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Politics and the Pulpit: Perfect Fit or Pure Folly?

November 10, 2005 By:
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Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., which helped jump-start a movement to question the exit strategy of the Iraq war.
Historically, American Jews have been liberal in their political positions, and generally opposed to war and violence. Opinions among individuals, of course, have varied across the board, but the majority have been known to oppose large-scale conflagrations, and have gone public with their viewpoints. Thus, it's not surprising to learn that one branch of Judaism may be set to make a formal declaration on the war in Iraq.

The Union for Reform Judaism's General Assembly is expected to vote on a resolution in Houston later this month that would call on President Bush, Congress and the movement itself to take actions bringing the war in Iraq to a close.

The idea for the resolution was first broached to the Reform organization by Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J.

"The Reform movement has had a long history of raising its voice about the crucial moral issues of the day," stated Rabbi Barry Schwartz, congregational leader at M'kor Shalom. "The war in Iraq, I believe, is one of these issues."

Yet the possibility of the resolution actually being passed - and thereby making a formal statement for the entire Reform movement - raises some questions about whether politics has a place on the bimah.

Like most issues confronting society, rabbis' opinions on the subject run the gamut, from keeping mum on anything related to the nightly news to speaking out with gusto at High Holiday services against U.S. foreign policy.

"When people want to duck an issue, they label it political, and say a rabbi isn't supposed to talk about it," said Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom of Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park. He has been speaking out against the war in his sermons since before the conflagration started nearly two years ago.

"I believe that when I speak about the war and Iraq - or when my colleagues do - it's not because we have an ax to grind," he said, "but because we have a moral obligation to denounce injustice and unnecessary killing."

Rosenbloom, who will begin reading the names of those killed in Iraq at his weekly Shabbat services, acknowledged that while many of Adath Jeshurun's members approve of him voicing his opinion, some have sought membership elsewhere.

Still, Rosenbloom said that fact has not deterred him from publicizing his point of view.

In the Opposition
According to a survey conducted in 2004 by the American Jewish Committee, some 66 percent of Jews disapprove of the Iraq war and how Bush is handling it. This compares with 39 percent of Americans who don't agree with the war, according to a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey conducted around the same time.

Regardless of the numbers, some rabbis are reluctant to use the pulpit, as Rosenbloom is doing, to voice their opinions because some congregants remain in favor of an American presence in Iraq.

According to Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Conservative movement is not likely to make a formal declaration on the issue for just that reason.

"The Jewish community is somewhat divided on the issue, and our policies have to be reflective of where our congregations are," he explained.

"Otherwise, it's just a few of us in a smoked-filled room making our feelings felt - and we don't want to do that," said Epstein.

Locally, Reform and Conservative rabbis say that in order to respect all of their congregants, they don't take a hard-and-fast public stance. Instead, they offer some food for thought with regard to international policy, and allow congregants to formulate their own viewpoints.

At Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Rabbi Lance Sussman did just that in this year's Kol Nidre sermon, which he said aroused the most amount of discussion in his five years as leader of the synagogue.

"I wasn't barnstorming on one side or the other, but tried to ask the big questions and challenge the congregation to debate it," said Sussman. "My reasoning was that, on Yom Kippur, we need to look at ourselves, and this is the 500-pound gorilla at the party that no one is talking about."

Steven Wernick, the religious leader at Adath Israel, a Conservative shul in Merion Station, agrees that his responsibility as a rabbi is merely to raise the questions that stem from foreign policy rather than make a political declaration.

"I think there are good questions that can be raised about the war in Iraq, and how it has been handled and how it was sold to the public," he said. "My job is to raise those questions, and help people apply Jewish values to the important life decisions that we make politically, and in our private lives as well."

Likewise, a March 2003 statement from leaders of the Reconstructionist movement on America's entry into armed conflict with Iraq recognized that "our communities reflect a range of opinion and emotion." That statement did not either condemn or condone the war.

More recently, however, Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia has been an outspoken critic of the war, signing on to an effort in May to protest the rising casualties in Iraq.

The Orthodox movement, on the other hand, has - from the beginning - been largely supportive of military action.

An October 2002 statement from the Orthodox Union urged the U.S. Congress to authorize the use of force in Iraq.

Many rabbis, though, are adamantly opposed to even giving the slightest hint of a political view in sermons, or for a movement as a whole to make an umbrella statement, as the Reform movement may do.

"For any rabbi to presume that they know which position is morally superior is at best the product of an inflated rabbinic ego," said Rabbi Neil Cooper, congregational leader of Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Wynnewood. "When rabbis or rabbinic groups come out with an opinion, they are saying there is a proper Jewish view. As the rabbi of a diverse congregation, I would be reluctant to make those kinds of declarations."

Despite the controversy, Wernick pointed out that Judaism allows room for a debate on almost all issues. "Even the Talmud records both the majority and the minority opinion. It's the way of the world."

Next Week: Why America's at War and What Americans Are Saying About It

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