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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Michael Barclay

It’s time to put aside politics and unite as Jews

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

In a recent two-week period, I received more than a dozen calls from people who “had to speak with the rabbi.” Each caller was shul shopping, figuring out where they wanted to go for the High Holy Days. Yet, none wanted to discuss theology, liturgy or spirituality. Each conversation began exactly the same way: “Rabbi, what are your politics and where does the temple stand politically?”

I told them I have two hard rules on the pulpit: Never speak badly against Israel; and never talk politics. If I speak badly about Israel, it gives anti-Semites fodder to use. Since I view my job as bringing Jews closer to Torah and God, then if I take a political side from the pulpit I will, by definition, be pushing at least one Jew away from Judaism, and that’s antithetical to my goal.

I told the callers that even when we were offered to have Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) come speak at our services two years ago, I passed because I didn’t feel a presidential candidate should talk at temple services. I hope to bring Jews back to Judaism, not make any Jew feel politically uncomfortable within their community.

What shocked me more than their question, though, was when each of them told me their story — and how each story was almost identical.

In each case, the person felt they had been pushed out of their synagogue because of their politics. Each was politically conservative; some were supporters of President Donald Trump.

They felt constant pressure by the rabbi, through sermons and newsletters, that they were “bad” and “wrong” for being politically conservative. They squirmed as lay leaders loudly degraded anyone who supported the president or conservative values as “stupid.” In some cases, they were even told by a rabbi that being politically conservative was against Jewish values.

It was painful for me to hear.

One man had been a member of a prominent Reform congregation for more than 40 years, and emailed the new senior rabbi that he was resigning his membership because of the rabbi’s constant sermons and pressure to be pro-Black Lives Matter and have the temple be part of the “resist” movement. He wished the rabbi would talk more about Judaism and God. The rabbi’s response to this man — “We will have to agree to disagree” — only made the man feel more spiritually homeless.

Another person was furious that their rabbi brought in an Islamic leader to chant “Allah Akbar” in the temple. Another was horrified that their rabbi would not even mention Israel because it was “too sensitive an issue politically.”

Each story was the same, just the names of the temples and clergy differed: The rabbi was preaching liberal politics from the pulpit, oblivious to how that would affect Jews who might have a different opinion — and how that might drive them out of their Jewish community. In every case, there was pressure — overt or subtle — to change their politics, stay hidden about their politics or leave the community. With each person, there was huge pain and loss that they no longer had a Jewish home.

With rabbis acting like that, where can Jews go to pray if they are theologically liberal, politically conservative, and don’t want to be “shamed” about their politics?

Typically, theologically liberal communities are filled with politically liberal congregants, and more observant communities are more politically conservative. But many Reform and Conservative Rabbis are “orthodox” in their demands that congregants be politically liberal. Because of this pressure, it can be very difficult on someone who is a Reform Jew and politically conservative. They’re uncomfortable with Orthodox davening, and feel unwelcome in more theologically liberal synagogues where there is great pressure to be on the left. So all too often, they just step away from synagogue life entirely.

One prominent Reform rabbi, who is privately very politically conservative, once told me, “To come out as a politically conservative Reform rabbi now is like coming out as gay in 1965.” Liberal pressure has become the norm, not the exception in Reform and Conservative Judaism. Even the Reform and Conservative rabbinic unions — the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the Rabbinical Assembly — decided not to hold their annual conference call with President Trump, with Rabbi Steve Fox, chief executive of the CCAR, stating that their political disagreements were “religious issues, not political issues.”

In the spirit of Elul — the Hebrew month leading up to the new year — I beg rabbis and lay leaders to be truly self-reflective about this issue. We are to be spiritual leaders, not talk-show pundits. Our job is to bring people back to Judaism, not make them feel uncomfortable in their own temple. Let us do what we want personally, but not force our politics on our communities. Yes, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but he did it as an individual, not as an official representative of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

We need to remember that Judaism is not monolithic, and our tradition is founded on Talmudic machloket (debate). We are taught in the Babylonian Talmud that “these and these are both words of the living God.” We need to respect those who differ politically from us and remember that we all are Jews. We have to stop acting as if “tolerance” is only for liberal Jews, and include conservative Jews in our communities. We desperately need to come together as Jews, not split apart because of politics. How many Jews have we lost because our preaching of liberal politics from the pulpit has driven them away?

Let us become the leaders and teachers who are concerned more with God than the president. Let’s spend the High Holy Days talking about faith, ethics, Torah and God’s amazing love for us, and bring Jews together in sacred communities that welcome diversity in all ways. All of us — clergy, staff and congregants — have to come together as Jews who respect one another’s politics and welcome every Jew into our services, our communities and our hearts.

Avinu Malkeinu — Our Father, Our King — reminds us that we all have the same Father and the same core values, no matter which side of the political aisle we sit on. Let’s demonstrate that belief and build stronger and larger Jewish communities as a result.

May this be a sweet and healthy year filled with peace for us all.

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