Rabbi Jonathan Romain’s decision to write to his community urging them to vote in the forthcoming election for “whichever party is most likely to defeat Labour” in their constituency crosses a red line in the professional and ethical guidelines of UK rabbinic practice.
These codes of conduct and practice in relation to politics are unwritten - but have been well understood for generations.
Of course, rabbis of all denominations will have views on, as well as speak and write about, political issues. How could it be otherwise when the Torah’s vision is filled with concern for the poor and the marginalised in society, care for the outsider, love of the stranger, questions of social justice and how to look after one’s fields and animals and trees?
Jewish ethical principles that affect the way in which the social, legal, economic and environmental policies of a country are arranged are themes that rabbis will think and preach about. But the red line that my friend and colleague has crossed is not to do with politics but party politics.
My concerns about Jonathan Romain’s unwise decision are twofold. The first is the message it sends to the Jewish community. The second is the message it may unwittingly send to the larger, non-Jewish community.
Rabbi Romain considers that his action is justified because we are facing an “unprecedented situation” in relation to antisemitism in the Labour Party.
Although I hold no personal candle for Corbynite Labour and some of his nastier and ignorant fellow-travellers, this situation requires a calm thoughtfulness rather than an emotive, fear-fuelled enactment which merely mirrors the hostility that some Jews feel themselves subjected to.
Jews are understandably upset, angered and fearful when they hear about, or witness, antisemitic remarks or actions. But thoughtful rabbinic leadership at this moment in our history should be helping people manage their anxieties about these trends – which are part of larger, disturbing trends in the society around us: all that toxic swirl of aggression, anger, hatred and victimisation that courses through public discourse and on social media.
A rabbi’s job, I believe, is to help the Jewish community contain its worries and its emotional distress, not by telling people how to cast their vote (as if they didn’t have a mind of their own) but by strengthening their psychological and spiritual wellbeing.
Rabbi Romain’s intemperate action can only stoke Jewish fears, increase people’s anxieties, collude with our historically deep-seated impulses towards paranoid thinking.
And the message it may send to non-Jews? I fear that it colludes with a fantasy that Jews are a homogenous group who are only concerned about themselves rather than the larger shared issues of the society we all live in. And for some it may fan the flames of a belief in Jewish conspiratorial networks that seek to undermine the country’s wellbeing.
Jews are not threatened with organised violence in this country. If it comes, as it might, it will come from the populist right - who have no internal countervailing voices, as the left do. We will then realise that we had our eyes on the wrong ball all along.
Rabbi Howard Cooper is the Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue and a practising psychoanalyst