Recently, a leader of my Reform congregation, himself a Republican, forwarded me an article which described why the author was leaving the Reform Movement. As a political conservative, she wrote, there seems to be no room for her in her left-leaning congregation. I was deeply affected by the author’s plight and sent a response back to my Republican friend.
You know that I agree with you. For a movement that boasts of “audacious hospitality,” it seems hypocritical to exclude political conservatives from that Big Tent we aspire to be. My own perspective is that anyone who hews to either one of our grossly imperfect political parties in their own thinking one hundred percent of the time, clearly is not thinking deeply enough. For the leaders of neither party are smart enough or moral enough or wise enough to get it right on every issue.
Indeed, I have spent hours with the leadership of our movement begging them to seek out issues that they can support from both sides of the political aisle. I openly criticized their public censure of the move of the embassy to Jerusalem. That said, rabbis cannot avoid politics altogether as this author suggests; there are several areas where we, as Jewish leaders, must take strong stands. As I see them, they are:
In short, after Auschwitz we have no choice but to decry Naziism in all its forms. Some of my more conservative friends claim that the danger to Jews in America is actually from the far left, and it is true that there is antisemitism there in great measure … but very little physical danger. As congregational leaders, we meet with the FBI, ADL, and local law enforcement regularly and not once in my 35-year career has a physical threat ever been identified from the left. Alas, that cannot be said of the far right. The far left does want to exclude and marginalize us, which is a shonda, but they are not actively trying to kill us or our children.
I will not rehearse the entire history of Reform Judaism’s support for Civil Rights here, but let us just agree that it is one of the finest hallmarks of our movement. Nor will I regale you with the countless Jewish texts which demand that we treat every person as a child of God, that we love our neighbors as ourselves, that we treat the stranger as we ourselves would want to be treated. What I will say is that we are commanded to see ourselves as if we too had been slaves in the Land of Egypt. So, abiding the enslavement or degradation of other minorities is simply not an option for us.
I can tell you that this is an ongoing struggle. Simply ordaining the first woman rabbi was not enough. As Reform rabbis, we cannot abide the oppression, marginalization, or abuse of our mothers, sisters, and daughters. Nor can we tolerate inequalities in opportunity, advancement or pay. For, like men, women too are made in the image of God … only more so.
Our tradition does compel us to take care of this Garden of Eden that God has bestowed upon us — and the stakes are higher than in any of the issues above. Let us say that the ecologists are wrong about global warming. What would happen? The air would still get cleaner, the water more pristine, the biome more diverse. If the other side is wrong … we all die. No problem for me taking sides here. Conservation should rightly be a conservative cause. Indeed, it is the very essence of conservatism to seek to preserve what is good about the past. Conservation … conservatism, they are essentially the same word! And finally …
Support for the people and State of Israel is the ideological bedrock upon which our synagogue was founded. It is why we fight so hard against anti-Israel forces or ideas penetrating our congregational ethos. We bring in right- and left-wing speakers all the time, but what I personally will not abide is a speaker or group that calls for Israel’s destruction, which in my mind includes a unilateral withdrawal to the pre-67 borders. On the other side, I would say that annexation of the West Bank, expulsion of the Arab population or the elimination of their basic human rights would be the “gvul” or ideological border for us to the right.
So, those are my five. Do not misunderstand me; rabbis will opine from the bima about other issues as they feel called to do so by our tradition: gun control, abortion, immigration and so on; that is what “freedom of the pulpit” is all about. However, in all of these, I agree with you that we, as proponents of a Big Tent, should tread carefully, and with humility while actively seek out counterbalancing perspectives.
Please understand that the above represents my own philosophy only. Although our clergy has discussed these issues in great depth, I do not claim to speak for all of us, but perhaps this missive will give you some idea of how I personally will approach these ethical and cultural issues moving forward. I hope this helps.
And that is where my letter ends with a salutation. I do not want to conclude here with a salutation, however, but rather with a prayer. You see, as the verdict was about to be read in Minneapolis this past Wednesday, our clergy all felt the need to issue a statement of some kind at what we felt to be a liminal moment in our nation’s history. So, there we were, watching from our own homes, furiously texting proposed verbiage back and forth in our WhatsApp group.
In the end, however, instead of a political treatise, what we came to was a simple prayer. It was published on Facebook, just before the verdict was read, in stark white lettering on a black background:
And to that prayer, I would simply add … Amen.