NEW YORK – Like many rabbis in the United States, senior Rabbi Joshua Davidson of Temple Emanu-El has been preparing his Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur sermons for months.
“I start thinking about what I want to talk about in the spring,” he told The Jerusalem Post on the eve of the Jewish New Year. “And then the events that ensue over the months obviously shape and sharpen, and sometimes change, what my direction would be.”
Each year, Davidson, who heads the largest Reform synagogue in the world, tries to bring up subjects relevant not only to his congregation but to the events going on in the world at that time, talking about contemporary issues and examining current events through a Jewish lens.
This year, Davidson said he wants to address the idea of religious activism and the importance of being engaged in the critical issues facing society today.
He told the Post that subjects such as gun violence and immigration will be included in his sermon for Rosh Hashana, but one of the most important things he will be telling his congregants is about the importance of voting in the presidential election.
“I’m going to talk about how critical it is that we do vote. In a democracy, all are responsible,” he said. “Many people are turned off by this political environment, but even when decisions are difficult we have a responsibility to engage in the process.”
As the 2016 presidential campaign has been at the center of many discussions and debates for over a year now, it is also likely to come up around the holiday dinner table.
However, the candidates and politics in general are delicate topics for rabbis to bring up from their pulpit.
According to law enforced by the United States’ Internal Revenue System, which applies to nonprofit organizations such as synagogues and other religious organizations, while rabbis may encourage voter registration, they cannot “rate, endorse, or oppose candidates for public office, or engage in any activity that could be interpreted as intervening or participating in an electoral campaign.” The Jewish Federations of North America reminded clergy and Jewish charities about this law in a memo ahead of the holiday.
If they wish to do so, IRS rules say that rabbis can endorse candidates, but only if they do so in their personal, private lives, and not from their pulpits or through the use of official synagogue documents.
Expressing one’s political opinion as a rabbi, even when it is in their personal capacity, remains sometimes very controversial. Back in July, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side of Manhattan faced criticism for agreeing to deliver an opening prayer at the Republican National Convention, which some viewed as an endorsement of Donald Trump. After the criticism, he withdrew his participation.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, an international membership association of Conservative rabbis, told the Post that many rabbis are still planning on bringing up the election during the holidays, in a lawful way.
“In an election season which takes in a lot of issues of larger public interest and also issues of Jewish values, I think you’re going to see a lot of rabbis responding on the level of talking about the Jewish values,” she explained. “For example, matters of civility: how do we carry out public discourse around complicated questions.
Jewish tradition obviously has a lot to say about that, and it also has quite a lot to say about the fundamental issues that our society is facing: issues of caring for the poor, issues pertaining to the environment and caring for the earth, issues pertaining to justice.”
Schonfeld, who has, in her individual capacity, endorsed Hillary Clinton, and who delivered a blessing at the Democratic National Convention this year, said that while there is no “one size fits all,” and every rabbi adapts to the needs of his or her congregation, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the times of year when the largest number of people in the community come together at one time, and rabbis have a responsibility to discuss significant issues affecting the world today.
“In this very polarized election season, in a time of such crucial issues, I think that rabbis feel a tremendous sense of obligation to speak about Jewish values, to speak about the incredible issues that our society faces and to teach people about how Judaism can help guide their choices.”
“It’s more than just the issues of an election,” she told the Post. “The reason they’re issues of an elections is because they are issues facing the society.”
She added that such world issues are also very much “part of the fabric of the high holiday liturgy, and part of Judaism’s vision for a perfected world.
“The fundamental questions that Judaism is taking up on the holiday are the questions that our society is facing, they are the questions that societies have faced from time immemorial,” Schonfeld pointed out.
She added that many members of the Rabbinical Assembly have also said they will dedicate part of their sermons this year to honoring the memory of Shimon Peres, who died last week.
Davidson told the Post that even though he knew he wanted to discuss religious activism already month ago, “as the summer unfolded and the election heated up, it became clear that religious activism also meant responding to a lot of the issues that this election has surfaced.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg, rabbi emeritus at Washington’s largest and highest-profile Conservative synagogue, who moved to Atlanta after retiring, had only endorsed a candidate once in his 45 years as an active rabbi. He spoke in favor of President Obama in 2008 and recently, he wrote an op-ed supporting Hillary Clinton for president.
“It’s a tricky issue,” he told the Post. “The first time, I was still in the active pulpit and I was careful not to overstate my position but to be encouraging, because I felt at the time, as I still do, that he reflected what I felt were significant Jewish values.
“This time, I am distant from the active pulpit and I felt that it was more appropriate for me to speak out, especially since I felt so highly motivated to do so, because of what we are seeing happening in the country and in the election,” he continued.
Endorsing from the pulpit itself, Wohlberg said, would be inappropriate in terms of a rabbi’s role, training, mission and leadership of the congregation.
“We are not any more experts necessarily than anyone else there. We simply have a strong opinion,” he told the Post. “We have [in our congregations] members of both parties, on both sides of issues, and we need to be able to serve all of our congregants.”
One way in which Wohlberg believes his colleagues can discuss the election is by “speaking about the values that they see as substantive and necessary for people who hold high office.”
“We have a tradition filled with such lessons, whether it’d be about Abraham or Moses or Maimonides or others in Jewish history, and even know, as it happens, Shimon Peres.”
Some clergy members, however, prefer to avoid the subject of politics altogether.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover of Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn said she prefers to “keep things pretty personal” this year.
“I try to choose sort of a loose theme every year, and the theme I have chosen this year is ‘You are not alone,’” she told the Post. “There is gonna be a sermon about breaking open your hearts, together with the support of the community.”
Hoover has been at Temple Beth Emeth for 10 years now.
She spent her first five there as a rabbinical intern, before taking office as the temple’s rabbi.
Her Reform congregation is made up of about 139 middle class individuals of all ages who she calls a “healthy mix of people.”
“I am planning to stay away from politics, except for maybe in the most oblique way,” she explained. “We talk about politics at other times, but this year I think I’m gonna stay away from that in my sermon.”
Hoover said she usually discusses news items with her congregants in separate settings, in a discussion format and not in sermons.
“Unless I feel like there is really something extraordinary going on that I really must address,” she pointed out. “Like when the Gaza war happened, I talked about that from the pulpit.”
“I try to choose very carefully those times and I try not to tell people what they should think,” she told the Post. “I tell them what I think and I say that people with integrity can disagree about how to solve the problems of our world.”
“That’s a key thing: that we keep talking to each other and figure things out,” she said.