Thought Provoking Insights by Rabbi Simon Rosenbach
Some people in the last few weeks said that I should not be bringing politics into the sanctuary. Some people in the last few weeks said that I should be discussing only Torah. Here is my response.
The Torah, and indeed the rest of the Tanach, is a political document. The people in the Torah and the rest of the Tanach have the same emotions that we have. They have the same dreams that we have. They have the same problems that we have. And the solutions to their problems, and the way they cope with their emotions, and the way they go about realizing their dreams have relevance to our emotions, dreams, and problems. Human nature has not changed in the intervening millennia.
We have many stories about leadership succession. We have many stories from Genesis that upend the natural order of things: younger brothers displace older brothers as the leader of the clan. In Exodus and Numbers, Moses (who displaced his older brother as the leader of the clan) faces rebellions to his leadership from Korach, the Reubenites, Aaron and Miriam (Moses’ brother and sister!), and, in the episode of the golden calf, a vast majority of the Israelites. The rest of the Tanach is full of stories of leadership strugles, from the story of the elevation of the first king in Israel, through the civil wars between David and Saul and between the sons of David. Some scholars say that the Torah and the rest of the Tanach was specifically and politically composed to favor Moses and King David.
Social issues are political issues, and the Torah addresses social issues of its day. Moreover, these issues exist to this day. The Torah addresses economic inequality, by specifically decreeing that the king should not own too many horses, should not be married to too many wives, and should not amass too much money.
The Torah addresses employee-employer relationships. The Torah says that a laborer should be paid promptly and the boss should not oppress a laborer. From the Torah, a whole body of law has developed in the Talmud about the hiring person and the hired person.
The Torah specifically addresses environmental concerns. The establishment of the Shmitah year and the Jubilee evidences the concern that the Torah has for the environment. Two times in the Torah appears a list of curses that will befall the Israelites if they don’t keep the mitzvot. One list of the curses specifically pegs the calamities that will befall the Israelites to the violation of the Shmitah year (the year that the land is to lie fallow).
The Torah expressly addresses immigration by commanding us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in a land not our own. The Torah expressly addresses community safety (the safety net, in modern parlance). The Torah commands us not to put a stumbling block in the way of a blind person. The Torah commands us to leave the corners of our fields ungleaned, that the poor may glean them. The Torah commands us to leave the low-lying fruit in place in our orchards, so the poor can pluck them.
I could go on and on. There are commandments that govern commercial transactions. There are commandments that govern animal cruelty. There are commandments that govern soldiers and battle captives. There are commandments that govern treatment of wives and women generally. The Torah, in sum, is a blueprint for a kind of society, and we base our modern society on the Torah.
The prophets knew that the Torah was applicable to political problems of their day. They exhorted the rulers and the powerful and the general Israelite population to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and free the oppressed. We read that passage from Isaiah every Yom Kippur, and that philosophy is not only applicable to that one day. Modern rabbis are heirs to the traditions of the prophets, and especially at Avahas Sholom. Here at Ahavas Sholom, we make our credo, tikun olam. We have rebuilt two elementary school playgrounds. We have opened our synagogue to groups that need a meeting place. We have partnered with groups that hold events to benefit the citizenry of Newark, few of whom are Jews. I have taken part in press conferences decrying the Muslim ban and the Christchurch shooting at a mosque.
As an heir to the prophets, I have an obligation to call attention to local, state, national, and international issues that affects us Jews and humanity as a whole. Right now, my contract is handshake deal. If, however, I were a rabbi in a mainstream, suburban, Conservative congregation, I would have a written contract. The Rabbinical Association form contract binds, with applicable changes, Conservative rabbis and synagogues that belong to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, to which we belong. One of the clauses in the Rabbinical Association form contract reads,
The rabbi shall, at all times, enjoy the freedom of the pulpit, including the freedom to preach on whatever topic and in whatever manner the rabbi shall deem appropriate, however the rabbi shall at all times be subject to the “standards” of the Rabbinical Assembly and shall be guided by the positions of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards.
That means that I can’t talk about abolishing kashrut. That means that I can’t talk about welcoming interfaith marriage ceremonies at Avahas Sholom. That means that I can’t talk about welcoming Jesus into our liturgy.
That means, however, that I can talk about an administration’s approach to climate change. I can talk about an administration’s approach to immigration. I can talk about an administration’s approach to environmental protections, or about food stamp cut-backs. There is no limit to what I can talk about that affects, in my opinion, the quality of life in the United States, or the world, especially towards Jews, because the Torah has lessons for all the problems that we face today. I will not be limited to interpret the Torah to say, for example, the name Yehudah is related to the word todah, thank you.
If you don’t like what I have to say, we will give a forum to state another opinion. I welcome questions from the floor of the sanctuary, as long as the questions are not too time-consuming and they are respectful of other persons’ opinions. As I frequently say, “We can continue this discussion downstairs.” As a matter of fact, we are looking for topics for adult education on Saturdays during the kiddush, and you can voice another opinion. For example, you can say “love the stranger” does not mean open borders. We will listen to you politely, and attentively. It is always good to have dialogue between two voices on opposite sides of an issue, as long as we are civil to each other and personally respectful. Who knows, we may convince each other of the wisdom of each other’s position.