Politics from the Pulpit: An Epistemological Reflection

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Don Seeman

We live in a time of extreme and increasing partisanship in American politics, and this may pose special challenges for rabbis and other public religious intellectuals. Should I eschew politics from the pulpit altogether as a pragmatic effort to serve a politically diverse community? Or should I feel called upon to adopt what some have labeled a “prophetic voice,” speaking forcefully in the name of Torah for a set of conclusions that may be more or less in line with those adopted by one of the warring factions of contemporary American civil life? As a personal matter, neither of these feels particularly authentic or useful. How can I self-righteously claim the authority of Torah for positions that can only be loosely accommodated, in the vast majority of cases, by the classical sources that define our tradition? And how, on the other hand, can a Torah divorced from the pressing issues of our day—refugees, national defense, taxation, and civil rights—be considered in any way a Torah of life? The pragmatic issues faced by rabbis in the field are real, but I want to take a more reflective approach to thinking about the different valences of Torah that we teach. What might a coherent philosophical account of the problem of “politics from the pulpit” look like?

To start, I am in agreement with Rabbi Jason Herman, who also writes for Lehrhaus that rabbis make better sages than prophets—that the halakhic tradition itself is so full of nuance and sophistication that it cannot be reduced in good faith to mere Democratic or Republican talking points. Yet while I think that this goes without saying, I also think it does not go far enough. I will argue that there is also a more conceptual and epistemic rationale for emphasizing that while political discourse may fairly draw upon the wisdom of sources in our tradition, it cannot claim its authority from them in any immediate way because there simply is no unitary Jewish or rabbinic view of some of the most important contemporary issues we face. Moreover, the corollary of this approach is that 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.

How do we know what we claim to know about Jewish responses to complex moral issues? Within the constraints of this short essay, I want to propose that three different kinds of mitzvot exemplify three different answers to this question. The first two are familiar from the writings of Saadiah and Maimonides, who each sought to explicate the relationship between divine purpose and human understanding through their account of reasons for the commandments. While they insisted that the Torah’s commandments have reasons that humans can and should explore, they also described the epistemological limits of human reason and the dangers of ignoring those limits with respect to commanded practices, whose forms have already been detailed and fixed in Halakhah. Some medieval theorists of Judaism however also recognized a third category of discretionary activity whose specific form, especially in the arena of communal governance or politics, was left unfixed and open to human deliberation. Here the epistemological problem is rather different – not merely the understanding of reasons for actions that the Torah has already mandated, but also the wise determination of goals and strategies that emerge over time. I will invoke a teaching of Rav Kook to support my argument that these discretionary goals and strategies – which we often refer to as “politics”- are no less sacred than the fixed mitzvot we otherwise observe, but that they defy by definition the kinds of certainty that would normally allow us to speak in a prophetic voice.


In his Book of Beliefs and Opinions (Emunot ve-De’ot), the tenth century Baghdadi Gaon, R. Saadiah ben Yosef suggested that the commandments of the Torah could be divided into two broad classes, which he referred to as “rational” (sikhliyot) and “traditional” (shimiyot) commandments respectively. A simplistic reading might lead one to conclude that only some commandments can be considered rational while others lack reason, and this is one reason that Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed later rejected this language, even as he continued to build on Saadiah’s formative distinction. As the philosopher Lenn E. Goodman has summarized Saadiah’s position, “calling some commandments rational does not imply that the rest are not… but only that those so singled out are rational par excellence, since their rationality is transparent.”[1]

Prayer, for example, may be considered a rational commandment because the duty to give thanks for good that has been rendered is obvious and intuitive to thinking people, and the act of prayer—though not necessarily the choice of a specific liturgy—is a direct expression of that good. The prohibitions of murder and theft, similarly, may be considered rational because these prohibitions are direct expressions of a desire to prevent certain kinds of harm to individuals and the social fabric in which human beings may flourish. The requirement to support the most vulnerable members of society through some kind of redistributive practice (tzedakah) also seems like a fairly transparent (and therefore “rational”) expression of the Torah’s purposes.

Even today, people rarely challenge the reasonability of these commandments, and the bulk of rabbinic teaching is in the fixing of their seemingly more arbitrary details: how often should a person pray, how much tzedekah should they give and to whom, and under what circumstances does the law allow for the prosecution of thieves and murderers? To the extent that the details of observance are described, debated, and eventually fixed in the rabbinic corpus, these are obvious matters for today’s religious leaders to expound in their communities, and to invoke the authority of Torah in promoting or defending. While there is undoubtedly some discretion built into the details of their performance, the general outlines have been pretty well fixed.

The same may be said of the so-called “traditional commandments,” which includes those whose essential purposes may seem undetermined or even arbitrary from the perspective of human reason. Dietary laws may have perfectly valid rationales, for example (Maimonides, for example, thinks that they help train human beings to curb their appetites for sensuous pleasure), but the specific prohibitions of pork and shellfish rather than beef and salmon might appear arbitrary, especially to people who like pork and shellfish. These are the commandments, according to one frequently cited rabbinic saying, upon which the evil inclination and non-Jewish nations frequently cast aspersions (see Yoma 67b). Here the relationship between act and purpose is indirect or even opaque, and this is especially true of many commandments that were dismissively labeled “ceremonial law” by some modern Jewish reformers.[2] Like the so-called rational commandments, the “traditional” ones too were debated and articulated in great specificity by the rabbinic tradition, and here I follow writers like Maimonides, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, and R. Kook, who all thought that the pedagogic responsibility of teachers and rabbis included not just the responsibility to teach the details of their observance but also to search out their reasons to the extent of human capacity.[3] The law should be observed on its own intrinsic authority but it should also ideally be embraced for the great good that it brings to the world. Or, as Maimonides writes at the end of his Hilkhot Temurah, “Let everyone who is able to give the Law a reason give one!”[4] Unlike the expressly rational commandments in which the intent of the law may be clearer than the details of its performance, here the details may actually be less opaque than the reasons or intent that can only demonstrated through a dynamic intellectual process of reasoning that starts from the law as given.

Though the epistemic regime governing our understanding of rational and traditional commandments differs quite a bit, they are similar in that both have reasons according to Saadiah and Maimonides, and both are spelled out in great detail through the normative process of Talmud Torah (study) and pesikah (jurisprudence) that define rabbinic Judaism. Religious leaders are authorized to teach these as matters of Torah that have been defined through the generations, within the real but limited pluralism that has always defined halakhic decision-making. It is a task that requires some skill and expertise and, as Rabbi Herman convincingly shows, it cannot be reduced to a collection of contemporary sound bites in support of an immediate political agenda. To the extent that Judaism matters to politics more broadly, it matters precisely because the commandments teach us something unique and irreducible to the ideological programs of the moment, however important those may be. Halakhic and aggadic teachings can inform contemporary political debates but they can rarely settle them – they are more likely, on the contrary, to unsettle contemporary political orthodoxies.

Yet here is the rub, because if this view seems to challenge the immediate relevance of Torah to the resolution of contemporary political disputes (i.e., there is no authoritative Torah view on how many Syrian refugees the United States should welcome, or whether lowering taxes on citizens and corporations is a good idea), it also threatens to render the world of politics devoid of ethico-religious import. If the Torah cannot resolve civil disputes about gun control, abortion rights, or tax policy, doesn’t that deprive these matters, from a committed Jewish standpoint, of sacred significance? That concern may be what leads some religious leaders who are neither prophets nor the immediate descendants of prophets to nevertheless adopt a prophetic, oracular style when they speak about matters they consider important, as if they are speaking with the full and unambiguous authority of Torah behind them. This has become a significant problem on the political left as well as the political right, and leads me to wonder if there is another option for how we might think about this problem. How can we appreciate the importance of politics, from a religious point of view, without immodestly claiming to predetermine outcomes on the basis of religious authority?


Already in the Middle Ages, some rabbinic writers developed an understanding of political or temporal governance that by necessity outstripped the normal rules for halakhic governance of individuals and small communities. Maimonides himself notes, in his Laws of Kings and their Wars that the duly-appointed Jewish king enjoys wide discretionary powers under Halakhah for the conduct of “discretionary wars,” levying of taxes, and provision of justice outside of normal judicial channels. This already complicates efforts to apply Talmudic rulings on matters like war, taxation, or capital punishment in any clear and transparent way to the activity of the state. At least some important voices in the rabbinic tradition understood that matters of broad state policy required a high degree of discretionary authority that is often glossed over in attempts to claim religious authority for particular policy outcomes.

In an influential 14th century essay, R. Nissim of Girona develops an elaborate theory of “the king’s law,” explaining the basis of this discretionary power in more detail than Maimonides’ code would have allowed.[5] And in his 15th century biblical commentary, Don Yitzhak Abravanel takes issue with Maimonides’ limitation of executive authority to the monarch, suggesting wistfully that perhaps when the Messiah comes the Jews will be ruled by a democratic authority like the one that provided haven for exiled Iberian Jews in Venice, for which he seeks biblical support in the council of elders appointed by Moses at his father-in-law’s behest, as well as the prophet Samuel’s critique of the Israelite request for a king. None of this is exactly dispositive to current concerns, but it may be sufficient to demonstrate that these leading theorists of Judaism understood the need for public policy and state governance that exceeds the technical expert competence of rabbis.

By itself, this is an important corrective to approaches that claim something like oracular authority to determine the correct outcome on political matters. But it does not directly address the elimination of religious meaning from political life that I raised earlier. For this, I wish to turn briefly to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935).

While he worked hard to establish the Jewish community in the Land of Israel on a firm halakhic foundation (and looked forward to the resumption of an authoritative Sanhedrin), Rav Kook was surrounded by many secular Zionists, whose idealistic contributions to the governance of society took place outside of Jewish religious norms. I think this is the context in which the following extraordinary excerpt from Arpelei Tohar, the only one of his notebooks published unedited during his own lifetime, should be read:

The improvement of society (tikkun ha-medinah) in general and of the body in particular is among the most exalted expressions of sanctity, which because of the very excess of sanctity, cannot be explicitly revealed in a form that has external expressions of holiness. Rather, the light that is in [this improvement] and accompanies it, is as if complete.[6]

The lack of a fixed form for actions taken toward the improvement of society differentiates them from most standard mitzvot, but does not render them any less sacred. On the contrary, says Rav Kook, it is the very excess of sanctity that prevents them from being fixed and standardized. The “light” in them is not inferior, but “complete.” And this implies a certain degree of political pluralism as different individuals or groups reason in good faith about what a tikkun ha-medinah might look like. Without mentioning them by name, Rav Kook is building here on sources like Nahmanides’ commentary to Deuteronomy 6:18, which teaches, “Do what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord.” There is no room to demonize people whose understanding of how to achieve the good and the right might differ, within reason, from one’s own.

Rav Kook, moreover, seeks to unveil the sanctity in human society as a whole:

[T]he exalted extensions of this [light] in specific actions for the betterment of society and the individual body are analogous, with respect to mitzvot, to the obligatory fringes (tzitzit) while culture as a whole is like the entire garment (tallit). The fringes cause the sanctity that is hidden in the garment as a whole to be revealed… while the sacred and commanded activities symbolize human activity in general for the betterment of the individual and the collective. They bring to expression the hidden light deep within all human culture, and bring that revelation to its proper place, demonstrating the light of eternal vitality that enlivens everything, even the temporal and temporary.[7]

Actions “for the improvement of society in general and of the body in particular” are not religiously neutral. To the contrary, they can be analogized from the perspective of all human culture to the tzitzit or ritual fringes, which demonstrate the hidden sanctity of the tallit as a whole. Political actions intended for the good and betterment of temporal society may seem secular because the form they take is shifting and discretionary, but they are mitzvot in the deep sense that they channel G-d’s light into the world, which is itself sacred. The tzitzit reveal the hidden holiness of the garment, while politics reveals the hidden holiness of human culture as a whole. This is a breathtaking application of Jewish mystical consciousness to ordinary human affairs. But what does it tell us about politics from the pulpit?

For one thing, it means that issues of political concern are also matters of religious concern to the extent that they deal with deliberation over actions taken for the betterment of society, tikkun ha-medinah. “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics,” as someone once said, “have no idea what religion means.” Yet this does not in most cases justify the perception that religious expertise and the authority that comes with it can be usefully marshalled to end political debate or to determine which, among a relatively broad panorama of potential choices, is the “Jewish one.” It isn’t just that Jewish law is complex and imperfectly attuned to the needs of any given moment in our political life but rather because the form of broad actions for the betterment of society are often unfixed and discretionary by design. While there are certainly some political choices that seem outside the pale of any reasonable Jewish position, there is little evidence to support that this applies to most of the hot-button issues of our current time over the shape, for example of the First, Second, and Fourteenth Amendments governing speech, guns, or privacy (and by extension, abortion). Indeed, abortion is a good example of an issue that has been extensively adjudicated under the normal rules of halakhic practice, but where those rulings too do not apply in any simple or unproblematic way to considerations of what policy is best for society as a whole. There are good prudential reasons why one might take a strict view of abortion as a matter of individual Halakhah, yet believe that social policy ought to be lenient or the other way around. Rabbis and other religious leaders may not always be the best judge of these realities.

Personally, I feel blessed to live in a modern Orthodox community that retains its political diversity while self-segregation seems increasingly to be the norm in American life. I am also happy that my community is normally skeptical of rabbis and religious leaders claiming undue expertise or authority in political matters purely by virtue of their being rabbis or religious leaders. While Saadiah’s “traditional commandments” are those in which there is an indirect or relatively opaque relationship between the practice and intent of the mitzvah, these commandments, which we might call tikkun ha-medinah commandments, are unfixed or underdetermined in their intent as well as their form, inasmuch as we maintain legitimate differences of opinion about goals as well as strategies. Do I seek to maximize free speech or inclusiveness, economic equality or the dynamism of a free market? Which will make society better for my community and others? These are not questions that can be clearly answered by Jewish law, let alone vague (yet often vociferous) invocations of “Jewish values.”

For rabbis and teachers of Torah, the epistemic regime I have tried to sketch here mandates a degree of circumspection not just because it’s politically savvy to keep one’s options open or avoid offending congregants, but because we ought not to claim authority that is not ours. Personally, I prefer to use other settings than the pulpit to speak about political matters. In my community, we used seudah shelishit to speak about some recent controversies, because I wanted to be clear that these were matters for reasoned give and take, rather than pronouncements from on high. It wasn’t a perfect solution and I could imagine using the pulpit in a careful way to raise issues without predetermining their outcome. But as the political discourse in this country continues to heat up, can’t we at least expect rabbis and religious leaders to avoid demonizing their political opponents, in the name of Torah, from the pulpit and elsewhere? To make clear the real basis of the authority for the positions they take? The mantle of prophetic authority sits too heavily on those who merely have strong opinions to share.

[1] L. E. Goodman, God of Abraham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 170.

[2] Abraham Geiger, “On Renouncing Judaism,” in Max Weiner ed., Abraham Geiger and Liberal Judaism: The Challenge of the Nineteenth Century (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1981), 283-293.

[3] See Don Seeman, “Reasons for the Commandments as Contemplative Practice in Maimonides,” Jewish Quarterly Review 103 (2015): 298-327; and idem., “Evolutionary Ethics: The Taamei Hamitzvot of Rav Kook,” Hakirah (forthcoming).

[4] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Temurah 4:13.

[5] See Itzhak Brand, “Religious Recognition of Autonomous Secular Law: The ‘Sitz im Leben’ of R. Nissim of Girona’s Homily (no. 11),” Harvard Theological Review 105 (2012): 163-88. On this matter, see also chapter nine of Chaim Saiman, Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[6] R. Kook, Arpelei Tohar (Jerusalem: R. Tzvi Yehuda Kook Foundation, 1983), 6-7. Translation mine.

[7] Ibid.

Don Seeman is Associate Professor of Religion and Jewish Studies at Emory University and is Rabbi of the New Toco Shul in Atlanta. His scholarship focuses on Jewish thought, the anthropology of religion and contemporary Jewish life. His most recent essay on “Evolutionary Ethics: The Taamei Hamitzvot of Rav Kook” is forthcoming at Hakira.