Politics and Judaism

When I was at Seminary, we were told that there were two distinct schools of thought regarding politics and the pulpit. The first is that the two should never mix. This philosophy holds that the rabbi should only be concerned about matters of “the spirit”, as politics is too mundane for Torah. Additionally, politics is “bad for business” because it inevitably alienates folks who might disagree. Thus, the safe path for a congregation is to avoid politics so that no one is unhappy.

In contrast, the second school of thought holds that the rabbi is morally obligated to engage in politics. Our prayers for a safe and just world can only be realized through our very human efforts and political institutions, and in this way, we can act as God’s vessels here on earth. This philosophy holds that matters of the spirit and the human condition are inseparable, and to ignore the mundane realities of our world is to ignore the core mission of Judaism – to engage in the world to make it better. Moses did not remain on Mt. Sinai with God, but returned to b’nai Yisrael and the real world because that is where he, and religion, were desperately needed. The wisdom that politics may be “bad for business” is not disputed, but rather is countered with the mandate that sometimes congregations have to be driven by what is right, and not by what is safe.

One of the defining characteristics of Stephen S. Wise Temple is our culture of activism, particularly when it comes to the safety of the Jewish people and Israel. Some call this Zionism; I think of it more as common sense. Our history has shown us that we need to stand up for ourselves because no one else will. And, when we stand up for ourselves, we, in turn, protect other populations and ideals threatened by the fanatical forces of intolerance and apathy.

Over the High Holy Days, I had the honor of speaking with many of you about the dangers of a nuclear Iran. My message of a couple of months ago is no different than my message today – if we continue on the track that we are on, we are very likely to be on a collision course with horrible violence. The extent of this would mean that either Iran would make good on its promise to wipe Israel off of the map by launching a nuclear missile at Tel Aviv or, feeling that there was no choice, the U.S. or Israel would initiate a preemptive strike on Iran, resulting in massive casualties. What’s more, a nuclear Iran is not just a problem for Israel, but for the entire world. It would ignite an already volatile Middle East into a nuclear arms race, which would essentially mark the end of the global nuclear non-proliferation movement.

None of us wants war. As Jews, we firmly believe that violence should only be used when all other options have been exhausted. Because, we hold life to be sacred – all life: Iranian, Israeli, and American. But, if we are serious when we say this, and when we pray for it, then each of us is obligated to act through the choices that we make. If we do not, if every one of us does not take action to avoid this violence, then we all share in the blame for what happens.

In my sermon, I promised that over the next few months there would be some real grass-roots opportunities to help prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. One of the most effective ways to take action is for you to commit to targeted engagement in local California politics. This means that occasionally you would take time from your busy day to formally demonstrate, often in our own backyard.

And, in late October, our congregation did just that – we joined with politicians to launch an important initiative. On the steps of Beverly Hills City Hall, Rabbi Herscher,
Cantor Lam, Rabbi Woznica, Metuka Benjamin, and I joined dozens of Stephen S. Wise congregants to support State Assembly members Mike Feuer and Bob Blumenfield as they announced legislation to prohibit public entities in California from contracting with companies that are invested in the Iranian energy sector and/or that supply gasoline to the regime in Tehran.

Although Iran sits atop some of the world’s largest deposits of crude oil and natural gas, it is forced to import roughly forty percent of its refined petroleum because of its poor domestic refining capacity. If these corporations cease supplying gasoline to Iran and pull out of the country’s energy sector, the regime will be forced to reevaluate its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The Feuer/Blumenfield bill sends a powerful message that corporations assisting Iran’s ability to develop its nuclear weapons program are no longer welcome to do business with our State. This bill tracks legislation currently working its way through Congress and would help leverage federal sanctions that we hope will be imposed on Iran.

If this bill is enacted, California would be the first State in the union to bar contracts with corporations heavily involved with Iran. That alone would be a powerful tool, given that California represents the eighth largest economy in the world. However, as we all know, California is a bellwether state – what happens here is often exported to the other forty-nine. If California can take this step, it could be the catalyst for a fifty-state effort that generates dramatic cumulative pressure on the regime.

There is a long road between announcing a bill and getting it passed, and we will need to muster our collective political power and influence to make sure that happens. This is another way of saying that the success of any of these efforts depends on you. Without your commitment to engage and to take action when called upon, we are rendered a rudderless ship at the mercy of the currents of the world.

However, there is nothing wrong with starting small. For, on that day in October on the steps of Beverly Hills City Hall, our presence strongly proclaimed our community’s commitment to policies that prevent a nuclear armed Iran. It urged our politicians to take these bold stands. And, it helped focus the media to enter Iran into the national conversation. Though our numbers were small, our voice was big – by just being there, we did make a difference. And, we can continue to make a difference, no matter what the cause, when we are driven by what is right and we use that drive to engage in making this world a safer place.

(originally published in November, 2009 issue of Stephen S. Wise Temple’s @Wise)

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