President Obama’s pre-High Holy Days conference call last week with Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis about health care reform created some controversy after some rabbis twittered the call (most notably, Rabbinical Assembly director of public policy Rabbi Jack Moline, who has since taken down those tweets) and Obama critics questioned the call’s appropriateness and the president’s message.
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism director Rabbi David Saperstein has responded with a lengthy blog post defending the call at the RAC’s Web site. First, Saperstein pointed out that Obama was invited to speak on the call by the Reform movement, and did not seek out the rabbinical audience:
These calls typically address liturgical, theological, Jewish communal, or social justice topics of concern to our congregants and rabbis. When we address a social justice issue or public policy issue, we invite policy experts, scholars of Jewish history, tradition, law or theology, and leading preachers to offer perspectives. This year, believing that health care is an issue of such crucial concern and implication to our nation, our community and our congregants – and believing that rabbis would likely be preaching on this topic sometime in the near future, either on the High Holy Days or at some other occasion – we devoted this year’s social justice call to that issue. We invited President Obama to address the underlying moral issues in the health care policy debates and were honored that he accepted. The response of a record-breaking nearly 1,000 rabbis from every stream of Jewish life to hear the President and Jewish scholars on health care reform testifies to the correctness of our judgment as to the interest in this topic and the desire to hear the President address the key moral issues at stake.
Saperstein also argues that the call was not partisan or political:
The President’s comments and a subsequent question-and-answer session were about 17 minutes of a one-hour call, the bulk of which was devoted to presentations from three rabbis exploring Jewish teachings on health care. Some critics have expressed concern that the President’s presence on a call for clergy is inherently partisan, thereby politicizing the High Holy Days. Yet none of the speakers addressed the partisan divide or politics. All, including the President, addressed the underlying moral issues from a variety of perspectives. But some, I suspect are critical of any discussion on such issues as being "political," defining anything political as being outside the religious concerns of the Jewish community and/or the concerns Jews have on the High Holy Days. At the root of many of these criticisms is the question of whether we, as Jews, should engage in social justice advocacy work in the first place. To us, the answer is all but self-evident. One cannot take seriously God’s call to us to be a light to and of the nations, God’s call to care for the poor and the vulnerable, nor God’s call for us to assess during the High Holiday period how we, as individuals and as a people, might do better without assessing how we have done in addressing the great moral issues of our day.
And Saperstein specifically takes on the criticism of former Bush administration Jewish liaison Tevi Troy, who wondered why the president had wished the rabbis a "Shana Tova" a month before Rosh Hashanah and questioned his quotation of the U’netana Tokef prayer:
Mr. Troy bewilderingly disparaged the President for wishing listeners a "shana tova," or a good new year, suggesting it would have only been appropriate to have referenced the reflective spirit of the month of Elul. In fact, the President did exactly that! He referenced the month of Elul preceding Rosh Hashanah as being set aside for spiritual reflection and seeing that as an appropriate model for our nation this month, as we grapple with our personal and collective responsibilities in ensuring that the 47 million currently uninsured Americans (totaling more than 80 million who will go without insurance at some point this year) and the additional 30 million underinsured have access to quality health care. The notion that it was inappropriate for the President, in his closing words on a call in preparation for the High Holidays, to wish 1,000 rabbis his best wishes for a good New Year (especially when he likely knew that he wasn’t going to speak directly to these rabbis again before the holidays) seems more reflective of critics’ antipathy toward the President than the sensibilities shared by American Jewry.
Finally, Mr. Troy offered a confusing criticism of the President’s quoting from the U’netana Tokef prayer, a central liturgical prayer of the High Holy Days. Again, the President used it authentically and effectively, correctly noting that during these holidays and in this prayer, Jews acknowledge that, in matters of life and death, God is the ultimate judge. Yet the President noted that Jewish tradition teaches we are God’s partners in preserving life and delaying death. Indeed, the commandment of pekuach nefesh, that we not only can but must violate any other law (save three – murder, idolatry and sexual crimes) in order to preserve life, is as central a concept in Jewish law and values as one can find. Ensuring health care to all is one way of fulfilling that mandate to preserve life.