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The White House's Advice for Your Rabbi

Tevi Troy

The Jewish High Holidays are upon us, so naturally it’s time for the White House to feed political talking points to rabbis.

As has become its annual practice, the Obama administration on Thursday convened a conference call with several hundred rabbis and Jewish leaders. According to a participant on the call, President Obama promoted his jobs bill—noting that those who have been more blessed should pay their fair share—and briefed the rabbis on U.S. efforts to counter the push for a declaration of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

I was on another such call recently, the purpose of which—according to the Jewish rabbinical group that invited me—was to help listeners “understand the current state of the economy; learn about the impact of the proposed budget cuts on the poor and disenfranchised; consider the consequences of the increasing gap between the rich and poor in America; and, glean homiletic and textual background to help prepare their High Holiday sermons on this timely topic.”

The agenda of the call organizers was clear. Two speakers, one of whom was a (non-Jewish) Democratic senator, spoke of our country’s need for “raising revenue,” the new code phrase for tax increases. When I suggested that we separate politics from spirituality, a third participant pushed back, saying “the Torah is a political document.” A curious assertion in a crowd that would quickly denounce any invocation of the Bible in political discussions.

Of course the Obama administration didn’t invent the politicized sermon. In the Conservative temple in which I was raised, the joke (not an original one) was that the rabbi would take homiletic guidance from the New York Times editorial page. In his memoir, former Nixon speechwriter William Safire told of his displeasure with a Yom Kippur sermon in which the rabbi warned “not to let our country be divided and polarized by those who use the technique of alliteration“—referring to Vice President Spiro Agnew’s critique of “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

So President Obama is taking advantage of an existing proclivity toward political sermonizing. Other presidents have acted similarly, hosting calls around holidays or meeting with Jewish leaders before the White House Hanukkah party, as George W. Bush did. But Mr. Obama has innovated, as by focusing on a specific issue or two with rabbis before the High Holidays each year.

In 2010, according to the New York Post, he “asked a conference call of about 600 rabbis to preach his Mideast peace plan from the pulpit.” In 2009, he invited a group of 1,000 rabbis to discuss his health-care plan and then preach about it afterward. Some certainly delivered. Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., for example, gave a Yom Kippur sermon that year entitled “The Jewish Understanding of Health Care: A Moral Imperative,” declaring that “working towards health care for all, however that might be accomplished, is a Jewish mandate.”

Political sermonizing is a mistake for many reasons. First, the Holy Days are supposed to bring forth a universal message about the unity of the Jewish people, the importance of our shared religious tradition, and the need to rededicate ourselves to observance of the Torah in the year to come.

Then there’s the risk of alienating part of the congregation. Even if you know that 70%-80% of your synagogue votes one way—and public opinion polls suggest that this may be the case in Conservative and Reform synagogues—why risk alienating the other 20%-30%? In many (or most) communities, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the only time certain congregants set foot in synagogue that year. Why risk driving them away with a message that could offend?

Furthermore, while it may appear easy to find support for left-wing political positions in the Torah and rabbinical sources, the truth is that the Jewish tradition doesn’t give much guidance on the optimum level of marginal tax rates, Medicare restructuring, or food-stamp funding. To claim otherwise is to give false guidance.

The passages read aloud on the High Holidays each year are filled with the most important problems of the human condition, including Jonah’s attempt to shirk his responsibilities, Hannah’s desperate plea for a child, and God’s testing of Abraham’s faith with the binding of Isaac. All of these stories still resonate today, and skillful speakers can use them to guide congregants.

The mandate of religious leaders is to convey to their communities spiritual encouragement and the wisdom of the ages. For the other stuff, there’s cable news.

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