Ask the Rabbis | Does Politics Belong on the Bima?

By | May 08, 2012


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

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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