Nothing I am going to write about Barack Obama and his controversial pastor — check that, former pastor — will help you better understand the issue than what Obama himself has to say on the subject. So I urge you to read the speech he gave last week in Philadelphia.
Many Jews are going to focus on his brief remarks on Israel. He called the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's views on the subject "profoundly distorted." But in some ways, I am even more intrigued by what the Obama-Wright affair has to say about relationships with our clergy. To what degree are any of us responsible for or implicated in whatever is said from the pulpit and beyond?
Obama addresses directly the question that's been nagging at pro-Israel Democrats: why he associated himself with Wright in the first place. If all he knew of Wright "were the snippets that have run in an endless loop on television," says Obama, he, too, might never have joined the church.
But Obama insists that the angry and sometimes shocking excerpts do not reflect the Wright he knows. That pastor "is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor." And as he did in a meeting earlier this month with Jewish leaders in Cleveland, he likens Wright to a member of his family, warts and all.
My own experience tells me that the relationship between congregant and controversial clergy is more complex than the cable squawkers will acknowledge. For a few years before we moved to New Jersey, my family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue. Its rabbi is a national figure whom you would be as likely to find at a demonstration as on the bimah. Before joining the shul, I mostly knew him as a right-wing firebrand, often on the side of the angels, but just as often making statements that — especially in that overwrought time that preceded the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin — would make my blood boil.
The rabbi's rhetoric in shul was never as divisive as Wright's, but I'd sometimes hear him quoted in the media. That's where he'd say the kinds of things that made me worry whether my membership in his synagogue signaled that I condoned them. In the end, I measured him as a man whose political passions were of a piece with his passion to build Jewish community. The rabbi was someone who, as Obama says of Wright, "contains within him the contradictions — good and bad — of the community that he has served diligently for so many years."
This doesn't forgive Wright his overheated rhetoric on race or support for Louis Farrakhan, but it helps me understand why Obama would be a part of his church. And if you think that sounds apologetic, then consistency suggests that you begin to apply new scrutiny not only to rabbis, but to the non-Jewish clergy we consider friends and to the friends who consider them their clergy.
You can start with the evangelical ministers, like John Hagee, who move us with their commitment to Israel but insult Catholics, Mormons, homosexuals and secular folk with their (literally) unforgiving theologies. For years, the pro-Israel strategy has been to separate the evangelicals' Zionism from the darker, intolerant implications of their eschatological vision. In light of the Wright controversy, can we still do so?
Or you might consider the case of Rabbi Hershel Schachter, dean at Yeshiva University's rabbinical school, who entertained some American yeshiva students in Israel by suggesting they should "shoot" the prime minister of Israel if the Israeli government were to "give away" Jerusalem. Confronted with the YouTube clip of the incident, Schachter apologized.
You might argue that critics of Schachter or of angry right-wing rabbis don't understand the internal language of Jewish life and the subtlety of speech that draws on the Torah. Some exploit the ignorance that results, forgiving their clergy's excesses by saying outsiders don't understand the "coded" nature of their speech. And others ignore the differences, and presume to know exactly what can be found in another's heart and faith.
So take your moral stands, tolerant or severe — just make sure you're setting a standard that you and your leaders can meet.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.