The Torah is Political – Rabbis, Jews and Synagogues Ought to Be Too

Given the contentious nature of public debate in this election year and in light of the inauguration of Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th President, my own synagogue and the American Reform Jewish movement have been challenged about the nature of our speech and activism.

What ought we to be saying and when should we be saying it? Should we as a synagogue community speak collectively about the great challenges confronting our nation in the area of health care, economic justice, criminal justice reform, the poor, women’s and LGBTQ rights, racism, immigration, religious minorities, civil rights, climate change, war, and peace?

Or should we refrain, as some have argued in my own community, and concentrate purely upon “spiritual,” religious and ritual matters? What, if any, limitations should rabbis and synagogue communities impose upon themselves?

Before I offer the principles that have guided me over many years, it is important to understand what we mean by “politics.” Here is a good operative definition from Wikipedia:

“Politics (from Greek πολιτικός, “of, for, or relating to citizens”), is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs. It also refers to behavior within civil governments. … It consists of “social relations involving authority or power” and refers to the regulation of public affairs within a political unit, and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy.”

The fundamental question before us is this: Should rabbis and synagogue communities be “political” in the sense of this definition?

I believe we should, and that we have an obligation to speak and act according to the above meaning.

There ought to be, of course, limitations.

First: When we speak our words ought to be based upon Jewish religious, ethical and moral principles, and our goals ought to promote justice, equality, compassion, humility, decency, freedom, and peace not only for Jews but for all people.

Second: We need to remember that we Jews hold multiple visions and positions on the myriad issues that face our community and society. Rav Shmuel (3rd century C.E. Babylonia) said “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim – These and those are the words of the living God” meaning that there are many authentic Jewish values even when they conflict with each other.

The American Jewish community holds no unanimous political point of view, though since WWII between 60% and 90% of the American Jewish community has supported moderate and liberal policies and candidates for political office locally, at the state and national levels. We are by and large a liberal community, but there is a substantial conservative minority among us as well.

The Reform movement (represented by the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., the social justice arm of the Union for Reform Judaism) has for decades consistently taken moral, ethical, and religious positions on public policy issues that come before our government and in our society as a whole, though the RAC does not endorse candidates nor take positions on nominees for high government positions unless specifically determined conditions are met. The RAC’s positions on policies are taken based on the Reform movement’s understanding of the Jewish mission “L’aken ha-olam b’malchut Shaddai – To restore the world in the image of the dominion of God,” which means that we are called upon to adhere to high ethical standards of justice, compassion, and peace.

The following guide me whenever I speak and write:

  1. I do not publicly endorse candidates for high political office and have never done so in my 38 years as a congregational rabbi, except once – this year when it was clear to me that statements, tweets, and policy positions of the Republican candidate for President have proven to be contrary to fundamental liberal Jewish ethical principles;
  2. When I offer divrei Torah, sermons, blog and Facebook posts, I do so always from the perspective of what I believe are Jewish moral, ethical and religious principles. Necessarily, there are times when my statements are indeed “political” but they are not “partisan,” and that is a big difference;
  3. We as individuals or as a community ought never claim to possess the absolute Truth about anything. There are many truths that often conflict with one another. Respect for opposing views is a fundamental Jewish value and the synagogue ought to be a place where honest civil and respectful debate can always occur;
  4. When I speak and write in the media, I have an obligation to clearly state that I am speaking as an individual and not on behalf of our synagogue community or any other Jewish organization.

The Mishnah (2nd century CE) teaches that  “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam – the study of Torah leads to all the other mitzvot.” (Talmud, Shabbat 127a) The Talmud emphasizes as well that action must proceed from learning.

Plato warned that passivity and withdrawal from the political realm carry terrible risks: “The penalty that good [people] pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by [people] worse than themselves.”

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the President of the American Jewish Congress, who spoke in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 963 immediately before Dr. Martin Luther King delivered this “I have a dream speech, said:

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not ‘the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.

America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. … It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, … for the sake of the … idea and the aspiration of America itself.”

Last week at Temple Israel, Dr. Susannah Heschel, the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, told my community that her father believed that the civil rights movement of the 1960s (of which he was an active and intimate partner with Dr. King), enabled the American Jewish community to affirm and reclaim its moral voice.

Perhaps this new administration and government offers the liberal American Jewish community yet again an opportunity to make our voices heard

Rabbi Prinz ended his speech at the Lincoln memorial that day by saying:

“The time, I believe, has come to work together – for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together, to work together that [pledge of allegiance said every morning by children in their schools] from Maine to California, from North to South, may become a glorious, unshakable reality in a morally renewed and united America.”

Rabbi John L. Rosove serves Temple Israel of Hollywood of Los Angeles, CA.  This blog was originally shared on 


Sinat Chinam

We have just observed Tisha B’Av- the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. One of the least understood of the Jewish holy days, Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, the release of the edict of the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and other terrible events in Jewish history. Jewish tradition asks: Why was the second temple destroyed? The rabbinic answer? Sinat chinam— baseless hatred. The rabbis believed that hateful speech can destroy a temple, can destroy a community, can destroy a nation.

I remember when I first was studying the amendments to the United States constitution in 7th grade. Our teacher, Mr. Buncis, taught us a profound lesson one day: that even our most dearly held rights have limits. When we challenged him on that statement with regards to the 1st amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, asserting, as 7th graders are wont to do, that freedom of speech is absolute, he said, “not according to Oliver Wendell Holmes.”

At that time, we didn’t know who Oliver Wendell Holmes was, and, Mr. Buncis being who he was, wasn’t about to make it easy on us. He cancelled class, sent us to the library, and told us to not come back until we knew whom Oliver Wendell Holmes was, and why Mr. Buncis would reference him in this context.

So off we went to the library, unaccompanied. Off we went to look at actual books. If we had only had Wikipedia back in those dark and hormone-filled days, we would have been back in a flash. But we had to wade through actual tomes, card catalogues, biographies. I made my way to the World Book Encyclopedia, selected the volume for the letter “H,” and began to read what you may already know.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932. As I began to read about him, someone else from my class, from deep in the recesses of the stacks of the Brookwood Intermediate School library, shouted out “clear and present danger!” I didn’t know what that meant, so I went back to reading about Holmes. There is so much to say about him; he was a veteran of the American Civil War. Among other things during his long tenure on the Supreme Court, he advocated broad freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Reading this, I wondered why Mr. Buncis pointed us in his direction? Wouldn’t Holmes have agreed with us 7th graders– that there should be no limits on freedom of speech?

It might seem that way, but it turns out that even Oliver Wendell Holmes, champion of free speech in America, understood that there were limits.

In 1919, Holmes wrote for the majority in the Supreme Court in a case called Shenk v. United States. In the opinion he writes, quote:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. […] The question in every case, [Holmes writes] is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

Shouting fire in a theater– I’d heard that phrase before, but didn’t know where it came from. Clear and present danger– I loved that movie, but I didn’t know that Oliver Wendell Holmes had coined the phrase.

So it turns out that our right to free speech isn’t unfettered; when our speech is designed to cause panic, when it seeks to incite evil, we are not free to utter those words, and more, we must be held accountable for our language, lest the walls of our temple coming tumbling down.

There are moments when words bother me, when a person says something I simply abhor, but I choose not to pick that fight, because I know that the person has the right to speak their mind, even if I think they’re wrong. It’s the First Amendment at work, just like Oliver Wendell Holmes would have suggested.

And then there are other moments- times when I can’t stay silent, when, I believe, people of faith and conscience can’t stay silent, because what is going on in society is so seismic, so utterly inconsistent with our values, that silence becomes consent. There are moments when someone is shouting fire in a theater, and we have to recognize it for what it is– intentionally panic inducing, evil inciting, creating a clear and present danger.

This is such a moment. This is a moment when I wonder what I would tell my children if they later asked me why I said nothing.

Let’s be clear. There are deep differences in political philosophy in this congregation and in this country. There are those who believe that government should be minimally involved in the lives of American citizens, and those who believe that government has a larger role. I respect those differences; they stem back to the founding of our great nation, to the room where it happened.

As a rabbi, I want to foster healthy, respectful dialogue about these political differences; I intend to help my community be perhaps one of the few places in our modern lives where we can disagree without being disagreeable. I intend, too, for the community I lead to be proudly political without being partisan: I believe that Judaism demands both things of us. What I am addressing here is not about partisanship. It is about about is how we should treat, approach, respond to a person– any person, of any political persuasion, who falsely shouts fire in a theater to cause panic, to incite evil.

There’s a long and inglorious history of American politicians saying things that are vile and reprehensible. But even against that, the current political climate is extreme.

With which shouts shall we start? There is a candidate for President who implied that gun rights fanatics might consider taking the law into their own hands should the wrong presidential candidate be elected or the wrong judge be appointed. That any presidential candidate of any political party might speak in such a way that leaves it open to interpretation and the debate of talking heads whether or not he meant to advocate for the assassination of his political opponent is morally, spiritually, ethically, and religiously irresponsible at best, and criminal at worst. I condemn this furor-whipping, and I look forward to seeing the condemnation of his words by peoples of all faiths and no faith, by people from every political persuasion. The first amendment right to free speech is limited in certain ways, and this rhetoric steps way over the line.

Yes, the first amendment gives anyone the right to say vile, reprehensible things– denigrating women, mocking people with disabilities,  berating war heroes and their families. That is their first amendment right, as hard as that is to believe, as much as it makes me angry as a Jew, as a human being.

But when a presidential candidate uses his or her pulpit to expound racial hatred over and over again; when they consistently vow to ban an entire group of people from entering this country based on their religion; when a person proudly proclaims they can shoot people on the streets of New York with impunity; and when they imply that violence against someone they disagree with might be warranted, such a person has gone beyond the realm of politics and political party. They have gone beyond what our founders meant when they crafted the 1st Amendment. Mr. Buncis taught me that. Oliver Wendell Holmes taught me that. And our vast Jewish experience teaches us this lesson as well.

When a candidate for the most powerful elected office in the world speaks in this way, they are falsely shouting fire in a theater. They seek not to convince us of their perspective, but rather, they intend to incite panic and fear. They seek to sow seeds of anger. They seek to fan the flames of hatred. When they do this, they are not even pretending to expound a particular political philosophy; they skip right over that legitimate endeavor to incite mistrust, to dehumanize races and classes and genders and ethnicities. Sinat chinam— baseless hatred– is such a person’s stock in trade when they use this language. And, as we see over and over in videos from rallies this election cycle, these strategies work. People who are fed angry, hateful messages are whipped into an angry, hateful frenzy.

I urge you to take time now to consider the sinat chinam, the baseless hatred, that is being spewed in our nation today. Consider well whether you will be silent, for fear of being accused of violating the right to free speech, or whether you will speak out. The walls of the temple of American democracy are trembling.

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher serves Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. 


Making America Great Again?

With the conclusion of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, echoes from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are filling the airwaves, including Trump’s campaign tagline and promise to “Make America Great Again.”  It would be fair to say that nearly every presidential candidate has a vision for “making America great;” however, it is this campaign’s use of the word again which is somewhat irksome, especially at this season in the Jewish calendar.

This Shabbat is the 17th of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar, and the beginning of a period known as t’lata d’puranuta, “The Three Weeks of Admonition.”  (As the 17th is considered a minor fast day, the fast is delayed until Sunday.) The three weeks that follow are considered a time of mourning, leading to our communal observance of the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av), and our annual commemoration of the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, and other calamities that have befallen the Jewish people throughout time.

One of the major ritual practices associated with Tisha b’Av is the chanting of the biblical book of Eicha (Lamentations).  The penultimate verse of the book reads, “Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, / And let us come back; / Renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21, Jewish Study Bible translation, p. 1602).  This particular verse offers a brief, uplifting moment of comfort at the conclusion of an otherwise bleak biblical text.  Additionally, the verse is recited at the conclusion of every Torah service in the synagogue, and is chanted when the Torah is returned to the Ark — hashiveinu A-do-nai ei-lecha v’nashuva, chadeish ya-meinu k’kedem. 

To be brought back to God, to have our days renewed, and to be given another chance in the wake of tragic circumstances all make sense.  But to have our days renewed as of old, implies that things used to be better, that there is some vision of the past that has been lost that we somehow need to recapture, and that God will somehow provide for us again.

The recitation of chadeish yameinu k’kedem (renew our days as of old) is familiar, comforting, and is a moment in the synagogue service where most people sing along.  Yet this verse presents a problematic view — namely, that our best days are truly behind us and we seek to return to them.  While it is most likely that the original text from Lamentations was written in a time of exile the destruction of the temple was fresh in the author’s mind, these days, we would do better to ask ourselves, “What is the as of old that we seek to return to Jewishly?”  Most of us are divested from the notion of rebuilding a sacrificial temple in Jerusalem, and two thousand years of distance from the ancient priestly rites means that what once was cannot lead to what will ultimately be. 

Similarly, suggesting that we should be engaged in the process of “making America great again,” implies that America, at one time or at various points in our history, was great, and we need to go back to reclaim that nostalgic understanding of greatness.  But America will never look like it once did.  How it might have appeared is different to each individual, a personalized painting of yesteryear, with brushstrokes smoothing over painful, long-buried realities, a fictionalized story that we tell ourselves so often that we convince ourselves of its veracity.  Life is never as glorious “as it used to be.”

Or can life and our world be somehow better?  We might do better to ask ourselves, “Where are we going?”  Every year at our celebration of the Pesach seder, we are (in the words of Rabban Gamliel) to see ourselves as if we went forth from slavery in Egypt.  Where some of our biblical ancestors may have waxed poetically about life in Egypt and expressed a desire to return, our seder reminds us that we must be eternally forward-looking, that l’shana ha-ba’ah bi-y’rushalayim (next year in Jerusalem) is not a hope whereby we return to the past, but a vision for hopeful future redemption, a better time, still ahead of us.  That the Torah itself concludes without the Israelites setting foot in the Promised Land, with Moses only seeing the land from afar, conveys the notion that the story, our collective journey, is not yet complete, and we are still completing the journey.

Our past, our days of old, can only serve to inform us and remind us of what was. We need to build for a better future, learning from “our days of old,” but we don’t need to go back in time to relive the concept of again, the idea of what once was.  Crafting a vision for the future is an immensely difficult task, but articulating a forward-thinking and forward-looking hope of a world redeemed, remains a characteristically Jewish idea.

Rabbi Paul Jacobson serves Temple Avodat in River Edge, New Jersey.