I don't blame Obama for staying in his church

By Miriam Shaviv, April 3, 2008

Many of us have heard controversial comments from our rabbis — and stayed put, too

Although Barack Obama seems to have risen above the fiasco surrounding the anti-American, antisemitic, anti-white comments of his pastor, opening up a double-digit lead over Hillary Clinton this week, we haven’t heard the last of Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Twenty-eight per cent of Clinton’s supporters have said they plan to vote McCain if Obama secures the Democratic nomination, and Republicans, sensing that Obama’s relationship with Wright is a significant weakness, have already promised to revisit Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Among Jewish Democrats, a Gallup Poll conducted after the Wright affair broke showed Obama trailing Clinton only very slightly, by 43 per cent to 48. But there is no question that many Jews are uneasy about a candidate whose mentor claimed that Jews helped Hitler “get the Third Reich on the road”, called Jews “bloodsuckers”, and claimed the US has “supported state terrorism against the Palestinians”.

But while I am not an Obama supporter, I do have some sympathy with him on this matter. Obama is being blamed for sitting through sermons by, and continuing to associate with, a pastor with radical views, views which according to Obama himself “have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but… denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike”.

This raises for me the question of how each one of us would react if our rabbi regularly made radical comments from the pulpit. I’m not sure we would all come out so well — I certainly wouldn’t.

Here in the UK, I personally have never heard anything particularly controversial; perhaps we are blessed with relatively restrained rabbis. But I’ve had different experiences in Israel and North America, where rabbis are more political. In Israel, where I grew up, our rabbi routinely advocated hard-line political positions with which I, and a few other members of the congregation, strenuously disagreed. He was never racist, but as the prospect of territorial compromise became more realistic, the rhetoric heated up to a degree which made us uncomfortable.

Did we ever consider leaving the shul? No. We valued our rabbi for other things: his social vision, his kindness, his learning, his love of the Jewish people. On politics, we agreed to disagree.

As a student in Canada, I belonged to a young adults’ minyan which employed a new young rabbi, who quickly offended women, converts, non-Jews and a long list of others. My friends and I fumed in private, talked about complaining to the board and breathed a huge sigh of relief when he eventually moved on. Had we seriously considered leaving the shul? No. By the time this rabbi came along, I was already heavily involved in the shul, developed a social network there and was loyal to the institution. The shul was, for me, about so much more than this one man and I did not feel responsible for his sermons.

But both these rabbis were extremely mild compared to others still preaching. Take, for example, Ovadiah Yosef, the former Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi, who has been known, from the pulpit, to attack Ashkenazim (the source of “all troubles”); then-Meretz leader Yossi Sarid (“Satan”); then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (“let God strike him down”); Arabs (“evil and damnable”); and black people (“kushim” — a Hebrew term equivalent to the N-word). Israelis from across the political and religious spectrum are regularly repulsed, but there has been no drop in numbers at his weekly lectures; he is still a revered leader with great political influence.

Back in the diaspora, there’s Rabbi Hershel Schachter, head of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University, New York’s flagship modern-Orthodox institution. Last month he told students — as a joke, he later said — that he would recommend shooting the Israeli Prime Minister should the government “give away Jerusalem”. He is still in post.

None of this, of course, completely exonerates Barack Obama, who not only tolerated his pastor’s outrages over a very long period — 20 years — but forged a close personal relationship with him. Rev Wright’s comments are also on a completely different level to the ones I, for example, personally overheard. But we must recognise two things. First, in every religion, congregants’ relationships with clergymen is complex, full of compromises, and involves multiple loyalties, for example to a larger community. An awful lot of social inertia must be overcome before one is offended enough to change places of worship.

Second, globally, we Jews have put up with just as bad from our own rabbis. Perhaps something we should keep in mind in the rush to condemn Senator Obama.

Miriam Shaviv is the JC's comment editor

    Last updated: 8:59am, May 15 2008