Rabbi David Segal, Aspen Jewish Congregation
17 September 2012
Wheeler Opera House
The Jewish Party?
“Ribono shel olam,” they both began. Two rabbis, in two prayers, offering ancient Hebrew words, before two national political conventions. One an invocation, one a benediction. One by an Orthodox rabbi; the other, a Conservative Rabbi.
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Modern Orthodox rabbi of Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun of Manhattan, offered a prominent invocation at the Republican Convention in Tampa. Citing the Torah verse that is also engraved on the Liberty Bell -- u-kratem dror ba-aretz l’chol yoshveha / Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof (Lev 25:10) -- Rabbi Soloveichik highlighted the divine source of our freedom: “...our liberties are Your gift, God, not that of government, and...we are endowed with these rights by You, our Creator, not by mortal man.”
He asked our Merciful Father to bestow blessing and guidance upon Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and our armed forces; he asked for protection and shelter upon Gulf Coast residents in the path of the hurricane. He closed by reaffirming America’s “dedication to the principle of God-gifted liberty...a beacon of faith and freedom for generations to come.”
Rabbi David Wolpe, Conservative Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, emphasized different themes in his prayer at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. After mentioning freedom -- as well as resourcefulness, creativity, and compassion -- Rabbi Wolpe cited a phrase not from the Torah, but from the Nevi’im, out of the Prophet Isaiah’s call to justice: shiftu yatom, rivu almanah / defend the orphan and fight on behalf of the widow (Isaiah 1:17). He highlighted not liberty, as much as a communitarian spirit: “...You have taught us that we must count on one another; that our country is strong through community, and that the children of Israel on the way to that sanctified and cherished land...did not walk through the wilderness alone.”
Wolpe asked the Merciful one to make us “more understanding and tolerant of others...” He concluded: “May our souls be enlarged by empathy...so together...our nation...will become more passionate, more purposeful...through the warmth of your embrace and the extraordinary power, dear God, of your love.”
The former invoked the Creator of Freedom, the God who gives us inalienable liberty. The latter called upon the Divine Word of the Prophets, the God who guides us to care for the vulnerable and marginalized. Both probably served their convention’s purpose. And let me say up front the point I am working toward in the end: both rabbis made interpretive choices in how they characterized our God and tradition, and only taken together do they offer a complete picture of the Jewish tradition, and the will of Ribono shel Olam, the Almighty one of the World.
Of course, raising this subject from the pulpit carries risk. Every year around this time -- how much more in an election year! -- the Jewish blogosphere buzzes with commentary about rabbis who preach politics, who try to turn the Torah into a partisan rag; or conversely about the duty of moral leadership, the responsibility to consult our sacred tradition for guidance on tough decisions around the social and political issues of the day.
No doubt, there are rabbis who do both: veiled partisan messages, and responsible moral leadership. God knows I strive for the latter. And God knows this gets more difficult and delicate as our political discourse grows increasingly bitter and divisive.
It’s worth noting that rabbis offering prayers at political conventions is not a new phenomenon. As early as 1896, the Republican Party invited Rabbi Samuel Sale to give an invocation at the Convention that nominated William McKinley. Sensing an opportunity, amidst an economic downturn, to draw Jews from their Democratic loyalties (sound familiar?), the Republicans calculated that offering this prominent spot to a rabbi would serve their political agenda.
Both parties have put rabbis front and center at their national conventions throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.The record may have been set by the 2008 Democratic Convention, which had prayers by seven different rabbis of all the major denominations. This led one Jewish leader to quip, “Obama has a goy or two as well" (Sarna, The Forward, 06 September 2012).
Although, as historian Jonathan Sarna points out, these appearances “legitimate Judaism as a major American faith,” he notes an uglier aspect as well: “Both parties,” he says, “seek to attract Jewish voters. Both believe that inviting a prominent rabbi to offer prime-time prayers can help.... It all comes down to politics.”
* * *
In 2007, I attended the Jewish Federation General Assembly in Nashville. I went to a session on the upcoming election with a panel of representatives from the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council. To this day, I wish I had asked them the following question:
On what issues does your Jewish commitment lead you to diverge from your party’s platform?
I urge all of us to ask ourselves that question, too. If the answer is “none,” then your Jewish commitment is shallow and one-dimensional. There’s no such simple truth as “Judaism supports Republicanism” or “Judaism supports Democratic positions.” Judaism cannot simply be distilled into liberalism or conservatism. Our rich, multi-layered, ancient tradition transcends glib punditry and political soundbites.
Case in point: the two rabbis’ convention prayers. Freedom and individual rights in one, care for the poor and vulnerable in the other. The truth is, Jewish tradition affirms both of those principles.
Let me offer a few examples.
First, on the so-called “conservative” side: There’s a beautiful midrash in the Talmud, based on a phrase from Bamidbar that we sang together not long ago this morning: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael / How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5). These are the words of Bilam, prophet-for-hire sent to curse the Israelites, who was so overwhelmed at the site of them, that he could only utter words of blessing. In the Talmud (Bava Batra 60a) we find the rabbis discussing a mishnah, which begins:
In a courtyard which he shares with others, a man should not open a door facing another person's door, nor a window facing another person's windows.In the Gemara that follows, the rabbis ask:
Whence are these rules derived? R. Johanan said: From the verse of the Scripture, “And Bilaam lifted up his eyes and he saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes [and said, Mah tovu...]” (Num 24:2). This indicates that he saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face one another, whereupon he exclaimed: Worthy are these that the Divine presence should rest upon them!
In other words, the rabbis here reinterpret Bilaam’s words to highlight the importance of privacy and individual property rights. Perhaps we can infer that they would believe in a civil authority charged with protecting these unassailable individual rights.
Fast-forwarding to the medieval period, let’s consider Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah. He lists eight ways to perform the mitzvah of tzedakah, one holier than the next. At the top of his list is this:
The highest degree of charity—above which there is no higher—is he who strengthens the hand of his poor fellow Jew and gives him a gift or [an interest-free] loan or [better yet] enters into a business partnership with the poor person. By this partnership the poor man is really being strengthened as the Torah commands in order to strengthen him till he is able to be independent and no longer dependent on the public purse. It is thus written, “Strengthen him so that he does not fall and become dependent on others” (Leviticus 25:35).
~Rambam, Mishneh Torah: Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14, trans. Dr. Meir Tamari
It’s not hard to read into Maimonides’ words conservative principles of avoiding government dependency, and ensuring that help given to those in need is help toward becoming self-sufficient.
[Aside] Anyone feeling uncomfortable yet? Maybe a little hot under the collar? That's ok. In discomfort there is learning...
Now let’s consider voices from our tradition that support a so-called “liberal” position.
There is an entire tractate in the Mishnah, based on laws in the Torah, devoted to Pe’ah, the command to leave the corners of your fields unharvested so that the needy may gather your produce for food. The Torah commands:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I Adonai am your God. (Lev 19:9-10)
This is not a matter of charity. This is mandatory. You might even call it a tax to fund a social welfare program for immigrants, and the poor.
Also consider the haftarah for Yom Kippur, from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah sees the hypocrisy of those who hurry to shul and do all the rituals, while still sinning in their private lives, and he has to speak out.
Here are Isaiah’s words:
“Why, when we fasted, did You not see...?” [the people ask God.]
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness...
To let the oppressed go free....
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him.... (Isa 54:3-7)
You can practically check off the liberal soundbites: labor rights, freedom from oppression, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked. It’s texts like these by which so much of the Jewish social justice movement is anchored.
These four texts are the tip of the iceberg of our broad and deep tradition.
Perhaps some of you are wondering, “Ok fine, rabbi, nice texts, but which is it? When you really add it all up, does Judaism lean more liberal or more conservative?”
It’s a natural question. We all want our political loyalties affirmed by our religion. But our tradition speaks in many voices --
so, as Hillel might say: now go and study it!
I don’t believe we can say for certain that Judaism supports one platform or another. But our tradition contains within it an even more important lesson that transcends any political texts.
This lesson appears in many forms. One of my favorites is in the Talmud (Chagiga 3b), as a midrash on a verse from Ecclesiastes (12:11): “The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails well planted [are the words of] the masters of assemblies; they were given from One Shepherd.”
The Talmud asks: Who are “the masters of assemblies?”
These are the disciples of the wise [the Rabbis], who sit in manifold assemblies and occupy themselves with the Torah, some pronouncing unclean and others pronouncing clean, some prohibiting and others permitting, some disqualifying and others declaring fit.
Picture a yeshiva, full of scholars and the hum of Jewish argument. On any given question -- is this object ritually pure? Is this dish kosher? Is this witness’s testimony admissible -- there are as many opinions as there are rabbis, and maybe more! This may seem like chaos to the casual observer (or like any Jewish conversation, to a Jew!). And so the Talmud continues:
“Should a man say: How in these circumstances shall I learn Torah?”
That is, with all this disagreement, how can I learn anything about what the Torah actually says?! Therefore, they quote the end of our Ecclesiastes verse, “All of them are given from one Shepherd.” All of the opinions, all of the arguments, all of the points of view, says the Talmud:
One God gave them; one leader uttered them from the mouth of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He; for it is written: “And God spoke all these words” (Exod 20:1).
In my estimation, the most important guidance that the Torah offers our political lives is not about what side of what issue to take, but instead about how to treat those with different opinions.
You are not to check your mind at the door; the Talmud advises that you should sift through all the arguments and make your own judgments. But you are to learn from all perspectives, to sit in the assembly with your opponents, to argue with them from across the table, not from outside the tent.
Those who contribute to the brokenness of our political discourse today, within and beyond the Jewish community, need to learn this lesson of Torah -- especially those who distort Torah for partisan ends.
* * *
As it turns out, neither party invited me to offer a prayer at its convention. It’s ok, I was probably too busy anyway (writing this sermon, for example). But here on this pulpit, I offer this prayer for all of us, and the whole Jewish community, in this Election season:
Ribono shel olam, Great One of the World, we’re trying really hard here to put Your will into action through our political affiliations.
Remind us that You are bigger than party and faction, and that some of Your truth always resides in the words of our opponents. Give us the confidence to learn from them, especially the ones who seem so wrong at first... Remind us of the wisdom of our ancestors, who taught,“Who is wise? He who learns from all people” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).
Teach us that our People’s record of your Revelationis subtle, complex, multi-vocal, at times confusing and troubling, and elsewhere a clarion call for justice. Help us to study it more (perhaps with a local rabbi), and through our learning to know You better, and Your will, for our action in the world.
Then may we fulfill your promise to Abraham, that we shall be a blessing to the community and nation we all call our home.