The American Jewish community and analysts following presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama's campaigns do not remember such direct or extensive involvement of rabbis in the political arena.
Veteran reporters remember that a group of rabbis once publicly supported candidate Ronald Reagan, and a few rabbis issued a statement backing Bill Clinton. But the strong presence of rabbis on the front line of spectators in the current campaign is seen as an exciting novelty. The group of 300 rabbis who recently came out in support of Obama has grown to 430, the petition's organizers say. Others are signing on rabbis to a soon-to-be released statement backing Republican candidate McCain.
The pro-Obama support declaration was initiated and organized by Rabbis for Obama, an organization set up by two Reform rabbis of Illinois, Sam Gordon and Steven Bob. Gordon confirmed in a conversation with me that most rabbis who signed the declaration were Reform rabbis, and a considerable number were Conservative. Orthodox rabbis have also signed.
"More rabbis wish to sign and even Chabad functionaries support Obama, but wish to remain unnamed," he said. "More than we wanted to state our support for Obama, we felt the need to demonstrate our sympathy for him in response to the smear campaign waged against him in the Jewish community." Gordon said he knew Obama from the beginning of his public career. "I've met him several times and believe he will be an excellent president."
In a country that consecrates the separation of state from religion, many see the rabbis' open support for a political candidate, and a presidential one at that, as inappropriate.
Rabbi Eric Yoffe, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says rabbis, as citizens, have the right to express their opinions and political preferences. As long as they do not do so from the synagogue podium and don't say which community they serve, there's nothing wrong with it, he believes. However, probably for fear that rabbis' involvement in the political process may lead to irregular conduct, Yoffe says he held a conference call with hundreds of Reform rabbis last week, setting boundaries for openly supporting one of the candidates.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, former Yeshiva University president and a leading Biblical authority in Modern Orthodoxy, objects to any involvement of rabbis in politics, especially the presidential elections. A rabbi who comes out in support of a presidential candidate annoys members of his community who support a rival candidate and estranges himself from part of his community, he argues. The justification that rabbis who sign support statements for candidates hide their synagogue's identity is false, he says. Anyone who wants to knows very well what synagogue they serve in.
Certain commentators see a turnabout in the Democratic Party's attitude toward representatives of the various religions, especially toward the rabbis. For the first time in the party's history, officials of religions active in the United States addressed the opening session of the Democratic National Convention, including three rabbis and a female rabbi. A Reform rabbi from Alabama said a short prayer at the Republican Party's opening session.
Last week Obama held a conference call with some 1,000 rabbis from all the factions in the United States ahead of Rosh Hashanah. He wished them a happy new year and promised that if he is elected president, Israel will receive all the support it needs, "whether financial or military to sustain security in the hostile environment."
Orthodox Rabbi Marc Schneier of New York, who took part in the interfaith gathering that kicked off the Democratic convention and said a prayer at the opening ceremony, believes a new reality has formed in the political arena. The two main parties have increased their awareness of religion's importance in America's public discourse and no longer refrain from mixing religion and politics, he said.
Even if all the figures regarding rabbis' involvement in the presidential campaign are accurate, these rabbis are still a small segment of some 3,000 active rabbis in the four Judaism streams in the United States. But the significance of rabbis' intervention in politics is that while Jewish organizations in America are declining, rabbis' influence in the community has been increasing in recent years.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now