On the Other Hand: An Opposing View on Politics from the Pulpit

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Eliezer Finkelman

Should rabbis speak about politics in their sermons? Cautiously, humbly, and perhaps only in limited ways, according to a pair of recent Lehrhaus articles by my rabbinical colleagues. Rabbi Jason Herman (“On Sages, Prophets, and Politics from the Pulpit,” Nov. 5) and Rabbi Don Seeman (“Politics from the Pulpit: An Epistemological Reflection,” Nov. 12) agree that rabbis should avoid the thunderous pronouncements that belong to prophets. Rather, in politically sensitive areas, rabbis should speak in the humble tones of sages.

Prophets, they contend, speak in unequivocal terms, warning people of how their acts appear to God. Sages, by contrast, consider application of the seemingly unequivocal demands of the written Torah to practical reality, resolving conflicting values in complex, nuanced ways. Prophets thunder, “Thou shalt not!” and sages say, “On the other hand, however…”

In Rabbi Herman’s words, “Rabbis are better being Rabbis than prophets.”

The same idea appears in Rabbi Seeman’s words: “Religious leaders have a duty to demonstrate a degree of epistemic humility—the opposite of ‘prophetic’ stridency—in claiming the authority of Torah to confront these issues.”

I admire the virtue of humility, and freely admit that most of my opinions are probably wrong. At the risk of being wrong again, I demur from the opinions of my colleagues. Allow me to bring examples from history to support my disagreement.

In 1861, slavery counted as the burning political issue in the United States. On January 4, Morris Raphall, the learned Rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun in New York, delivered an erudite sermon on the topic. Rabbi Raphall was an ardent supporter of the Union, but his personal political opinion did not distort his balanced, practical analysis of the relevant Torah passages. He described himself as “no friend to slavery in the abstract, and still less friendly to the practical working of slavery. But I stand here, as a teacher in Israel, not to place before you my own feelings and opinions, but to propound to you the word of G-d, the Bible view of slavery.”

In his analysis, an objective student of Torah could not simply outlaw slavery, when so many biblical laws regulate the practice. True, the Torah insists that slaves maintain their status as humans with rights, while slavery as practiced in the American South allowed masters to treat their slaves as mere property. Applying rabbinic wisdom to the modern situation, Rabbi Raphall suggested modifying the American laws of slavery, or gradually phasing out slavery by indemnifying slaveholders for the loss of their investments. Rabbi Raphall even considered whether there might exist biblical justification for specifically enslaving Blacks.

What is more, Rabbi Raphall’s learned, balanced sermon quickly appeared as an independent pamphlet, and then achieved success as publishers around the country reprinted it. It proved especially popular in the southern states.

At about the same time, however, Reverend Sabato Morais, the rabbinic leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, took a more “prophetic” stance toward slavery, thoroughly annoying some pro-slavery members of his synagogue board. Eventually, if I remember the story correctly, the lay leadership of the congregation passed a resolution forbidding the rabbi from delivering sermons in English without first receiving the approval of the board. When a board election brought in a new set of leaders, they repealed the resolution, and as Rev. Morais could speak freely again, he delivered his famous sermon, “A discourse delivered before the congregation Mikvé Israel of Philadelphia, at their synagogue in Seventh Street, on Thursday, June 1, 1865: the day appointed for fasting, humiliation, and prayer, for the untimely death of the late lamented president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.”

As compared with Rabbi Raphall’s nuanced presentation, I feel proud that Sabato Morais did not confine himself to delivering a balanced, erudite, prudent, and practical analysis of slavery. In some situations, given the high moral stakes, it is best for rabbis to take firm political stances.

Similarly, I feel proud that in March 1965, my beloved teacher Saul Berman, who then served as Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, California, traveled to Alabama to join a freedom march. While I never asked him if he kept his sermons free of political advocacy, I suspect that he did not.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Wendy Sherman, recently retired from the United States diplomatic corps, described another rabbi who refused to speak exclusively as a sage. The rabbi was a chaplain with the American Army when it liberated Dachau. He wondered if the local ministers and priests ever spoke about the massive crime happening in their neighborhood. The experience convinced him that his sermons should never avoid issues of injustice. So in his congregation in Baltimore, he gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon denouncing discrimination against African-Americans. The sermon had an impact on Sherman’s father, who owned a real estate agency. As Sherman tells the story:

So my father asked him what he could do. And he said, “Well, you could advertise open housing in the city of Baltimore,” and my father said, “Well, that will cost me my business.” There were no open housing laws at the time. And he said, “Well, you asked what you could do. This is what you can do.” So he talked with my mother. They agreed to do it. Within six months, he had lost 60 percent of his business.

I do not know what sort of sermons the ministers and priests delivered to their congregants in the neighborhood of Dachau. Perhaps they gave business-as-usual sermons, and avoided the fraught topic of mass murder. Perhaps they should have had the courage to speak with prophetic intensity. Similarly, Wendy Sherman’s father had the courage to advertise open housing in Baltimore; I do not know if a more “sage-like” sermon would have inspired that courageous act.

What, then, do these instances illustrate? True, my colleagues show wisdom in advising rabbis to keep partisan politics out of their sermons; yet this rule has exceptions.

On the one hand, partisan politics, by definition, means problems of governance regarding  which different parties take different positions. On difficult questions of governance, reasonable people of good will can come to different answers. Usually the ancient Halakhah cannot directly and unequivocally answer those questions.

For example, relatively low taxes allow people the freedom to spend their money as they see fit; yet at the same time, somewhat higher taxes adequately fund needed government programs. Different parties can come to different recommendations in good faith. Halakhah will not decisively answer questions about relative tax rates. Even abundant halakhic material does not clearly decide the wisdom of any specific government regulations about abortion.

In other cases, however, two positions exist, but reasonable people of good faith can justify only one of the options. To take a few examples: Rescuing Jews in Europe, in the 1930s and 1940s, amounted to a partisan debate. One party saw Jews in Europe as human beings, deserving of protection. The other party saw Jews as an infestation of vermin, endangering Aryan Europe and unwelcome in America.

In May, 1939, a ship named the St. Louis drew near harbors in Cuba, and then the United States. The passengers, almost all Jews fleeing Nazi-controlled Europe, did not have the papers they needed. On the one hand, these people faced the prospect of murder in Europe. On the other hand, they did not have the right papers, and many people did not want Jewish immigrants. That decided the issue for Cuba and for the United States, and the ship was sent back to Europe, where many of the passengers were murdered.

In a rather different vein, it seems to me that we may identify three areas in which rabbis ought to advocate firmly for one side in today’s partisan debates. Of course, others may disagree, and each of these areas is sufficiently complex to require extensive analyses. Still, it seems to me that reason falls squarely on one side of each of these issues.

First, the world’s scientists overwhelmingly agree that greenhouse gases contribute to catastrophic changes in our climate. To the best of my understanding, the many arguments for not regulating fossil fuels amount to seeking to maintain the profits of fossil fuel companies, preserving jobs in that industry, and maintaining the ever-expanding consumptionist lifestyle common in the West. Further, spokespersons often back these arguments by denying widely-accepted scientific opinion. It seems to me, therefore, that rabbis should speak out strongly against any positions that deny an overwhelming scientific consensus, and that seek to protect coal workers’ jobs without even an honest attempt to find them new economic opportunity.

Second, the central institutions of the Israeli government all meet in West Jerusalem. It seems to me that as a matter of reality on the ground, the capital of Israel resides in West Jerusalem. Most of the nations of the world maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv, in order not to recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Yet the capital of Israel, as a matter of fact, is located in West Jerusalem. Nonetheless, in 1948 the Catholic Church did not want to recognize Jewish control of West Jerusalem for a theological reason: Jews must suffer for not recognizing Jesus. Palestinians now do not want to recognize West Jerusalem as part of Israel, ostensibly because they hope to establish their capital in East Jerusalem. Of course, there a prudent argument against moving the embassy. One might concede that Jerusalem is factually the capital of Jerusalem, but object that moving the embassy and recognizing Jerusalem as the capital has the potential to incite violence. I judge that argument unconvincing because it amounts to the “rioter’s veto.” The rioter hates some fact and may behave badly, so we must pretend to agree with the rioter; this seems to me to be a problematic approach that can only cause difficulties. More to the point, rabbis must speak out against political views that conveniently overlook clear-cut historical truths and on-the-ground realities.

Finally, to take perhaps the most current issue, indigenous fathers, mothers, and children—many fleeing oppression by formal governments and organized gangs in Central America—now approach the southern border of the United States (see Sofia Martinez’s article in The Atlantic, “Today’s Migrant Flow is Different”). One the one hand, by international treaty and common decency, these desperate, poor people have the right to try to claim asylum in any country that they can reach; on the other hand, many in the United States approve when the US Government does what it can to prevent such entrances into the country—even those in mortal peril (see Judge Jon Tigar’s ruling blocking government efforts to bar refugees). Ultimately, in such life-and-death cases, an argument on the basis of economic considerations simply does not pass moral muster.

Regarding most issues of partisan politics, then, reasonable people can take different positions. Other issues of partisan politics, however, pit reason or compassion against unreason or hatred. On those issues, it seems appropriate for a rabbi to play the role of prophet, and use sermons to come out in favor of reason or compassion.

Or, as Shalom Aleichem’s Tevya puts it, “On the other hand… there is no other hand.”

Eliezer Finkelman
Louis (Eliezer) Finkelman teaches literature and composition at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, and shares responsibilities as co-rabbi of Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park. He earned a Ph.D. in Comparative LIterature at City University of New York, and rabbinic ordination at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University.