Jewish communal leadership today

American Jews rightfully believe that not only may they participate in the public square, but that Judaism itself bears the potential to inform public policy.

By ELLIOT J. COSGROVE
December 12, 2016 21:31
‘IT IS intellectually indefensible for any Jew to claim to represent the sole Jewish voice on a give

‘IT IS intellectually indefensible for any Jew to claim to represent the sole Jewish voice on a given subject,’ writes the author.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

For those of us living on the alphabet street of American Jewish life, the intrigue of these weeks between the election and inauguration has been due as much to what has been said as to what has not been said. Five days after the presidential election, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), American Jewry’s premier voice in the fight against bigotry and antisemitism, condemned the appointment of Stephen Bannon as President-elect Donald Trump’s senior counselor. “It is a sad day,” the ADL press release stated: “when a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ – a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists – is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house.’” In contrast, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), American Jewry’s leading advocate in public affairs, issued the rather anodyne statement that “Presidents get to choose their team and we do not expect to comment on every key advisor.”

Both organizations have come under fire. The ADL has been criticized for the tactical miscalculation of having alienated itself from an administration with which it, and the rest of the Jewish community, will have to work.

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The AJC, in not explicitly calling out Bannon by name, has been pilloried by some for having fallen short of its mission to “prevent the infringement of the civil and religious rights of Jews, and to alleviate the consequences of persecution.”

So too on the Left. As the Democratic National Committee contemplates Congressman Keith Ellison as its new chairman, the ADL has characterized his views on Israel to be “both deeply disturbing and disqualifying.” In this instance, the ADL has found itself under attack from the Left with groups such as J Street rushing to defend Ellison, in their words “a champion of pro-Israel, pro-peace policies.” Despite the AJC’s past record of weighing in on political nominees with concerning views on Israel, such as Senator Chuck Hagel’s 2012 nomination to secretary of defense, they have yet to weigh in on Ellison. From the Left, from the Right – it is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t moment, the only real question being by which segment of the community one wants to be criticized.

Are there moments when the American Jewish community must speak out on the issues of the day? We do our tradition and our people a great disservice if we circumscribe our circle of concern to political appointees, the Iran Deal and whether a holiday crèche should be displayed on government property. What does economic justice look like through a Jewish lens? What is our responsibility to the stranger in our midst? How shall we tend and protect God’s earth? How best do we ensure that every person created in the divine image stands equal before the law? As Jews we believe all of the earth is the Lord’s concern, every sphere of human activity potentially informed by our tradition. As Americans, it is the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of any religion and concurrent guarantee of an individual’s free exercise of religion that has served to set the expectations of a politically empowered American Jewry high.

American Jews rightfully believe that not only may they participate in the public square, but that Judaism itself bears the potential to inform public policy.

Of course just because we can, does not always mean that we always should.

According to the IRS, a 501(c)(3) is “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

This ban on political campaign activity, however, “does not restrict leaders of organizations from expressing their views on political matters if they are speaking for themselves as individuals. Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy.” In other words, while endorsing or opposing a candidate is strictly verboten, to speak to the issues of the day is well within the purview of a Jewish not-for-profit.

Jewish communal leadership must be prudent on matters of political advocacy because as any student of our tradition knows, while Jewish sources may speak to every issue of the day, they do not speak with uniformity on just about anything. It is intellectually indefensible for any Jew to claim to represent the sole Jewish voice on a given subject. So too we should exercise caution before engaging in political advocacy because it bears the potential to have divisive effects on our already small community.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for institutions of Jewish life to be circumspect with regard to political advocacy is that the true front line for American Jewry is that of the Jewish soul. If the American Jewish community fails to produce educated and engaged Jews then the question of what Jews and Judaism have to say about any issue or political appointee ceases to be relevant.

But speak out we must. Notwithstanding the IRS code, the goal of any self-respecting religious organization should be, as the preacher of old counseled, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Jewish institutions must seek to embody the posture of a prophet, a person who, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “speaks for those too weak to plead their own cause... a person who is not tolerant of wrongs done to others, who resents other people’s injuries and rebels against the evil of indifference.”

Jewish institutions should educate their membership regarding the range of opinions on any particular issue, but never let the paralysis of analysis obstruct their prophetic calling. The goal of respectful dialogue and institutional leadership is not across-the-board agreement. As Rabbi Israel Salanter taught, “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. And a rabbi who fears his community is no man.” The task of Jewish religious leadership is not to explain how the world is, but how the world, by way of Jewish values, ought to be.

For Hanukka, Jews are commanded to light the menorah in a visible place, by a door or window, for both Jew and non-Jew to see. As both the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth-century code of Jewish law, explain, in certain times, when such public expressions of Judaism would be unwise or unsafe, one may place the menorah inside the home, away from the public view. By this telling, where we do or don’t place the menorah becomes a bellwether for our Jewish sense of self. With the stakes as high as they are, this year we dare not restrict the radiance of our tradition to the inner precincts of our homes. With prudence, with wisdom and most of all with love for the diversity of our community, now is the season to put our Judaism “out there,” sharing our light in the public square of our great nation.

The author is senior rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.


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