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September 15, 2020 5:12 am

Rabbis and Politics

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

Rabbis should stay out of politics. This may sound strange coming from me. I have consistently deplored religious politics — and the negative, destructive influence that rabbis and religious parties have on Israeli life. But I believe there is a difference between party politics and political issues.

In Britain, there was always a convention that rabbis should not talk politics from the pulpit. In the US, on the other hand, rabbis did argue from the pulpit for what they believed was in their community’s interests. I think the American way is healthier, and more honest and effective — if risky. A rabbi taking a political stand is bound to offend at least some of the congregation. But then, which rabbi worth their salt does not sometimes?

I admired the example of the UK’s late Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz. He publicly threw down his British war decorations in 1947, when he protested the harsh and anti-Jewish policies of the British Mandate. He sacrificed his rabbinic career in Britain for his principles, and was blocked several times from becoming Chief Rabbi. Later on as Chief Rabbi of South Africa, he was a harsh critic of apartheid policies and was eventually forced to leave.

Much as I hate politicians of every color and affiliation, I realize that every society needs a structure, a rule of law, and a way of governing. Yet it is true that politics is a corrupt profession. Religion, in theory at least, represents a system of honesty, morality, and incorruptibility.

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I can’t think of a worse example of dirty politics than the current situation in the US. Spoiled, petty, vindictive, ambitious, and self-serving politicians on both sides of the spectrum are more interested in doing damage than good. Losers refuse to accept the decisions of the electorate, and devote their time to abusing their opponents. It is said that a country gets the politicians it deserves.

This current election is the most divisive and dishonest I have experienced. There is so much anger and hatred that many people I know really fear for the future. I am more sanguine.

The American system is known as “pork barrel politics.” All the pigs have their snouts in the trough and suck out of it whatever they can for their own interests. “I will vote for your bridge to nowhere if you vote for my road to nowhere,” etc. And so it is in the Jewish community. If one Hassidic community votes Republican and the other Democrat, it might be solely because it will get more funding from whoever it supports.

Israelis and Americans are currently facing some crucial political and moral decisions.

They both have political leaders who are populists and corrupt in different ways and to different degrees. They both have a significant percentage of their citizenry that trusts them, while the other percentage thinks they are disasters morally and politically.

There is a difference between party politics and political issues. I believe rabbis, as much as anyone else, should indeed get involved in matters that concern and involve them, their communities, and their people. They should explain to their congregations why they agree or disagree with specific politicians or specific policies.

Because this is a system of self-interest and self-preservation, we should focus on issues rather than personalities. I can agree with many of the issues the Democratic Party supports, but not necessarily with their solutions. I can agree with some issues the Republican Party advocates, but not others.

I will not try to tell my congregation who to vote for. But I will ask them to consider what matters most to them, whether it is economic, social, or political, and vote for the party that they think will best serve their interests. And I will also tell them that in my opinion, and despite being a raving left-wing inclined peacenik, I happen to think that the present administration has done a great service for peace in the Middle East by refusing to follow a sterile path of appeasement. That does not mean that the issue of Israel should be the only factor in deciding. Economic and social issues matter very much, as do ecological challenges and the use and preservation of natural resources.

Voting is a privilege we should not waste. We know that Jews are divided and cannot all agree on anything. So it is up to us as individuals to do as we see fit. A rabbi’s job is to encourage his flock to get involved on whatever level in trying to improve the state of  society according to their moral and ethnic values. And may the Lord help us if we get it wrong.

Jeremy Rosen is a rabbi and educator now based in New York.

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