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Politics From The Pulpit: Speaking Publicly About Repairing The World Together

This year our synagogue is raising up the value of Tikkun Olam – our responsibility to take action to repair the world. If we take seriously our responsibility to repair the brokenness of the world, we have to look at problems that are too big for us to resolve on our own. For example, no matter how much we recycle or conserve energy as individuals, global warming requires systemic responses including governing bodies and cultural change. Likewise, our individual efforts to address challenges in education or global hunger, although important, are insufficient to make the kinds of changes necessary to create broad-based equity in education or to eliminate starvation.

The mitzvot: the commandment to take action – spiritual as well as ethical action –  rest at the center of Jewish practice. The Torah and later the Rabbis command that we build systems to meet the needs of the least powerful: the poor, immigrants, and even the criminally accused. These mitzvot are understood to be obligatory on us as community, not just as individuals. The need to act as a community is not abstract. Maimonides says that if you live in a community that does not allow for ethical communal action, you should move (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 6:1).  As Reconstructionists we do not automatically understand every commandment as binding, but we hold onto the idea that they must be wrestled with communally. We have an obligation that must be figured out together to move the world closer toward salvation.

When we take seriously our obligation to act communally to address injustices and suffering in our world we inevitably bump into the public – some would say the political — arena. This is a good thing. Our Judaism should not be contained by the walls of the synagogue. Just as Mordecai Kaplan was inspired by the Women’s Suffrage Movement to perform the first Bat Mitzvah; Torah and prayer should inspire us to address the issues of our day. A number of tensions inevitably come to the surface as we try to address such challenges.

The first tension is that many of us engage in Jewish life to find respite from our problems and the problems of the world. Shabbat (and Shabbat services) are meant to be a taste of the world to come. The rituals and services in which we participate together provide the spiritual practice that we need in our lives, and create space for healing and renewal. This spiritual need to be embraced by compassionate community is itself a part of repairing our world. I believe that when we heal ourselves we are more able to bring compassion, care, and thoughtfulness into our interactions with others. We are rejuvenated and take action more mindfully.

Though we need synagogue as a place for spiritual healing, we are from many standpoints some of the luckiest people of all times. We are living in one of the healthiest, wealthiest periods of abundance in the history of humanity. We have a level of security unfathomable 100 years ago and still non-existent for billions of people. With this security comes the responsibility to address the suffering of others. The suffering we experience in our own lives will never be fully addressed. There will always be a need to lick our wounds, to increase our wisdom and better ourselves as individuals. Our responsibility to address the suffering of others cannot wait until we are fully healed, but must be addressed simultaneously and is in fact a necessary step in our own spiritual practice and healing.

When we study Torah, engage in prayer, and rest on Shabbat it is meant to be provocative. It is meant to help us do teshuva – change. Our practice of Judaism makes demands on us that are not always comfortable. On Yom Kippur Isaiah reminds us that even our fast, which is supposed to make us uncomfortable, can become a kind of idol worship if we forget it is meant to compel us to stop unethical behavior. Yom Kippur is meant from start to finish to agitate and create discomfort with the status quo of our lives and our society, but Jewish practice often seeks to provoke us beyond our comfort level.

Our tradition demands that we take responsibility for the ways we contribute to problems in the world and for our failures to act in response to these problems. In synagogue, we can allow Torah to speak to our outside lives by asking big questions like: How might we change our personal behavior to move the world closer to repair —to move our actions more in line with our beliefs? What might we be able to do or need to do as a community, that we cannot do alone?  How as individuals and as a synagogue can we inspire or move the larger communities we are a part of to act differently?

Addressing the pain, inequalities, and injustices of our world is not easy. Even when we can agree on the problem, intelligent caring people still disagree – sometimes dramatically — on the solutions. It is my belief that synagogue should be a place where we can safely be provoked. It should be a place we come to as we search for a foundation for our actions. We should ask each other to be partners in figuring out together what our Judaism asks of us and what we might do together to make this a more holy world. If we succeed, disagreements will surface.

Below are some of my thoughts about how we might best engage each other. For the most part these guidelines are the same for individual conversations, group discussion, or when speaking to the congregation as a whole during a devar Torah or other opportunity. That said, when we speak from the pulpit or Torah reading table there is a greater chance we will be understood to represent the synagogue and be speaking to individuals who are present for many reasons. At Bnai Keshet the real power of the pulpit is that we get to speak to regulars, yartzeit commemorators, Bnai Mitzvah families, or potential members who would not otherwise show up for a lecture. We get to speak during Jewish prime time to a congregation that is truly diverse and not necessarily like-minded. At these moments it is wise to be particularly thoughtful about how we agitate one another so that we avoid simply irritating each other.

Guidelines for Political & Ethical Agitation in Synagogue

1. The New York Times Test

We are a very bright, well read, and thoughtful community. Our comments to one another should assume that the reasons we disagree politically are about more than lack of information. Whenever I touch on something that might be perceived as political, I try to keep in mind that for the most part I am speaking to people who have access to the same news sources and editorials that I have. I assume they are well informed and in some cases better informed than I am, depending on the issue. Our differences usually lie in the conclusions we reach from what we read – not what we read.

2. Bring Something New

With the above in mind, we should ask ourselves what we can bring to the conversation that is new. This might be our take on how to apply what our tradition teaches to the issues we face as a community. Or perhaps we can share our personal struggles and efforts to address a problem or to figure out what is right. Our own experiences and efforts are indeed valuable Torah worth sharing. Sometimes we can gather and share facts and research at a depth that goes beyond casually following the news. When we share this kind of information we are doing each other a favor in a busy world where we often don’t or can’t make enough time to fully inform ourselves about a given issue. Such information sharing, however, should be used to broaden conversation and allow for more engaged participation, not to enforce a particular point of view. We should trust each other to develop our own opinions from thoughtful teaching.

3. Teach for Transformation

Ask yourself: Am I framing my thoughts in a way that makes it possible to transform someone’s thinking? This is why we give divrey Torah, devarlettes, etc. after all. This is why we study together, teach each other, and discuss hard issues. We want to be transformed, to understand issues more deeply, to change or expand or broaden our thinking. This is especially true when it comes to action. We often agree on the problems but are unsure what actions to take in response. Having provocative conversations will help us know how to respond when we feel commanded to act.

4. Don’t Flatter Yourself

Often when we think we are sharing a powerful prophetic message we are simply grandstanding. Making a radical political statement that does little more than affirm our willingness to say something provocative is a waste of speech. Any issue worth addressing probably includes our own culpability. Ask, am I expressing an important truth or just affirming my own beliefs? How are my comments opening up the opportunity for shared action?

5. Be Aware of the Connection Between the Partisan and the Personal

When we address issues that are likely to be perceived as partisan we should be aware that ideas often are bound up with our sense of self. Our political affiliations as Democrats, Republicans, Independents (Socialists, Libertarians, Anarchists, etc.) are tied strongly to our sense of self. Therefore, when we speak in explicitly partisan terms, or when our speech is likely to be perceived as explicitly partisan, we risk unintentionally challenging each other’s identities.

Partisan language tends to polarize rather than transform. It tends to suggest that there are simple black and white solutions to gray problems. Partisan language also tends to let one party or group off the hook, when in most cases there is broad culpability. It is also often about affirming our own identity and beliefs (see #4).

That said, we sometimes need to have conversations that might strike some as partisan. When I first brought up my commitment to Gay rights at Bnai Keshet there were a few folks who felt it was wrong to push a political position like this. That we are both an LGBT and straight welcoming community is now affirmed in our core values statement. It is also true that sometimes our tradition makes demands on us – about issues like the death penalty or how to treat workers or our responsibilities to immigrants — that some may perceive as partisan. Finally, there are times when we need to name particular politicians, parties, political groups, governments, or administrations if we are to honestly address our relationship to their rhetoric and policies. We should be thoughtful about how we address potentially partisan issues, but we cannot be afraid to address them.

6. Use “I” Liberally, “We” Sparingly, and Avoid “You”

We are responsible for the way we frame our ideas and interpretations. Using the word “I” helps keep us accountable for these ideas. Using “we” – even when the intent is to affirm our community’s positive attributes — risks alienating those who do not feel included in “we.” “We all care about our dogs,” for example, is heard differently by those who don’t have dogs. The word “you” is a red flag, warning us that we are slipping into a language of blame and judgment. We should strive to frame our words so that someone who disagrees with us is willing to continue the conversation when we finish speaking.

7. Minority Matters

We should remember that the popularity of a view is not a reliable test of its justness. We do ourselves a favor when we create forums that raise up minority opinions; we expose ourselves to challenging ideas and allow ourselves to think more deeply about our most important beliefs. We affirm our own willingness to change and to seek truth. Our conversations should seek to broaden and diversify as well as clarify and sharpen our thinking.

8. Be Compassionate

Change is hard. Speaking about our most deeply held beliefs makes us feel vulnerable. Facing the problems in the world that need repair is painful. We resist accepting culpability or taking responsibility. Even when we try to engage each other respectfully we will get this wrong! We will say something too strongly or without fully realizing how someone who thinks differently than we do might hear it. In our desire to share our own beliefs we inevitably will end up questioning someone else’s beliefs, even though we don’t mean to. Both as speakers and listeners we should assume good intentions and do our best to give each other’s imperfect efforts the benefit of the doubt. If we have been hurt by someone’s comments we should assume they intended to speak respectfully. If our comments have hurt, we should be eager to listen and be concerned with the feelings of those we have injured, however unintentionally.

Communal Action is Not Dependent on Consensus

Baruch she’amar in our morning liturgy affirms that words should lead to action. “Blessed is the one who spoke and all things came to be. Blessed is the one who makes creation. Blessed is the one who speaks and acts!” At some point we have to decide, “What are we going to do?”  If we are serious about integrating Judaism into our lives, it will require us to take action in the public sphere. If we are sincere about addressing the root causes of suffering in the world we will need to work together.  It is unlikely that brave action will be supported unanimously.

There is a famous argument between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai that went on for three years with each side arguing, “The law is in accordance with our view.” Then a bat kol, a voice from heaven, said, “Elu velu divrey Elohim Chayim – These and those are the words of a living God, but the law is in agreement with the ruling of Bet Hillel.” As Jews, we have great debates about how to live righteously, but sooner or later we have to stop talking and start doing. Rarely is there a voice from heaven to help. Sometimes we must act as a community even when we are not in perfect agreement. Our tradition has typically followed the majority while working to preserve the opinions of the minority, sometimes assuming that they will reflect the practices needed in a time to come or in a more perfect world.

The Talmud asks, after this debate between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai is resolved, “If both rulings were the words of a living God why did the heavenly voice affirm Bet Hillel?” and then answers, “They were kind and modest, studying both their own rulings as well as Bet Shammais.” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b). Yes we should act even when we are not certain our actions are correct or that we are in perfect agreement as a community. It is indeed a rare moment that both demands justice and elicits consensus. But especially when we are with the majority we should act with humble awareness that we may be wrong and that the words of others are also the words of a living God.

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