I know that when clergy speak publicly on public policy issues, many get nervous. Some say that rabbis shouldn’t take positions from the bimah because it could alienate congregants. It is true, that may happen from time to time. Others will ask what they should do if they disagree with their rabbis’ messages.
One of my teachers gave me two pieces of sage advice: 1) if someone isn’t angry with the rabbi, the rabbi isn’t doing his/her job; and 2) the rabbi’s role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Both of these statements contain great truths, however, they can indeed be alienating. I don’t see my role as a rabbi to afflict or to alienate. There are better ways to teach than through confrontation. But there is a truth in the above statements: I am supposed to challenge, even provoke our thinking on certain issues not because I believe in one cause or behavior versus another…but because God wants us to respond to real life issues and concerns using a Jewish lens.
One of my favorite teachings is the following by Martin Buber:
We shall accomplish nothing at all if we divide our world and our life into two domains: one in which God’s command is paramount, the other governed by the laws of economics, politics, and the “simple self-assertion” of the group… Stopping one’s ear so as not to hear the voice from above is breaking the connection between existence and the meaning of existence.*
I share this because last weekend, our Confirmation class went to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to participate with over 200 other high school students in the RAC’s L’Taken Seminar. They spent the weekend learning about public policy issues from our Reform Jewish perspective and then on Monday went to lobby at the offices of Senators Chambliss, Isakson and Congressman Price.
The students chose some of the more provocative issues, but those that address them and their peers in very personal ways. They were thoughtful, articulate, and respectful even though our representatives were not necessarily aligned with our students on these issues.
I have to say… the staffer that was the most inspiring was Kyle from Congressman Price’s office. He applauded not only their preparation, but their desire to travel from Atlanta to DC to make their case to a House member who disagreed with them. He was impressed and encouraged them to continue their efforts long after the L’Taken Seminar was over.
I was impressed, too.
So what comes next?
Raise your voice! But let’s do so in a way that is not simply about our own self-interest or following along with what “most people say.” To see the world through Jewish eyes means that we are going to use our sources to help inform our decisions. I don’t believe I can separate the way I vote from the way I believe…nor do I want to. I can also respect those who come to different conclusions in an effort to walk in God’s ways from their perspective. I hope that these 15 year old students will show us that it is important to spend some time to respond to the call for justice and to make a difference in our broken world through acts of tikkun / healing.
If you would like to have a similar experience of learning and advocating, I hope you will consider visiting the RAC at their Consulation on Conscience — Reform Judaism’s flagship social justice and public policy conference on May 1-3, 2011 in Washington, DC.
To learn a little more about the RAC — its history and its work — check out this video:
So…if we are asked “Where are you / Ayekah?” in terms of our work to bring healing to our fractured world — how are we going to respond?
*Martin Buber, Address Delivered at a Convention of Jewish Youth Representatives in Antwerp, 1932, in Buber, “And if Not Now, When?” Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis. Reprinted ed. (Syracuse University Press edition, 1997), 235.