Rabbi Raysh Weiss
Shaar Shalom Congregation, Halifax
Rabbi Debra Landsberg
Temple Emanu-El, Toronto
Rabbi Landsberg: Critiques about rabbinic sermons that wade into the political realm are too easily dismissed as a matter of personal alignment. I think there are underlying questions worth wrestling with. What is the authority of the pulpit and the purpose of a sermon? What is the intersection between Jewish learning and political wisdom? Between Torah and secular politics, or national social matters generally?
The pace of social change is breathtaking, such that yesterday’s political and social orthodoxies become today’s heresy. By contrast, the Torah does not offer one simple teaching that leads us to a specific form of political engagement. To borrow Hebrew University professor Israel Knohl’s phrasing, “it is more a divine symphony with diverse teachings interwoven.”
I don’t think this precludes rabbinic argument on contemporary matters from the pulpit, but that any argument should be made modestly, not based upon the presumed authority of the prophetic voice. What do you think?
‘As rabbis, we should not endorse individual politicians, but we can initiate conversations about the kind of Jews we aspire to be’
Rabbi Weiss: Amid the ever-deepening political rifts throughout North America, pulpit rabbis face the formidable task of crafting values-driven teachings, while also providing all community members a safe and welcoming space to be their authentic selves together.
As you write, the Torah is not a monolith, and thus cannot be read in one definitive manner. Each of us, whether rabbi or layperson, represents but one divine face of the Torah, and each of those faces deserves a place within respectful communal dialogue.
Nearly every sermon – and in fact, any statement or action – can be construed as political, as all statements of any worth are ultimately statements of value and principle. Our daily interpersonal interactions carry a political valence and impact. The adage of second-wave feminism – the personal is political – resonates deeply, especially in these times.
As rabbis, we should not endorse individual politicians, but we can initiate conversations about the kind of Jews we aspire to be and the characteristics and actions we admire in others. The attempt to remain neutral is paradoxically another expression of the politics of our moment. The challenge is offering our own truths in a way that is both sensitive to our communities and conducive to dialogue and transformative action.
A rabbi is first and foremost a teacher, and a rabbi’s role may very well be presenting conflicting arguments to a loaded current topic of interest through the lens of traditional teachings. I feel my role as a rabbi is to help fuel values-based conversations that lead to transformative action, both on the individual and communal level.
We cannot claim a monopoly on the Torah’s truth, but we must always strive to use it to animate ethical vision.
‘The one-way structure of sermons makes for an unusual mode of engaging with issues that are both emotionally fraught and politically divisive’
Rabbi Landsberg: When I led my first women’s Rosh Chodesh group over two decades ago, I opened with a question: If Torah and the Jewish legal tradition concerning abortion differ from your current thinking on the matter, what would that mean for you?
One can search into tradition only to find textual sources for values already claimed, or as a powerful challenge to and motivation for how we engage in our world. The one-way structure of sermons makes for an unusual mode of engaging with issues that are both emotionally fraught and politically divisive.
When we come together to pray, we orchestrate a moment in which we encounter each other. It is one in which Jews of all political persuasions should be able to both sit side by side and stand equally before their God. It is our common encounter rather than position of rabbi that gives our conversation meaning.
Rabbi Weiss: With the rapid rise of communication technology and advances in interactive pedagogy, younger Jews crave direct engagement that feels socially relevant and personally empowering. In many ways, the traditional sermon appears to be an obsolete form, as it may be the weakest platform upon which to grow collective consciousness.
By contrast, a very powerful avenue for personalizing the imperative for positive social engagement is through pastoral care and counselling. Providing the space for individuals to speak their different truths freely is an invaluable tool on the road to creating a socially relevant, Torah-based approach to the complexities of modern life.