These words were delivered at a JTS convocation honoring 55 members of the Rabbinical Assembly for their distinguished service.
The question of whether and how rabbis should speak out on controversial issues of the day has been with us for a very long time—probably as long as there have been Jewish communities concerned about their place in Gentile societies and states, and rabbis charged with leading and serving those communities. If the subject has become especially contentious in America of late—causing significant strife in many communities, and a rethinking of the rabbinic vocation and the limits of rabbinic authority—the reason seems to be that American Jews in 2017 find ourselves in a situation utterly without precedent. Technology, society, and culture are all in flux; the health of the planet itself seems threatened; anti-Semitism seems resurgent and the peace process in the Middle East frozen. On top of all that, complicating matters further, the relevant political divide in America today is arguably not only that between Democrat and Republican or liberal and conservative but between supporters and opponents of a president who has disavowed major elements of long-term bipartisan policy, foreign and domestic, and disavowed major elements of the Jewish and Christian ethical traditions anchored in deeply held conviction about what God wants from us.
What should rabbis do in this situation? What should they say, on the pulpit or off? What alliances and marches should they join or lead? There seems broad consensus that Jews should not remain silent when core interests and values are at stake, but little agreement about how to define those values or protect those interests, or what the role of the rabbi should be in such efforts.
I believe that the lack of consensus on these points makes the role of the rabbi more, rather than less, crucial. It is imperative that those charged with teaching Jews Torah speak out loud and clear on moral and religious issues of the day. They must speak out carefully yet boldly; with love for God and Israel; and always from deep inside the teaching and the practice of Torah.
Consider the role of the rabbi for a moment in light of the construction of the tabernacle commanded in this week’s parashah, Terumah. The building blueprint set forth in the book of Exodus is detailed. One might think that all God needed from the Israelites were carpenters to cut and nail the boards, and weavers to cut and dye the cloth. But that is not the case. God requires Israelites who “excelled in ability,” and calls Bezalel, whom YHWH had “endowed with a divine spirit of skills, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft” (Exod. 35:21, 31). The Lord of heaven and earth needs human beings with multiple capacities and talents to take part in building a tabernacle that will make it possible for God to dwell be-tokheinu—in and among the people Israel. God needs experienced and insightful human partners in covenant to do all the mitzvot necessary to make the world a place that reveals God’s glory in its justice and compassion.
Rabbis are more than hewers of boards and dyers of wool. We do not train them as we do at JTS so they can announce page numbers or direct rote performances of ritual. It takes all the knowledge and wisdom they command, all the learning and people skills they bring to the task, all the cognitive and emotional intelligence with which they are equipped, to pronounce and preserve the difference between tamei and tahor, pure and impure—the job of Aaron and the priests who came after him. Our rabbis have to build and grow holy communities, keep the peace in those communities, and make sure they are places that bring out the best in all their members. Rabbis must bless the people Israel with their words and their presence; teach via texts and example; invite God into Jewish lives; and help make us worthy of having God reside amongst us.
We also want our rabbis to be prophets of a sort, which means helping their communities to hear clearly what God wants of them, and helping our words reach God. The words sent in God’s direction include protest, petition, thanksgiving, praise, love letters, or silent meditation. The words headed back toward us from God’s side include command, forgiveness, comfort, appeal for help, or reflection on the relationship between God and humanity. Paraphrasing Abraham Joshua Heschel, we might say that the rabbi in his or her prophetic role helps the rest of us to keep God always in mind, and stops us from focusing only on our own needs and desires.
Heschel made that declaration about Israel’s prophets in his 1963 address on “Religion and Race,” and when he marched in Selma, Alabama, he affirmed, as Martin Luther King Jr. did in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” that rabbis must call out injustice, call for compassion, and call lies lies. They cannot teach the opening chapters of Genesis without reminding us that human beings are assigned to work and tend the garden of earth; that all human beings are children of Adam and Eve created in God’s image; that this status carries with it a demand to protect human dignity always and everywhere. Rabbis cannot teach the Exodus narrative without stressing over and over, as the Torah does, the obligation to take care of the stranger, free those enslaved, and not bow down to false gods. The Judge of all the earth must be assisted in doing justice. YHWH must be helped in the work of redemption associated with God’s very name.
This does not mean, I hasten to add, that the rabbi should tell people how to vote. The problem with rabbis giving such advice goes far beyond IRS regulations concerning the status of religious nonprofits. The complexity of the human situation on the one hand and the nature of classical Jewish texts on the other both militate against simple translation of Biblical or rabbinic imperatives into endorsements of particular candidates or policies. Love for the stranger is compatible with a variety of government directives. Widows and orphans must be clothed and fed—that demand is non-negotiable—but multiple valid approaches to distributive justice have been articulated in Republican and Democratic platforms. Love of the Jewish people, love for the Land of Israel, and love of the stranger can be used to justify a whole range of positions on West Bank settlements. And—complicating matters still further—fulfillment of one mitzvah might clash with fulfillment of another. Sometimes the imperative to Jewish action is clear and unequivocal. Most of the time, however, hard choices must be made and difficult priorities determined.
That is why a rabbi has to be careful in the translation of timeless mitzvah to the partisan politics in the headlines on a given Shabbat. It would be a terrible mistake for our government to repeal the Johnson Amendment and permit churches, synagogues, and mosques to get into the business of political campaigning. A rabbi’s job is to teach Torah and to help Jews live Torah, not to be a political operative. Spiritual/moral leaders cannot fulfill their calling effectively if they routinely sound off on contemporary controversy rather than helping Jews listen week in and week out to the voice of Torah. The latter task requires listening to and respecting the diverse voices inside each community—as the community, to be served by the rabbis who lead them, must be willing to listen to their rabbis, even and especially when challenged by disagreement.
Bottom line: for rabbis to do the priestly/prophetic job to which they are called, they and their communities need to trust each other’s dedication and integrity.
All of us are here today because we love our tradition, despite and because it sometimes makes our lives more difficult, weighing us down with “capital-M” Meaning. We are here because we love the Jewish people—which may be easy to do in the abstract but is never easy when it comes to actual individuals in actual communities. You cannot be a rabbi unless you truly value disagreement “for the sake of heaven,” and believe in your kishkes that it must somehow be essential to the fulfillment of our eternal covenant with the Holy One.
I conclude with a word of Torah that I learned from Heschel some 45 years ago, when I asked him as a student reporter with incredible chutzpah how he had the chutzpah to call the Vietnam War evil—not just wrong, but evil—and to write on the first page of his book God in Search of Man that religion had declined because it had become “irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” Heschel said to me, in these words or words close to them, “I am the heir to a great religious tradition, and as such it is not only my right but my duty to speak in its name as best I can, knowing that others will speak differently.”
It takes enormous courage to do that—and enormous humility to do it well. You’ve got to know your Torah, and know your Jews, and love them both, and love God. We are living in a historical moment that may well test our patience and our courage, elicit every ounce of every skill we command, break our hearts over and over, and strain our capacity for hope. I pray that our rabbis, with the blessing of the communities they serve, will have the wisdom to exercise the right, and perform the duty, of speaking in the name of Torah, and will do so with the wisdom and skill needed right now throughout the tabernacles of the Children of Israel.