The Jewish Value of Politics
Rosh Hashana 5779
Rabbi Ranon Teller
Congregation Brith Shalom, Bellaire, TX
This year, I didn’t have to choose the topic for my sermon. This year, the topic presented itself to me. This year, it’s clear what’s on our minds and our hearts. This year it’s clear what’s weighting heavily our collective soul…politics. We are all immersed in politics – each in our own unique way. Whether it’s because of our 24/7 connection to social media or whether it’s the polarization in our political landscape, political saturation is an inescapable reality.
This morning I’m not going discuss policies or advocate any particular issues. This morning I am going to address how Jewish values can help us navigate our political anxiety. I’ve made it my practice to keep politics off the bima – up until a few moments ago. Let’s begin with some of the reasons we’ve kept politics at bay.
One. Sanctuary. Many of us, myself included, utilize this synagogue, and especially the sanctuary, as a shelter from the storm of anxiety and tension. We come here to pray. When we enter this space, we’re seeking religious ritual and spiritual inspiration. The daily grind of the political machine, for some of us, is considered weekday work, and Shabbat is our day of rest to live in peace and harmony. So, for the sake of sanctuary, we’ve tried to keep politics off the bima.
Two. Shalom Bayit, peace in the community. We are a politically diverse community. We are a community with Republicans and Democrats, Libertarians and Socialists. When we talk politics, we divide our community. We want all of us to feel welcome. We want to provide a safe space for everyone present in this room. Any political stance from the bima will necessarily alienate and frustrate a segment of our community. The mere mention of politics creates an awareness of our division. So, for the sake of community, we’ve tried to keep politics off the bima.
Three. The pulpit rabbi is an authority on many facets of Jewish life – and beyond – but in terms of politics, the pulpit rabbi doesn’t typically have any more political access or political insight than the members of the congregation. Political assertion from the pulpit could very well be considered a misuse of rabbinic authority. And so, to avoid what they call the “bully pulpit”, we’ve tried to keep politics off the bima.
Four. The Jewish community is a network of organizations, each specializing in its own area of expertise. As a synagogue, we specialize in worship, holy days, lifecycles, rituals, fellowship, and education. We, in turn, rely on our Jewish community’s political advocacy groups to provide our community with opportunities for political engagement. We have a responsibility to stay focused on our mission. So, for the sake of our mission, we’ve tried to keep politics off the bima.
I could go on. The debate about church and state, religion and politics…The point is, we made a deliberate choice to keep politics off the bima. We made a deliberate choice and it came with a price.
By refraining from politics, the price we’ve paid is that we’ve disappointed those who rely on the synagogue to represent their moral, political voices. After all, Jewish communities across time and space have taken strong political stances – our prophetic tradition, Israel advocacy, Soviet Jewry, civil rights. We have heroes, like Elie Wiesel, who gave voice to the Jewish imperative in the Torah and declared, “Do not stand idly by”. We have rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel, who protested segregation and marched with Dr. King, and exclaimed that he was “praying with his feet”.
Rabbi Shai Held, a next-generation rabbi and leader, says that keeping politics out of the shul is like keeping the Torah out of ark. And yet, despite all of that history and energy and zeal, we’ve tried to keep politics off the bima for the sake of sanctuary, community, humility and mission…So, why now? What’s changed? Why am I addressing issues of politics today?
What’s changed is the intensity of political engagement. Our politics are becoming an ever-increasing part of our core identities. As much as we might like to keep politics out of the synagogue, as deliberately as I’ve tried to keep politics off the bima, the reality is, politics have already entered our sanctuary because politics have entered our lives, and we bring our whole lives into the sanctuary with us.
The 2016 campaign attracted a higher level of interest from voters than at any point over the last two decades. Statistics indicate that, today, 85% of voters – almost all of us – are following politics more closely. Over the summer I found my teenagers (my teenagers!) googling immigration law. It’s no longer reasonable – it’s almost irresponsible – to ignore our political reality.
It’s no secret that I’m not a particularly politically minded rabbi. I grew up in a home that was civically conscientious, but not really politically active. My parents voted in the elections, but I don’t remember them ever speaking to us about who they were voting for or the issues they cared about. As an adult, I, too, vote in every election, and I do speak to my kids about who I vote for and which issues I care about. At dinner time we have conversations and debates, and sometimes we have even mock elections and votes. One of my favorite training exercises is the game that we play called Board of Trustees. It’s the game where we, as a family system, have to come to a decision about an issue through a democratic process. Someone has to raise a motion, second the motion, and call for a vote – and we all have to play by Roberts Rules of Order. Our favorite is, “I call the question!” Here’s an important rule – each kid gets one vote and each parent gets two.
As a rabbi, my rabbinate is modeled after Aharon Ha’Cohen, Aaron the high priest, who loved peace and pursued peace for better and for worse. He loved peace, for better, because he brought people together and united the community. He loved peace, for worse, because he avoided confrontation and hid from controversy, like that time that the Israelites wanted to build the golden calf and Aaron remained a passive enabler, unable to respond to the moment and unwilling to address the concerns of his congregation.
I don’t want to fall into the Aaron fallacy, unwilling to confront our political angst. What’s on our minds this year is politics. And if Judaism isn’t relevant to what’s on our minds, it loses its meaning. If we don’t speak to what’s happening in the lives of our members, the synagogue becomes irrelevant.
So how do we address this political reality in a diverse community that’s feeling frustrated and vulnerable across the political landscape? With the support of our synagogue leadership and the guidance of a diverse sampling of our membership, I’ve arrived at some suggestions. We’ve identified goals and set boundaries.
To define the goals, I had one criterion: to determine what we, as a diverse synagogue community, can do to promote Jewish values. We are not a political organization. We are not a government agency. We are a synagogue: inheritors of a Jewish tradition that demands we work to repair the world in whatever small ways we can.
Here are the two goals: (1) encourage civic activity as a Jewish imperative, and (2) practice civility, derech eretz, in our politically diverse community.
Let’s unpack the goals. Goal #1: Encourage civic education and advocacy. Jewish tradition teaches that if we have the opportunity to engage in the world, and we choose not to, we are still held responsible for the outcomes. Civic engagement is a mitzvah. We want to encourage all our members and all our kids to be well informed and well-educated about what’s happening in the world around us. We want to encourage all our members to meet our government representatives – and hear straight from them about their views. To go out and meet the candidates running for office and find out what they stand for. To attend civic town hall meetings. Regardless of our individual political perspectives, let’s encourage civic education and engagement and advocacy as a Jewish imperative – an imperative to pursue justice and promote peace, a mitzvah to help repair the world.
Goal #2: Practice civility in our politically diverse community. In a classic, cautionary tale in the Talmud, called the Oven of Achnai, there’s a showdown between Rabbi Eliezer and the rabbis led by Rabban Gamliel, his brother-in-law. They are debating the Jewish legal properties of a certain oven. Major decisions in the Talmudic academy, in the beit midrash, were made by voting. The majority ruled; it was a democratic process. The argument about the oven devolves from legal to personal, from dialectal to procedural. Chaos ensues. As a result, Rabbi Eliezer, a great and respected sage, is excommunicated from the rabbinic community by his own brother-in-law, Rabban Gamliel – the head of the academy. Rabbi Eliezer was such a deeply respected sage; he had married Rabban Gamliel’s sister. And now, he was devastated to his very core by his own brother‑in‑law. The Talmud reports that his distress is so great, and God empathizes so deeply with his pain, that the foundations of the Earth begin to respond. On that day, our Talmud reports, agriculture around the world was destroyed. Supernatural, cosmic energy rotted a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat crop, and a third of the barley crop. On that day, everything upon which Rabbi Eliezer cast his eyes burst into flame. On that day, great tsunamis rose up on the oceans.
Rabbi Eliezer’s pain arose from a broken democratic process, defiled by polarization and demonization. His hurt was so deep that, eventually, that tragic cosmic energy had mortal consequences. God heard Rabbi Eliezer’s pain, and one day, as Rabbi Eliezer was deep in prayer, his wife was informed that her brother, Rabban Gamliel, had died, killed by the cosmic pain of hurt and devastation.
It’s an ancient, cautionary tale about the challenges of the democratic process. It’s a delicate balance to, on the one hand, believe in a cause and fight for a cause – tooth and nail – and then on the other hand, maintain decorum, respect, and civility necessary for a healthy-functioning democracy. Our tradition praises the civil discourse of Hillel and Shamai, who argued bitterly and disagreed vehemently, and then went home and lived in the same loving community. We are taught that, even while they argued about the laws of kashrut, they still ate at each other’s homes. Even while they argued about the laws of marriage, they still encouraged their children to marry one another. They were able to fight passionately for their positions and break bread together in the true spirit of democracy.
Our rabbis teach: Civility is even more important than Torah itself; derekh eretz kadmah l’Torah. And that’s really saying something! Our sages literally lived and died for Torah! And still, even more important than Torah is basic human decency. Yes, there are limits to the kinds of opinions that are considered acceptable – the Torah instructs us to love good and hate evil. But, I believe the diverse group of people gathered in this sanctuary are on that spectrum of decency. We are all worthy of common decency and respect and love. Each and every one of us reflects the image of God.
We, our Brith Shalom community, are presented with a unique opportunity and a challenge. We, like Hillel and Shamai, have the opportunity to be the loyal descendants of a community whose respect for each other rises above our differences. We have the opportunity to heed the cautionary tale of the Talmud. Even as we’re naturally becoming increasingly aware of each other’s political views, we can still maintain our love and respect for each other.
So those are the two goals we’ve set for ourselves: (1) engaging in civic activity as a mitzvah – out there in the civic community, and (2) practicing civility and generosity of spirit here in our synagogue community. These goals do not represent major initiatives or a new direction. They are an acknowledgement of what’s already happening in our shul and in the world around us.
To keep these goals in perspective, we’ve defined boundaries. I will continue to keep the focus of the pulpit on Torah, learning, character building, infusing our rituals with meaning and spirit. I’m sensitive to the reality that, typically, when you are viewing a presentation, you have a remote control in your hands. When you’re in the sanctuary, you can’t “change the channel”! I respect the diversity of our perspectives.
We’re going to explore educational opportunities in the greater Houston community, and we’re going to continue our tradition to keep politics off the bima. We don’t need to persuade each other or debate each other. We want to make a difference out there in the world. Let’s encourage civic engagement in civic spaces.
Rav Asi lay on his deathbed as his students surrounded him. They were waiting anxiously for his final words of guidance. But instead, Rav Asi was weeping uncontrollably. His students asked, “Why do you weep?” Rav Asi said, “I’m afraid that I haven’t done enough.” His students knew better and said as much, “Holy Rabbi, you’ve done everything! You’ve taught Torah and you’ve been our role-model for what it means to be a mensch. You have been loving and kind. You have kept the mitzvoth in deed and in spirit. You have never made anyone angry. You have always pursued peace and always avoided confrontation. You have never once intruded into politics and community affairs.” Rav Asi replies, “That is why I weep. Perhaps I shall be condemned in the next world because I was able to help repair the world but I chose not to.”
I believe that as a Brith Shalom synagogue community, with our solid foundation of love and respect, and with our political diversity, we are uniquely positioned for this sacred moment. We can encourage political engagement out there in the Houston civic community, and we can maintain a loving, nurturing space here in this sanctuary.
These are difficult times for all of us. Today, I’m engaging in this political conversation in the form of a sermon. But, the best way for me to engage is probably pastorally. There are times when we are frustrated and upset at the events happening around us. Please make an appointment to come talk to me so that I can help nurture your spirit through these trying times. In fact, even if you’re doing OK and just have some ideas for me, please reach out. I’d like to learn from your experience. I’d like to help support your Jewish journey.
Ribono shel Olam, Source of All, you have blessed us with the wisdom to embrace democracy and freedom. Bless us now with the wisdom to engage in those blessings through education and with respect. You have created us each with our own unique soul, each with our own unique view of the world. Help us to treat each other with respect. Guide us to continue to be good citizens of this country, good stewards of the Earth, responsible Jews among the people of Israel, and members of a loving, diverse, model community here at Brith Shalom. And in that way, we will keep Judaism relevant for us, for our children, and our children’s children, l’dor vador, for generations to come. And together we say: Amen.