The challah had been broken and the blessing for Torah study had been chanted when the rabbi posed a question: Which modern-day prophets have been ostracized for sharing a message that no one wanted to hear?
The names flowed quickly from the four-dozen people in the room: Colin Kaepernick. Jamal Khashoggi. Edward Snowden.
Then, from a man at the middle table: President Trump.
An uncomfortable murmur swept across the room. “He is being vilified for speaking his truth,” said the man, Jerry Ezrol.
“Certainly,” Rabbi Michael Holzman said, “for half the country, he’s vilified — often and daily — for speaking his truth.”
The exchange was exactly what Holzman wanted when he decided in November to substitute one of the weekly Torah study meetings each month at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation with an analysis of a foundational American text, starting with the Declaration of Independence and then James Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10.
Amid the ceaseless divisiveness of national politics and political tension within the synagogue, Holzman hoped studying the texts in the same manner that Jews normally study scripture would help his congregants clarify their ideas of what it means to be American.
Religious leaders confronted with political turmoil frequently either turn away, believing that houses of worship are no place to debate policy, or declare that their faith demands they be partisan warriors on an issue like abortion or climate change. But at this Reform Jewish synagogue of about 1,200 members in Reston, Va., Holzman didn’t want to veer either way.
“What I’m trying to do is teach people how to talk to each other, how to listen to each other, how to deliberate,” Holzman said. “And how to be partisan and at the same time be respectful of democratic norms, democratic institutions, the need for political diversity.”
On this Saturday, when he would normally be teaching Torah, the rabbi was leading his congregants in a rigorous analysis of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
The congregants compared King’s letter, which criticized white Southern clergymen for their inaction on civil rights, with Torah readings that featured similar themes about vocally opposing the status quo. In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet was lowered into a pit of mud after he opposed battling the Chaldeans. In Exodus, the Israelites became angry at Moses after he intervened for them to the Egyptian pharaoh and inadvertently made their situation worse.
Discussing King’s civil disobedience, Holzman asked the group what he said was an intentionally provocative question: With the lack of a functioning legal immigration system in the United States, is it morally justified to break immigration laws?
“Are we responsible not just for the outcomes of the laws — are we responsible for the morality of the laws themselves?” Holzman asked. “King is making the argument that we are responsible for evaluating whether or not our laws are moral.”
But society’s view of morality changes over time, one congregant countered. And different people hold different morals, another added.
Holzman’s approach fits with Jewish tradition, Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington said. Like the text of the Torah, she said, Jews see great American texts as living documents that they can continually learn from. “In the Jewish tradition, we haven’t just canonized answers, but we’ve canonized process,” Vinokor-Meinrath said. “... .It’s engaging in the process that is as exciting and central as coming to the answer.”
Intellectual analysis of Jewish texts has been one of the religion’s defining features for about 2,000 years, said Robert Eisen, a professor at George Washington University who studies Judaism. “The study itself is an end in itself, a religious way of connecting to the divine,” he said.
In a congregation that Holzman described as “92 percent liberal,” he said he heard after the 2016 presidential election that some conservative members worried the synagogue had become too left-leaning.
When the synagogue board debated sending buses to the March for Our Lives protest against gun violence after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Holzman invited congregants to weigh in, because he wanted the community to hear from anyone on any side of the gun rights debate. They decided to send the buses.
Ezrol said he named Trump as an ostracized modern-day prophet on Saturday in an attempt to further that respectful dialogue. As a conservative Republican, Ezrol said he wanted to put a face to those who hold a minority perspective in any given group. “It’s very easy to vilify ‘them,’ ” Ezrol said after the event. “It’s harder if you get to know someone.”
Holzman hopes his synagogue’s study of great American texts can be an example for other religious leaders. The local church or synagogue, he said, should be a place where people wrestle with their sense of morality.
Eric Eisenstadt, president of the congregation, pointed out that such spaces for honest discussion about big problems are rare. “Where else could you go in this country?” he asked.