A man wears a kippa embroidered with US and Israeli flags.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An American rabbi has rewritten the prayer for the president and government in protest against Donald Trump. Inevitably he has been criticized for “mixing in.” The question is not just whether he has a right to reject the choice of the electorate but whether his action is good for the Jewish community, and this requires a look at Jewish history.
In ancient Israel the spiritual leaders were the priests and the prophets. The priests had charge of worship in the Temple, though their concern went beyond it to public health, teaching the people and acting as counselors.
In contrast, the free-wheeling prophets raised their voices and goaded the government. In revenge, Jeremiah was imprisoned as a threat to the regime.
By Greco-Roman times prophecy had waned. The priests became the formal face of the community, though some were mercenaries who toadied to the authorities. There was a rising category of spiritual leadership, the sages. Some sages were priests, some priests sages; some sages were charismatics, some charismatics were sages. Biblical prophecy was in limbo.
The Talmud said that after the destruction of the Temple the only people who purported to prophesy were infants and idiots, whose innocent minds had the gift of perception.
In emancipated lands Jews played a part in public life.
Some rose high in civic and national leadership. Others were wary of being noticed by the regime, afraid of affecting communal stability. In modern democracies, however, the clergy of all faiths, including rabbis, go everywhere and speak out on everything. Not without controversy. If vested interests feel threatened, voices are raised: “Clergy, back to your Bibles! Stick to your sermons! Return to your rostrums!” Let me inject a personal aspect, reflecting my experience as a community rabbi in the Diaspora. I never accepted any bounds to my concerns. I worked within the community and on a broad national canvas, saying and doing what I thought necessary at a particular time. Others worked differently; many privately agreed with me and told me so. In Britain, my views on racism were quoted in the House of Lords, though some of the noble peers thought I was a nuisance and nosy-parker, called in Australia a sticky-beak.
For 32 years I held a senior Australian pulpit. I weighed in on countless national debates: Should abortion be restricted? Should the unemployed have to look for a job? Should the media peddle smut? Should the shops open on Sundays? Should athletes pray for victory? Should Australia keep the queen? Should politicians take courses in civics? Should homosexuals parade in the streets? Should advertising tell the truth? Should immigration be controlled? Should rich nations help the poor? Should education recognize individual differences? Should recipients of social welfare do voluntary work in return for the dole? Should it be compulsory (it is in Australia) to vote in elections? I engaged with such issues publicly sometimes because I was asked to, sometimes because I felt I had to. I attacked the media – not just for bias against Israel or Jews, but for ethical unreliability. Once, after giving a blunt address at a media convention, I got a standing ovation. Very flattering, but next day all was as before.
I spoke as an Australian, but what I said came out of my Jewish tradition. Generally there were no complaints from the Jewish community: I was careful not to let the side down. I was honored to be one of 20 citizens interviewed on TV about whether Australia should retain the queen, and no-one in Australian Jewry, as far as I am aware, objected to what I said. Quite often I consulted the lay leaders of the community.
I always took up a clear position, but put it across diplomatically.
Not that there weren’t occasional grumbles.
When I spoke up on Aboriginal welfare and was seen at public events featuring Aborigines, one of my congregation refused to attend services unless I kept quiet. I received abusive phone calls and even death threats, not from Jews but from others, but these were very rare and apart from taking obvious precautions I just kept going with my normal activities and opinions.
I knew that some people whose toes I trod on said the clergy should stick to teaching the Bible. My response was that speaking up and speaking out was actually “teaching the Bible.” Justice, peace and truth are what the biblical prophets spoke about, knowing that they risked being ostracized or jailed because they would not hold their tongues.
When film stars and athletes spoke out on education and the economy, I objected that they had no expertise on such issues. In contrast, the experts on the quality of society are the clergy. True, clergy views vary because the Bible has many faces. But bringing biblical principles into the market-place is not just being nosy. A former British primate, Archbishop Temple, said, “God is interested in many other things besides religion.”
In Israel there are a number of rabbis in politics, mostly promoting limited issues and seeking benefits for their own parties. They often find it difficult to control their tongues and mind their speech. Their wrangling and horse-trading bring religion no credit.
Rarely do we hear prophetic voices who address broader issues such as education, health and the economy, speaking out of Jewish ethical conscience. Rabbis who spoke prophetic Judaism would win friends and influence people.
So what about the USA? Jews there, like everybody else, have to live with whoever wins an election. Only if there are moral and ethical compromises that undermine the accepted principles of American democracy should the rabbi speak out. Even then, what he says must go to the issue and not the person.
The author is rabbi emeritus of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.