The Torah Is Political. Rabbis Can Be, Too

Rabbis should not tell their communities how to vote. But preaching about how to vote is not the same as preaching about what values and priorities ought to be embodied in health care policy.
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Is there a liberal conspiracy to infect America's pulpits?

In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and former member of the George W. Bush administration, rails against rabbis who devote their Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons to speaking about "political" issues such as health care, tax rates or food stamps.

As one of the rabbis whom Troy criticizes (albeit anonymously), I want to respond to his charges.

Troy references a recent phone call for rabbis, organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional organization of Reform Rabbis, on which he and I were two of the five speakers. The call featured three experts on the current economic situation -- Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Ellen Nissenbaum of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Troy himself. Rabbi David Saperstein, the Director of the RAC, offered homiletic advice for speaking about contentious issues, and I presented texts that might guide sermons and teaching sessions about the economy. (Troy and I have this in common: He was the political conservative on the call, and I was the Conservative rabbi.)

Troy writes, "When I suggested that we separate politics from spirituality, a third participant pushed back, saying 'the Torah is a political document.' A curious assertion in a crowd that would quickly denounce any invocation of the Bible in political discussions."

I was this third participant. I do believe that the Torah is a political document. And I would not, as Troy assumes, "denounce any invocation of the Bible in political discussions." In fact, I passionately invoke the Bible in political discussions. My first book, "There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition," brings biblical (and other Jewish) wisdom to bear on contemporary political, economic and social issues. In my second, "Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community," I tackled the question of why and how to bring the power of Jewish communities to bear on contemporary issues.

When I say that the Torah is political, I do not mean that it is partisan. I do not believe that the Torah tells us to vote Republican, Democratic, Green or Pirate. I consider any candidate who claims to have God on his or her side deluded and dangerous.

But being partisan is different from being political.

The Torah is political because it lays out a vision for a just civil society. It is political because it forms the basis for a social contract. It is political because it concerns itself with relations among human beings as much as with relations between human beings and God. It is political because a liberation struggle stands at its core. It is political because it demands that those with more wealth take responsibility for those with less. It is political because it forbids those with more power from taking advantage of those with less. And it is political because it is a document meant to be lived.

Troy claims that "Jewish tradition doesn't give much guidance on the optimum level of marginal tax rates, Medicare restructuring, or food-stamp funding." It is true that one will not find -- in the Torah, in the Talmud, in the Shulchan Arukh or in other codes of Jewish law -- a precise plan for restructuring Medicare. One does find, however, hundreds of discussions and legal rulings about how to care for the sick, about the role of doctors, about the place of the elderly and the poor and about the responsibility that individuals in society have toward one another. These laws, values and historical experiences can and should guide us as we debate how best to craft a health care system. And the same can be said for Jewish wisdom on housing, poverty, criminal justice, taxes, and other social and economic issues.

Rabbis (and ministers, priests, imams and others) should not -- ethically or legally -- tell their communities how to vote. But preaching about how to vote is not the same as preaching about what values and priorities ought to be embodied in health care policy. Preaching about how to vote is partisan. Preaching about health care, poverty and how we structure a just society is moral leadership.

There is no better time than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for rabbis to speak about the pressing issues of the moment. Troy characterizes these days as a time "to bring forth a universal message about the unity of the Jewish people, the importance of our shared religious tradition, and the need to rededicate ourselves to observance of the Torah in the year to come."

But I prefer the traditional summary of the focus of these days: Tefilah (prayer), Teshuvah (repentance/return) and Tzedakah (acts of justice). Through tefilah we reflect on our year and find spiritual connection to the Divine and to the community with whom we pray. Through teshuvah we repair our relationships with God and with one another. And through tzedakah we turn outward and devote ourselves to creating a more just world in the year that has just begun.

Rabbis must bring the thousands of years of accumulated Jewish wisdom to bear on these issues. This is what it means to be a religious leader. A religious leader does not stick to "safe" topics like Jewish unity and ritual practice (though these have their place, too). A religious leader takes ethical stands on the hard issues of the moment -- and does so with integrity, with a strong basis in his or her religious tradition, and out of love and a passion for creating a more just world.

We do not need more partisan politics. But we are in desperate need of religious moral leadership.

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