These conversations tend to conflate two questions: “Should rabbis weigh in on issues deemed political?” and “Should rabbis offer policy analysis?”
I answer the first question with a resounding “yes.” On the second, my answer’s a little more complicated.
First, let’s dispense with the notion that rabbis should never touch political issues. If we take “political” to refer to issues that matter to human beings — questions of safety, dignity and economic security — then Judaism and politics cannot be separated. The Torah is political when it insists that “God created humanity in God’s own image” (Genesis 1:27) —meaning that every single person, regardless of race, ethnicity, wealth, religion or any other factor — is equally a valuable creation in the divine image.[ The Torah is political when it obligates judges to treat parties fairly and impartially (Deuteronomy 1:16-17), and when it asserts that the land of Israel belongs to God and not to any human tribe (Leviticus 25:23). Jewish law, in its development from the Torah to the present, continues to be political as it asks the most fundamental question: “How do we create a just society?” —for every person created in the image of God — and answers in political ways, with laws aimed at ensuring the rights of workers; communal responsibility for the economic well-being of those in need; and a criminal justice system that protects the dignity of both perpetrators and victim.
For rabbis, dispensing with politics would verge on dispensing with Judaism. It would mean eliminating whole chapters of the Torah. It would mean tossing out Hoshen Mishpat, the codification of an entire category of Jewish law devoted to interpersonal and societal concerns.
But rabbis — most of us clergy, really — should tread carefully when attempting to analyze inspection regimes or atomic half-lives. And talking politics certainly shouldn’t mean just repeating the talking points of our favorite advocacy organizations.
Rather, when rabbis talk politics, we must do so with deep grounding in our tradition, drawing on thousands of years of accumulated Jewish law, commentary and history to refocus us on our core principles, to remind us what’s at stake and bring new perspectives to the issues at hand. We must use our pastoral voice by acknowledging people’s real fears and anxieties, which are often buried beneath the profusion of facts and predictions piling up in the steady stream of information that’s constantly disseminated on social outlets and in online media.
Rabbis cannot allow our communities to throw up our hands in hopelessness or frustration. One of Judaism’s greatest gifts is the belief in the potential for a perfected world, and the conviction that human beings — in partnership with the Divine — have the power to move us there.
What rabbis can do is help show the way out of the paralysis of “Well, it’s complicated.” Bringing a rabbinic voice to difficult questions doesn’t mean adopting the classic Talmudic saying, “These and these are the words of the living God” and simply presenting both sides of an argument. In the Talmudic context, that phrase describes the value of positions taken by the students of two prominent rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, but it shouldn’t be taken to mean “they’re both right.” “These and these” isn’t a directive, or license, for anyone to wallow in indecision. In fact, the continuation of the passage goes on to declare that the law follows only one school — that of Hillel —even as it urges us to follow his example of discussing an opposing viewpoint with fairness and respect.
I reject the cliché that Jewish law can be mined to support any position. In fact, Jewish law and Jewish tradition take many clear moral positions. Jewish labor law protects low-wage workers in almost every instance of potential abuse. Rabbinic legal opinions on the provision of health care start with an assumption that a community should provide for the medical needs of its members. Procedures of criminal justice attempt to eliminate false convictions, guarantee fair trials and allow for the possibility of teshuvah (repentance, or return to the right path).
In the case of the Iran deal, virtually everyone who has responded strongly to the agreement — pro or con — starts with the same goal: the protection of human life, including the safety and security of those living in Israel. This is different from the debate over health coverage, for instance, in which some believe in a fundamental right to care, while others do not.
Despite dire warnings on one side — “the world may pay a terrible price in blood and treasure for appeasement on this scale” — and optimistic cheerleading on the other — “This is an astoundingly good Iran Deal” — no one can predict with certainty whether Iran will hold to its side of the bargain. No one knows for sure whether its financial windfall will be used to rebuild Iran’s economy, as the CIA anticipates, or to fund terrorism as opponents of the agreement fear. In any case, Judaism takes a dim view of fortune-telling.
In this instance, supporting diplomacy — which I do —requires committing to hope. It means refusing to assume that the past must dictate the future. And it requires a leap of action — diving into the hard work of creating a new relationship between the world community and Iran, verifying compliance with the agreement, living with uncertainty and forgoing the fantasy that a military solution will accomplish what years of diplomacy cannot; or that a perfect agreement lies within reach. It’s the hope that the Torah demands when requiring that we make an offer of peace before declaring war (Deuteronomy 20:10). We take this risk for the sake of sparing millions of lives from warfare — which seems like a very real eventuality, if diplomacy fails — and that’s what really matters.
And as a rabbi, I believe it’s appropriate — essential, even — to advocate that we focus on preserving life regardless of what side of the political aisle we’re on.
What rabbis can’t do is predict the future. And while I’m sure that among my colleagues there’s a physicist or two, in general, we clergy members would do well not to wax poetic about enrichment cycles or the efficacy economic sanctions. Instead, we can hear and affirm our community members’ fears. We can remind our community that we all share the same end goal, the protection of human life. We can reject any attempts to vilify the president of the United States, or to turn the debate into a litmus test of loyalty to the Jewish people or to the State of Israel. Most importantly, we can remind ourselves and our communities that Judaism demands hope; that our tradition teaches that we have the power to make the world better than it is today.