This past week a group of 300 rabbis formally announced their intention “to support Senator Obama for President.” The formation of “Rabbis for Obama” strikes me as very good for the Democratic ticket. But not so good for Jews or, more precisely, Judaism.
As for Obama: This initiative makes perfect sense. It plays to one of his greatest strengths (and McCain’s weaknesses): his ability to “connect” with a wide variety of communities of faith.
This talent was on display this week in a conference call with no less than 900 rabbis. Well prepped by his handlers and getting into the seasonal spirit, Obama declaimed: “I know that the Shofar [a Ram's horn] is going to be blown in your synagogues over Rosh Hashanah and there are many interpretations of its significance. One that I have heard that resonates with me is rousing us from our slumber so that we recognize our responsibilities and repent for our misdeeds and set out on a better path.”
That’s vintage Obama–a virtuoso of Faith and Values politicking. He knows a little about the Shofar. He is theologically informed enough to know there is no one definitive reading of its significance. He also knows how to deploy that most good-will inducing of ecumenical pronouns: “our” (as in, “our slumber,” “our responsibilities,” “our misdeeds”).
And he probably knows something else. Namely, that maintaining amiable relations with Jewish constituencies and vowing to keep Israel safe and secure is as much a message directed to Jews as it is to Evangelicals (who are 12 times their size).
As for the Rabbis: But what is good for a politician is not necessarily good for a religious group (nor the nation in which it resides).
To begin with, the letter of support on the “Rabbis for Obama” website is puzzlingly bereft of any reference to classical Jewish texts. In constructing their case for the Senator from Illinois the signatories make passing reference to the notion of tikkun olam (i.e., the repairing of a broken world). Yet they fail to invoke in any substantive manner the Hebrew Bible, Mishna, Gemara, Midrash, Responsa literature, and so forth.
I am a secular Jew. I am a secular Jew who views the aforementioned sources as instructive, valuable, worthy of my study and respect but, ultimately, not determinative of my worldview. I don’t, however, think it’s logical or appropriate for a couple of hundred Rabbis representing Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox denominations to reason as if they were secular Jews. I would have preferred (and expected) to see the signers–who are a learned lot, I assure you–grounding their endorsement somewhere in the vast universe of Jewish knowledge.
They could have, for example, made the case that Halakah or Jewish law does not mesh well with the idea that “life begins at conception.” Nor do ancient Jewish sources seem to privilege the safety of the fetus over that of the mother. Of course, a counter-argument can and has been made by pro-Life Jews. The latter could find support for McCain’s anti-abortion policies among the 2.5 million words of the Babylonian Talmud. Heck, they could find support for Ron Paul’s policies in the Babylonian Talmud!
In any case, there is a world of difference between clergy supporting a candidate and clergy supporting a policy. Perhaps the rabbis should have pointed solely to issues that concern them and correlated these issues to arguments in the ongoing debate that is (or should be) the Jewish intellectual tradition. Their hearers could then draw their own conclusions about what to do November 4th.
Even here I would urge caution. For the Jewish intellectual tradition famously evinces a deep suspicion regarding political engagement. At the beginning of the Pirkei Avot tractate of the Mishna we come across the well known adage “Love work. Hate authority. Don’t get friendly with the government.” Shortly thereafter we read: “Be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their own needs. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person at the time of his distress.”
Alternative readings about the merits of political action can certainly be gleaned from the capacious rabbinic corpus (The Ron Paul Principle of the Talmudic Interpretation, again). Yet well-known lines such as these may account for the typical reluctance of the rabbinate to engage in ventures such as “Rabbis for Obama.” Insofar as American Jews overwhelmingly favor separation of Church and State, this initiative marks a sharp break from existing views held by both clergy and laity.
To their credit the rabbis did not affix the names of their congregations to their signatures. They thus tried to speak as individuals, not communal leaders. I appreciate this gesture, but I think it does little to mitigate the politicization of their pulpits that their now public support for Obama will inevitably entail.
By Jacques Berlinerblau |
September 18, 2008; 6:02 PM ET
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