Pulpits and politics

While some rabbis will draw on the headlines in their High Holy Day sermons, others will completely eschew mention of current events.

Iranian Jews celebrate Rosh Hashana last year at the Yusef Abad Synagogue in Tehran (photo credit: OLEKSANDR RUPETA / AFP)
Iranian Jews celebrate Rosh Hashana last year at the Yusef Abad Synagogue in Tehran
(photo credit: OLEKSANDR RUPETA / AFP)
THE SERMON is an inescapable feature of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. While most US Jews do not regularly attend synagogue, about one-third make it to services during the High Holy Days. And it’s the one time of year when rabbis enjoy both a bully pulpit and a large, captive audience.
The 24/7 news cycle provides grist aplenty for sermons ‒ everything from the early American presidential race and the contentious Iran nuclear deal to Europe’s burgeoning immigration crisis.
Rabbis in Israel, the UK and the US tell The Jerusalem Report that should their homilies veer toward politics, it’s never out of crass partisanship; rather it is to make profound, transcendent spiritual points.
In the more insular non-Zionist ultra- Orthodox world, a rabbi’s sermon might plumb the deeper meaning of a Torah or Talmudic passage to encourage fear of heaven, upstanding behavior and repentance.
“The rabbis of the Orthodox shuls I attend eschew using sermons to promote political stances. That’s true every week, but particularly so during the High Holy Days, when their and their congregants’ focus is entirely on examining their lives and teshuva [repentance],” Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel of America tells The Report.
Rabbi Gil Zion Eisenbach, the spiritual guide at Aish HaTorah yeshiva in Jerusalem, relates to The Report that he begins to sketch out his sermons at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, which with the blowing of the shofar at daily services heralds the imminent High Holy Days. For inspiration, Eisenbach turns to “mussar masters” – sages like Yerucham Levovitz, Eliyahu Dessler and Yisroel Salanter, whose writings emphasized ethical behavior. He also draws on the Mishna, Talmud and Responsa.
Eisenbach might reference current events, he says, but only as a backdrop. The holiday is foremost about a person’s relationship with God. “From there, our focus spreads outwards,” says Eisenbach.
Many modern Orthodox, national religious and progressive rabbis agree that while including some politics in their sermons is only natural, homilies should ultimately be rooted in the sacred.
At California’s Temple Beth Am, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue, Rabbi Ari Lucas says he weaves current events into his talks to highlight societal issues, which, “when put in the context of Torah, will have insights and personal meaning for the Jews who come to shul.” Congregants don’t need to hear punditry from their rabbi, Lucas says. “But, if there’s Torah that can illuminate an issue or put it in a broader context, then I do feel it’s helpful to share that.”
AT NEW YORK’S Bialystoker Synagogue, Orthodox Rabbi Zvi Romm agrees that sermons should not push political positions.
Still, Romm does plan to speak this year about the Iran nuclear deal, which he sees “as touching on issues that transcend partisan politics.” He adds to The Report, “What exactly I will say will be greatly shaped by the events which play out in the days leading up to Rosh Hashana.”
Far from downplaying politics, Rabbi Julia Neuberger of West London Synagogue plans to deliver a “state of the nation” sermon for Rosh Hashana. The Reform rabbi, who is also an independent member of the British House of Lords, says she will, for example, talk about the Paris terrorist attacks earlier this year against Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hypercacher kosher market. Baroness Neuberger will also address the decision of the Tricycle Theater not to host the UK Jewish Film Festival because the event was partly funded by Israel’s Embassy.
For Yom Kippur, Neuberger will turn to the “migrant crisis” facing Europe and “our duty as Jews” to help “asylum seekers.”
She characterizes her sermon-in-themaking as “political” though not partisan.
Over at London’s Golders Green Synagogue, Orthodox Rabbi Harvey Belovski says he gears up for the High Holy Days season by taking contemplative mountain walks and doing lots of reading. “I try to discover new authors,” he tells The Report.
This year, he’s reading Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope and motivational guru Simon Sinek.
“I am always torn about current affairs ‒ I resent their intrusion on my homiletic agenda,” says Belovski. Yet, when handled deftly, political subjects allow him to explore timeless themes. “I usually end up dividing my sermonic material between political and non-political issues.” For Yom Kippur, Belovski plans to adhere more narrowly to the sacred, with references to the Kotzker rebbe, the 19th century Hasidic master, and to 20th century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. “I may also touch on the malevolent side of religious extremism with reference to recent attacks in Israel, the European migrant crisis, and the threat of ISIS,” he adds.
In Israel, Masorti Rabbi Adam Frank, of Moreshet Yisrael in downtown Jerusalem, tells The Report that his Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur sermons will draw on traditional rabbinic commentary and deal with topics he finds “personally challenging.”
He will try to steer clear of political topics.
“I avoid current events, unless my evaluation is that they call for rabbinic leadership” and then he only comments “from a Torah perspective.”
Octogenarian Orthodox Rabbi Berel Wein of Hanassi Synagogue in Jerusalem says he has been delivering sermons for 60 years. “I have always felt that the much maligned sermon is an enormous tool in the arsenal of a synagogue rabbi.” He typically spends all week thinking about what he is going to say though he never writes out his sermons. “I usually speak in a contemporaneous and somewhat spontaneous style.”
Wein argues that a sermon is a lesson in Torah. “I do not speak about current events, politics or diplomacy. I do not feel that people come to the synagogue to hear my opinions. My High Holy Day speeches will be more about Abraham and Isaac then about the hot personalities of the week or month. Synagogue rabbis should preach Judaism and Jewish values and leave social commentary to those who claim expertise in these matters.”
Wein plans to focus on Jewish values and the “Torah lifestyle.” He says, “There is nothing as obsolete as being current, timely, and relevant. People come to the synagogue for inspiration, strength, and faith. Very little of these qualities can be conveyed by delivering an op-ed piece on current events.”
In contrast, Masorti Rabbi Jeremy Gordon at the New London Synagogue says his sermon philosophy is to engage with the outside world. Still, he feels sermons that deal with politics “have to be ultimately religious.”
He will be talking about “the challenges of refugees in England in the context of religious obligations toward the ‘other’ so easily overlooked in society.”
In Gordon’s view, the message congregants should take home from a Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur sermon shouldn’t be about a particular policy issue but rather about how we live as Jews, our relationship with the creator, and with our fellow human beings.
Orthodox Rabbi Ian Pear of Shir Hadash in Jerusalem says he does his best to shun current events. “I’m shooting for something transcendental, something transforming ‒ and current events by their very definition are limited in time, space and scope. I believe the High Holy Days are a time to address the fundamental issues of being human.”
That said, as an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, Pear allows that were he preaching in the US instead of at home in Jerusalem he might be tempted to mobilize his congregation. In Israel, though, where opposition to the agreement with Iran is widespread, there is no need, he says.
MIXING POLITICS and the pulpit? It all depends on what you mean by politics, says Rabbi Avraham Feder, another still active octogenarian who has held Conservative pulpits in the US, Canada and Israel.
He gave his last High Holy Day sermon three years ago, but has since laid out his stance on “sermons and politics” in his latest book, “Pillars of Fog and Fire.”
“There is the ‘politics’ in which the rabbi would actually urge his congregants to vote for this party or that mayor,” says Feder. “Rabbis should avoid that kind of specificity, barring extraordinary circumstances,” he adds. Were he preaching in the US this year, Feder says, the extraordinary circumstances rule would lead him to advocate against the Iran nuclear deal.
“But most of the time, it’s not so. Therefore, there is the other ‘politics’ in which the rabbi wants to relate in a learned, sophisticated manner to the issues of the day. Here, the rabbi is setting a tone that is intended to inform, illuminate and influence his congregants to love Israel, to want to be loyal to the Jewish people, and to look to Jewish sources for guidance and inspiration in the way they conduct their lives.”
As for rabbis and congregants who feel that the subject of politics has no place in a sermon, Feder responds, “I disagree. If I as a congregant am willing to subject myself to listening on the High Holy Days to a rabbi preaching to me, I want him to have convictions about Israel, the Jewish people, and our place in a world in which we always seem to be on the brink. If a rabbi is not going to relate to these urgent issues, then the Torah he will be teaching is either innocuous or irrelevant.”
Politics comes naturally to Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former minister of social and diaspora affairs, who once headed the Orthodox dovish Meimad Party.
He will be preaching on Rosh Hashana in Norway, where he is Chief Rabbi, and on Yom Kippur at Beit Boyer in Jerusalem.
Melchior won’t talk about politics ‒ “in the trivial sense” ‒ on the High Holy Days.
He will, however, speak about spiritual and philosophical tendencies in society.
He believes that religion can be a positive influence to foster forbearance between Christians, Muslims and Jews. He says his High Holy Day sermons ‒ drawing on the Jewish canon ‒ will address macro issues such as the importance of taking personal responsibility for what happens in society.
By way of example, Melchior recalls that after the July 31 arson attack that killed toddler Ali Dawabsheh (his father died later of the injuries he sustained) and the (ultimately) fatal stabbing that same weekend of teenager Shira Banki at the Jerusalem Gay Pride March, he told his congregants, “Every one of us has to repent when something like this happens.”
No one should feel that “this extremism has nothing to do with me.”
For the High Holy Days, Melchior will posit that it’s no coincidence that in 2015 Eid al-Adha and Yom Kippur overlap.
The Eid commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of submission to God. Melchior argues that in both Eid al-Adha and the Akeda narrative of the Hebrew bible, integral to the Rosh Hashana liturgy, in which Abraham stands ready to sacrifice Isaac, “the decisive Divine message is against human sacrifice in the name of religion.”
Elliot Jager is a Jerusalem-based journalist and author of ‘The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness’ (The Toby Press). You can follow him on Twitter @JAGERFILE