Ask the Rabbis | Does Politics Belong on the Bima?


Issues, not individuals. Policies, not partisanship. Concerns, not candidates. These guidelines should direct synagogues as they chart their critical role in this election season.

Global warming, the Iraq war, Middle East peace, health care reform, the role of government in securing a safety net for Americans in need, immigration policy, confronting terrorism effectively, economic hardship—these are just some of the great moral issues and political challenges confronting America. Synagogues have long been powerful prophetic voices in American public life and must continue to be so. Educational debates and presentations are candidates for rabbinic sermons; adult education classes, social action, social service and advocacy programs constitute appropriate ways of raising awareness of such issues.

Traditionally, Jews vote at much higher rates than other Americans, yet some studies indicate a fall-off among those under 40. Therefore, every synagogue in the nation should engage in voter registration campaigns, ensure that every member is registered when they turn 18 and undertake “Get Out the Vote” efforts, using phone banks, email and listservs. This is particularly important with our young, because habits forged in first elections will last a lifetime.

The key legal limitation on synagogues is that they cannot spend one penny, or one second of staff time, supporting or opposing a candidate or party. It is also good policy: The last thing we need is to tear our synagogues apart over which candidates they should oppose or support. By sticking to issues and not candidates, synagogues can fulfill our obligation of prophetic witness without violating the law.

Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Washington, DC


Judaism, as a tradition of values, demands our involvement in public affairs. From Isaiah to Maimonides to Judith Plaskow, thoughtful Jews concur with Elie Wiesel: “Indifference is not an option.”

Where we gather in real time (bet knesset), we address issues of the day. Where we study (bet sefer), the learning must lead to action. Even public prayer (bet tefilah) requires nine others. Every function of a synagogue demands our engagement with current societal needs.

Congregations discuss values, and with them, political issues. But promote political parties? Prohibited. Candidates? We can’t.

IRS regulations rightly steer synagogues clear of endorsing parties or candidates. We should be humble about our own positions, while honoring shuls as “big tents.” Rabbis’ leanings may appear in the paper, but not the pulpit. Resources from groups like the Interfaith Alliance help us walk that ethical and legal line.

Yet we must not bifurcate between “spiritual” and “political.” The yotzer nature blessing should motivate us to stem global warming; our “Redemption Song,” Mi Chamocha, should recall those too impoverished or oppressed to be free. These are political and spiritual concerns in which upcoming elections loom large. Avoiding them, we risk irrelevance.

Bless the tradition that encourages us to grapple, to take respectful action, and to vote for whomever we deem likeliest to heal our country and our world.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD


An evangelical Christian pastor said that Bible-loving Christians come to different conclusions about the issues of our day, including abortion. He concluded that it was not his work to tell them for whom to vote, but to remind them of their loyalty to the Kingdom of God.

I resonate with him. If politics in the synagogue means endorsing one candidate or party over another, then I don’t want politics in my shul. (Besides, its not legal, at least in the U.S.!) However, it is appropriate to focus on the criteria we use to choose our governments.

A congregant asked me whether I would rather live in a town with no limits on wealth where some would always be poor, or where there would be no poor because there were limits placed on wealth. He was surprised when I said the latter. I explained to him that the Torah mandated sabbatical and jubilee years designed to accomplish this purpose and that the higher ethical principle was to minimize poverty. Expressing a commitment to bringing these ideals into practice is a way to evaluate the merits of governments. Without it, Judaism is a hollow shell. With it, it is vibrant, alive with the reality of God and committed to a higher purpose.

Rabbi Daniel Siegel, Director of Spiritual Resources, Alliance for Jewish Renewal, Philadelphia, PA

5 thoughts on “Ask the Rabbis | Does Politics Belong on the Bima?

  1. Harry Freiberg says:

    Politics is, or should be, part of the morality play called Life. As such, politics has its place on the bima. Maybe not partisan politics, unless the moral divide is so great and one side is completely beyond the pale. And,yes, the rabbi’s opinions are important, as important as his interpretation of scripture.

    I remember with great pride a former rabbi taking a position in public, as well as on the Bima, regarding the Civil Rights Wars of the ’50s & ’60s. He was a true mensch…

  2. Carol+Robins says:

    I attended a D’var Torah after services one time. We were studying the Parsha. Out of the blue, a congregant says, “I don’t see how anyone can vote for _____.” Whether I agreed or not, I found this comment inappropriate in the context of our studies and even otherwise. I don’t think I said anything, but voicing one’s political opinions can alienate either the speaker or the listener, especially when you don’t know each person present. I think Rabbis should be very cautious about supporting a particular candidate or position. I agree with the Sephardi outlook above. Just today I introduced two people to each other and one started talking negatively about a candidate, and I advised that this is inappropriate when you don’t even know the person, because you may miss an opportunity to be friends. I prefer to not discuss politics with friends because I see how divisive it has become.

  3. h Gottlieb says:

    it’s in the church

  4. Robert Blumenthal says:

    My wife and I were members of our shul, a small congregation affiliated with the USCJ, for about 10 years, having joined shortly after we moved to our current location. We were very active and rarely missed attending a Shabbat morning service. I served on the Board, as Chair of the Adult Ed Committee, and as Chair of the Ritual Committee. I helped plan the High Holiday services and very often led the davening for the Shabbat morning services. I mention these things only to indicate that we were heavily invested in the life of the shul.

    We resigned last year. I won’t elaborate here, but I offer this note as a plea to those who lead synagogues affiliated with the USCJ, be they Rabbis or officers of governing boards, to be on guard against the over-politicization of the shul, the bimah, and shul communications. The use of these venues to promote views on matters of current political and social controversy will inevitably foster a non-inclusive environment which will leave some congregants feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome, and marginalized, and which may well cause some to leave the shul as was the case for us.

    And as a matter of pure practicality, does it really make sense to needlessly alienate some congregants? Are USCJ synagogues, particularly small ones, so flush with membership that they can easily afford to risk losing members over matters which are best left for other venues? So, my plea to synagogue leaders is to be extra mindful about fostering an inclusive environment. Such a mindset will go a long way to creating a healthy atmosphere in which everyone feels welcome, and this in turn will help foster the long-term health of the shul.

  5. Ruthie Schafler says:

    Rabbis should absolutely not mention politics, especially their view on it, and especially now that it has become so horribly contentious, never used to be this bad…. The rabbi where I just joined a temple talked about it after I asked before I joined, making sure he would not…. It ruins the whole experience of trying to get some peace and strength for the very difficult things that happen…. in life. And here one rabbi reminds us that it’s illegal for them to do so. This is not the first temple it happened at…. the second one….. I am devastated. I will stop going to temple, it was close and not sure the other rabbis are any better, from their websites, they look pretty off track….

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