At the heart of this issue is of course the question what constitutes ‘politics?’ On the one hand we might say the idea of preaching politics is specific, defined by the guidelines of what you legally cannot say from the pulpit without your synagogue or church losing its non-profit status. And that is, quite clearly, endorsing a candidate. Technically a rabbi (or for that manner any other member of the clergy) cannot stand in the pulpit and say ‘you must vote for such and such a candidate.’ Fair enough, and to the best of my knowledge most clergy folk avoid doing that, and it is something I have never done, nor would ever do. Vote for whomever you believe the best candidate to be. End of story.
But what about issues? Issues that are driven by ideology, that have moral and ethical implications, issues that faith traditions have studied, pondered, perhaps even formally taken stances on? And that is the problem, and perhaps the grey area. There are many issues that are distinctly religious issues that have become highly politicized today. The best example might be abortion. Gay marriage is another. Gun control possibly a third. Religious freedom, building a mosque in New York. The list could go on and on. These are some of the most important, and politically most highly charged issues of our day. Judaism has a great deal to say about all of them. The Conservative Movement has taken specific and public stances on gun control, abortion, and gay marriage. Doesn’t the rabbi have the responsibility of teaching his or her congregants what their tradition has to say about these issues? Don’t the congregants want to know, so that their faith tradition can help them to more deeply understand contemporary life?
I still believe the answer to the first question is yes. To paraphrase the sage Hillel, if the synagogue is not a place for engaging in contemporary life, then what is it? What good is the tradition if it has nothing to say to us about modernity, in all of its complexity? Isn’t that the whole point? Don’t we say to people you can find ‘meaning for modern life’ here? When we say that do we only mean ‘spiritual matters?’ Being a good person, God, treating others well, etc? Or do we also mean that Judaism has something to say about the moral and ethical debates that are at the heart of today’s political discourse?
Judaism has never been a compartmentalized tradition. Judaism doesn’t say follow your faith in this area or that area, but in other areas, don’t worry about it, don’t consider it. Instead, Judaism historically has been comprehensive. The Talmudic sages clearly believed that Judaism should address every area of life, that Judaism should have something to say about every issue, that Judaism should be able to guide Jews in modernity just as it did in ancient times. Not just in the synagogue, but in the public square as well. The Talmud discusses abortion, the Talmud has ‘what’ to say about the death penalty. Shouldn’t we, as Jews, take advantage of our tradition’s ancient wisdom?
Even when the tradition disagrees with us, I would think we might want to know what it says. Is that difficult sometimes? Yes, especially in today’s atmosphere of highly divisive political debate. But Judaism has never been interested in the easy path. The right path, however, is another matter entirely.