There they go again. Over 600 liberal American rabbis have ignored their usual concerns about religion invading politics, climbed the wall separating church and state, disregarded the feelings of conservative congregants, and joined “Rabbis for Obama.” As I said when criticizing the original initiative four years ago, I do not object to individual rabbis joining “Jewish Americans for Obama” and expressing themselves as Jews and Americans. However, by building this organization around their job titles, they seek to apply their spiritual authority in an inappropriately secular and partisan way. What’s next: Ministers for Microsoft to counter Apple’s disciples, or Priests for Pilates to bless one particular form of exercise? Just as the Hatch Act barred federal civil servants from campaigning, just as reporters – not columnists – are discouraged from partisan politicking, just as I as a professor would never endorse one slate of student politicians, rabbis as rabbis should refrain from crass electoral politics -- and yes, I especially wish such professional restraint constrained the Israeli rabbinate too.
Whereas courage involves risk, these hypocrites-for-Obama took an easy position. A liberal American Jewish rabbi needs little nerve to endorse a liberal Democratic president against a budget-busting, conservative Republican. Liberalism remains American Jewry’s dominant theology, with the Democratic Party the most popular affiliation even as more Jews label themselves religiously “unaffiliated.” Increasingly, the American Jewish community is filled with evangeliberals – liberals with evangelical zeal. And despite Israel’s general popularity among American Jews, most are more passionately pro-choice than pro-Israel.
Therefore, it is annoying that these rabbis choose this cause as the reason for overriding their usual desire to separate politics and religion – while still condemning evangelical ministers or ultra-orthodox rabbis who politick, of course. Instead, we need these rabbis to make other, harder, principled stands collectively. Those rabbis should do their jobs by confronting their congregants'' sacred cows more directly. How about rabbis for more ethical business practices? Or rabbis for less materialism? Rabbis for cheaper, less luxurious, more meaningful, bar mitzvahs? Or rabbis for less libertinism? Rabbis for less careerism? Rabbis against family breakup? Or rabbis against excessive reliance on electronics? Rabbis for less toxic gossip, exhibitionism and voyeurism on the Internet? Rabbis for a community which judges people on the depth of their souls or the quality of their mitzvoth not their net worth or charitable giving? Or let''s get bold. How about rabbis for God? Rabbis for Halacha, Jewish law? Rabbis for Shabbat observance? Rabbis for more Jewish learning? Rabbis for musar -- moral living?
But no, better to grandstand, better to play politics with the big shots than to risk roiling American Jews'' famous complacency.
Unfortunately, we see a similar dynamic with much rabbinic intrusion in the Arab-Israeli conflict. All those American rabbis rushing to join the J Street rabbinic cabinet, all those rabbinical students moralizing about Israel''s West Bank and Gaza sins, should scrutinize their own society, their own neighborhoods. To reach the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College from the Philadelphia airport, I drive through miles of urban moonscape, home to tens of thousands of broken lives finding refuge in cheap liquor stores, whittling away endless hours on park benches, before reaching suburban Wyncotte. As a native New Yorker, I notice it less when I visit the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary just below Harlem, but it does seem so much easier to preach about how others should solve intractable inter-group problems without tackling those closer to home.
Moreover, in our era of gotcha politics, it would be naïve for the Rabbis for Obama to expect to be so hallowed that Republicans would ignore an anti-Israel critic who advocates boycotting the Jewish state on their membership list. One of this political season’s buzz words is “optics” – obsessing about how things look -- and it counts for rabbis too. Politicians are often held responsible for their allies, with the test coming from the ugliest and most controversial associations not the many safe and obvious relationships.
Of course, that does not make every Rabbi for Obama “anti-Israel” as critics charge. Sloppiness is not collaboration. Still, as a professor, I try to avoid signing petitions with those who policies I abhor, be they from the left or the right. Rabbis for and against Obama should beware unwelcome bedfellows too.
This harsh approach some rabbis and rabbinical students take toward Israel has become such an emotional issue for three reasons. First, is what I call the IAF – just as the Israeli Air Force soars high gracefully, the Israel Agitation Factor escalates tension unreasonably. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a modern flashpoint that magically escalates discussions into shouting matches, especially among Jews. And in an age of delegitimization, when Iran can host dozens of nations at a non-aligned conference this week while advocating Israel’s destruction, when criticism of Israel often degenerates into demonization, internal Jewish criticism stings intensely – and frequently legitimizes the delegitmizers. Finally, Israel remains the largest, most ambitious, collective Jewish project of the modern age. The most extreme liberal rabbis are turning into nouveau Haredim, aping the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism of yesterday and today.
This is not to say that Israel should be beyond criticism from Jews or rabbis. But assessing the optics, sensitive to the fragility of the situation, acknowledging the conflict’s complexity, anticipating how criticisms will be perceived, would calm debates not inflame them.
The backlash against Rabbis for Obama should be instructive. I hope it does not lead to Rabbis for Romney. I hope it does lead to rabbis, especially during their High Holiday sermons, building on positive visions and serious challenges, pushing their congregants spiritually, morally, religiously, rather than pandering to partisan sensibilities, no matter how compelling the heated presidential campaign might be.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.