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When Should Religious Leaders Get Political From the Pulpit?

One of the best debates I remember having in rabbinical school was whether a rabbi should speak about politics from the pulpit. In theory it makes sense why a rabbi would try to avoid doing so as God is neither a Republican or a Democrat. The rabbi not only runs the risk of potentially alienating people in the pews but would ignore the fact that many Jews go to synagogue to find solace and escape the political madness that now permeates daily life. What happens though when politics are no longer politics? How should a rabbi respond when a traditional political issue transforms into a moral and ethical dilemma? What should a rabbi say if the president establishes laws or behaves in a way that go against Jewish values and violate fundamental religious norms?

Until President Trump and his recent offensive campaign, this predicament was rare. Political discourse often remained in its rightful place, allowing rabbis and other clergy to speak about traditional religious values without having to mention current events or politicians. President Trump changed all of this by behaving and speaking in a way that often runs completely contrary to core Jewish principles. How do we reconcile the commandment not to oppress the stranger with Trump’s immigration policy? How do we teach our children about the importance of telling the truth and humility when the president so often lies and gloats in his accomplishments? How do we preach about protecting human dignity when the president mocks the disabled and has a history demeaning women? How do uphold our sacred responsibility for safeguarding the environment when President Trump considers global warming a concept created by and for the Chinese?

While I am sympathetic to my rabbinic colleagues who wish to remain impartial, neutrality is not a valid or appropriate religious response to hate and falsehood. As the Sages taught, “silence is like an admission” and therefore remaining indifferent in such a moment is a way of consenting to these actions and rhetoric. The Talmud goes even further by proclaiming that if anyone has capability to protest the sinful conduct of their town or even the world and fails to do so, that person is apprehended and accountable for all those sins. Rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal of Prague) adds, “While a person may be individually pious, such good will pale in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil.”

For some, referring to Trump’s behavior as “sinful” or “evil” may seem like an overstatement, but by failing to clearly identify it as such, one grossly devalues and ignores Judaism’s ethical system. Nearly every day President Trump uses his Twitter page to humiliate others by calling or referring to his opponents as, “dumb” , “weak” , “the worst”, “incompetent”, “a disaster” , “a clown”, “a disgrace”, “overrated”, “stupid” , or “a fraud” to just name a few. This seems to be at odds with the rabbinic saying, “whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood” and “better to throw oneself into a furnace rather than embarrass another.”

At the very least, rabbis should follow Mr. Obama who on his last day in office established red lines that if broken would force him to speak out against President Trump. “There’s a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake…” he said. These red lines that rabbis set should extend past the interest of just the Jewish community in the same way we would expect other faith leaders to come to our defense.

Rabbis must speak out against a potential Muslim registry or a Muslim immigration ban. Yesterday the White House confirmed that Trump plans to move ahead with a refuge ban, halting asylum for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Can you imagine for a moment the hysteria that would erupt within the Jewish community if Trump called for a shutdown of Jewish immigration to America? Have we already forgotten the voyage of the St. Louis when Jews were turned away from this country in a time of great need? What about Abraham who eagerly awaited to help strangers at the entrance of his tent?

How can Judaism remain relevant when the rabbi turns the synagogue into an isolated island, sheltered from the happenings of the world? Religious leaders cannot be afraid to call a spade a spade in such a climate because they fear they could offend congregants. “A rabbi whom they don’t want to drive out of town is no rabbi” said Rabbi Salanter. While I pray that President Trump changes his ways and does not fulfill many of his campaign promises, I remain vigilant and stand ready to protect the rights of the oppressed…since after all this is the real role of a rabbi.

Jonathan Leener is a rabbi in Brooklyn who works with Jews in their 20s and 30s.


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