For God’s Sake, Stop Preaching Politics From The Pulpit!
America’s partisan divide seems to have reached a new low. Whatever side of the political aisle each of us is on, we can all agree that this is true. Politics are harming relationships to an unprecedented extent, dividing families to the point that they don’t spend holidays together anymore. A just-published study of the emotional and even physical toll of the political environment showed results similar to a public health crisis.
So it should surprise no one that this affects even synagogue attendance. In my work, I speak with Jews of all affiliations, both religious and political. An increasing number of people have told me they no longer feel comfortable praying in their synagogue because they have been so hurt by what the rabbi has to say during the sermon. And no wonder: Rabbis have been increasingly committed to preaching politics from the pulpit. Last year, one rabbi made castigating Stephen Miller a central element of his Rosh Hashanah sermon, because Miller, as a child, was then part of his congregation.
Fortunately, there was no similar incident this year; the acknowledgment of resurgent anti-Semitism forced many to align their messages to address this new reality. But even in this environment, some rabbis injected their own political views.
Rabbis may feel good about themselves delivering political messages, and I’m sure many congregants passionately applaud. But what they don’t seem to realize is that they are essentially saying that anyone who doesn’t share their politics has no place in their congregation. An ideologically homogenous congregation that rejects Jews who dissent is apparently a worthwhile price of doing business. Needless to say, this is not how Jewish communities should operate.
Moreover, does anyone imagine that any attendee, regardless of political leanings, leaves inspired to be a more devoted Jew and a better person? Is it even arguable that this is worthwhile from a Jewish perspective?
Let me propose something deceptively simple: that we excise politics from our sermons and Divrei Torah on Yom Kippur. Let us, for just one deeply holy and meaningful day, find something more inspirational to speak about than whether we should support climate change legislation, strong borders or the President’s impeachment.
Atonement is the order of the day, and it is not about how someone else can improve, or how we can help them improve their character. It is about looking inwards at ourselves. Remember “Think globally, act locally?” There is nothing more local than our own hearts, and that is where our work must begin. We must focus upon what is wrong with our own actions and behavior, not those of our neighbors or leaders.
Certainly, helping to improve the lives of others is part of self-improvement. But there are many ways to speak about charity and kindness and generosity that do not have a hint of political slant.
On a purely practical level as well, it behooves every rabbi, regardless of political affiliation, to ponder whether it is wise to deliver a message that is partisan and divisive. For surely, even those congregants who applaud your political stance cannot help but wonder why you feel that you have nothing better to speak about on such a holy day. They might reasonably conclude that even their rabbi doesn’t consider this day truly important.
People who come to pray are not coming for a political talk. Those who want political sermonizing can find it just as easily on cable news channels, Twitter, or Youtube.
If we want our synagogues to truly be sanctuaries, then they must be so for all Jews. And we must deliver messages that speak to Judaism and Jewish inspiration, which touch the hearts of all regardless of their political leanings.
It’s not even hard. Just set principle ahead of partisanship, open a Chumash, and the right words will come. And if you are a congregant rather than a rabbi, let your rabbi know that you care about those in your synagogue who don’t share your political views, and hope the rabbi will deliver a message that inspires all.
May all of us be sealed in the Book of Life for a sweet and blessed year.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Managing Director of the Coalition for Jewish Values.