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July 28, 2015 1:52 pm

When Shul Talk Goes Nuclear: Should Pulpit Rabbis Publicly Discuss Iran?

avatar by Sean Savage / JNS.org

The new @TheIranDeal Twitter handle from the White House.

The new @TheIranDeal Twitter handle from the White House.

JNS.org – As the U.S. Congress debates whether or not to support the Iran nuclear deal, the same discussion is taking place in local Jewish communities around the country, where many Jews will inevitably look to their congregational rabbis for guidance on how they should view an agreement that many are criticizing for endangering the security of their brethren in Israel.

But pulpit rabbis are not members of Congress, and synagogues are not political advocacy organizations. So how and when is it appropriate for them to comment publicly on the Iran issue? JNS.orgspoke with rabbis across the denominational spectrum to get a sense of what they consider to be the appropriate balance to strike.

“North American rabbis have to navigate carefully between defending Israel and their positions as Americans [in order to] take a stand on political issues,” Rabbi Joshua Weinberg—president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), an organization that works to enhance Reform Judaism’s connection to Israel—told JNS.org.

The Iran deal is “probably one of the most divisive issues in the Jewish community” right now, said Weinberg, explaining that if a rabbi’s personal views on the Obama administration’s Iran deal clash with those of his or her congregation at large, there is a fine line regarding what the rabbi can say about the issue in public.

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Rabbi Daniel Berman, a Conservative rabbi at Temple Reyim in Newton, Mass., believes that addressing difficult topics like the Iran deal depends on factors such as the “particular community’s interests and level of engagement with political or policy questions, and the comfort level and strength of the rabbi in offering sermons that touch these issues.”

While Berman is open to expressing his views about political questions in certain situations, he said he prefers fostering communal conversation.

“I am much more interested in supporting meaningful dialogue in the community, listening to people’s questions, and helping them form personal responses by looking closely at the deal rather than a ‘speaking from the bima’ approach,” Berman told JNS.org.

Rabbi Barry Gelman, the leader of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOS), said it is important that rabbis comment on the Iran deal “in terms of our role as spiritual leaders.” But he said rabbis should be careful when considering wading into sensitive political debates such as this one.

“Rabbis should not shy away from taking unpopular positions, but in a case like this, where experts disagree, rabbis should proceed with caution. Otherwise, our ability to inspire and be viewed as authorities on areas where we do claim expertise can be damaged,” Gelman told JNS.org.

At the same time, the Iran deal has significant ramifications for Israelis and Jews beyond the political fallout in America. Iran is one of the largest state sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East, supporting groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah—who have engaged in several wars with Israel during the past decade. As such, many Israelis fear that Iran will use the $150 billion of sanctions relief it secured in the deal to provide financial and military support to those terror groups.

“Rabbis should use the pulpit to sensitize their congregants to these realities, affirm our support for the State of Israel, and urge our government to be diligent in thwarting terrorists’ threats,” Gelman said.

ARZA’s Weinberg also feels rabbis have a role in guiding their congregations on the topic of Israel. He called rabbis “go-to” sources on the Jewish state who should be “well-read on the issues” affecting it.

“I don’t buy the excuse that they’re not nuclear scientists and have nothing to say,” Weinberg said of pulpit rabbis.

“Rabbis are representatives of the Jewish community,” and “part of our opinion on the deal has to take into consideration the effect on Israel,” he added.

For many Jews, the Iran deal debate is part of the ongoing challenge of determining how local communities should discuss Israel.

Temple Reyim’s Berman pointed to last summer’s Israel-Hamas war in Gaza as a recent example of an important event for rabbis and Jewish leaders to engage with.

“I wrote a piece in our newsletter and led two community conversations that we had in our sanctuary to allow people to address and respond to the conflict,” Berman said.

The Gaza conflict presented stark challenges to global Jewry, with anti-Semitic attacks inspired by criticism of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge sharply rising around the world, forcing many Jews to grapple with both political and physical challenges. Simultaneously, some members of the Jewish community were also critical of Israel’s war effort.

Due to this dichotomy, finding constructive and creative ways to engage the Jewish community on the tough challenges Israel faces—from Hamas to the Iran deal—is becoming an increasingly vital component of Jewish communal life. Berman said that having conversations about the Gaza war, and writing about current events in the synagogue newsletter, “was helpful in strengthening our community and helping members better understand the various issues that were at stake.”

Weinberg believes that rabbis should feel free to express their opinions, but that they must do so “carefully,” especially when commenting on topics such as Israel and the Iran deal.

“A rabbi’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” he said, adding that rabbis have a “teaching role” and “should offer a broad spectrum of views and insert their own views.”

The Jewish community will likely continue to grapple with the Iran deal for the foreseeable future. Against that backdrop, UOS’s Gelman said rabbis “should remind their congregants to educate themselves on the details of the agreement and make their voices heard to their elected officials.”

“This is not merely a political right, but a religious duty stemming from our universal obligations to the society in which we live,” he said.

—With reporting by Alina Dain Sharon

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