A Memorable Conference Call

There has been some discussion in the blogosphere about our annual pre-High Holy Days conference call for rabbis, held last week addressing health care reform and sponsored by the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbinic organizations (as well as the Union for Reform Judaism).

These calls typically address liturgical, theological, Jewish communal, or social justice topics of concern to our congregants and rabbis. When we address a social justice issue or public policy issue, we invite policy experts, scholars of Jewish history, tradition, law or theology, and leading preachers to offer perspectives. This year, believing that health care is an issue of such crucial concern and implication to our nation, our community and our congregants – and believing that rabbis would likely be preaching on this topic sometime in the near future, either on the High Holy Days or at some other occasion – we devoted this year’s social justice call to that issue. We invited President Obama to address the underlying moral issues in the health care policy debates and were honored that he accepted. The response of a record-breaking nearly 1,000 rabbis from every stream of Jewish life to hear the President and Jewish scholars on health care reform testifies to the correctness of our judgment as to the interest in this topic and the desire to hear the President address the key moral issues at stake.

The feedback to this call was overwhelmingly positive. However, a small, vocal minority of commentators have been sharply critical of the call and what the President said. Let us set the record straight about this call’s purpose and address various falsehoods about its content.

The President’s comments and a subsequent question-and-answer session were about 17 minutes of a one-hour call, the bulk of which was devoted to presentations from three rabbis exploring Jewish teachings on health care. Some critics have expressed concern that the President’s presence on a call for clergy is inherently partisan, thereby politicizing the High Holy Days. Yet none of the speakers addressed the partisan divide or politics. All, including the President, addressed the underlying moral issues from a variety of perspectives. But some, I suspect are critical of any discussion on such issues as being “political,” defining anything political as being outside the religious concerns of the Jewish community and/or the concerns Jews have on the High Holy Days. At the root of many of these criticisms is the question of whether we, as Jews, should engage in social justice advocacy work in the first place. To us, the answer is all but self-evident. One cannot take seriously God’s call to us to be a light to and of the nations, God’s call to care for the poor and the vulnerable, nor God’s call for us to assess during the High Holiday period how we, as individuals and as a people, might do better without assessing how we have done in addressing the great moral issues of our day. Doing God’s work in making a better, more just, more compassionate world for all – including the poor, the weak, the sick, the children, the elderly, the widow and the orphan – has been a profoundly religious obligation for the Jewish people for 3,000 years. This is a view shared by all streams of the Jewish community, but for a Reform Jewish approach to this issue, I encourage you to read Rabbi Marla Feldman’s “Why Advocacy is Central to Reform Judaism.”

As is always the case with our annual High Holy Days calls, this call was meant to be off the record, exclusively for rabbis. Regrettably, a few critics drew from the limited “tweets” on rabbis’ personal Twitter accounts. Case in point is Tevi Troy’s column “Who Shall Live?” (National Review Online, Aug. 20). I admire Mr. Troy greatly and appreciate his exemplary public service in the Bush administration, which made my disappointment even greater that his story is rife with factual errors that might have been avoided had he contacted me, any of the call’s organizers, or any one of the 1,000 rabbis on it. President Obama generously accepted an invitation to address the moral issues underlying the health care reform crisis our nation faces – that fact alone clarifies both the context and content of his remarks. Each of the factual errors reported about the call is minor, but in the aggregate they reflect an antagonism toward the President that seems unrelated to the issues we face collectively, both as Jews and as Americans.

First, we invited the President to speak on the call; he did not, as has been suggested, seek out an audience of clergy to recruit as supporters of his health care plan. He did, however, accept our invitation out of an understanding of the importance of the faith community’s voice in raising the moral issues at stake in the health care reform debate, the fact that millions of those in our pews are affected by the dysfunctionality of our current system and that the religious community is overstrained in filling the gaps left by our current system.

Second, the call itself was a “listen-only” conference, so a discussion about Mary Robinson and Middle East peace issues that Mr. Troy inferred to have taken place as participants waited for the call to begin did not and could not have occurred. The rabbis who tweeted referred, instead, to “off-line” conversations between a few rabbinic friends.

Third, Mr. Troy bewilderingly disparaged the President for wishing listeners a “shana tova,” or a good new year, suggesting it would have only been appropriate to have referenced the reflective spirit of the month of Elul. In fact, the President did exactly that! He referenced the month of Elul preceding Rosh Hashanah as being set aside for spiritual reflection and seeing that as an appropriate model for our nation this month, as we grapple with our personal and collective responsibilities in ensuring that the 47 million currently uninsured Americans (totaling more than 80 million who will go without insurance at some point this year) and the additional 30 million underinsured have access to quality health care. The notion that it was inappropriate for the President, in his closing words on a call in preparation for the High Holy Days, to wish 1,000 rabbis his best wishes for a good New Year (especially when he likely knew that he wasn’t going to speak directly to these rabbis again before the holidays) seems more reflective of critics’ antipathy toward the President than the sensibilities shared by American Jewry.

Finally, Mr. Troy offered a confusing criticism of the President’s quoting from the U’netana Tokef prayer, a central liturgical prayer of the High Holy Days. Again, the President used it authentically and effectively, correctly noting that during these holidays and in this prayer, Jews acknowledge that, in matters of life and death, God is the ultimate judge. Yet the President noted that Jewish tradition teaches we are God’s partners in preserving life and delaying death. Indeed, the commandment of pekuach nefesh, that we not only can but must violate any other law (save three – murder, idolatry and sexual crimes) in order to preserve life, is as central a concept in Jewish law and values as one can find. Ensuring health care to all is one way of fulfilling that mandate to preserve life. The bottom line is that the President spoke in strong moral terms, referencing Jewish themes and ideas in a manner that showed deep knowledge, respect, interest and understanding of our tradition and our values. It was a moving experience for me – and I suspect for almost every rabbi on the call.

We all await the details of the proposed health care reform, and I am confident that once they are presented, a better quality of debate will take place than the few who have criticized this call. In the meantime, when my colleagues choose to teach or preach on this urgent moral challenge facing our nation during the High Holidays (or any other time they choose), they will be living up to the demands of our prophetic tradition by enriching the moral discourse in our country, and they will, in turn, find their own thinking on these issues greatly deepened by the remarks of the President and the Jewish scholars who addressed us on this memorable conference call.

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Rabbi David Saperstein

About Rabbi David Saperstein

Rabbi David Saperstein for 40 years served as the Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He was selected by Newsweek magazine in 2009 as the most influential rabbi in the country and described in a Washington Post profile as the "quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill.” He is now the Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.

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