What if Rabbis Heed Obama’s High Holy Day Appeal?

Right Angles

By Noam Neusner

Published August 26, 2009, issue of September 04, 2009.
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In the hands of Obama the potter, American Jews are but clay. In his recent telephonic pep talk to a reported 1,000 American rabbis, the president invoked some of the most memorable (and theologically challenging) passages from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy to support his health policy agenda. He spoke about the new month of Elul, the meaning of this time of year and, oh, by the way, the crazy distortions of all those who have dared to object to his massive experiment with one-sixth of the American economy.

Some good prep-work from Obama’s staff (“Sir, it’s pronounced eh-LOOL”), some happy talk, and the president apparently had these mostly left-leaning rabbis eating out of his hand. In these kinds of calls, there is always an “ask,” and Obama’s was simple: Proselytize to your congregants and tell them the good news about health care reform.

This is an intriguing prospect. What would happen if these American rabbis went back to their laptops, hit delete on the current drafts of their High Holy Day sermons and started afresh by reading the latest issues of the health policy journals? No doubt some have already Googled “health policy sermon” in the vain hope that there’s an easy solution to Obama’s challenge.

But there isn’t an easy way, and not just because the details of health care policy are far more challenging than Obama or anyone else would have you believe.

And this is where Obama, otherwise so well-versed in the habits of liberal Jews, has completely misread the community. You see, nobody really listens to rabbis in non-Orthodox synagogues. Maybe when it comes to what’s permissible for wedding party menus, or whether to stand for the reader’s Kaddish, but on health care? Does anyone really think that as American Jews follow the health care debate, they are wondering to themselves: “What does my rabbi think?”

Obama has no doubt seen some of the congressionally sponsored town hall meetings with a lot of angry constituents saying some unkind things about him and his health care agenda. If the rabbis follow Obama’s directive to speak about health care, they might well invent a new phrase for the lexicon: “Rosh Hashanah riots.”

Rabbis won’t be talking to rubes. In any given synagogue, there will be doctors with various specialties, business owners and more than a handful of others with a very deep awareness of how health care costs, government payments and public policy affect their livelihoods. They may be liberal, they may have voted for Obama, and they may well be sympathetic to Obama’s stated goal of expanding health insurance in America. But many of them will have seen enough of Obama’s plan to know they don’t like it.

Rabbis who start to cite a few passages from Scripture to extol the virtue of the “public option,” a government-subsidized insurance plan that would squeeze private insurers out of the health marketplace, will be met not by the open minds of seekers but with the wary eyes of those who can point to piles of health paperwork as their own testimony to the dangers of government mandates, controls and payment policies.

These congregants may well stand up and walk out as their rabbis, who have never had to make payroll in their lives, go on about how “greedy” employers and business interests are blocking Obama’s bill.

They may mutter loud enough to be heard: “If I wanted to hear an ignoramus talk about health care, I would have just stayed at home and watched the TV news.”

Or worse, they may decide: “Ach, I haven’t listened to this rabbi before. Why should I start now?” And their minds will begin to wander — again.

Noam Neusner is the principal of Neusner Communications, LLC. He served as a speech writer and Jewish liaison for President George W. Bush.

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