The challenge for a rabbi sermonizing at last year’s High Holy Day services was both harder and easier than this year.
In 2016, many of us were grappling with what to say about the presidential election without violating the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits clergy from endorsing candidates at the risk of the church/synagogue losing its tax-exempt status.
Sermonizing in 2017 is easier. This is not an election year so that tightrope does not have to be walked. At the same time, offering sermons is more difficult now because of the daily onslaught of political and other societal shocks, leaving many Jews in the pews anxious and worried. They will look to their rabbis at these High Holy Days for words of guidance, consolation and hope.
In my 45 years as rabbi to one congregation, I avoided preaching about politics for three reasons. First, because many in the congregation were as well read, if not more, than I was in politics. Second, sitting before me was a captive audience with a wide range of opinions, though they could not talk back. And third, I wanted to teach Torah.
This year, though, is the exception. President Trump has tilled the soil of hate, racism and anti-Semitism so that extremist groups formerly crouched in the dark corners of the American arena have felt comfortable moving to center stage, competing for minds and hearts. The spillage of verbal sewage from our president’s mouth overflows, from mimicking a disabled reporter, to rebuking the Muslim parent who mourned his slain son in the American military, to boasting of his authority over women’s private parts, to equating Nazis with their protesters.
The image of a Nazi sympathizer in his car mowing down an innocent woman in Charlottesville while others stood near the synagogue as Jews inside prayed Sabbath services are seared on the hearts of too many American Jews. These are not just political matters. They are moral and religious matters that the rabbi must address.
Will the rabbi be preaching to the choir? After all, 74 percent of American Jews voted for Hillary Clinton last November. But there is a second choir in the congregation, given that approximately 24 percent of American Jews voted for Trump. The rabbi can assume that perhaps one out of four congregants will grumble at his or her message with words like “the rabbi is mixing politics with religion,” “the rabbi is just parroting the liberal media” or, “I came to shul to hear Torah, not politics.” Or else, “Israel and Iran should be the rabbi’s topics rather than the actions of a few hundred bigots.”
No matter. There is also a third choir, which should be rabbis of each denomination conveying in their own words the warning by a repentant white nationalist, R. Derek Black, whose godfather was former KKK leader David Duke. Black writes in The New York Times, “The president’s words legitimated the worst of our country, and now the white nationalist movement could be poised to grow. It is a fringe movement … because we work constantly to argue against it … and persuade our citizens to counter it. We can no longer count on the country’s leader to do this, so it’s now incumbent upon all of us.”
My sermon starts something like this:
For 45 years as your rabbi I have assured you of two unique realities for Jews in this great country. One is that social anti-Semitism is not a serious threat unless the government itself supports it through institutions like the police, legislatures and courts. That has not happened in this country since the infamous Grant Order No. 11 during the Civil War. And there is the fact that Americans express abundant philo-Semitism, with Jews, along with mainline Protestants and Catholics, the most admired American religious groups.
This year, those statements remain technically true. But they are eclipsed by a parallel reality that causes me anxiety as it surely does you. It is what Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who supervised the conversion of Ivanka Trump, and his rabbinic colleagues at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York called in their letter to the congregation “the renewed vigor of the alt-right’ stimulated by “moral equivalency and equivocation” on the part of President Trump in response to murder and violence.
As your rabbi, I have heard the voice of the shofar: “Wake up, slumberers, from your sleep.” The stink of anti-Semitism, racism and hatred wafting from the White House across this land have woken me. I will do my part to participate with you and lead you in concrete actions to reverse it.
What can we do? For starters, there are already many organizations that stand against ant-Semitism and racism. They should be supported. I refer to the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Jews United for Justice. Additionally, there will be local resistance. I invite you, just prior to the start of our most sacred day of Yom Kippur, to a vigil in front our synagogue. Prior to lighting the candles that start our Day of Atonement, we will light a second set of candles as we recite the words of Isaiah cited in the Haftorah:
“This is the fast that I have chosen: to loosen all the bonds that bind men unfairly; to let the oppressed go free; to break every yoke; share your bread with the hungry; take the homeless into your home; clothe the naked when you see him, do not turn away from people in need.”
Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, N.J.