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Dear Rabbis: Please Talk Politics During the High Holidays

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Dear Rabbis (or other communal leaders prepping for the High Holidays),

I’m a devoted consumer of your sermons. I can still recall poignant sermons from my childhood and can even recite the poetic high points of remarks from recent years.

This year, as you’re mulling over topics for your High Holy Day addresses, I have a request:

Please talk politics.

I understand the typical view that it is better for rabbis to speak to higher values than to take sides in the rough-and-tumble over political issues. But as we all know, this is no ordinary time.

I believe this is the reason you became rabbis: To teach the community in unsettling times. To stand up for truth when others twist facts like pretzels. To demand that those in power denounce and defeat the ugliness of neo-Nazism and racial prejudice. To speak out when a leader denigrates the disabled and degrades women.

To issue a clarion call when nutritional assistance for the downtrodden and health care for the most vulnerable are imperiled. To cry out when, in contravention of every message in our Torah, political leaders insist that we not welcome the stranger, that we not care for the less fortunate, that we not treat others as we want to be treated.

I trust that many, if not all, of you will be talking politics this year, but just in case any of you are on the fence, the rest of this discussion is respectfully directed to you. Please allow me, as a congregant, to let you know what it feels like from the pews, where we’re hungering for moral leadership.

Like it or not, the phenomenon of twice-yearly service attendance is not changing soon—so this is your opportunity.

After you warm us up with stirring tunes and responsive readings, after we kiss our prayer books and reach for the Torah, after you breathe life anew into the age-old Torah portions, don’t stop there.

Many of us are eagerly anticipating your sermon, the one we know you are going to give—because how could you not?

As a past president of a large congregation, I realize that internal politics sometimes clash with external politics. Maybe you don’t want to risk offending congregants on the opposite side of the political aisle, especially if they’re generous donors.

Indeed, those few congregants who support the current brand of politics in the United States may at this very moment be putting in their own request, to ask you not to speak about politics.

But if congregants ask you not to speak about a particular topic, that is probably the very topic you should be speaking about.

Maybe you justify the choice not to sermonize about the elephant in the room by saying that it is not necessary because you’ll be preaching to the proverbial choir of like-minded congregants. To that I say, go ahead, preach to the choir—just in case we need some backup, and just in case those with a different perspective listen to you.

Or perhaps you are concerned about rules regarding the synagogue’s nonprofit status. No problem—talk Jewish precepts. You don’t have to mention political leaders and parties by name—we’ll know what you mean. The players are fleeting; the values are enduring, l’dor va’dor (from generation to generation).

In an era of moral absenteeism, shining an ethical light is Judaism’s forte. It’s what we do best.

I applaud those of you who have formed social justice committees and eloquently opposed hatred and discrimination on behalf of the congregation. Those are among the many reasons we are proud to be your congregants. I am sure you spoke with passion recently when bigotry hit close to home, when neo-Nazis came out from under their rock in Charlottesville. But while it was essential to condemn those abhorrent commissions and shocking omissions in August, the message must also be heard during the all-important September sermons.

I’m asking you to take the next vital step to the High Holy Day pulpit.

There’s plenty of Jewish wisdom to be mined. The song To Life from Fiddler on the Roof says it best, of course: “Our great men have written words of wisdom to be used when hardship must be faced; life obliges us with hardship so the words of wisdom shouldn’t go to waste.”

What does our treasury tell us about welcoming refugees? “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt…” How about supporting the disabled? “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind.” Feeding the poor? “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

Likewise for climate change, racism, sexism, homophobia, suppression of our freedoms of speech and the press, and more. You may not have time to fire us up on every one of these topics, but as Pirkei Avot says, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Our sages have provided us with quotations so famous you almost don’t need to say them. But say them. Remind us that the prophet Micah said, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

Risk the obvious by quoting Hillel’s celebrated “If not now, when?” And just for good measure, toss in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These examples barely scratch the surface of our storehouse of punch-packing quotes.

This year when I attend High Holy Day services, I’m craving a sermon that’s relevant.

Relevant to the tweets we scroll through multiple times a day, relevant to the headlines, relevant to the injustices across our nation. Broadcast journalists are talking politics around the clock; print reporters are investigating the facts and exposing the fiction; comedians are bringing their wit to bear on today’s world; everyday citizens are organizing and raising their voices like never before.

So how about you?

Please do not remain on the sidelines as we usher in 5778. Like so many of your colleagues are doing, strengthen us, embolden us, inspire us!

Todah rabah,

Jan Zauzmer

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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