Rabbis and Politics Revisited

“Who am I to place my head between these two mountains?” – Talmud

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was recently interviewed by the Jewish Telegraph Agency about his new book, Morality, however, the conversation, like all conversations these days, quickly shifted to politics. Rabbi Sacks shared that no matter how close he became to politicians during his time as chief rabbi of the UK, he was careful not only to not endorse any candidates but also stayed away from any form of political advocacy. When asked about American rabbis who seem to take a different approach, he responded: “I’m afraid American Jewry is making a big, big, big mistake. This is not a small thing. It’s a very, very big thing.”

According to the JTA, he was specifically referring to Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, one of the most widely known and respected Chareidi rabbis in America. In a recent interview with Mishpacha magazine, Rabbi Kamenetzky gave a full-throated endorsement of President Donald Trump, stating, “I think people should vote for him. He’s done a good job. It’s hakaras hatov.” Rabbi Kamenetzky is not alone in endorsing politicians or mixing Judaism with politics. “On the left,” the article continued, “rabbis frequently wade into partisan political issues and even argue for specific political candidates in their personal capacity.”

Before I continue, I feel the need to make clear that I have the utmost respect for both Rabbi Kamenetzky and Rabbi Sacks. Rabbi Sacks is one of the most compelling and compassionate writers on values in our day and Rabbi Kamenetzky is both a Torah scholar of the highest order and from watching him up close, possibly one of the gentlest souls I have ever met.

I hesitate questioning either of them, but I have a problem. Rabbi Sacks went on to say, “If you mix religion and politics, you get terrible politics and even worse religion.” It’s a good quote, but I struggle to understand it. Is he suggesting that our moral code, i.e., the Torah, should not impact public policy? This week’s parsha alone weighs in on inheritance laws, issues of gender identification, capital punishment and more. While there is an argument to be made that we are under no obligation to ensure that the laws of our land reflect the laws of the Torah, shouldn’t the Torah at least have a voice at the table? Did the prophets not challenge the kings of Israel to live by the values of our tradition? Did Moshe not lead a rebellion against the political status quo? Do we not believe our Torah to be a Toras Chaim, an ever-relevant set of ethics that guide our every action?

And yet, to endorse a candidate, to stand behind a single party, not only is it alienating to those who don’t identify with that party or politician, but it sends a very difficult message to swallow. Although, an endorsement of a politician should be interpreted to be an endorsement of their platform alone, in our culture, especially in America, where the president – Obama or Biden for Democrats, Trump for Republicans – is painted as a savior, it is hard to distinguish between politics and the politician.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein dedicates a responsa to the question of a shul honoring a donor who openly flouts Jewish law. Rabbi Feinstein threads a thin line between praising the individual for their good qualities and ensuring that it is not perceived as praising them for the bad. Recently, a video surfaced from an Orthodox sleepaway camp where a Jewish music star led the campers in a rousing song praising the President. It is a very difficult needle to thread.

Rabbis across the country face this dilemma constantly. Ignore politics and current events and provide no direction in a realm in which people feel especially lost? Embrace politics and politicians despite having positions or personalities antithetical to the Torah? Where do we go from here?

Perhaps we can answer our questions by reframing them as guiding principles that can help us navigate this challenge:

  • Judaism IS political. Judaism has what to say about every part of life, from our most personal emotions to the most public mechanisms of governance. We cannot afford to shy away from sharing the Torah view on contemporary issues. More than ever, the Torah’s viewpoint is needed. 
  • The Torah’s value system is void of hero-worship. Our greatest leaders were fallible, and the Torah makes sure we know about it. We respect our governments, we pray for our political leaders, but we never worship them. Comments in support of a politician or party cannot, in good faith, be unqualified. 

There is a Republican case for Joe Biden like there is a Democratic case for Donald Trump, but neither of them are self-evident. Similarly, one can make a Torah argument for both parties. But to understand these views, one needs to slow down, absorb, and reorient oneself to a line of thinking that doesn’t come naturally. Though I quite recently spoke in favor of distilling every message into a Tweet, it doesn’t work for everything. According to Jewish law one may not judge a case of a capital crime in one day; the judges need to sleep on it in order to ensure that they have examined every side of the case. As the first Mishna in Pirkei Avos states, be deliberate in judgment. This advice is widely understood to be relevant not only to judges, but to us all. 

Ultimately, we have to choose a candidate. Ultimately, one candidate and one party is better than the next. There may not be a party of God, but Godly people must choose a party. And so, the challenge is not for rabbis alone; it is a challenge for us all: Do we have the patience to think critically, appreciate the good and call out the bad? Do we have the bravery to speak openly even when our opinions are unpopular? And do we have the knowledge to allow our faith to guide our politics and the humility to acknowledge when our politics guides our faith?

May God bless America and may He grant us the patience, bravery, knowledge, and humility to do our part in allowing that blessing to materialize.  

 

 

 

 

Music that Inspires

“If you’re mind wanders before finishing this sentence, you’re not alone.” So began an article for Time magazine describing the challenge that many of us are facing with concentrating and focusing during these turbulent times. 

I am writing this as I take a break from writing a D’var Torah for Shabbos morning because I cannot seem to concentrate on a single message! Like many others, my ability to think for an extended amount of time has been severely impacted. But there’s another phenomenon which has received less attention – as our minds seem to be constricting, our hearts seem to be expanding. Politicians crying on national television, otherwise stoic people discussing their emotions – there is a tsunami of emotions that cannot be held back, and I think that’s great. 

This morning, the first day of the month of Elul, the shofar was blown in shul. (Well, to be precise, the ba’al tokeiah stood right outside the shul to prevent the spread of saliva particles.) The shofar, the tool used to “wake us from our slumber” is a musical instrument. It creates a rather crude sound, but it is music nonetheless. To prepare for the High Holidays, there is no message from the rabbi, no passage to study in groups, the wake-up call of Elul is song. And that’s because, no matter how distracted we are, no matter how hard it is to think about what we need to do in the year to come, music can cut through it all. It does’t speak to our brain, it speaks to our heart. Keith Richards, of Rolling Stones fame, said it best, “Music is a language that doesn’t speak in particular words, it speaks in emotion.” 

Instead of focusing on our faulty thinking patterns, perhaps we can use this month of Elul to develop and strengthen our emotions; deepening our love for our family and for God, experiencing more awe when we unravel layers of the people around us, acknowledge our lows and gently ride them through difficult times, infuse more joy into the otherwise mundane callings of life.  

Our minds may be struggling but our hearts are healthier than ever. The greatest tool to fan the flames of our emotions is music; the shofar in particular, but all the music of the world has the capacity to move us.   

I am dedicating this month of Elul to discussing music and emotions in our tradition. From the songs of the Leviim to the latest rap out of Lakewood, music penetrates the impenetrable. I will be sending out weekly thoughts on music and emotions before Shabbos and will be hosting a new Zoom series on the topic. Stay tuned for details. 

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you; what’s your favorite song and why? Music touches us in such a deep place, it’s worth taking a moment to better understand our musical taste. Please reply in the comments section. I look forward to hearing from you.

Good Shabbos! 

Yisrael Motzen 

 

Statement on Israel-UAE Peace Deal

“And great will be the peace of your children (banayich)” (Isaiah, 54)
 
These words from this week’s Haftorah are the source of a famous Rabbinic pun. The Talmud (Berachos, 64a) suggests that instead of reading this verse to refer to children (banayich), rather it should be interpreted to refer to builders (bonayich) – “and great will be the peace of your builders.” In the Talmud’s reading, the builders is a reference to Torah scholars. Without further analyzing the Talmudic passage, what is clear is that there are two forms of peace; peace of children and peace of builders. The peace of children is natural. Though children may quarrel and even fight, there is a natural bond that connects them. The second form of peace, peace of builders, is unnatural and takes work. Like Torah scholars who fiercely debate the true interpretation of our sacred texts but ultimately find a resolution, there is a from of peace that takes great effort and because of that effort, its peace is long-lasting. 
 
This past week, a peace accord of epic proportions took place. It was hard to notice amidst all the national news, and it is hard to believe in this year of setbacks that something so good could have transpired, but we would be mistaken to not dwell upon this moment. Thomas Friedman, an otherwise rather vocal critic of Israel, described the peace deal as “a geopolitical earthquake” and “a breath of fresh air.” The peace accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, brokered by President Trump, has the capacity to have a long-lasting positive impact on the Jewish State. We are indebted to the “builders” people like Mossad Director, Yossi Cohen and Jared Kushner, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make this happen. We hope and pray that this peace if of the long-lasting type and brings with it a sea of change in the region.  
 
May the God of peace, continue to bless us with peace, and may we continue to see the flourishing of the ultimate peace. 

My Rebbi made me join Twitter Parshas Eikev

“How can people possibly have nuanced discussions on social media?!”

“All everyone wants to hear these days are soundbites!”

“Can you really summarize a position on national defense in a Tweet?!”

That’s me, quoting myself.

I have lost track of how many times I’ve lamented the decline of serious debate and discussion due to social media and our shrinking attention span. How can we possibly have a nuanced discussion in 280 characters or less? But I’ve come around. I recently joined Twitter and I want to tell you why.

When the pandemic started, I began to post on Facebook far more often than I had in the past. Communicating through Facebook was not as simple as taking a sermon and pasting it onto a Facebook post. To catch the eye of someone scrolling at the end of a long day or during a short break, you need to catch their attention with something short and snappy. To change my regular writing style was challenging, but there was something – something that I could not exactly put my finger on at the time – that just felt right about writing that way.

Then, a short while ago, a friend of mine who is a digital media manager reached out and encouraged me to join Twitter. Twitter?! I thought to myself. The place where you cannot write a full paragraph?! The place I’ve been mocking from the pulpit?!

“Sure,” I said, “that sounds like a great idea.”

I remembered something I had learned from a teacher of mine, or my Rebbi (not be confused with Rebbe – a chassidic rabbi – or Rabbi, a shul rabbi, but Rebbi – literally, my teacher) in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. When my Rebbi was a young student at the prestigious Chevron Yeshiva, he had a private study session with one of the Roshei Yeshiva of the institution. Once a week there would be a lecture given to the entire yeshiva by one of the other leading teachers in this institution. My Rebbi would attend this lecture and then would visit the Rosh Yeshiva to study. But before they would begin, the Rosh Yeshiva would ask him to summarize the entire, brilliant, complex lecture he just attended – in one sentence. Remember, this was a discourse in Talmud in one of the leading yeshivas in Israel. One sentence.

My teacher would explain to his students the rationale behind this strange request: “If you can’t say it in one sentence then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

When studying Torah, it is so easy to get caught up in the trees and lose sight of the forest. Ask any young yeshiva student studying a page of Talmud what it is that he is learning, and you will likely get a blank stare. I know that for many years, I could not answer that question. The Talmud is (seemingly) so disorganized and jumps from topic to topic without any warning. What is true about Talmud in particular is true about Judaism in general. Ask a room full of Jews what Judaism is all about, there would be as many answers as there are people. Is it this Mitzvah or that one? Ten commandments or 13 principles of faith? Beliefs or actions? Ask the same group of people two weeks later and you will get a hundred new answers.

“If you can’t say it in one sentence then you don’t know what you’re talking about.” That’s what my teacher meant. That’s why his teacher asked him to summarize the entire class in one breath. And that’s why I joined Twitter.

What was appealing to me about these Facebook posts is that it was forcing me to be succinct. Twitter was an opportunity to go even further. To share on Twitter meant distilling an idea to its essence. That’s always important but especially now.

Our brains are currently overburdened with stress, anxiety, and fear like never before. Our schedules are haphazard – if you even have a schedule these days. Every time I sit down to work on an extended piece of writing, I run out of creative gas two paragraphs in. I cannot concentrate.

But now, when I start to prepare a thought for shul, I try to write it as a Tweet it and see how it sounds. (Sometimes I cheat and write a thread – a number of Tweets strung together, but I try not to!) To be clear, I don’t really have any followers – possibly because I’m using Twitter as a personal sounding board! Also, please be warned, Twitter can be a rabbit hole that you cannot escape from, so please do not see this as an encouragement to sign up for Twitter. But for me, Twitter is creating a tiny semblance of order in what is otherwise a rather messy mind during a really messy time.

It occurred to me that the very first individual to do this was none other than Moshe Rabbeinu.

In our Torah portion, he asks the following question – “Mah Hashem Elokecha doreish mimcha? What is it that G-d wants from you?”

For four and a half books of the Torah, we’ve read stories and laws, and more stories and more laws, but what’s it all about? What does G-d actually want from us? What IS Judaism?

Moshe tells us – “Only to fear Hashem your G-d, to go in His ways, to love Him, and to serve Hashem your G-d with all your heart and soul.”

Did you catch that? Moshe just summarized all of Judaism in less than 120 characters?!

A few centuries later, the great sage, Hillel, does the same thing: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do onto others. Everything else is commentary.’ Only 63 characters!

You try. Really.

Maybe not to summarize what Judaism is, but at least what Judaism is to you. Because without having a succinct idea of what it is we’re practicing and striving for, it’s very easy to lose the forest for the trees. That’s true for our spiritual life as it is for our family life as it is for our professional life. We need to have a clear vision of what it is we’re doing or trying to do or else we get distracted. Steven Covey once said, “Everyone is so busy climbing the ladder of success that they don’t stop to ensure that it’s leaning against the right building.”

Only Moshe can answer what G-d wants from us. But what do you want from yourself? For me, it is ‘To constantly feel the presence of G-d even in dark times and to constantly draw even closer to Him.’ That reorients me when I feel like I am lost. It guides me when I need to make difficult decisions. Without a clear spiritual vision, it’s so easy to lose sight of what we’re really after.   

Everyone wants to love their family, but what does that really mean? Love is too vague. Can we distill the essence of our vision? This is what I came up with: ‘To develop an ever-deepening connection with my family members and constantly build them up.’ What do you want to accomplish every time you step into your home or speak to a family member? Without a succinct vision, we can interact with our family constantly, we can even love them deeply, but never have the family life of our dreams.  

Clarity is hard time to come by these days. Our minds are racing, our emotions are raging, and that fog in our head seems to be getting thicker and thicker. Take a moment to create a little light and direction that could guide you now and always. Take a cue from Moshe, our greatest teacher, and crystalize your goals, and may that little light dispel this great darkness.

Oh, and if you do join Twitter, make sure to follow me 😉