The pros and cons of talking about current events at shul.
The sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur give synagogue rabbis the opportunity to influence the largest number of listeners — and put rabbis under the most exacting scrutiny. Rabbis across the spectrum will try to connect the classical themes of the season to the lived reality of their congregants. Any advice about the lives of congregants, though, might touch on deep political divisions.
This year, when your rabbi gets up to speak, do you want him or her to talk politics?
An argument for avoiding all political issues has at least two supports:
• The rabbi has earned expertise in Judaism but might have no special expertise in current controversies.
• Congregants join synagogues that reflect their commitments to Jewish ritual. The congregants might not share political commitments. A political sermon inevitably will make some congregants feel unwelcome at precisely the synagogue where they should belong.
On the other hand, Jewish educator Deborah Klapper says, “If you can’t call out evil and call for good, what’s the point?”
But how to deal with morality without merely presenting partisan talking points? Rabbi Alon Tolwin of Aish HaTorah Detroit in Oak Park explains, “I don’t think that it is wise … to talk about politics, per se. Yet, with the issues today, it is very easy to address the morality that Judaism teaches. If the congregants connect the drashah [teaching] to a partisan issue, that is their deal.”
Tolwin believes it appropriate to deepen the discussion when political partisans pick terminology that makes complex problems seem simple. For example, he asserts, rabbis may object to describing abortion as only a question of “reproductive rights,” which leaves out all other considerations.
Rabbi Robert Gamer of Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park deals with similar concerns.
“I don’t often stray into political discussions, but I have recently with regard to the issue of abortion access. Many congregants did not know there are times that Halakhah permits, forbids or even requires abortion,” he says.
“I always talk about any issue from a strictly Jewish perspective,” he says, “and I try to present the various halakhic views.
“During the holidays, I plan on a sermon about extremism (on both the left and the right) and how that is impacting Jewish life — from Christian Nationalism and radical secularism. I think it is important that we, as Jews, understand that while there is a separation of church and state, that many ‘political issues are really religious issues. Access to abortion and contraception are two such topics, but so are circumcision, shechitah [ritual slaughter] and more.”
‘Politics Has Its Place’
If some people believe that rabbis should try to avoid political statements, Joe Feldman of Bloomfield Hills says, “It is an important responsibility to bring politics to the pulpit.”
He particularly welcomes rabbinical input when organizations have values attractive to Jews, but also have leadership “both antisemitic and anti-Israel.”
Max Kresch, formerly of Oak Park, now of Israel, warns against rabbinical overreach. Kresch observes that last summer, when he was administering vaccinations, some religious Jews would explain either that their rabbis had ordered them to get vaccinated or had prohibited them from getting vaccinated. While he preferred to hear the ruling in favor of vaccinations, Kresch insists that “the only medical advice rabbis should be giving to their congregants is ‘Listen to your doctor!’”
As a congregant, Allen R. Wolf of Bloomfield Hills accepts that his rabbi will offer guidance in partisan matters, even if the advice is imperfect.
“The Torah is supposed to be a guide for living. A rabbi is supposed to be a learned person who helps a person interpret the lessons of the Torah … It is a rabbi’s obligation to share his or her insights even on issues that may seem political — that is their obligation — to help guide people in everyday living.”
Whatever the rabbi teaches, though, ultimately, Wolf asserts, each individual has to reach his or her own conclusions. “Don’t agree with the rabbi? Doesn’t make him or her wrong and you right or vice versa.”
Rabbi Jeff Falick of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism says, “I’m probably not the core demographic you’re seeking here, but I talk about ‘politics,’ i.e., stuff that’s important to our survival as a nation, all the time … Just last week, I gave an extra-long talk in person and streamed to over 200 folks about ‘Christian Nationalism Ascendant.’
“As I said,” he continues, “I’m probably not the kind of rabbi you would compare against, but our attitude may still be informative. If it affects us as Jews and humanists, then it merits discussion.”
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, dean of Modern Torah Leadership (and husband of Deborah Klapper), summarizes his thoughts on the topic: “Rabbis cannot, and congregants should not, see political issues as off limits.
“Rabbis are wise to make such pronouncements sparingly, and with humility — they should make clear that even their wisest, most Torah-grounded judgments do not exclusively or unquestionably represent God’s true will. But they are entitled, and sometimes obligated, to vigorously seek to persuade their congregants to act in accordance with their best judgment as to God’s true will.”
What Does the Law Say?
Can talking politics get the synagogue into trouble with the Internal Revenue Service? The synagogue, as a tax-exempt religious entity, is restricted from political activity. Crossing the boundary into political advocacy could theoretically endanger the synagogue’s tax-exempt status.
But an expert in the laws covering freedom of speech and freedom of religion, Robert Sedler, professor emeritus at Wayne State University Law School, says, “Political advocacy is permitted under the First Amendment. For that reason, the restriction on political activity by tax-exempt organizations is narrowly construed. It is limited to partisan political activity. All that is prohibited is endorsing a candidate by name.”