Luring Values Voters — On The Left


The most familiar religious voices in politics today normally come from the Christian right, said Rabbi Or Rose, an associate dean at Hebrew College in Boston. But a new campaign led by Rabbi Rose and others aims at changing that dynamic by introducing the language of values and morality to left-wing groups, particularly those in the Jewish community.

Dubbed the Righteous Indignation Project, the campaign got under way last week with a gathering to launch a new collection of essays, “Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice.”

The gathering took place at the Upper West Side apartment of Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service and one of the anthology’s more than 40 contributors. Plans also call for a conference of Jewish activists May 4 to 6 in Boston.

Although the effort is non-partisan, Rabbi Rose said, it’s timed for the 2008 election season, during which activists will encourage liberal Jews to participate in voter-registration drives and to familiarize themselves with the issues.

The religious right did “a masterful job” in the 2004 campaign of calling attention to their issues, like opposition to abortion and gay rights, and to their own version of “family values,” said Rabbi Rose, an editor of the new book.

“What we’re saying is that we, too, are dedicated to our values,” he continued, adding that, in their view, protecting the environment and fighting poverty are also religious issues.

“We’re going to be encouraging both Republican and Democratic candidates to address social-justice and environmental issues,” said Margie Klein, a rabbinical student at Hebrew College and one of the book’s other editors.

“Righteous Indignation” is one of at least three books published in the last year or so to call for social action on the part of American Jews or to claim progressive values as part of Jewish tradition. Others include “Peace, Justice, and Jews: Reclaiming Our Tradition,” an anthology edited by Murray Polner and Stefan Merken, and “Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World,” by Rabbi Sidney Schwarz.

The essays in “Righteous Indignation” cover a gamut of issues, including the environment, civil rights, the labor movement, poverty, the global AIDS crisis, immigration and gay rights. In addition to Messinger, contributors include Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Arieh Lebowitz, communications director at the Jewish Labor Committee; Dara Silverman, director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice; and Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center. Other chapters concern creating a broader, more inclusive Jewish community and fighting anti-Semitism on the left.

The collection is the first to try to change the comfort level of liberal, often secular Jews with mixing faith and politics — a tough challenge, according to many observers.

It’s a challenge acknowledged by Rabbi Rose, who admitted that “many progressives think of religion as a kind of opiate.”

But the rabbi said the alternative for progressives was simply to give up, abdicating the arena to the religious right. He also claimed that the religious left differs from the religious right in how it approaches moral issues, placing an emphasis on pluralism and subscribing to the notion that “no one person or one tradition holds all the cards.”

Asked how those ideas squared with the project’s title, “Righteous Indignation,” Rabbi Rose said the term “harkens back to the prophetic tradition,” which held that, at some point in your life, “you have to take stock of your own behavior and the behavior of others.”

But the rabbi added that, along with righteous indignation, “we also need love and compassion.”