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Politics on the Pulpit

As the presidential election nears, rabbis debate whether partisanship is part of their job description

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Adam Fagen/Flickr)

Perhaps Lopatin’s most famous congregant is Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Lopatin delivered the first invocation at the Chicago City Council after Emanuel was inaugurated, and the rabbi believes his approach is part of what draws the mayor to the congregation. “I think he feels comfortable in the synagogue because I don’t push a political agenda.”

Lopatin has made exceptions to his rule in extreme cases, like denouncing genocide in Darfur and calling out far-right Israeli rabbis who have urged religious soldiers to disobey orders from their commanders. And he’s happy to host politicians—like Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin—as long as they speak after services, so people can choose whether or not to stay.

Ultimately, Lopatin views his role more as consciousness-raising than partisan campaigning. “We have to wake people up. A rabbi should not ignore what’s going on in the world,” he said. “I do want people to contend with issues and think about them—whether it’s tax or fairness in income disparity—but as moral concerns, not political ones.” He said he wants his congregants to grapple with the issues, but he has no desire to dictate to them what conclusions they should draw.

As the election approaches, rabbis across America will continue to argue over the role of Judaism in the national political conversation. If history is any guide, it’s not a dispute that’s likely to be resolved any time soon. As one rabbi quipped to me, citing a famous saying of Pirkei Avot, “Any argument which is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure.”

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marjorie ingall says:

Very well-reported piece.

StefanoNBelinda says:

What needs to be done is to remove all tax exemptions from all religious organizations (as well as from nonprofit organizations that support issues in specific foreign countries) and then everyone will be free to speak as they please.

ravmlk says:

What a rabbi says on the bema, and what he does as a private citizen are two different things. Rabbis should have the right and the opportunity to speak out about partisan politics as individuals involved in their communities. I would never make a political endorsement in the synagogue (although a good number of Christian clergy do so in their churches), but speaking about tikkun olam and social justice is often an obligation. I also do not think that one can distinguish so clearly between the approach of liberal and traditional rabbis, as many Orthodox clergy have expressed their opinions on abortion, gay rights, etc.

Stuart Wilder says:

While the IRS Code keeps rabbis form endorsing anyone form the pipit, I find today’s the reluctance of many of the rabbis I see today to even venture an opinion on topical subjects disturbing and cowardly. Can you imagine what the 60′s would have been like if rabbis had stayed away form subjects like civil rights, the Viet Nam war, and the war on poverty? Jewish teaching engages life at every level, and rabbis should show us how, while remembering and reminding their listeners that while Jewish teaching gives us a way to think through an issue (utilizing, e.g., compassion, humility, and a willingness to look at other views) there is not a Jewish answer to every political question.

It’s interesting that the Orthodox rabbis quoted are either evenhanded or apolitical from the pulpit, whereas those of the other streams are partisan leftists.

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Politics on the Pulpit

As the presidential election nears, rabbis debate whether partisanship is part of their job description

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