Preaching to All Choirs on the High Holidays

I am no longer a pulpit rabbi, so the question of sermon topics on the High Holy Days is one I consider as a consumer rather than as a provider - but that doesn't stop me from reflecting on the situation congregational rabbis are in this month.

As our communities gather for the High Holidays after what has been a bruising fight over the Iran deal, rabbis across the country face a dilemma. The past two months have divided our congregations, pitted rabbi against rabbi, and spurred unparalleled (even for our community) debates at the Shabbat dinner table. So what is a rabbi to do? Do we play Isaiah in the Yom Kippur Haftarah reading and excoriate our communities about the unfinished fights we face on Iran, the Middle East, religious freedom and a score of other issues. Or do we recognize a community in profound need of healing, and work to bring all our congregants together in this season of reflection and repentance.

I hope that on the days my colleagues face the largest crowds of the year, they give full-throated endorsements of the best values of our tradition, including the implications for public policy. I hope they will be unafraid of controversy and, in fact, welcome respectful reactions, including disagreement. As the Religious Right raises the specter of the IRS targeting religious leaders who preach their politics from the pulpit, it is worth remembering that there is a distinction between preaching about public policy (allowed) and partisan politics (not allowed). Rabbis should speak powerfully about the issues of the day while respecting the law and the beliefs of all our congregants.

At the same time, I urge them to remember a small group of people who sit among their congregations: the elected officials, government workers and NGO staff members who rely upon them as rabbis. And looking beyond the four walls of the sanctuary, the non-Jewish leaders who look to them with a combination of respect and pastoral need. What awaits the nine Jewish senators, nineteen Jewish House members, countless White House, State Department and congressional staffers when they walk into Shul this year? AIPAC, J Street and ZOA staff members and supporters who have been at loggerheads with one another for months will now be asked to pray alongside each other.

Public service is corrosive to the soul. When a person holds power or access to it, the border between public persona and private self is regularly transgressed. It can be hard for someone to know if a friendship is genuine or utilitarian. Rabbis should have a special sensitivity to that insecurity.

While I respect the right of rabbis to speak out about issues of critical importance, I was deeply troubled to read of rabbis who openly and unabashedly used their relationship with a public figure to publicly advance a political goal. This is a clear abuse of the pastoral relationship. I have known my share of public figures and they have relied on me, like many others, to guide them through personal and professional crises, moments of joy and sorrow, and most especially spiritual challenges. Just like "regular people," the people entrusted with advocacy and legislation need the unique gifts that a rabbi (or priest, minister, imam or monk) brings to a relationship. Part of that relationship must include frank conversations about the demands of faith.

But none of those conversations should be held in public. No congregant or student should be lectured publicly on what it takes to win the approbation of a spiritual mentor, and how much the more so when public discussion occurs with reportage in traditional or social media. It is a betrayal of sacred trust.

Sometimes that standard means the need to forego an opportunity for persuasive pressure. When the stakes are high and the rabbi's prophetic passions are higher, it can be difficult for the rabbi to practice the kind of self-restraint that is necessary and allow others to lead a debate in his or her place. To be clear, one can speak about Iran from the pulpit this year without calling into question the motives of the public official sitting in your pews.

It is seductive to imagine oneself Queen Esther, admonished by Mordecai that perhaps she has reached a position of influence only for the sake of saving the Jews from nefarious Persians. In such circumstances, I always try to remind myself that Mordecai affirmed that help would come from elsewhere.

So rabbis, call out my soul from the pulpit, along with everyone sitting around me. Make me uncomfortable with my comfort. Demand that I see my life through the lens of Torah and adjust the focus to highlight your unique perspectives. But if you name those people who rely on your compassion and dare them to disagree, my sympathies will be with them every time. That's not your job and that's not your calling.