Jews Divided Over Rabbi Not Wanting to Spew Politics from the Pulpit

Bruce Bialosky
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Posted: Jul 02, 2017 12:01 AM
Jews Divided Over Rabbi Not Wanting to Spew Politics from the Pulpit

A recent furor has erupted in the Jewish Community and the Jewish Press because a nationally-known pulpit Rabbi, David Wolpe, wrote a column for The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles published on June 7 entitled Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit.  This caused a backlash from other rabbis defending not only their right, but the need, for their politics to be preached to their congregants.  

I have known David Wolpe for close to 30 years.  I have never discussed politics with him.  I have always tried to pry information about Judaism from him because he has written more than a few books on the subject.  Other than that, we have discussed family.  I have no idea what his political beliefs are, nor do I care.  I do know he was in a meeting of Jewish rabbis and religious teachers I helped to arrange with President George W. Bush, and he was favorably impressed with Bush’s earnest commitment to Israel, as were others in the room.  But on the rare occasion I get to see him these days, I would never discuss politics.  I am in no way surprised my friend wrote such a column; he is a very wise man.   

He had one line in his initial column with which every Jewish Republican I know (and I know a lot) and others agree totally and completely.  Wolpe wrote “All we hear all day long is politics. Can we not come to shul for something different, something deeper? I want to know what my rabbi thinks of Jacob and Rachel, not of Pence and Pelosi.”  We come to Temple to learn about Judaism, to become better Jews.  I could care less if my rabbi thinks we should expand the food stamp program and whether that rabbi dug up something from the Torah that supposedly validates his commentary.   

As a highly visible Jewish Republican, I have endured this for many years.  Steven Windmueller was the dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College, which educates and trains future rabbis and cantors.  Windmueller is a smart guy, and he knew me so he wanted his students to hear my political views.   

Standing in front of the audience, I felt like I was a character in the Star Wars bar scene.  I fully expected one of the students at a juncture to attempt to draw my blood to assure it wasn’t green or some other unfamiliar shade.  I was undaunted by their palpable distaste for my politics.  My primary thought was that these were the future religious leaders of the Jewish community. What qualified them, and what hope did someone have as a non-liberal of having a balanced Jewish experience with this group?  

The organized Jewish community was significantly against President Trump for his executive order regarding shutting down the Johnson Amendment.  That is the rule that restricts political activity from the pulpit for churches.  My immediate reaction was, "what is the big deal?"  People should just come to any synagogue on High Holy Days and they'll see plenty of politics.  

The High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are the Super Bowl of Judaism.  The rabbis have the most people they are going to be able to sermonize all year, and many take that opportunity to express their political views.  Nothing is new because of Trump.  

Ten years back, my son was attending college at the University of Kansas.  Through our Jewish community connections, we got him into a Reform temple in Kansas City not far from campus.  As soon as his services were out, he called home, exercised over the rabbi’s sermon that attacked President Bush.  I could read the sermon online and sure enough it was significantly slanted politically.   

I spoke to the rabbi the following week.  After thanking him for accommodating my son, I expressed our concerns about his sermon.  He denied it was overtly political and anti-Bush.  I read him some of the statements from his sermon, which were overtly political, and he still denied my concerns.   

My longtime Los Angeles synagogue, Stephen Wise, has been largely free of politics until recently.  That is why there are many Republicans in the congregation.  I know this because whenever I see them they want to talk politics with me.  We are outnumbered, but still an unflappable group.   

We have a new head rabbi that many of us are concerned is beginning to change our long history.  He has driven a Saturday minyan (a group of 10 or more congregants) of more observant Reform Jews from the Temple.  The minyan was principally led by Dennis Prager (yes, that one).  Dennis did everything he could to maintain the minyan’s status at the Temple, but was forced to take it elsewhere.  Many Republicans Jews will leave the Temple over this, and then others will likely follow.  At a time when Temple membership is floundering across the nation, why would any rabbi antagonize part of their congregation because of their personal political views?  

The fascinating thing is that the Jews who lean toward Republican political beliefs are often more observant Jews -- whether that be Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.  So many of the left-of-center Jews are what I refer to as “Deli Jews” -- they think they are Jewish because they eat at a deli a couple times a year -- mainly are cultural Jews, not temple congregants.  Why would anyone unnecessarily antagonize part of their base simply to express their own political views?  

Here is why.  Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, stated in his response to Wolpe that synagogues should never be a place of partisanship.  He then went on to write: “Now, more than ever, with millions of refugees suffering the crushing burden of wars and dislocation, the planet on the verge of confronting the irreversible, devastating consequences of climate change, Muslim and Jewish Americans fearful in the face of escalating hate crimes, and millions at risk of losing lifesaving health care access, rabbis cannot -- nor should not -- abdicate the call of the prophets and the teachings of the rabbis by “standing idly by the blood of our neighbor.”  It is always now, more than ever.  

Jacobs apparently has no idea that his statement appears to Republicans as directly out of the Democratic Party's platform and exactly why we are repulsed by the politics from the pulpit.  You would never have heard Jacobs deriding Obama for the unconscionable escalation of the food stamp program -- even seven years after the formal end of the recession, which caused his hard-working congregants to pour money into a program unnecessarily that could be used for other more meaningful purposes. (Like paying for their children’s Jewish education.)

If the purpose of the pulpit is to espouse opinions on public policy, then I should be giving sermons every Friday night and Saturday.  I am a committed Jew, and I am more well-versed on public policy then virtually any rabbi in America.  I have been studying, reading, and writing about it for 40 years and can do a 15-minute sermon on virtually any public policy you want to discuss, and could probably tie it somehow to Judaism.  But that is not why a religious pulpit exists, nor what people seek in the pews.  

Rabbi Wolpe is correct.  That is why his congregation is blossoming while others wilt.  If we want politics we will watch the Sunday shows. On Friday night or Saturday, we want to become better and more knowledgeable Jews.  Frankly, rabbi, we don’t care what your opinion is about the health care program.