Galilee Diary: Spiritual Leadership
I thought, “I will not mention Him, no more will I speak in His name,” but [His word] was like a raging fire in my heart, shut up in my bones; I could not hold it in, I was helpless.
Recently I attended the monthly meeting of the Council of Reform Rabbis in Israel (i.e., the Israeli CCAR, the professional association of North American Reform rabbis), where the main agenda item was the continuation of an ongoing discussion about whether individual rabbis – and the Council as a body – can or should take a public position regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict and directions toward its resolution.
This meeting brought back memories: Growing up in the North American Reform Movement in the 60s and 70s, the same painful discussions took place regarding the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War. On the one hand, “rabbis shouldn’t get involved in politics!” But on the other hand, can we really insist that Judaism has nothing to say about our moral responsibility for the injustices in and of our nation? Later, I learned that this debate had a long pedigree; for example, in 1861 Rabbi David Einhorn gave a strongly anti-slavery sermon in his Reform synagogue in Baltimore, and had to flee the city to avoid being tarred and feathered.
A few months ago, I wrote here about my experience at the Reform congregation in Shanghai, when what I thought was an innocent, low-key study session on the dilemmas involved in a “Jewish democratic state” gave rise to an unpleasant and almost violent confrontation between factions among the participants. When the dust had settled, a young Israeli woman criticized me, arguing that Shabbat is for stepping away from conflict and dissension; she expected a rabbi to teach Torah, not talk about “politics.” When she put it that way, it made me feel that if that were the case, I am not suited to be a rabbi. For if the Torah is not meant to challenge our behavior, to guide us in our response to the injustices around us – if it is just supposed to provide an escape from those injustices, comfort food of pleasant stories and moral platitudes – then it seems that Marx was right: religion is the opiate of the masses.
But of course, it’s not so simple, for rabbis represent their congregations, and when rabbis take a public stand on controversial issues, they will certainly anger some members of their congregations, and thereby risk alienating them from the rabbi, from the congregation, even from Judaism. Moreover, in most cases, it is an oversimplification to state, with regard to a complex issue of public policy like war and peace, that “Judaism teaches,” or “Jewish values dictate” a particular position. Today, for example, while most Reform rabbis in Israel would advocate for a two-state solution (I hope I am not revealing a shocking secret), and decry the present government’s policies and statements that seem to oppose that solution – based on Jewish values of justice, respect for the Other, and peace – we all know that the leaders and groups that oppose that solution also do so on the basis of what they believe are Jewish values, rooted in the Torah.
Here in Israel, I think, the role of the rabbi may be a little different. If rabbis represent the teachers of tradition in public discourse in a Jewish state, then their silence in political debates that have a moral dimension really is an abdication of responsibility. The Jewishness of the state, it seems to me, depends on the voice – or rather the voices – of Judaism being heard loudly and clearly in the public square – not issuing from some authoritative “chief rabbi,” but from a pluralistic chorus of rabbis offering their competing interpretations of the tradition to guide the state and its citizens in democratic decision-making. Obviously, if we want people to listen to us and take our positions seriously, we have to state them humbly, while listening carefully and respectfully to opposing positions and taking them seriously. If we seek to dismiss, silence, or demonize those who oppose our views, then indeed, we would be better off sticking to song-leading. I suggest that this same approach is relevant to rabbis anywhere.