There are those who, during this process, have shown prejudice against Obama because of his race. If you decide to vote, vote for the right reasons.”

Throughout the evening, the rabbis talked about the e-mails and rumors permeating the campaign. All agreed that telling negative truths about public figures is not loshen hara (speaking evil of others), but that lies amounts to slander and libel and are indeed offenses against halacha.

Citing his family’s immigrant background, and their gratitude for being able to live as free people in America, Finkelstein, who remembered being brought to the voting booth as a child, told the audience that the Jews must be a light unto the nations and that voting is a mitzvah. Others urged voters to bring their children and grandchildren along, so that voting becomes part of the American Jewish tradition.

The event, the first of its kind in the area, was sponsored by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Community Relations Council in conjunction with the Y, Temple Beth Tikvah, and Cong. Shomrei Torah, both of Wayne. The organizations’ disclaimers noted that they do not endorse any candidates, positions, or ideas, and that the rabbis spoke as individuals and not as leaders of their congregations.

Unlike the election itself, instead of an expected verbal blood bath between right and left – especially with so many polarizing issues – it turned out to be a congenial and informative evening. The rabbis, who joked that they weren’t used to having their talk time restricted and that their congregations didn’t listen to anything they had to say anyway, found that they more or less agreed about everything.

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