Just a few weeks ago I was giving a sermon in which I discussed the Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden cases. I suggested in my remarks that although what they did was clearly wrong, and also against the law (not always the same thing, by the way!), the end result of their actions may be positive for us and our society. You can find the text of the sermon on the Beth El web site, http://www.bethelbalto.com.
About half way through the sermon someone got up and walked out. I later found out that person had expressed to others how disappointed they were that I had chosen to address an issue from the pulpit that they perceived of as being political.
The question of politics from the pulpit is not a new one by any means. In the narrowest sense, it is actually illegal for a member of the clergy to endorse a political candidate while speaking from the pulpit. Most clergy would extend this prohibition to any forum, pulpit or otherwise. That is a clear no-no, and I would never presume to tell someone how they should vote.
That being said, I would hope that Jews would want to know what our tradition says about the issues of the day, and the truth is there are few issues of the day that are NOT perceived of as being political. For example, abortion is a politically charged issue today, no question. But Judaism has a lot to say about abortion. Or euthanasia, or organ transplantation. Or health care in general, for that matter. Or many other contemporary issues medical or otherwise.
I feel part of my job as a rabbi is to let people know what their tradition has to say about these modern questions. They don’t have to listen to what the tradition says, and they don’t have to agree with it either. But they should at least know.
Last thought. Again, I would always be careful to stay away from particular candidates (although I will criticize politicians from the pulpit if I feel they have done something morally wrong). But by and large, I feel like issues are fair game. It seems to me it is healthy to take an issue out, put it on the table, and examine it in broad daylight, so to speak. Talk about it. Listen to someone else’s point of view, and not just the op-ed page of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.
One of the sad things about today’s political climate is that it has become so polarized it is hard to even have a conversation about issues that truly matter to us and our society. That is a shame for all of us, and we all are diminished because of it. I’ve been told that people will go home after services and talk about the rabbi’s sermon. If so (it doesn’t happen in the rabbi’s house!) than maybe a sermon that touches on a ‘political’ issue will at least provide the opening for a meaningful conversation. After all, there is a lot to be said, and a lot to be gained by saying it!