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Bima vs. bully pulpit
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Bima vs. bully pulpit

For his Rosh Hashana sermon in 1939, Newark’s legendary Rabbi Joachim Prinz addressed the gathering storm in Germany — the same Germany that had expelled him in 1937. He described the looming war as a clash between dictatorship and democracy, or what he called “the philosophy of materialism” vs. “the belief in justice and equality.” Bucking America’s clear isolationist trend — and fear among many Jews of a backlash — Prinz insisted that Europe’s fight was America’s fight.

“This is not our war because we are going to benefit from it,” he said, “but because we believe that were the principle of ruthlessness and persecution to be victorious in the coming war, it will mean the destruction of culture, civilization, Christianity, Judaism, and any form of religion.”

In hindsight, Prinz’s deeply political sermon emerges as an act of moral bravery. Years earlier, while still a firebrand rabbi in Berlin, Prinz turned his sermons into direct commentary on the social and political issues of the day, including — especially — the rise of National Socialism. In doing so, he rejected the traditional model of the drash, or homily, finding it “too solemn and lacking in concrete meaning. I was always out to find something relevant to the life of the people sitting in front of me.”

Prinz’s jeremiads against Nazism and later in support of civil rights would assure his place in American-Jewish history. Whether it would assure him a place in a modern American pulpit is another story. Rare is the synagogue that encourages its rabbi to take direct political stands. Support for “social justice” — in the form of volunteerism and charitable giving — is fine. Also tolerated is a certain amount of activism on consensus issues: fighting Israel’s delegitimization, rallying for distressed Jewish communities, opposing select genocides.

As for urging specific stands on specific pieces of legislation, or taking aim at the political philosophies of one of our major parties — rabbis quickly learn that neither smooths their path to contract renewal.

And perhaps for good reason. I’ve been put off by sermons that reduce the great knotty corpus of Jewish text to a policy prescription. Or by rabbis who assume that all of us in the pews share their political views. I remember a rabbi who would preface his most pointed political remarks with, “Whether we’re on the right or the left, we all can agree that….” After he’d drop his policy bomb, I’d think, “Who’s this ‘we,’ chaver?”

The case against politicizing the pulpit was made in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal by Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former Jewish liaison under George W. Bush. Troy wonders why rabbis, in their High Holy Day sermons, would risk alienating parts of what are bound to be their largest audiences of the year. He rejects the notion that the Torah offers specific guidance on “marginal tax rates, Medicare restructuring, or food-stamp funding.” And he reminds liberal readers that they are often the loudest in denouncing the mix of (usually Christian) religion and (usually conservative) politics.

I suspect that, as a conservative once tasked with representing a Republican administration to a largely Democratic cohort, Troy has his own frustrations with rabbis who take political stands. But he is also defending Jewish tradition against cheap politicization. “The mandate of religious leaders is to convey to their communities spiritual encouragement and the wisdom of the ages,” he writes. “For the other stuff, there’s cable news.”

But it is also the mandate of rabbis to make that wisdom relevant and essential. I’m not sure how seriously people would take a faith tradition that doesn’t offer guidance on, say, waging war or addressing poverty or protecting the vulnerable. “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” commands the Torah. “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” These aren’t mild personal suggestions, but strict injunctions to include justice and charity within a polity.

“Spiritual encouragement” also carries the whiff of the “soft-core spirituality” that another conservative, David Brooks, has condemned. By me, Brooks overdoes his preference for “fire-and-brimstone” over the “easygoing narcissism” of contemporary spiritual practice. But I also don’t think that a religious tradition that has inspired millennia of debate among theologians, philosophers, law professors, and historians was merely meant to teach us to be nicer people. If Torah doesn’t help us create a better society or battle widespread, systemic injustice, what’s the point?

I don’t turn to rabbis to tell me how to vote, but I do look to them to show me the ways Torah can inform all that we say and do. When it comes to politics, I am not asking rabbis to give me the right answer, but to help me ask the right questions. The rabbis’ challenge is to do this without turning the bima into a bully pulpit.

And if they can’t engage with questions of policy? That’s Judaism’s loss. As Prinz sermonized, “I was never able to conceive of religion, and certainly not of Judaism, as something that could continue to exist in splendid isolation.”

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