Rabbis and politics
Andrew Silow-Carroll has started an interesting discussion about rabbis and politically charged sermons (“Bima vs. bully pulpit,” Sept. 29). Some rabbis claim that their position gives them an unchallenged “freedom of pulpit privilege” similar to a professor’s freedom in his class. But there is a significant difference. A professor is a teacher of students yet inexperienced in that particular science. The word “rabbi” also means teacher, so when a rabbi speaks on purely religious matters, he acts as a teacher and should have the professor’s privilege.
May a rabbi use his religious teaching for discussing hot issues in the life of his/her community? Absolutely, and I would consider it one of his/her duties. Hot political issues as a part of that life? It depends. A rabbi surely should not endorse, directly or by hints, any political party or any political candidates. But he/she can and probably should initiate discussion of important political issues.
But here is a catch. I used the word “initiate” with a purpose. While a rabbi has usually an unchallenged authority in religious matters, in political issues he has no a priori advantage over members of his congregation whom may exceed him in life experience, general education, age, or wisdom. (Sometimes, as in the case of Joachim Prinz, who arrived here a refugee from Germany in the 1930s, a rabbi may have a unique special experience.) The value of a rabbi’s political expression may be only in initiating the discussion, moderating it but not in allowing “freedom of pulpit.”
Local Jewish communities are elemental cells of the Jewish society. Taking into account that in the last election 78 percent of the American Jews voted Democratic, we may safely assume that the same proportion of the rabbis holds a similar political stance. In this case, it is especially important that the conservative voice receives fair and respectful hearing, otherwise our communities would be nurturing a one-party rule with well-known consequences. To have a fruitful debate, a mechanism of listening to other members should be developed that a majority of our synagogues do not have.
Eliezer M. Rabinovich