Politics on the Bimah
“Keep the politics off the bimah.” We hear this in the synagogue whenever a rabbi speaks on a topic nearing the intersection of Jewish values and public policy. While argued most vociferously by those who disagree with the rabbi’s message, the critique itself that “politics has no place on the bimah” is a decidedly false characterization of the essence of Judaism and Jewish textual tradition. (Note: I am not speaking about endorsing a candidate for public office.)
Judaism speaks to every issue
Judaism has something to say (often multiple opinions) about any issue. The talmudic rabbis argued about everything — from commerce and capital punishment to property rights and personal behavior, to abortion, contraception and homosexuality. They took on poverty and hunger, distribution of wealth and health care.
From our earliest incarnation as the faith of Abraham, our tradition has spoken truth to power. Who can forget Abraham preaching at God when the Holy One seemed to want to act wholly unjustly toward Sodom and Gomorrah? Later, as we became the Children of Israel, we accepted a legal tradition that set ethical standards for every aspect of our lives. Jewish tradition could not contemplate a separation between the personal and the public.
So when critics — Jews and non-Jews alike — argue that rabbis should be silent on matters of public policy, they are defying the essence of religion from the time of Moses and before. When complainers cry “politics” every time the rabbi speaks out against the status quo, they forget that we Jews have always been the agents for ethical living.
Moses, the ethical agitator
As Moses stumbled upon a bush that burned unconsumed, the character of the Jew was forever stamped in our souls. Out there in the wilderness, the personal became political. When Moses returned to Egypt to convey God’s message to Pharaoh to “let My people go,” he ensured that Jewish leaders would speak truth to power for generations to come. The life conditions of people — as individuals and a community — became a central concern of Jewish rabbinic leadership.
Who was Moses? Rambam characterized him as a rationalist religious thinker. Chasidic rebbes saw him as the ultimate tzadik (righteous person). There are those in every age who want to remake Moses in their image. But to reduce Moses’ influence to intellectuality or spirituality is to do revisionist history. Moses wasn’t content merely ministering to the broken souls of his people; he spoke out for a community oppressed. Moses wasn’t just a pastoral leader; he was an agitator, working for the freedom of his people.
So let’s stop trying to cleanse from Moses’ story — our story — the very essence of his leadership. Moses was a kind of visionary prophet. Like the prophet Nathan, who called King David on his unethical behavior, and Queen Esther, who went toe-to-toe with Haman, Moses saw reason for hope, and with deep faith spoke out against injustice.
This Passover, be Moses
To properly observe the Pesach seder, one must retell the story of the Exodus. One must recall a time when people were oppressed, and when Moses heard the call of the Divine and stood up to Pharaoh’s oppression. Passover is about bitterness sweetened and salty tears refreshed.
It is no accident that the Exodus features prominently in all movements for freedom and equality, from the anti-apartheid movement to the anti-slavery movement, from women’s suffrage to the American civil rights movement, to freedom for Soviet Jewry. The Exodus narrative, while profoundly spiritual and dripping with mystical insights, is at its root the story of injustice confronted.
Of course, to tell the story is to reimagine ourselves simultaneously as slaves moving toward freedom and also as Moses leading them there. Passover declares that inequities and injustices must be confronted and corrected.
Hear the call of the seder
So, next time your rabbi speaks up about public policy and Judaism — on economic justice or health care reform, marriage equality or Israel’s responsibility to work diligently for peace, our concern for the environment or our differing notions about when life begins — she is walking in the footsteps of Moses and Abraham, of Esther and the Nathan. Your rabbi is listening closely to the call of the seder, to stand up for the downtrodden and to cry out for the oppressed.
Hearing this call is often uncomfortable. But Passover is not about feeling good; it is about being ethical. Not about consuming good food, but feeding our hunger for righteousness. Pesach calls us to critique our world, our country, our homeland and our community. It pushes us to imagine a better way. It goads us to remake the world as it could be, as it should be.
So make your Passover meaningful. Hear the call to justice. And demand our leaders help bring it to fruition.