On Rabbis, Religion and North Carolina Politics

Abortion. Moral Mondays. It is one of those times when there is no neutral, when to keep silent also speaks. What's a rabbi in North Carolina to do? Here is what I shared with my congregation this past Saturday:

A friend said to me this week, "You're our rabbi. We're looking to you for some guidance, some inspiration." It was July 4, 2011 when we arrived to Durham from Israel -- two years and two days ago. I am still getting used to the idea that you want me, who reads the same newspapers as you do, to say something about what is happening in those newspapers. To be honest, as I expressed to the congregation during my interview process, I am not really an activist rabbi and this part of the job probably makes me the most uncomfortable, not only because, while I consider myself well-read and try to keep up with what is happening in the news, there are many people in the congregation who are considerably more well-versed in North Carolina politics than I, but also because the whole mixing of religion and politics is fraught with danger, both for politics and religion.

First, religion can stifle political debate. I don't want a society in which politicians make decisions about issues affecting our State by quoting scripture. I love the bible but too often it is a conversation stopper. Someone quotes a verse -- what else is there to say? Too often the use of religious language stops, rather than engenders, the debate that I believe is how we arrive at wisdom. My teacher, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, wrote in his book, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics:

I believe in the Aristotelian model for attaining social wisdom -- namely, that all views should be aired in the marketplace of ideas, with none given a priori authority...I would seek to determine America's commonalities in thought and values inductively, testing for agreement amid the diversity of traditions and attitudes brought to the table. This approach also parallels both the method and "the sound and fury" of each page of the Talmud, where multiple opinions must be heard and evaluated before a decision is made...

In debating critical societal matters, religion should play a role, but I don't think it should play the trump card that it too often does.

I also worry about too much religion in politics because the majority religion's understanding of morality often tramples upon the religious freedom of minorities. It is a great irony that the very law -- HB 695 -- recently passed by the NC Senate which in its own words aims "to protect its citizens from the application of foreign law that would result in the violation of a fundamental constitutional right of a natural person" contains within it provisions that threaten the Jewish community's constitutional right to practice Judaism with regard to abortion. Jewish legal sources oppose abortion in many cases but the Jewish tradition does not believe the life of the fetus is equal to human life. Consequently, if the fetus threatens the life or health of the mother, according to Jewish tradition, the fetus must be aborted. Reasonable people can and do disagree with Judaism's approach to abortion and its understanding of when life begins. Neither I, nor the Jewish community, seek to impose Judaism's beliefs upon the body politic but Jews -- and people -- must be able to continue to practice our understanding of what is right.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "The practice of morality [is] necessary for the well-being of society." He also wrote, "The interests of society require observation of those moral principles only in which all religions agree" (emphasis added). Our society must be moral, but not all religions agree about what is moral when it comes to abortion and, in the absence of agreement, one religion's understanding of when life begins should not be a determining factor in how and when North Carolina's citizens can obtain a safe and legal abortion.

I also worry not only about what religion can do to politics but what politics can do to religion. As I spoke about on the High Holidays, politics is high stakes, nasty warfare with strategies and tactics. Language is used to put people on one side or another of an issue. If I am pro-life, you must be anti-life. If I am pro-choice, you are anti-choice. And, I don't think it is a stretch to say that using a slogan like "Moral Mondays" labels those on the other side as immoral. However much I might dislike the policies of the current legislature, and however useful I know such language is in galvanizing public opinion and achieving real political progress, the divisive language and tactics of politics tears at the fabric of our society and makes more difficult the healing that religion in its best form seeks to bring into the world. By participating in the public arena, religion risks losing itself and embodying the very destructiveness of political discourse for which it can be a healing balm.

So I worry what religion does to politics, and I worry what politics can do to religion. And yet, I worry too about what happens to both when they are kept too far apart. Our public discourse is impoverished without the values and insights of religion. Let me again quote from Rabbi Dorff who writes:

Jews have been badly burned when governments have enforced religious norms. In America, though, we do ourselves, religion, and the nation a disservice if we think that religion should have no role in shaping national policy. No religion should have the power or right to determine national policy, because that all too easily leads to intolerance, oppression, and sometimes even bloodshed. On the other hand, if public discussion of important social issues is to reflect the nation as a whole and if it is to attain the richness and wisdom that only multiple parties with differing views can give it, each religion must enter the fray of public debate and contribute its own views.

So, while I don't want to live in a world where leaders make public policy decisions by quoting scripture or declaring themselves to be morally superior, I also don't want to live in a world where our society makes decisions absent the wisdom of thousands of years old religious traditions.

It is not only American discourse that might be impoverished without an articulation of Jewish values; Judaism itself is diminished if it fails to live in the public sphere. Beyond the physical security offered by the Jewish homeland -- to which I will depart this Wednesday -- perhaps the greatest gift of Zionism has been to force the richness of Jewish thought out of the Beit Midrash and the Beit Knesset and into the wrenching debates about public policy. For two thousand years, Judaism had little to say about things such as how to balance the moral imperative to accept refugees fleeing oppression with the need to provide for the economic welfare of one's own citizens -- we had no country of our own, nor did we live in a place where it mattered what Jews thought, even if we were permitted to speak. Such is not the case today in Israel nor in America. Newspapers and elected leaders pay attention to Jews and Jewish values. Rabbis and their congregations and the Jewish community as a whole seeks to formulate a Jewish voice in the public discourse and, at the same time, to navigate and maintain the slippery boundary between religion and politics. This process, these challenges; they are all a blessing. None of it is easy, and I hope you can tell from this morning that I don't take any of it lightly.

I sign few letters and petitions -- the one that was signed by most of my rabbinic colleagues came to me as I was headed on vacation and I did not want to just stick my name on it without being able to think and learn and contribute changes to the wording of the letter if I felt they were necessary, things that I could not do and preserve the precious time I had promised to my family. For some, that abundance of caution was -- and will continue to be -- maddening; for others it was, and will continue to be, something they welcome.

Amidst the preparations for this talk, I did write and send a letter to Governor McCrory yesterday afternoon, asking him to veto HB 695 to protect the rights of all people to practice what they feel to be moral as it relates to abortion. I wrote it with some hesitation because even after reading the bill as it was posted on line, the substance of it was still unclear to me (as it probably was to the legislators who voted on it, given how quickly it was drafted), but the threat to abortion rights felt clear enough to voice a concern on behalf of the Jewish community about the importance of our religious liberty. (Click here if you are interested.)

I am getting on a plane this Wednesday to be the rabbi of the U.S. Team at the Maccabiah Games, excited to guide more than a thousand American athletes in the Land of Israel, to stand with more than 5,000 Jewish athletes from around the world, to stand in a stadium as I did 20 years ago this summer with more than 50,000 Jews from around the world in celebration of the miracle of Israel and the bonds of sport and competition. I will miss you and promise to bring back a report.

What else can I promise you when I return? To listen. I have been humbled by the participation and leadership of so many Beth El members in the political process in our State and in our country. I don't know many congregations that can boast a Nobel Prize winner and such a robust arrest record in their midst! That passion is inspiring and challenging. If, this summer, you have felt it should be the other way around -- that your rabbi should have been leading the charge -- I ask your forgiveness. I am sure it was not the first, nor will it be the last, time this rabbi disappoints you. I hope it is of some comfort to know that your rabbi is a work in progress, far from finished or fully-formed. But my mind is open. My heart is open. I am listening, trying to take it all in -- the news in North Carolina, and the U.S. and Israel and the World, rabbinic teachings from centuries ago, scholarship and books coming out all the time, Judaism, interfaith relations, it's all happening at a dizzying pace and it feels like an achievement to keep up and bring a little light into the world when I can. There's a lot to take in, but I'm listening. I know you are too. I'm grateful we are in this together.