Stephen Miller, President Trump’s senior advisor, gets no sympathy from me. He presents as a smallminded man who advances dangerous policies, including the detention of thousands of migrant children. But Miller’s rabbi was also wrong to call him out from the Rosh Hashanah pulpit. On a holiday that is the birthday of the universe, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels used his pulpit to degrade and disgrace a former congregant.
I strongly believe, and have argued, that rabbis should use their pulpit to denounce and decry injustices in society, even if it doesn’t directly affect the Jewish community: we are all God’s children. And maybe the best occasion to do that is on the High Holidays, when the pews are more likely full and the listening audience is more sensitive to the meaningfulness of God’s Plan. But is our understanding of the problem in any way advanced when a rabbi uses that pulpit to publicly deride one of his or her own? Do we want our rabbis to be bullies, or to simply occasionally employ the bully pulpit that the community has granted to them?
Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica lambasted Miller in his Rosh Hashanah address — and broadcast the spectacle live on Facebook. He told his congregation (Miller was not present), that Miller “did not get my, or our, Jewish message.” The rabbi blamed Miller for setting “back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole.” The rabbi publicly asked Miller to atone: “Is there still time? Is there still a chance you might change your attitude? That’s up to you.” Even though Miller has not been a part of his congregation since he was 9 years old, the rabbi wanted to make sure the world knew that he, Rabbi Comess-Daniels, had done right: “I can assure you, as I can assure them, that what I taught is a Judaism that cherishes wisdom, values… wide horizons and an even wider embrace… [Separating families] is completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish values.” Comess-Daniels appeared on CNN (on Rosh Hashanah, I note) to further his criticism.
The rabbi could have written an article or given a podcast denouncing the president’s policies on immigration. But instead, he derisively pointed to the empty pew in which Miller might have once sat to tear down the man, presumably forgetting that on Yom Kippur the rabbi, too, would be beating his breast while saying “Ahl Chayt,” confessing to his sins.
I will never be in a position where I defend Stephen Miller. I am appalled by Trump’s immigration policy, and by Miller and his role in designing it. Comess-Daniels is entirely within his right and responsibility to denounce a policy which separates children from their parents; the policy is not consistent with any aspect of Judaism nor for what this country stands. But what does it say about Jews when a religious leader stands up on the High Holy Days and denigrates one man?
The rabbi, of course, could have simply picked up the phone and given Miller his unsolicited spiritual advice. But that might not have accomplished what may have been the rabbi’s true purpose in going public and stealing a moment in the limelight.