Of Sages, Prophets, and Politics from the Pulpit

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Jason Herman

With Election Day tomorrow, rabbis once again face the question of whether to “talk politics” from the pulpit. In the past, rabbis have often felt compelled to speak about political issues when they understood the Torah to have a strong religious, moral, or spiritual voice on the given issue. And often, if an issue were too political, those whose views diverged from the rabbi’s would object to his content, arguing that they come to shul to be inspired: “Rabbis should not be using their pulpit and power to advance their own personal political views.” Others, including journalists and policy experts, would weigh in and urge rabbis not to speak about politics, since it is not their area of expertise. Of course, those who shared the rabbi’s political viewpoint were happy to have their own positions validated with a stamp of approval from on High, and, of course, were just as glad for the rabbi to tell their political opponents in shul why they were wrong. In short, even when the rabbi felt the need to speak out, he was advised to proceed with caution. The decision to speak out, therefore, in these hyper-partisan times, is all the more loaded.

History notwithstanding, over the course of the past year, the nature of the issue has shifted, with the authors of a number of opinion pieces demanding that clergy speak out about particular issues. For example, one headline in a Christian publication read, “If your pastor isn’t speaking about x, find a different church.” By the same token, a prominent Jewish journalist, who has previously urged rabbis to avoid political topics due to their lack of expertise, penned a recent piece saying a particular rabbi (whom he particularly respects) would lose his moral authority if he were not to speak out regarding issues this journalist felt were important.

But there is something troubling about this whole scenario:, if you already know what you want the rabbi to say, why do you need the rabbi to say it? Indeed, the push for the rabbi’s sermon seems to emanate from those who already know what they think the rabbi should say, implying that the congregant (or journalist) knows more than the rabbi. Is the rabbi just meant to be the congregants’ mouthpiece, relaying to the other congregants what the first group already decided is right?

Perhaps there is a better way for us to look at the relationship between Torah (hence, rabbis) and politics, and establish some principles that will help all of us gain more from the Torah’s wisdom, even in these divisive and challenging times.

The Torah Is a Political Document

First, we must recognize that the Torah is a political document. It is political in that it is a religious text that envisions how an ideal society should function, and by what rules a God-oriented society should be governed in order to be considered righteous and just. These are fundamentally political positions and the Torah has a clear view of them. Rabbis who have time and training with these texts understand the political import of the Torah’s teachings and the need for them to be taught and shared.

Prophet vs. Rabbi

At the same time, when rabbis speak politics, they often cast themselves in the role of the prophets. The prophets chastised the people when they went against God’s ways, particularly on issues of justice and treatment of society’s most vulnerable. Prophets often did so at great personal cost. Jeremiah was thrown in jail for his message. To politically outspoken rabbis, this makes the prophet seem all the more courageous and admirable. Such a rabbi has a cause he is willing to fight for, and is brave enough to speak truth to power.

However, there is a downside to the prophetic mode. In the world of prophecy, the world is black and white. There is no room for ambiguity or dissent. The Bible does not present debates among the prophets, certainly not ones in which each side is upheld as valid. Indeed, a prophet who dissents is deemed a false prophet, and is liable to be killed. Prophets knew exactly what God wanted. Their visions were, relative to leaders in later generations, clear as day.

But the world of prophecy ended, and authority was handed over to the rabbis. And, with the decline of prophecy and the rise of rabbinic Judaism, we enter the world of mahloket, dispute, in which each side is upheld as legitimate; “Elu ve-elu divrei Elokim Hayim,” “These and these are the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b).The rabbis began seeing gray, recognizing that the Torah’s ideals must be applied to reality, and that life does not often lend itself to idealization.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the prophetic voice is no longer necessary. It is – to condemn evil, speak out on behalf of the vulnerable and oppressed, and demand justice. But first and foremost, rabbis are rabbis, not prophets. In the words of the Talmud, “A sage is better than a prophet” (Bava Batra 12a).

The Torah Is Neither a Liberal nor a Conservative Text

Further complicating the picture, despite being a political text, the Torah is neither liberal nor conservative. In fact, the Torah contains both liberal and conservative values. The Rabbis of the Talmud regularly balanced these values with their opposites, as is often the case when one applies values to the realities of human existence. Thus, in some instances, where liberals might find support for their positions in the Written Torah, conservatives would likely find support in the Oral Law, and vice versa. Understanding the relationship between the two is extremely important to understanding the Torah’s wisdom on political issues that are most burning today.

It is in the balancing of the Torah’s liberal values with conservative realities and the Torah’s conservative values with liberal realities, that the Sages reveal a realistic but faithful political vision.

To illustrate this principle, we will examine three examples.

Protection of the Borrower

The Written Torah is strongly concerned about protecting borrowers from the burdens of debt. Several mitzvot protect borrowers and enshrine this value. First, the Torah prohibits the collection of interest. One should extend a loan for the sake of helping, not to make a quick buck off another Jew’s misfortune. Second, the Torah cancels all debts once every seven years, so that the borrower can begin anew. Third, when a lender sues a borrower, the Rabbis understood the Torah to require that the case be heard only by experts in the Land of Israel, a significant burden for lenders outside of Israel who wanted to collect their debts. The values are clear: when it comes to a lending relationship, the Torah strengthens the hand of the borrower.

Yet the Sages of the Talmud recognized that the conditions of the Written Torah made lending a challenge for many people. The expression that appears throughout the Talmud is “she-lo tin’ol delet bifnei lovin,” “to not lock the door before borrowers.” The Talmud thus attempts to recalibrate the relationship between lender and borrower in a way that maintains the Torah’s core values.

Furthermore, where the Torah prohibits interest, the Rabbis developed the Heter Iska, a legal reframing of this transaction, in which a lender is considered to be investing in the borrower’s economic endeavors. The Rabbis understood that, without the incentive of interest, too few people would be willing to lend money. The Heter Iska might sound like a mere loophole, but it really is much more: it reframes the relationship between lender and borrower so as to allow the lending relationship to continue within the greater context of the Torah’s core values. The Torah does not want lenders to profit from borrowers’ misfortune, and, under the Heter Iska, the lender is transformed into an investor. The Oral Law thus radically transforms how prospective lenders see prospective borrowers.

With respect to the cancellation of loans during Shemitah, Hillel introduced the Pruzbul, a legal instrument by which creditors transfer the sums they are owed to a beit din (Jewish court). The court’s loans, as compared to those of a private individual, are not cancelled during Shemitah, so the beit din can collect the debt originally owed to the borrower, on that party’s behalf, even after Shemitah concludes. Is this just another loophole that undermines the Torah’s intended protection of the borrower? Not exactly. By transferring the debt to the beit din, the lender cannot collect in the same fashion as before. The beit din needs to do so on behalf of the lender. This allows the beit din to examine the loans, look at the borrower’s situation, and, if they determine that the debt has become oppressive and unjust, intercede on the borrower’s behalf.

Finally, with respect to the requirement that lenders pursue their claims only in front of experts in Israel, the Talmud mandates that courts outside of Israel are agents of those experts in Israel. The lender who is not in Israel is therefore able to collect what is owed without hardship, and the Torah’s serious take on lending is upheld.

If we imagine a contemporary discussion about public policy with respect to lending, we can easily envision a liberal rabbi citing all the means by which the Torah protects borrowers, and demanding that government policy do likewise: in other words, coming out in favor of the borrower. Conversely, we can also conceive of a politically conservative rabbi quoting ad nauseum the rabbinic dictum, “do not lock the door before potential borrowers.” Neither oversimplified presentation, however, tells the full story.

Seeing the complex dynamic between the Written Law and the Oral Law in this case enhances our understanding of the Torah’s values, as well as the realities that we confront when seeking to apply those values in the real world. It also gives us some insight into political debate. Whereas one side might be arguing for values and ideals, the other might recognize that the real-world application of those ideals results in friction, as well as the need for the ideals themselves to be moderated to fit reality.

Death Penalty

A second case concerns the death penalty. Upon a strict reading of the Written Torah, one would come to a strong conservative conclusion that the Torah favors capital punishment. The Torah is in fact quite comfortable saying time and again that, in God’s view, a person forfeits his or her right to live on this earth by transgressing any number of mitzvot – from murder, to various acts of sexual immorality, even to violating the Sabbath.

Yet, as is well known and as opponents of capital punishment love to quote, the Sages impose so many restrictions on capital cases that convicting anyone is essentially impossible. In fact, Tractate Makkot (7a) calls a court that executes someone as infrequently as once in 70 years a bloody court. In this case, the Written Law is conservative, and the Oral Torah is liberal.

But is that really the whole story? Again, we are moved to look deeper. The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (81b) suggests that Hazal were not as opposed to capital punishment as we had initially been led to believe. The Mishnah brings several cases in which a (guilty) person could not be convicted of a capital offense, yet Hazal prescribed a different sentence: putting the guilty party in a jail and feeding him or her a diet consisting almost entirely of barley, effectively killing the guilty party. Hazal thereby carry out the death sentence, but in a very passive way.

What, then, is all the fuss about bloody courts? I posit that Hazal are making a profound theological statement. To convict someone according to Torah law is to say that it is God’s view that this person should die. God certainly indicates that some actions lead to a death warrant. Nonetheless, when it comes to matters of life and death, Hazal are not about to put themselves in God’s place. Human life is so sacred that we fallible humans should never presume that God wants this person to die. We may, however, use our own human judgment to determine that we can’t keep a particular person alive, leading to the passive death sentence. In doing so, we are not speaking for God. We recognize our fallibility.


In its concern for the poor, the Torah requires that farmers leave the corners of their fields for the poor. This land actually belongs to the poor and gives them the dignity of being able to work a bit of their own land. One would therefore think that the field owner would not be permitted to block the poor person’s access to the corners of the fields, and that doing so would be a violation of the Torah’s values and concern for the poor. Yet the Sages understood that people would not want the poor to be a constant presence on their property, and might therefore be at risk of not leaving the corner for the poor at all. The Mishnah (Peah 4:5) prescribes certain set times during the day when the poor are permitted to collect from the corner. Again, one might imagine a liberal arguing that the Torah prioritizes providing for the poor, and that doing so must be continual. The conservative would point to the Mishnah and say that the provision has legitimate limitations, and guidelines within which the poor have ample room to operate.


The examples above show a more effective means of not only communicating the Torah’s values, but also how those values become integrated into the real world. Rabbis are better being Rabbis than prophets, or, more cynically, players on a political team. Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summarized the distinction as follows:

The prophets have always received a better press than the rabbis, for an obvious reason. They were the first and greatest social critics, fearless in speaking truth to power, unafraid to confront corrupt kings and indolent priests, tireless in their call to integrity and justice. Their success was, however, limited. In fact, with the sole exception of Jonah, the only prophet sent to a Gentile city, we know of none who actually brought about social transformation. The rabbis did succeed… The prophets spoke poetry, the rabbis prose; but the rabbis succeeded where even the greatest of the prophets failed. When it comes to realizing high ideals among ordinary human beings, choose non-utopian solutions. They are more effective, and more humane. (The Home We Build Together, 177-8)

To answer the question, then, should rabbis speak politics from the pulpit? Yes, but they are most effective doing so as sages, not prophets, balancing Written and Oral Torah, liberal and conservative values and realities, in a realistic, non-utopian manner. Rabbis should speak as sages, which is to speak with knowledge of fallibility, from a decidedly human perspective, in which space is allowed for disagreement and divergent opinions. By so doing, in divisive times, rabbis can inspire us to live the Torah’s values in a manner that is not only effective, but ultimately most civil and humane.

Jason Herman serves as the mara d’atra, spiritual leader, of the Hudson Yards Synagogue in New York City, and as the Executive Director of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He is a graduate of the Huntsman Program at the University of Pennsylvania, and was ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He previously worked as an investment banker.