When Rabbi Everett Gendler was released from jail in Albany, Ga., in 1962 he and the 11 other rabbis jailed with him for “public prayer without a license” each found a Western Union telegram waiting. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, sent to them a message with a verse from Isaiah 5:16 “And the Lord of Hosts is exalted by judgment, the Holy God proved holy by justice.” Rabbi Gendler said in a phone interview with the Forward that “it is clear that what he was saying is that this stance and this witnessing is what religion is about.”
At this moment when rabbis gave an invocation and a benediction at each of the major American political party conventions, the question remains what the role for religion should be in public life. Rabbi David Wolpe’s benediction at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte immediately after the roll call to nominate Barack Obama as the party candidate and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s invocation at the start of the Republican National convention in Tampa last week were very different addresses, both steeped in tradition.
They each began their address with “Ribbono shel olam” the Hebrew invocation “master of the universe.” After that, they differed, with Soloveichik taking as his Biblical text Leviticus 25:10, the verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, “you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” His emphasis was on liberty and on rights that are God-given not from government. Wolpe, by contrast, chose a prophetic teaching from Isaiah 1:17 about the sacred commitment of “defending the orphan and fighting for the widow.”
Wolpe invoked the Jewish ideals of creating a “kinder sweeter world than we have known” and requested leaders to have ”strength of soul” but never mentioned a candidate or a party by name.
Soloveichik invoked the candidates by name and called God’s blessing down on them in his address. At the Democratic convention, Wolpe’s words were studiously non-partisan; Wolpe is not a signatory on the list of “Rabbis for Obama.” . As Jack Moline of congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va., wrote in an email to the Forward about political invocations, “Even a person who does not share the political or religious perspective of the speaker should find worth in what the speaker presents. And above all, clergy must recognize that the Constitution serves as our nation’s common document, not scripture of any kind nor anyone’s interpretation of that scripture.”
Professor Marc Shapiro of the theology department at the University of Scranton was surprised at the “openly partisan” nature of the remarks of Soloveichik since this “goes against the genre [of invocations]” as one is generally “above partisanship as a member of the cloth.” Shapiro contrasted the speech of Soloveichik with that given by another Orthodox rabbi, Fabian Schonfeld, then of the Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills to the 1984 Republican convention which blesses Ronald Reagan the standing president.
So what is the task of a rabbi in an election year?
Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Conservative congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and one of the signatories on Rabbis for Obama said, “My job as a leader is, while championing ideas and politicians I support, to not vilify or demonize my fellow Americans.”
Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg of Congregation Beth El in Edison, N.J. the organizer of Rabbis for Romney said, “If a rabbi has a position they really believe in, we have a right to our own opinions.” His purpose in forming this political group is the Holocaust, he told the Forward. He is the product of survivors and was born in a displaced persons camp and feels that a group like “Rabbis for Obama” creates “fodder for neo-Nazis” who ask why Jews are “so central” to political campaigns and the media. He believes having rabbis for both sides is important. “I don’t criticize or go after anybody unless they go after me.”
Rabbi Amy Eilberg Chair, of the Working Group on Sacred Text – Jewish Council for Public Affairs Campaign for Civility has sent out materials to rabbis around the country “addressing the crisis of incivility in the Jewish community and in American public life” according to the email sent with the packet. Eilberg told the Forward in a phone interview that for the “rabbis of the Talmud , important, creative, vital relationships go flat and can even die in the absence of the ability to wrestle with ideas.” She said that there are materials from both the right and left in her texts, including some from Forward columnist Noam Neusner who has been a Republican speechwriter.
Gendler told the Forward in a phone interview that “Heschel could not conceive of religion without involvement in public policy. The prophets demand it. But policy is broader and deeper than petty partisan politics.” Let us hope that in this electoral season America’s rabbinic leaders can lead by example and invoke Jewish ideals in a way that promotes genuine discussion and engagement shorn of the viciousness reigning in much of today’s political discussion.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of the forthcoming “Reading Genesis” (Continuum Books, 2013), a collection of essays by academics on the Biblical book of Genesis. She has taught Hebrew Bible and English literature at the University of Minnesota and atSmith, Carleton and Mount Holyoke Colleges.