Center Field: Say No to Rabbis for Obama

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-17-08

Now that the American election is over and this will not seem to be a partisan attack, it is time to ask whether it was appropriate for hundreds of rabbis to launch an unprecedented organization, “Rabbis for Obama.” The organization’s founding letter, which over four hundred rabbis signed, said: “We join together as rabbis who believe that Barack Obama is the best candidate of the United States, and we do so in the belief that he will best support the issues important to us in the Jewish community.”

This initiative constituted a clear attempt to give a rabbinic hechsher – stamp of approval — to Barack Obama. There is nothing wrong with a rabbi, as an American citizen, choosing to endorse a candidate. But there is something unseemly about rabbis pooling their theological and spiritual authority as rabbis to boost a particular politician.

For starters, this kind of politicking seems remarkably insensitive to congregants who may support a rival candidate. Congregations hire rabbis for their pastoral skills not for their political stands. For rabbis to join together, as spiritual leaders, in the service of a politician is to try transferring authority granted by congregants in one realm into another realm. Taking this kind of stand with other rabbis seems to risk importing political conflict from the streets into the synagogue.

Usually when rabbis, professors, and corporate leaders sign advocacy advertisements, they put in the boilerplate admonition that the institutional affiliation is for identification purposes. This posture is a constructive charade. It at least acknowledges the questions of propriety surrounding the action and attempts to defend the institution and all its members from being defined by its leader’s actions. Rabbis for Obama did the opposite, trying to build credibility based on the collective power all these rabbis derived from their institutions and their congregants. Like it or not, they implicated their congregants in their actions.

It is difficult to see the issue clearly, especially now, with Obamania in full swing. Undoubtedly, these rabbis are feeling vindicated, heroic – and happily anticipating invitations to four, maybe even eight, annual White House Chanukkah parties.

But what if 400 rabbis had come out in favor of California’s Proposition 8, advancing the state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage? Theologically, the rabbis would have been on stronger ground, considering that the Bible actually addresses questions of homosexuality (but has nothing to say about Barack Obama’s strengths or weaknesses). And what if most of those rabbis had been ministering to overwhelmingly liberal congregations or congregations filled with gay couples? If offended congregants tried firing any of these rabbis against gay marriage would any of the Rabbis for Obama have been willing to defend them?

I know of a congregation which fired its rabbi when she opposed gays’ ordination in the Conservative movement. Members of the congregation felt blindsided because the rabbi had not informed them beforehand of the stand she was going to take. And the congregants were particularly distressed because the rabbi’s opposition created an insurmountable barrier between her, as a theological leader, and a lesbian couple in the congregation.

This is not a free speech issue. The rabbis could have joined a Jews for Obama or Citizens for Obama group with no questions asked. This is, however, a separation of church and state issue. While separation of church and state, constitutionally, only refers to avoiding government support or control of particular religions, American Jews have been in the forefront of the movement to insulate politics from religion as much as possible. It is particularly hypocritical for liberal Jews, who have spent years railing against Evangelical Christians who blur the line between church and state, to now indulge in the same conceit, deploying God in the service of political power.

In fact, Rabbis for Obama clarifies what most liberals mean when they object to religion intruding on politics – they usually mean religion advancing the wrong political positions. Liberals appalled by the right-wing Moral Majority in 1980, did not criticize the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., for so brilliantly applying his spiritual powers to advance the Civil Rights revolution. King obviously did a world of good, and would not have been as effective as just a social activist. But the perpetual abuse of rabbinic authority for cheap political gains in Israel offers proof that, acknowledging the King exception, it is best for rabbis to be a bit more discrete when playing politics.

In our cynical but careerist world, the credibility we derive from our professional standing is a potent yet fragile commodity. At a time when so many congregants are among what we could call the Jewishly vulnerable – not as solid in their identities as their parents and grandparents were – rabbis have to be particularly careful to preserve their authority. With all due respect to the historic nature of the 2008 election, and Barack Obama’s undeniable charismatic appeal, it seems a shame that hundreds of leading American rabbis chose to set this kind of precedent. American Jewish leaders need all the credibility they can muster – and they need to focus their energies as much as they can on the many Jewish issues bewitching the community, leaving politics for their leisure hours without muddying their professional, spiritual, pursuits.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Montreal. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today,  his latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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