Sunday, March 12, 2017

Politics and Religion

 From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

A Message From Our President

Dr. Lance Strate

Politics and Religion

It used to be said that you should never talk about religion or politics, at least not in polite society, or mixed company. And maybe many still consider it rude to do so. Of course, these are topics that were never entirely taboo, but rather reserved for private conversation among intimate associates, confederates, that is to say, like-minded individuals.

Of course, within the confines of our houses of worship, congregants have no compunctions about engaging in conversation on the topic of religion. As Rabbi Schwartz has so eloquently explained, discussion and debate for the sake of heaven is central to the Jewish tradition. And anyone familiar with Jewish culture would find it hard to imagine us refraining from voicing opinions on matters of mutual concern.

But the rule regarding politics is another matter entirely. Members of our shul who share the same religious heritage may differ significantly in their political views, and the clergy and temple leadership generally try to respect those differences. We do not want the temporal issues that may divide us to overshadow the essential, ancient, spiritual relationships that bind us together with one another.

At the same time, as a religion, we are asked to adhere to a set of moral and ethical standards, and to speak out when they are violated. Leviticus (19:16) famously admonishes us, "do not stand idly by while your neighbor's blood is shed." And our tradition also includes the Kabbalistic notion of tikkun olam, the repair or healing of the world, as our central obligation. This is a precept that has become central for the Reform movement that we are a part of (a movement that is sometimes also referred to as Liberal or Progressive Judaism).

And we well recall the words of Hillel, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?" We recognize that Hillel's three sayings represent a call to stand up for ourselves and our principles, to seek justice and compassion for others, and as a call to action.

Last year, one of our Trustees, Norman Rosen, voiced his concern over the way that the Israeli government has handled egalitarian worship at the Kotel, the Western Wall, which represents the holiest site in Judaism. This is a longstanding controversy, and the Reform movement has been especially supportive of and involved in the Women of the Wall movement. The Knesset approved a compromise regarding the site, which has been under Orthodox control, but the Israeli government has failed to enforce the compromise.

Norm was deeply disturbed by what he had witnessed firsthand at the Wall, and asked the Board of Trustees to send a message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Following in-depth discussion by the board members and clergy, the proposal was approved, a letter was drafted, signed by the vast majority of the board, and delivered to the Prime Minister's office. [Editor's note: See out previous post,
Our Letter to Netanyahu.] No reply has been forthcoming so far, long delays are commonplace, but the Jewish Standard will be publishing an article based on Norm's experiences that led to this effort.

Equal rights for women is, of course, a political issue, as is Israel's governmental policy regarding administration of the Temple mount. But the subject of our letter is also a religious issue, and the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism have long been fighting for official recognition by the Israeli government, for example in regard to marriage, conversion, etc., and egalitarian worship at the Wall is another issue that directly concerns our standing and legitimacy in the Jewish state. In this instance, we are standing up for ourselves as much as for others. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

At our February board meeting, Rabbi Schwartz brought to the board a resolution crafted by Leonia's interfaith clergy in response to Donald Trump's January 27th executive order that barred people from 7 Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, and stopped all refugee admissions. In addition to criticizing the ban, the resolution asks the Borough of Leonia's Council to designate Leonia as a sanctuary city. Just as his colleagues were doing with their own church leaders, our rabbi asked the board if we would sign onto the resolution on behalf of our congregation.

An in-depth discussion of the legal and moral considerations ensued, followed by a vote in which the rabbi's request was approved by a supermajority of over ¾ of the board members present. This was a rare instance in which the board was asked to take a stand on a political issue, and most felt that the actions of the government were so extreme as to merit making a statement, even if it is only symbolic. If I am only for myself, who am I?

One of the questions that came up in our discussions was whether getting involved in any kind of political issue would endanger our 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. Here is the explanation that board member Michael Fishbein provided: "The activity that could jeopardize tax exemption is essentially taking sides against or in favor of a particular candidate during an election. Commenting on social issues or issues of human freedom is not barred. So, for example we could advocate in favor of gay marriage, just as another religious organization can advocate against gay marriage. However, we cannot endorse a particular candidate because he or she is pro gay marriage."

Personally, I usually favor having our congregation avoid political controversies, whether it has to do with Israel or the US. What makes any given topic an issue is the fact that there are pros and cons, reasons for and against. Not everything is an issue for that reason. No one is really pro-illness for example, or pro-poverty. But there are reasons why some favor apply Orthodox strictures to the Kotel, and a strict ban on immigration to the US.

But there are times when it is difficult to stand idly by, and I believe that these two instances are exceptions to the rule about not speaking out when it comes to politics and the polite company of our congregation. They are two instances in which the board felt it important to stand up for ourselves, to stand up for others, and to take action and make a statement. If not now, when?

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