Recently read an interesting blog post by Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz of Congregation B’nai Shalom (Reform), in Westborough, MA, in which she expresses her disapproval of clergy who endorse candidates for public office.
Exhibit A: “Rabbis for Obama:”
Over 600 rabbis, from across the Jewish denominations, have signed their names – as individuals – to ‘Rabbis for Obama’ … I will tell you now, my name is not on that list. And, while I see that many of my colleagues who I deeply respect as rabbis, have chosen to add themselves to the list, I am not at all comfortable with it. I see little difference between adding one’s name to a publicly available list of this kind, and endorsing a candidate from the pulpit. And, while I am no constitutional scholar, and am willing to accept the possibility that individual religious leaders may have a constitutional right to something, that doesn’t mean that, as responsible religious leaders and teachers, we should necessarily exercise that right.
I’m not a constitutional scholar either, but I’m fairly certain clergy don’t endanger their 501 c3 status as long as they make it clear in their endorsements that they are speaking as individuals and not on behalf of their congregations. But be that as it may, Gurevitz’s real issue with such endorsements is less legal than philosophical:
Each individual candidate and the parties they represent, hold diverse views on a very wide array of subjects. It is simply not true – it cannot be – that one side is ‘right’ and the other side is ‘wrong’. This is the case whether we are speaking in terms of ethics and morals, or whether we are speaking about issues of social equity and justice. Our political arena has become polarized enough already. We do absolutely no service to this country, to the well-being of our society, or to the legitimacy and value of the religious traditions we serve and represent when we add to that polarization by picking sides.
Rather exacerbate our national polarization, Gurevitz suggests, rabbis should take their cue from Jewish/Talmudic tradition, which values diversity of opinion and debates “for the sake of heaven” – and not, as she puts it, “debates for the sake of winning.”
While I appreciate Rabbi Gurevitz’s desire to mitigate the polarizing discourse in American political culture, I don’t think it’s quite fair of her to assert that rabbinical endorsements automatically translate into (as she puts it), “I’m right and you are wrong, therefore we are good and you are evil, therefore we speak in God’s name and you don’t.”
This is certainly not the message – in content or tone – set by the Rabbis for Obama website, which merely contains a list of rabbis, various links, along with this fairly mild statement:
This group of over 613 rabbis … from across the country and across all Jewish denominations recognize that the President has been and will continue to be an advocate and ally on issues important to the American Jewish community. That is why they are committed to re-electing President Obama and actively doing their part to move our country forward.
That’s a pretty far cry from “We speak in God’s name and you don’t.”
In truth, when I think of rabbis who have publicly endorsed candidates over the years, I’m hard pressed to find many who have done so in an overly polarizing or patronizing manner. In this regard, I still remember well the words of the venerable Reform Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, whose last major public statement was an article for the Jewish Week entitled “My Neighbor Barack” – in which he voiced his support for Obama during the 2008 campaign. (His article was particularly meaningful because it was published during a period in which Obama was under withering attack from certain neo-conservative quarters of the Jewish community.)
On a deeper level, however, I think Gurevitz fundamentally misreads the legacy of rabbinic debate “for the sake of heaven.” While the rabbinic discussions of Talmud do indeed provide a graphic representation of this legacy, I would suggest that our job as rabbis is not to emulate a page of Talmud, but to engage in the debate itself.
There is no question that the issues discussed during election cycles are of profound significance for our national community. None of us can afford to stand aloof from these issues – least of all rabbis. Indeed, by advocating for candidates who support the policies we believe will best serve the common good, we advocate for the sacred values we purport to cherish as religious leaders. If we preach about social issues from the pulpit, why should it be inappropriate for us to endorse the candidates who are directly responsible for enacting the policies related to these issues?
I certainly agree with Gurevitz when she exhorts clergy to must speak out against “the polarizing and vindictive narrative of political debate when we see and hear it.” But I’m not at all convinced we must stand on the sidelines during election season in order to do so.