Rabbis have long championed the idea of “freedom of the pulpit” that entitles them to speak out on issues and to voice opinions that may not necessarily be popular among their members. However, while some communities welcome these pronouncements, others discourage them.
As an old joke goes, a rabbi was once hired for a new position and advised that he could talk about any subject he wanted as long as it wasn’t about politics or religion.
It’s also been said that to be a good rabbi one needs imagination. That is, one needs to imagine that somebody is paying attention to what you have to say. Naturally I’m glad when members listen to my ideas. I am equally gratified when I can learn from them and be guided by them.
These days, in fact, we all have access to the same news and op-ed writers. Rabbis cannot claim some special insight into the affairs of the world. If anything, our specialty is less about understanding the working of society than it is about understanding the working of individuals. Of course, we may make pronouncements on politics if we care to, and our synagogues can host public discussions on the issues, but we serve our members best when we address their concerns—their hopes and fear—as well as our visions and ideals.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer, The City Congregation for Humanist Judaism, New York, NY
The nexus between religion and political life invites us to revisit the roles of priest and prophet in Biblical society and discuss their relevance today. Historically, the Tanach separated civil and religious authorities. In “Priest and Prophet,” Hayim Nachman Bialik describes the prophet as an uncompromising zealot who seldom engages in diplomacy. Moses is not a people pleaser; if Moses had led our ancestors into the Promised Land, he might well have engaged in holy war against the Canaanite nations to fulfill the divine command. Moses’ successor, Joshua, shows a priestly personality when he makes covenants with the surrounding Canaanite nations.
The Hebrew word for prophet, Navi, means “speaker.” Neither seers nor clairvoyants, the prophets spoke out against society’s evils. Not afraid of condemnation or incarceration, they were among the first to stage demonstrations against governmental oppression. Jeremiah wore an ox’s yoke over his shoulders to demonstrate the heavy burden of King Jehoachim’s rule. Prophets also challenged the priesthood when it engaged in practices that negated fundamental principles of religious belief and doctrine.
The roles of priest and prophet should not exclude one another, particularly in this election year. Kadosh translates as both “holy” and “other,” and Martin Buber says, “holiness is otherness.” Therefore, the synagogue would be amiss if it were not involved in presenting dissident political views. The synagogue should maintain its three-fold function as the house of prayer, study and gathering.
Rabbi Harold S. White, Senior Jewish Chaplain, Georgetown University, Washington, DC