At this moment, there are over 600 rabbis signed on as “Rabbis for Obama.” But Rabbi David Wolpe, who will be delivering a benediction Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention, isn’t one of them.
Sources close to the Obama campaign told me that Wolpe’s selection this past Thursday was approved by no less than Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and campaign senior strategist David Axelrod. But while the 54-year-old rabbi said he’s privileged to participate at the DNC—it will be his first political convention—he insists he’s not taking sides in the election by doing so. “I actually think that it is a mistake for a rabbi to endorse one candidate or another,” said Wolpe. “I really see my role as apolitical.” He notes that his congregation, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, is ideologically diverse and that he has a responsibility to ensure that none of them feel disenfranchised by his convictions.
“I’m honored to be chosen to offer a prayer, but not an endorsement one way or the other, because I don’t think that’s a rabbi’s job,” he explained. “My approach is that being a rabbi doesn’t give me special political insight. So, I don’t like to preach to people about exactly the political positions they should take, as though Judaism vests me with this approach as opposed to that approach.”
Wolpe is well-known to many American Jews as the author of seven books on faith and Judaism, as well as a regular columnist at the Washington Post’s “On Faith,” the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and many other press outlets, Jewish and not. He is a frequent face on television, his Facebook page has the most likes and subscribers of any American rabbi, and his sermons are even a popular podcast on iTunes. (Oh, and Newsweek named him the most influential rabbi in America this year.) The son of Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, a titan of the Conservative movement, Wolpe serves as the head rabbi at one of the country’s largest Conservative congregations.
But unlike many American rabbis who use their pulpits to promote their political views, Wolpe avoids partisanship and has managed to avoid being pinned down politically, largely because he consistently puts his religious agenda first. He has worked with conservative religious leaders to defend faith in contemporary society, reached out to Jews beyond his own denomination, and filled his writing with religious—rather than political—exhortations. And though his insistence that he is nonpartisan can sound to some ears like pablum, Wolpe genuinely occupies a singular place in the American Jewish community, managing to transcend typical communal divisions even as he takes strong stands on particular issues.
When asked to sum up his credo as a Conservative Jew, Wolpe didn’t offer soundbites about furthering social justice or protecting religious liberty, but instead talked theology: “I really deeply believe in the ongoing dialogue between Jews and others Jews, Jews and the non-Jewish world, and the Jews and God.” It’s a bridge-building ideology that is evident in much of Wolpe’s work, which tends to focus on the common bonds of faith rather than the often divisive currents of contemporary politics.
Thus, his most recent book, Why Faith Matters: God and the New Atheism, features an introduction by Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church, the popular evangelical leader—and sharp critic of President Obama. In November 2011, Wolpe teamed up with conservative Christian thinker Dinesh D’Souza in a public debate to oppose the proposition that “the world would be better off without religion.” (D’Souza, incidentally, is the director and narrator of the anti-Obama documentary, 2016: Obama’s America.) The political views of his interfaith partners are, for Wolpe, almost beside the point. “I try mainly not to be a political rabbi, but a rabbi,” he said.
Indeed, if you scan Wolpe’s voluminous writings, one finds few political slogans but copious references to rabbinic literature—a rarity even among those rabbis who venture into the op-ed pages, where buzzwords like tikkun olam are common but Talmudic citations less so. “It would be nice if rabbinic discourse would find its way into general discourse,” said Wolpe. “It makes it clear that the tradition still speaks. There’s a saying in the Talmud that when you quote a sage, his lips move in the grave. … Emerson said that the job of the preacher was to show not that God spoke but that God speaks. And I think that’s the job of a rabbi—to show not that the Jewish tradition spoke, but that it speaks.”
Wolpe’s eloquence and his undeniable Jewish commitment have earned him respect even among those who take issue with his religious outlook. “Rabbi David Wolpe is a deep thinker with a keen sense of Jewish tradition and the contemporary Jewish scene,” said Rabbi Gil Student, who runs Hirhurim—one of the most popular Orthodox outlets in the blogosphere, and formerly served as managing editor of the Orthodox Union Press. “He is not Orthodox but recognizes sensitivities and speaks respectfully to his audience. Even though I disagree with Rabbi Wolpe on fundamental religious issues, I find that he understands the workings of the Jewish soul and has much to offer in terms of spiritual and ethical inspiration.”
When Student ran a colloquium on his blog about why Jews become Orthodox, he invited Wolpe to contribute. This past month, Wolpe himself conducted a wedding in Israel together with an ultra-Orthodox rabbi; the Facebook picture of the two of them currently has 891 likes.
None of this is to say that Wolpe lacks strong convictions. On the contrary, he has staked out positions on many important and controversial topics in American Jewish life, like the historicity of the Bible, the need for religious pluralism in Israel, and how to reform his own Conservative movement. Famously, he once delivered a Passover sermon in which he asserted—in line with a dominant stream of biblical scholarship—that the Exodus did not transpire in the manner portrayed in the Bible. A Los Angeles Times reporter happened to be in the sanctuary, and the subsequent article provoked harsh criticism of Wolpe from within his synagogue and without. Dr. Laura Schlessinger attacked the sermon on her nationally syndicated radio show, and one Orthodox group even took out an ad in the Times to denounce it.
Wolpe’s Sinai Temple, home to a large population of Iranian expatriates who experienced anti-Semitism firsthand, is also a hotbed of pro-Israel activism. “We have for the past five years sent the largest delegation of any institution—not just synagogue—to the AIPAC conference,” Wolpe noted with pride. He himself delivered an impassioned address at this past year’s conference, and his congregation counts among its members founders of AIPAC and the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, the influential pro-Israel think tank.
While he backs a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has sharply criticized partisans on the left and right who oppose it, “within those broad parameters,” he said, “I feel like it’s my job to encourage the Zionism of the people who support Israel in all of their variegated views.”
At the same time, Wolpe is not averse to criticizing the Jewish state, particularly when it comes to the Israeli chief rabbinate’s disenfranchisement of non-Orthodox Jews. “It does stifle the creativity of Judaism,” he argued. “It’s one of the reasons why there’s such a large secular community [in Israel], because there are no alternatives as there are in the States. I wish that there were more separation of synagogue and state, and—as I hope will happen in time—that the state of Israel would grant Jews the same religious freedom that is granted them in the United States.”
It’s an approach that has won him plaudits from many in the commentariat. “David Wolpe is eloquent, bold, and self-confident in ways that make him stand apart from much of the American rabbinate, which is not overstocked with brave men and women, but with careerists and cringers,” said Jeffrey Goldberg, who often quotes Wolpe on his popular Atlantic blog, where he refers to him as the site’s “chief rabbi.” “He is the complete package as a rabbi—I’ve seen him with his congregation, and he functions beautifully as pastor and as spiritual guide, but he’s also unafraid to throw himself into the public arena, and his gifts as a writer and as a speaker make him practically sui generis today.”
When asked about his popularity and success, Wolpe himself is more self-effacing. “In the Kaddish D’rabbanan, we say of scholars ‘al talmideihon v’al talmidei talmideihon’—‘on their students and on their students’ students.’ ” To Wolpe, this means that “your greatest success as a rabbi is if long after you’re gone, your teaching still influences people. And you don’t know that. You don’t whether it will happen or not. So, I hope that I have scored my greatest successes as a rabbi. But if so, it’s hidden from me. But posterity will know—and I’ll just pray that it’s true.”
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Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.