As your rabbi, I’m struggling with how to speak about the election of Mr. Trump and his transition to the White House. While the IRS forbids me from using the pulpit to endorse political candidates or intervene in campaigns, I’m permitted to share my thoughts on and advocate for or against political issues. Over the past 14 years, I haven’t shied away from doing just this. As a result, we as a community have engaged in some fruitful discussions. However, we’ve also had some contentious moments. These contentious moments, which took place during times when the political climate was much less volatile than it is today, taught me that my political commentary has the potential to divide us.
With tensions running as high as they are because of last week’s election, I’m using great caution when it comes to discussing politics – so much caution that I’m finding myself tongue-tied and frustrated. I want to speak out. But, at the same time, it’s my responsibility to help our congregation and the larger community heal and move forward with strength. Reconciling my desire to speak up about important political issues with my obligation to guide a spiritual community is an extremely difficult task.
We’re all feeling the political discord that’s out there. It permeates so many aspects of our lives. Lots of you have asked me to keep this discord out of Ramat Shalom. Our synagogue is one of the few places many of us can go to get away from all the political rancor. But, there are so many issues surrounding this election that we, as a Jewish community, are paying close attention to and worrying about. Ideally, we should be able to discuss these issues within the synagogue, yet, we’re not living in an ideal world. Ramat Shalom is a microcosm of the larger community. We pride ourselves on being a diverse, pluralistic community. But, these attributes mean that our congregation reflects a wide array of political positions. The potential for political conversations to push us apart is enormous.
Some say that rabbis should take a prophetic role during times like these. The ancient prophets received messages from God obligating them to rebuke the community, call out the sins that were being committed and seek societal transformation. While I can’t speak for my colleagues, I don’t think any of them are receiving divine messages that drive them to bring about such transformation. However, I do know that Jewish values, teachings and beliefs certainly call upon us to take a stand and act to improve the situation we find ourselves in today – just like the prophets did.
Others say that, given how divided we are right now, rabbis should be fully embracing their role as pastor. Our pastoral role requires us to listen to and counsel all members of our community. It requires us to bring people together by encouraging us to listen to, learn from and grow with each other. Pastors must lead by example and act in a way that fosters pluralism. Let me be clear, pastors must never empower hate. Hate should have no place in a healthy, vibrant community. At the same time, within a diverse community, we must ensure that one who embraces a different opinion is not incorrectly given a label associated with hate. Pastoral work is not easy work – but it’s the only way to create safe, pluralistic, sacred communities.
Since the election, I’ve spoken with a lot of you as you come to terms with what happened last Tuesday. I’m hearing the anger, fear, frustration and/or resentment from many people who embrace various political ideologies. They’re telling me how this election has led to friendships shattering, families dividing, marriages hurting and parents struggling with how to talk to their children about political issues. As I listen, I realize how committed I am to helping us all navigate our way through these challenging times.
To make things more complicated for me, the regular highs and lows of congregational life have not slowed down because of the election. Whether it be because of a bar/bat mitzvah, a wedding, an illness, a death or various other spiritual issues unrelated to the election, people need me to be their rabbi – their pastor – and I must be there for them. This requires me to be accessible and approachable to everyone in our community – whether or not they supported President-elect Trump. And this demands that any political commentary that I do share is tempered and doesn’t alienate anyone who seeks, in good faith, to be part of our inclusive synagogue family.
As committed as I am to fulfilling my pastoral role here at Ramat Shalom, there will be times when I comment on a political issue. I will not use time during services, when many are seeking time to peacefully reflect, to engage in political talk. I will limit such talk to classroom settings, blog posts or weekly messages. And within the classroom, on the blog and in the weekly message, many other topics will be discussed. Politics will not take over. When I do share my thoughts on a political topic, I hope that you’ll hear my words for what they are – my opinion on an issue that I feel is something we as a Jewish community must think about. I welcome respectful disagreement and debate – things that are integral to any healthy Jewish community. I also encourage you to educate yourselves. Don’t rely simply upon my words. And don’t rely simply on one newspaper or cable news channel. Read up on the current political situation. Don’t be afraid to learn from sources that reflect a point of view that’s different from your own. Attempt to engage respectfully in discussions with folks on the other side of complicated issues. Get involved in political organizations that represent the issues that are important to you, but learn about those organizations that speak for the other side. Be in touch with your elected officials – share with them both the things you’re happy about and the things that concern you. Be a part of the political process.
Yes, this election has brought to the forefront many issues that we as a community of both Jewish Americans and Americans who stand with Jews must pay attention to. At the same time, this election has given many of us the need to find the peace of a diverse, loving, spiritual haven like Ramat Shalom. Together, we can strengthen our synagogue family while paying close attention to the political issues that directly affect us all.
I know that some of you would like to hear my thoughts on a few of the appointments made by President-elect Trump. While I certainly have many thoughts on these appointments, I felt it was imperative for me to address the bigger issue of political conversation within our community this week. If you would like to be in touch regarding these appointments, I hope to hear from you. I do encourage you to read this article that details the various positions that national Jewish organizations and leaders have taken on the appointment of Stephen Bannon.