WASHINGTON – When it comes to American politics, rabbis across the United States are just like the rest of us: They, too, are watching the spectacle that is the 2016 presidential election in amazement.
They, too, are a politically diverse bunch. And many feel a moral or religious obligation to speak out – to bring their teachings and sense of justice into the public square.
But as leaders of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, are they legally permitted to endorse political candidates? Yes, they can – in their private capacity as American citizens.
Rabbis, like other religious leaders heading organizations covered by section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, are not allowed to back one candidate over another under the banner of their organization or on behalf of their congregation.
“The basic rule is that a rabbi can endorse or oppose a candidate for office in his or her individual capacity,” explained Joe Sandler, a campaign finance and election law attorney who served as in-house general counsel for the Democratic National Committee in the 1990s.
“They can’t do it from the bima, they can’t do it on letterhead, they can’t put it in the shul bulletin.”
That means a rabbi may write an op-ed in his or her name, rally on behalf of a candidate, or appear at a “Hillary for America” or “Make America Great Again” event, so long as it’s not on company time or dime.
“It’s not a problem that they’re carrying the status of a rabbi,” Sandler continued.
“And congregations can host a debate so long as all candidates are invited, without violating their tax status.”
As long as a rabbi only references his congregation for identification purposes, he or she is in the clear. They are also allowed to encourage their congregants to vote from the pulpit, and to generally remain active in the political process.
Rabbis are advised to seek council before taking steps toward public endorsement of a candidate, and the IRS has a website that breaks down an individual’s rights to free speech within his connection to a 501(c)(3) organization.
Rabbi Steven Bob, of Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard, Illinois, near Chicago, takes these rules very seriously: As an organizer for Rabbis for Obama both in 2008 and 2012, he wasn’t even willing to put a campaign bumper sticker on the car that he would park in the synagogue parking lot.
In his efforts to recruit rabbis to support Obama, Bob said there were two major reasons he was often given – aside from those who simply did not support the candidate – by his colleagues for not endorsing a politician.
“Some rabbis have established a principle for themselves not to get involved in political questions,” Bob said.
“And then there are some rabbis whose professional positions are a bit precarious, and they don’t want to stake out a political position in their community.”
So while they certainly can endorse a candidate, whether they should is an entirely different question. And it’s a personal one that grips many rabbis each election cycle.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, argues that political engagement is an essential part of the job of spiritual leaders.
“Each religious leader, whether a rabbi, a minister or an imam or whatnot, devotes their career to their sense of religious and moral views, and their desire to make their community a better place,” said Schonfeld, who wants to make very clear that she is conducting her phone interview with The Jerusalem Post
from her family car. “There’s clearly the latitude to speak within our private capacity, and there’s clearly a lot of wisdom and understanding that we bring that I think helps the public discourse.”
That discourse, she added, “would actively be harmed” if those people were to “exclude themselves from public discourse merely because they’re religious leaders.”
Some rabbis are either unclear on, or particularly cautious regarding, their synagogue’s 501(c)(3) status – and wouldn’t risk compromising the welfare of their congregation to promote their own political beliefs. Still others worry over the political makeup of their congregation and, still more specifically, of their donors.
“From my experience, most rabbis believe it is not the right thing to do,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. “We talk about values and we talk about issues.
That’s essential – and its mandated by the Torah. Politics is one thing. Partisan politics is another, and that’s a step too far.”
Yoffie said he is “completely confident” that a majority of US rabbis decline to endorse candidates, but no reliable data is available to support such a claim.
“You’re making a distinction that’s impossible to make: You’ll always be seen as a rabbi, and you’re jeopardizing the nonpartisan nature of your synagogue, and that’s to be avoided,” he said.