Forward Thinking

What Is Rabbi's Role at Convention?

By Beth Kissileff

  • Print
  • Share Share

When Rabbi Everett Gendler was released from jail in Albany, Ga., in 1962 he and the 11 other rabbis jailed with him for “public prayer without a license” each found a Western Union telegram waiting. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, sent to them a message with a verse from Isaiah 5:16 “And the Lord of Hosts is exalted by judgment, the Holy God proved holy by justice.” Rabbi Gendler said in a phone interview with the Forward that “it is clear that what he was saying is that this stance and this witnessing is what religion is about.”

At this moment when rabbis gave an invocation and a benediction at each of the major American political party conventions, the question remains what the role for religion should be in public life. Rabbi David Wolpe’s benediction at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte immediately after the roll call to nominate Barack Obama as the party candidate and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s invocation at the start of the Republican National convention in Tampa last week were very different addresses, both steeped in tradition.

They each began their address with “Ribbono shel olam” the Hebrew invocation “master of the universe.” After that, they differed, with Soloveichik taking as his Biblical text Leviticus 25:10, the verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, “you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” His emphasis was on liberty and on rights that are God-given not from government. Wolpe, by contrast, chose a prophetic teaching from Isaiah 1:17 about the sacred commitment of “defending the orphan and fighting for the widow.”

Wolpe invoked the Jewish ideals of creating a “kinder sweeter world than we have known” and requested leaders to have ”strength of soul” but never mentioned a candidate or a party by name.

Soloveichik invoked the candidates by name and called God’s blessing down on them in his address. At the Democratic convention, Wolpe’s words were studiously non-partisan; Wolpe is not a signatory on the list of “Rabbis for Obama.”. As Jack Moline of congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va., wrote in an email to the Forward about political invocations, “Even a person who does not share the political or religious perspective of the speaker should find worth in what the speaker presents. And above all, clergy must recognize that the Constitution serves as our nation’s common document, not scripture of any kind nor anyone’s interpretation of that scripture.”

Professor Marc Shapiro of the theology department at the University of Scranton was surprised at the “openly partisan” nature of the remarks of Soloveichik since this “goes against the genre [of invocations]” as one is generally “above partisanship as a member of the cloth.” Shapiro contrasted the speech of Soloveichik with that given by another Orthodox rabbi, Fabian Schonfeld, then of the Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills to the 1984 Republican convention which blesses Ronald Reagan the standing president.

So what is the task of a rabbi in an election year?

Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Conservative congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and one of the signatories on Rabbis for Obama said, “My job as a leader is, while championing ideas and politicians I support, to not vilify or demonize my fellow Americans.”

Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg of Congregation Beth El in Edison, N.J. the organizer of Rabbis for Romney said, “If a rabbi has a position they really believe in, we have a right to our own opinions.” His purpose in forming this political group is the Holocaust, he told the Forward. He is the product of survivors and was born in a displaced persons camp and feels that a group like “Rabbis for Obama” creates “fodder for neo-Nazis” who ask why Jews are “so central” to political campaigns and the media. He believes having rabbis for both sides is important. “I don’t criticize or go after anybody unless they go after me.”

Rabbi Amy Eilberg Chair, of the Working Group on Sacred Text – Jewish Council for Public Affairs Campaign for Civility has sent out materials to rabbis around the country “addressing the crisis of incivility in the Jewish community and in American public life” according to the email sent with the packet. Eilberg told the Forward in a phone interview that for the “rabbis of the Talmud , important, creative, vital relationships go flat and can even die in the absence of the ability to wrestle with ideas.” She said that there are materials from both the right and left in her texts, including some from Forward columnist Noam Neusner who has been a Republican speechwriter.

Gendler told the Forward in a phone interview that “Heschel could not conceive of religion without involvement in public policy. The prophets demand it. But policy is broader and deeper than petty partisan politics.” Let us hope that in this electoral season America’s rabbinic leaders can lead by example and invoke Jewish ideals in a way that promotes genuine discussion and engagement shorn of the viciousness reigning in much of today’s political discussion.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the forthcoming “Reading Genesis” (Continuum Books, 2013), a collection of essays by academics on the Biblical book of Genesis. She has taught Hebrew Bible and English literature at the University of Minnesota and atSmith, Carleton and Mount Holyoke Colleges.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: yeshiva, republican convention, meir soloveichik, democratic convention, david wolpe

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.