I’ve now read two interviews with Rabbi David Wolpe about the invocation he was invited to deliver at the Democratic National Convention, and in each he says that his appearance was “apolitical” (he tells Rob Eshman at the Jewish Journal that he would have accepted an RNC invite if he’d gotten one).
Apolitical? Too bad. Although Rob uses Wolpe’s DNC appearance as a chance to talk about the perils of partisanship, I find myself thinking that what Judaism needs is a little more partisanship, not less. And that it’s too bad that a rabbi of Wolpe’s stature has decided — or feels compelled — to stay above the fray. Or, as he tells Tablet:
“I’m honored to be chosen to offer a prayer, but not an endorsement one way or the other, because I don’t think that’s a rabbi’s job,” he explained. “My approach is that being a rabbi doesn’t give me special political insight. So, I don’t like to preach to people about exactly the political positions they should take, as though Judaism vests me with this approach as opposed to that approach.”
Not to pick on Rabbi Wolpe, but I am not buying it. If “being a rabbi” — that is, a scholar of Jewish text, a pastor to a large and influential flock, and an interpreter of Jewish tradition for moderns — “doesn’t give me special political insight,” then what is the point of Torah and Judaism, really?
Torah is supposed to be a way of life — an all-encompassing way of life. And living means either making or being subject to political decisions — about who will lead us, their economic vision, their approach to alleviating suffering, their philosphy for increasing individual worth and enhancing the public good. Democrats and Republicans have very different visions on each of these things — and yet, when it comes to deciding between the two, a rabbi can offer no guidance?
As I’ve written before, rabbis know that urging specific stands on specific pieces of legislation, or taking aim at the political philosophies of one of our major parties, is hardly a formula for contract renewal. But isn’t it a mandate of rabbis to make Torah relevant and essential? I’m not sure how seriously people would take a faith tradition that doesn’t offer guidance on, say, waging war or addressing poverty or protecting the vulnerable.
I’m one to talk. Although some of my readers will insist otherwise, I tend to suppress my political preferences in the columns I write. I do this because my employer can’t be seen taking partisan political stands, and because I think it would be an abuse of the prominent place I give my column in a newspaper I edit. In that, I suppose, my situation is similar to Wolpe’s. He’s made a promise to minister to his entire congregation, not just to the folks who agree with his politics, and it would be breach of that promise to make dissenters uncomfortable. Whe Wolpe says, “I feel like it’s my job to encourage the Zionism of the people who support Israel in all of their variegated views,” I think, c’est moi.
But just as I get frustrated at not being able to clock in on the things that really bother me and that really excite me (and that really matter), I am disappointed that the only “controversial topics” for which Wolpe has staked out positions (according to Tablet, at least) are ”the historicity of the Bible, the need for religious pluralism in Israel, and how to reform his own Conservative movement.”
Frankly, these don’t strike me as all that controversial, not compared to the fate of the settlements, the future of health care, the income gap, and what should be done to kickstart the stagnant economy. Religious pluralism in Israel, for example, has become the safe place for American Jews to differ with Israel. With the major pro-Israel groups enforcing a “consensus” on the peace process not seen since the pre-Rabin era, standing up to the Israeli rabbinate is a steam valve for American Jewish discontent. A rabbi will be vilified for wandering too far to the Left on territorial issues (ask the ones who’ve signed onto J Street) but we can all agree to despise the haredim.
In defending Wolpe’s defense of prayer over politics, Eshman writes:
Hyper-partisanship has infected the Jewish community, as it has America. Too many of us have bought into the idea that our side has all the answers.
But no party, like no person, is invested with perfect insight and far-seeing wisdom. Fixing Medicare? Boosting unemployment? Defanging Iran? To quote Woody Allen, most of us don’t even know how a can opener works.
Yes, it’s nasty out there, although I think the nastiness is a function of people who will say and do anything to win an argument — lie, obstruct, and even undermine the very cause they profess to support. As for a good, partisan debate of real substance? I say bring it on, or fall into the lazy trap of false equivalence: Raise taxes, lower taxes — it’s all the same, isn’t it? Sanctions or air strikes? Who are we to judge?
Again, this isn’t about Wolpe, but rather the expectations we have created for our religious leaders — and communal types like me. As a community, we prize consensus, civility, bipartisanship. But in doing so, we neuter our own political and philosophical traditions. And we end up ceding the argument to people who care not a whit for consensus, civility, and bipartisanship.