A Times of San Diego article portrayed the major leaders and clergy in the San Diego Jewish community as passively mum in the face of President Trump’s anti-Semitic portrayals of Jewish Democrats as disloyal and vicious attacks on Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar. The article points out the seeming inconsistency with a November 2018 condemnation of Congressman Duncan Hunter’s attacks on candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar signed on by 17 San Diego rabbis and the lack of any such statement for these recent flare ups of racism and anti-Semitism. The article portrays San Diego’s rabbis and Jewish leaders as Jewish professionals who avoid politics at all costs, with few exceptions.
As one of the rabbis who signed onto the statement condemning Hunter’s use of Islamophobic tropes and as someone who has tried to address important issues in pastoral and prophetic ways, I want to reflect on the role of the rabbi in a community filled with diverse opinions. It is absolutely not true that I and many of my colleagues do not speak out when we see racism, Islamophobia, or abuse of power in our country.
This past Shabbat, I shared from the pulpit, or bimah, a reading by Rabbi Irwin Keller addressing the President’s portrayal of Democratic Jews as disloyal. My senior rabbi and I have delivered sermons on the migrant crisis, we have called for sensible gun reform in the face of mass shootings, we have condemned white supremacy and the dog whistles that stoke its ire. The Tisha B’Av event on Aug. 11 mentioned in the Times of San Diego article also served as an opportunity for our community to mourn the state of the world and the brokenness we all feel over the divisions in our country.
I was among those who signed the letter condemning Hunter’s attacks on Campa-Najjar. I cannot speak for all my colleagues, many of whom did not feel comfortable signing onto the letter, and I respect their decisions to stay silent. I decided to speak out because I was among a group of San Diego rabbis who met Campa-Najjar. When we met, he spoke about his background, and told us in no uncertain terms that he rejected the legacy of his grandfather and the terrorism he perpetrated. He expressed support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for Israel’s right to defend herself from her enemies. I spoke out against Hunter’s attacks because they did not reflect who Campa-Najjar is and because they partook in fear-mongering Islamophobia that has only caused division and hatred in our national discourse.
The 17 of us who signed that letter did so because it was a local issue that had particular relevance for San Diego rabbis. In contrast, the more recent issues of the attacks on the congresswomen or the statements calling Democratic Jews disloyal, were national headlines. Many of our national organizations, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbinical Assembly, and Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, among many others, issued statements on our behalf condemning the rhetoric of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia involved in these issues.
As we consider the Times of San Diego article, it is also important to understand that because of the nature of our work, sometimes choosing not to speak out on political issues is also a principled stance. Every congregational rabbi has congregants with diverse sets of opinions. We are equally rabbis to our Democratic, Independent, and Republican congregants, so when we make statements from the bimah or to the public, we have to be careful about how we craft them.
One of the most important strategies to do so is to depersonalize political topics. Talk about issues, not about candidates. Discuss the issues and bring the Jewish tradition to bear on them. Talking about candidates not only violates the Johnson Amendment, but it sends the message to people of the other political party that their rabbi does not respect their views, that their community does not welcome them.
It is also important to note that the work of rabbis and the work of the Jewish community is multi-faceted. We have congregants who have lost loved ones and are in search of healing and comfort. We have people who come to find spiritual fulfillment and the answers to the big questions of life. We have people who seek to learn and enrich their minds through study and prayer. We have people who are lonely and in search of friendship and community. We have to meet all these needs, and when we respond to every tweet and preach every week on the issues of the day, we are not meeting the needs of our people.
In reflecting on my role as a rabbi, before speaking on an issue from the bimah, I also ask: what does my voice contribute to the discussion? Our congregants already see a great deal of political pontificating and commentary on social media, cable news, and the press. If I use the bimah to address an issue, it is very important to me to have something original and something unique as a rabbi to add to the discussion. If we merely replicate what our congregants can find in the media or on Facebook, then all we are doing is adding to the noise. That is not what our people need to hear from their rabbis.
What we can provide is a perspective grounded in Jewish text—both the majority and minority opinions of our tradition. We can speak from the voice of our prophets, and we can offer a vision of a world guided by justice, compassion, and mercy. This is the role of the rabbi. Not to be just another talking head in the political sphere, but to be a bringer of comfort, understanding and inspiration.
Benj Fried is Associate Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in San Diego. He was supported in writing this op-ed by Rabbis Yael Ridberg, Devorah Marcus, and Susan Freeman.