Rabbi, you may bore us but stay out of politics

Expressing a political viewpoint is not what we want from our rabbis

By Jenni Frazer, August 13, 2009

A lot is asked of our rabbis. We want them to be Moshes of all trades: orators, teachers, social workers, visitors to the sick and bereaved.

We want them to be wise and understanding, erudite and spiritually uplifting. And should they have dashed off an academic paper or a book or three, so much the better.

What we — or at least, I — very much don’t want, is a rabbi who is political.

Last week, Rabbi Natan Asmoucha — the rabbi of Britain’s oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks — ran into trouble with the executive of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation.

Ostensibly this was because he had taken part in a City of London anti-usury demonstration.

What we — or at least, I — very much don’t want, is a rabbi who is political

Whichever way you understand Rabbi Asmoucha’s action, there is no doubt that it was political. And that is not what we employ a rabbi for.

I do not want my rabbi to express any political opinions whatsoever, other than, perhaps, to exhort the congregants to go out and vote should there be an imminent election. He should, however, stop at the exhorting part.

Let me be clear. I have no problem with my rabbi actually having political opinions.

But I don’t want my rabbi to express those opinions from the pulpit, or to imagine that by virtue of standing before the congregation on a Shabbat morning, a divine right settles on his shoulders allowing him to come over all party political.

I don’t want my rabbi to parse the political trench warfare in the Middle East and then come up with a smug “this is what should happen now” solution, of whatever stripe — right or left.

I also don’t want my rabbi to voice a Little England mentality in which everyone outside the Jewish community is a frightening alien, out to get us.

And I don’t want my rabbi to be so in love with multiculturalism that he talks in a kind of psychobabble hum which bears no relation to the way in which most of his congregants live.

It’s not as though the rabbis don’t know what they are letting themselves in for. Once, they too sat in numb silence as their synagogue’s religious leader took the parsha of the week, squeezed it for all sensible meaning, squeezed it a little more, and then let fly with a self-righteous homily which left everyone either depressed or wondering what the hell it was all about.

Perhaps the politicisation of the rabbinate is their revenge.

At any event, this is a plea (bound to be ignored), for rabbis to keep out of politics. If you feel even slightly motivated to join a Rural Rights Rally, resist the temptation. If countryside matters are not your bag, but the future of the Labour Party occupies your every living moment, keep it to yourself. If you are a fully paid-up, dyed-in-the-wool-and-tallit proponent of the Greater Israel philosophy, accompanied by an unhealthy dislike of any kind of opposition to your views, then frankly you are in the wrong job.

But for those of you who have joined the rabbinate with the aim of opening the hearts and minds of others to the beauty of Judaism, I implore you: stick to the brief.

Jenni Frazer is the JC’s assistant editor

Last updated: 2:07pm, August 14 2009


You must be logged in to post a comment.