American Rabbis’ Dilemma: The Cost of Political Courage

Do we fear our congregations too much to speak up for the core Jewish values that both the Trump presidency and Israel's current government dishonor?

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Protesters march at a rally against the President-elect Donald Trump in Los Angeles, December 18, 2016.
Protesters march at a rally against the President-elect Donald Trump in Los Angeles, December 18, 2016.Credit: KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/REUTERS
Daniel Weiner
Daniel Weiner

I’m up on the tightwire/Flanked by life and the funeral pyre/Putting on a show for you to see – Leon Russell

All the world is a very narrow bridge/And the most important thing/Is not to fear at all – Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

Jewish leaders of a certain age find inspiration and insight as much in the pop cultural pantheon as in our textual tradition. Both Russell’s and Rabbi Nachman’s words seem painfully fitting for this moment in American Jewish life, and in the calculus of those who seek to guide coherent communities.  
The polarization that has riven our society, with its attendant demonization of ideological opponents, has finally and thoroughly infected the American Jewish communal discourse.  

The compelling wisdom of machloket l’shem shamayim – constructive debate for a good cause – lies irremediably wounded along the margins of a public square besotted by shallow sound bites, giving greater voice to one-sided jingoism over reasoned dialogue, and enthralled by pre-dawn tweets passing for presidential pronouncements. 

The recent intersection of Israel’s increasing alienation from the world community with the volatility of the U.S. presidential election fomented a perfect storm of divisiveness, pitting parent against child, congregant against congregant, and rabbi against member. And the financial cudgel of donations withheld or redirected amplifies the animus and angst of community leadership.

Particularly for rabbis, who strive to make all within a diverse kehillah (community) feel welcome and included, tensions and seeming irreconcilable entrenchments pose significant challenges and exert unprecedented pressures. In a culture in which the enthusiasms of feeling often supersede the truth proven in fact, a reliance upon interpretations of Jewish law, custom and history, the unique currency of clergy, no longer suffices to counter indelibly impressed narratives or to persuade the denizens of the ideological echo chamber. 

And yet we rabbis are obligated, commanded and encouraged by the words of Moses to Joshua: Chazak v’ematz – to be strong and of good courage. We must balance communal inclusiveness with ideological integrity, the delicate waltz of politics with the undaunted passions of prophecy and the needs of the moment with the timeless values of tradition.  

It is trying and disappointing when a commitment to principle exacts material costs, compelling some to withhold contributions or to leave a community out of impulse or shortsightedness. Ultimately, a community most values leaders whose constancy of character transcends a concession to circumstance. 
But any rabbi or leader who surrenders what is good and right to what is expedient, popular or even threatening betrays our calling, denigrates our tradition, and thus commits chillul hashem – a profaning of God’s name, image and reputation.  

Whether it is Israel's current government failing to live up to its founding secular and sacred texts, or the incoming American administration departing so profoundly from the civic values that bind us together, we rabbis strive to bear in mind the wisdom of Rabbi Israel Salanter: A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no mensch.

And as leaders who bear our American citizenship as proudly as our mantle of faith, we are inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s concession to realpolitik: 

I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep going so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything.  If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.

Daniel Weiner is the Senior Rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, located in two campuses in Seattle and Bellevue. Weiner and his team recently won the Religion Action Center’s Fain Award for their campaign on gun responsibility. His columns have appeared in The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Follow him on Twitter: @rocknrabbidanny

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