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Is it wrong for a rabbi to be involved with a political party?

Rabbi, I have a problem

    Question: A friend of mine was taken aback to find his rabbi was a member of the Labour party. I don’t know if he would have felt the same way if it had been the Conservatives. But should rabbis in any case refrain from showing political allegiances?

    Rabbi Naftali Brawer

    Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

    I don’t think it is ever appropriate for a rabbi to use the pulpit or his office to promote or solicit support for a political party. To do so would be to abuse the position. But that doesn’t mean that a rabbi must be silent on political matters.

    Rabbis have not only the right but the responsibility to think deeply and carefully about contemporary political issues, to try to situate them within a Jewish framework and then to speak out when necessary with courage and conviction. Thus, issues-driven campaigning is distinctly different from party politics and communities deserve to hear what their spiritual leaders think about the various issues of the day.

    The biblical prophets had no compunction about speaking out forcefully on the political issues of their day. They spoke truth to power in an absolute monarchy and often paid a heavy price for their convictions and honesty. In today’s liberal democracy where one can speak their mind without threat to life and limb, rabbis should not shy away from emulating the example of the prophets.

    However, the old adage about “two Jews, three opinions” applies to rabbis as well and what one is likely to find in a robust democracy is a multitude of rabbinic views and opinions concerning practically everything. There once was a time when isolated communities could rely on the single opinion of the town rabbi. Today even the most geographically isolated communities have access, via the internet, to the full range of rabbinic opinions on any contemporary issue. This means that individual Jews must work a little harder at educating themselves about the broad issues involved (both political and religious) so they can be in a better position to judge the nuanced arguments and decide which is most compelling.

    Finally, when deciding who to vote for or which party to support, one should consider the candidate or the party’s policies across a wide range of issues that are informed by Jewish values. Too often a vote is cast because the candidate or party is seen to be “good for Israel”. While this emotive response is understandable, it should not be the only litmus test to which they should be subjected. Judaism has a lot to say about many other issues such as education, family, poverty and immigration to name just a few, and a party’s policies that affect these issues should be weighed up carefully before casting one’s vote.

    Rabbi Jonathan Romain

    Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

    The substantive issue is political involvement itself and whether rabbis can speak out, be it in their private time or from the pulpit, on public issues.

    The answer has to be a resounding yes — based on our religious heritage from the prophets whose mission was to protest against contemporary shortcomings. Isaiah exposed the darker side of the political system and its abuse of power, as well as attacking corruption within the religious hierarchy (1.11-15, 23). Amos railed against the malpractices of the business community, lambasting the way it cheated and grew rich at the expense of others. He criticised the neglect of human rights, castigating those who trampled the weaker members of society (5.7,10-11; 8.4-6).

    Many of the targets above can be transposed to political or social commentary today — from international corporate power to tax evasion to paedophile rabbis to disability benefit cuts to gay rights — and they are just as toxic now as others were in ancient Israel.

    The prophets reminded both the people and the leaders of Israel that Jewish values apply as much to public affairs as they do to domestic life. They refused to accept a separation between spiritual and secular matters, seeing Judaism as encompassing all areas of life.

    The command to “let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an everlasting stream” (Amos 5.24) cannot be limited to synagogue council meetings, but is a direct prescription for political and social action generally.

    Yet, despite the prophets being read out in our synagogues as part of the haftarah portion every Sabbath, they are often ignored compared to the attention given to ritual practices and halachic arguments. But the words of Isaiah and Amos are as much part of Judaism as those of Rashi and Maimonides.

    There is, though, a big difference between being political and being party political. Rabbis are within their rights to be both, and can certainly be a party member and actively involved, but should only use the pulpit for the former. If their view on any issue happens to coincide with those of a particular party, that is not a problem, providing the rabbi promotes the cause, not the party.

    Remember, too, that despite being admired now, the prophets were never popular in their day; exposing social ills and individual hypocrisy always upsets people, however right it is to do so.

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