A few weeks ago on my podcast God in the Grit, My colleague and I talked about the role of politics in religion. Do they mix? Should they mix?
Our Torah has 613 commandments. Our rabbis divided them into a number of categories, one of the most notable being the distinction between commandments between a person and God, and commandments between a person and another person.
Do not take the Lord's name in vain is an example of a commandment between a person and God. Do not place a stumbling block before the blind is a commandment between a person and another person.
The vast majority of our commandments are in the category of commandments between a person and another person. When a proselyte approached Hillel and asked him to define all of Judaism in one sentence, Hillel said the famous maxim: What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The majority of our 613 commandments bolster Hillel's claim: Judaism cares how each of us treats other people.
This means that Judaism, like other religions, is political. It legislates how we should act toward each other. It teaches economic law, judicial proceedings. It tell us about marital contracts and familial obligations. And most importantly, it instills a set of ideals. Justice, justice you shall pursue. Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Love thy neighbor as yourself.
Religion without politics is just a feel-good, self-help distraction that doesn't challenge us to repair our world, or frankly, ourselves.
Politics is a part of our religion, but partisanship is not.
The Religious Action Center, the RAC, is a part of our Reform Movement, It lobbies congress on hundreds of policies that our movement has voted on at the Biennial Conventions. Carmen Tesser, a member of our Union for Reform Judaism's board, can tell you more about some of these platforms.
A few years ago, I attended the RAC's yearly conference in Washington DC, the Consultation on Conscience. I don't remember the topic of this particular session, but I remember feeling like there was an implicit assumption that all Jews are democrats, and it just didn't sit right with me. At the time, I was a rabbi in Omaha, NE, where there was a diverse spread of political beliefs, similar to our community here at CCI.
The head of the RAC, Rabbi David Saperstein said something I'll never forget. Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with being Republican. Republicans and Democrats alike should feel equally at home in our synagogues and communities. Party affiliation is not a moral choice. But there is something wrong with not caring about the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. That is a moral choice.
While functioning as your rabbi, I will never preach from the pulpit on who to vote for, or conversely, who to vote against. Aside from being illegal, it's also the wrong thing to do.
But at the same time, I have a responsibility, a Jewish responsibility, to be political. I will publicly speak out and condemn things that I find anti-semitic, or racist, or misognyst, or Islamophobic. When I say Never Again as a response to the Holocaust, that resolve means that I will fight for the rights and freedoms of other minorities in addition to those of my Jewish community.
Just as I speak out publicly against the treatment of liberal Jews in Israel, I will speak out against a possible registry of Muslims. Just as Moses spoke truth to power to Pharaoh, I will do the same to protect the rights of same-sex marriages. These are not political issues. They are moral issues. Some may respond: But you are Jewish and they are not Jewish! Well, it is exactly because I am Jewish that I fight for the rights of others.
I know some come to services as a way to get away from the madness and pain of our lives. Yes, services should bring peace and joy. But ultimately, Judaism is not a respite from the world, it is an engagement with the world.
Hillel taught us that Judaism is a politic of righteous action. But he also taught us something else equally important. He taught us to listen to those that disagree. His arguments with Shammai remind us that we should engage with those that think differently from us, as difficult and as sometimes hurtful as that can be.
We have been in our echo-chambers for far too long. It is not just Congress that must reach across the aisle of partisanship. We must! Labels like liberal,alt-right, Hillary supporter, Trump supporter - these quick judgements have taken the place of real discussion and debate. This is something each of us can do something about.
In these days leading up to Thanksgiving, I remain thankful for living in a country where diverse faiths, opinions, and political beliefs are founding principles. This Thanksgiving, as we gather with friends and family, in addition to delicious turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie, let us remember one more political statement from Hillel:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?