There’s a relatively new trend in American society that I think is doing us great harm. Everything is becoming political.
We’ve seen it with Nike weighing in on the kneeling debate, Grubhub’s CEO telling his employees that Trump voters should resign, [solidcore]’s owner speaking out about Ivanka Trump, restaurants refusing to serve various politicians, and more. Companies and groups whose missions have absolutely nothing to do with politics are increasingly beginning to publicly endorse (or reject) political parties and candidates. These actions are accelerating the already brutal polarization in this country by denying people respite from politics and the daily dysfunction in Washington. There is, however, one place that I strongly feel should remain apolitical and sacred (pun-intended): synagogue.
What do I mean by “get political”? Increasingly, I’ve noticed a pattern in which rabbis will reference and implicitly endorse or reject certain political candidates, or disparagingly reference a political party using sweeping generalization. Before the 2016 election, some rabbis even had the gall to say “and that’s why it’s so important that we go to the polls to ensure that [x] candidate is elected!” Worse yet, I know a number of people who – in the fallout from the 2016 election – argued that their shul shouldn’t allow members of certain political parties or supporters of certain candidates to even attend the shul.
This, to me, is a complete and utter catastrophe, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, our country is currently bitterly divided across a variety of lines, arguably more so than at any time since the Civil War. Intentionally fracturing ourselves further – not just by denomination, but additionally by political affiliation – is a truly awful idea. Shul should be, and indeed needs to be, a place where Jews can come together and pray, regardless of how they look, where they come from, or who they vote for.
In addition, rabbis are, in many ways, the original teachers and therapists. As any good teacher knows, you’re supposed to teach your students how to think, not what to think. Explicitly telling congregants who to vote for or what policies to endorse completely flies in the face of this basic principle. Relatedly, how could any congregant feel comfortable seeking religious or personal advice from a rabbi who consistently bashes their party or views? This type of proselytization is very likely to unnecessarily alienate certain members of the congregation.
Finally, synagogues have the potential to serve as one of the few places where people of differing ideologies can still come together and engage in productive discussions around important issues. In today’s society, there are precious few opportunities for us to actually do this; debates and discussions – whether they take place in person or on social media – quickly turn to vitriol and ad hominems, instead of respectful dialogue. It would truly be a shame for synagogues to squander such potential by further atomizing themselves in an already tiny and heterogeneous community.
I know that this is not a popular argument, especially among my age group. Therefore, I want to take a moment to address some potential objections:
Some people will undoubtedly make the seemingly-reasonable argument that “if 90% of a shul votes a certain way or belongs to a certain party, doesn’t the rabbi have not only a right, but in fact a responsibility to cater to their stances and views?” While this seems logical on the surface, the answer is a resounding “no”. Jews have always been the “stranger in a strange land.” Even in this country today – which arguably offers the most tolerant environment for Jews in history outside the state of Israel – Jews comprise less than 2% of the population. We know what it’s like to be the minority in the room, the country, and the world. It would show a remarkable lack of self-awareness to submit the minorities in our own community to that same treatment.
Worse yet, some people might actually believe that their rabbis hold the Objective Right Answer to various moral and political questions, giving that rabbi license to pontificate. It would take immense hubris and shortsightedness to believe that there are objective Jewish “right answers” to most modern elections and policy issues. Part of what makes Judaism unique from most other religions is that Jews have been arguing about the meaning of the Torah and how best to apply it to their everyday lives for centuries. There’s a rich history in Judaism of chavruta study – being paired with someone with whom you disagree on almost every issue. This is done not to torment people, but because any question with a clear and easy answer isn’t really worth discussing. Important issues, especially political ones, are almost never clear-cut, and to believe the opposite shows a genuine lack of nuance and historical perspective.
Finally, some might argue that it is a rabbi’s prerogative to discuss and endorse whatever they want; if you don’t like it, you can find another shul. While rabbis should indeed enjoy wide leeway in what they discuss in their drashes (speeches), this is a remarkably cold and unwelcoming stance to take. Of course rabbis will inevitably infuse their own views on Judaism and society into their speeches; that is what gives each drash its unique flavor. If you strongly disagree with a rabbi or shul’s approach to Judaism, it may indeed make sense for you to think about switching to another one. But I fear the day when congregants will have to additionally weigh the politics of the shul, even if they agree with the shul’s approach to Judaism itself. This is particularly problematic in more rural areas, where shuls don’t grow on trees. It is profoundly unfair to the members of those communities to add yet another barrier to attending.
What, then, should shuls and rabbis preach? Am I arguing that they should create a moratorium on discussing politics and current events? Absolutely not. Some of the best drashes I can remember discussed modern issues from a Jewish perspective, which is part of what made them fascinating and relevant. The crux of the issue – which is admittedly a fine line to walk – is that rabbis should teach the principles, history, and ethics of Judaism, without explicitly telling congregants what to do (or – in this case – how to vote).
As educators, rabbis should follow the etymological and historical traditions of the word “education” itself. Education comes from the Latin ducere (to lead) and ex (out), because the idea of education is to help lead out the thoughtfulness and creativity that students are capable of. This is exactly what rabbis should be aiming to do for their congregants: they should provide a solid grounding in the Jewish tradition and Jewish ethics, but allow their congregants to use that background to interpret the choices and dilemmas that their personal lives will inevitably bring. They should lay out the ingredients, but not “bake the cake,” so to speak. If rabbis can do this, they can create a more productive, inclusive environment for people of various ideological backgrounds, one that can serve as an example to the rest of the country and the world. Jews lead the country and the world in so many respects. I would love to see us start doing so in the realm of political tolerance.
About the Author: Eli Feldman is the Research Associate to the President at The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-partisan non-profit that defends student and faculty rights on college campuses. Eli graduated from Yale in 2016 with a degree in psychology. Eli is an alumni of GatherDC’s Open Doors Fellowship, from which he launched the Jewish Monthly Article Club (JMAC), a club for Jewish 20s/30s to discuss articles about a range of important topics. He is passionate about sports, music, coding, politics, free speech, Marvel movies, and tech.
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