Every issue, we contact a group of rabbis—from across the denominational spectrum—and ask them all the same question. Over the years, our team of rabbis has weighed in on everything from forgiveness to parenting to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Amy Schwartz, Moment’s opinion editor, has been running our “Ask the Rabbis” feature for four years. With the High Holidays on the horizon—and with the current political climate in mind—we asked her to reflect on some of her favorite pieces of rabbinical wisdom.
What should we be thinking about this holiday season?
We’re going to spend a lot of time sitting in rooms full of prayer, and we’ll have a lot of opportunities to think. I feel like it’s useful at this time of year to look at the different things the rabbis have argued about in Moment. Rabbis always argue with each other, but they also argue very interestingly in our “Ask the Rabbis” feature.
We’ve asked them, in different ways over the years: What is the one sin for which the Jewish community should atone? (September/October 2011). And my favorite, the great Yitz Greenberg, said: The worst possible sin is to impute a single sin to a community that they should atone for. I think the rabbis have returned to a theme over and over again, which is: We should look at the way we’re inclined to try to cut each other out of the debate. Parts of the community are always trying to disenfranchise other parts of the community and say, “You can’t say that,” or, “You can’t belong to this group because it listens to this other group,” or, “We can’t ally with these people because they once gave money to someone who said this.” That’s always a danger—and it sometimes seems like it’s getting worse.
We’ve had a lot of “Ask the Rabbis” questions about, for instance: How can we balance our political views with our need for civility in our communities? (March/April 2017). When the Trump family came to Washington, we had a lot of discussion about that. And there’s no one answer on any of these questions. Sometimes it’s more important to be civil; sometimes it’s more important to stand for your political views.
How do rabbis—and how should rabbis—approach politics during the High Holidays?
Rabbis, being human beings, have lots of political views. In general, I have heard rabbis say (September/October 2008) that they don’t want to tell their communities what to think from the bima—because, among other reasons, in theory you lose your tax-deduction status if you talk candidate politics from the bima. So you’re not actually allowed to endorse candidates in an election season from the bima if you’re a rabbi.
But they also say their beliefs about politics are part of who they are. That’s true of all of us. You can’t hide entirely what you think, nor should you. And politics can be a framework for your moral choices. We have asked a lot of questions like: What does Judaism say about immigration? (August/September 2007). What does it mean to be pro-Israel today? (January/February 2012). That’s a question rabbis often don’t want to address from the bima. In the magazine, we asked this question last in 2012. I would have thought, looking back, that things were much milder then, but when I looked at what they actually said, their responses sounded very much like today. People were saying that to be pro-Israel is not necessarily to not criticize Israel, but it’s to stay within a certain framework. We asked whether rabbis should talk about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to their congregations (September/October 2015), and pretty much all of the rabbis, across our whole spectrum, said, “Yes, absolutely, talk about it.” They didn’t agree on what to say, but they all thought it should be mentioned—maybe because it transcended politics in their minds.
With the current political climate in mind, what are some of your favorite “Ask the Rabbis” questions to look back on?
I thought one of the most revealing “Ask the Rabbis” we did, about a year ago, was: What should Jews know about the Muslim faith? (May/June 2017). I found it interesting because even rabbis who thought we should reach out to our Muslim neighbors often didn’t know a whole lot about them. And even those who felt the need to know more were still at the very beginning of that path. I think something very interesting and important that we can always do, separate from our views on politics, is just to learn more.
We asked a question, after much agonizing over how to word it, that tried to get at whether Jews should proselytize or argue with other Jews who have chosen different paths within Judaism (March/April 2016). I was heartened to see how much discomfort there was at the idea of Jews judging other Jews’ choices. You’d never know it, reading the internet, reading comment threads on stories that are posted on Facebook from major Jewish publications. You wouldn’t know that anyone had any problem with judging other Jews’ paths. But it’s nice to see that our rabbis feel we should be careful about that. Many of them have mentioned something that’s a favorite teaching of mine, which is that the Second Temple fell because of sinat chinam, which is causeless hatred among Jews. That’s something a lot of our rabbis have mentioned, at different times and in different contexts—and it’s a helpful thing to think about on the High Holidays.