The High Holidays existed long before the current occupant of the White House and, for that matter, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, too.
And they’ll be around long after whoever follows the president into the Oval Office is gone as well.
That’s why some area rabbis are leaving politics and the state of the union out of the conversation when sermon time arrives.
At the same time, others feel a need to tie in the events of Charlottesville, Va., the potential ramifications of eliminating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for immigrants and the significant increase of anti-Semitic incidents to a broader Jewish picture.
It’s what Rabbi Beth Kalisch of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne calls “the urgency of now.”
“Morality needs to be on the pulpit,” said Kalisch, who participated in the Aug. 28 One Thousand Ministers March for Justice in Washington, D.C. “Every rabbi finds their balance a little bit differently. We have a responsibility to teach Torah, and Torah is about life. When politics touches core issues of morality, then rabbis have to speak up on those issues.”
Rabbis concede it’s a slippery slope.
Last year, on the verge of the election, without expressly endorsing a candidate, Rabbi Joshua Waxman of Or Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation in Fort Washington, spoke about future-President Donald Trump’s character and how it related to Jewish values. This year, he had hoped to focus on other things.
Then came Charlottesville.
“After Charlottesville, I have to ask what does it mean at this moment to be Jewish in America and what does the situation demand from us as Jews?” said Waxman, who is also the president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. “People are going to be coming into synagogue who want to hear about this. I don’t see it as political because it obviously touches on relevant issues when you see white supremacists and Nazis marching in the street chanting, ‘Jews will not replace us.’
“I don’t see those as political questions but as moral and religious questions.”
Not every rabbi agrees, particularly within the Orthodox community.
“I know that some people may want to see us jump on the political events that are happening,” said Rabbi Albert E. Gabbai of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Society Hill. “We don’t. For us, it’s more important to teach spiritual things, which, by themselves, extend to society. We absolutely don’t talk about this president or a past president or the next president. Politics have no place in the spiritual aspect of life.”
“Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are very unique days,” agreed Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch of Mekor Habracha in Center City, where not all visitors are strictly Orthodox. “Rosh Hashanah is like a miniature judgment day. Yom Kippur is the final act. The Neilah service is the final, final act. To focus on current events is diverting.”
Besides, as Rabbi Moshe Brennan of Chabad of Penn Wynne said, the High Holidays aren’t about presidents: They’re about God.
“My concept of the High Holidays is very much the same each year,” Brennan said. “Every year we have the opportunity to make God king again.
“We’re re-electing God into office and asking him to be king, and we’re committing to being his worthy subjects. Obviously, the time we live in might have specific ways of manifesting the message. But in general I don’t think the High Holidays are the time to get out the Jewish message about this or that. The primary prayer services don’t change because of what is going on. We’re electing a leader. The High Holidays are more personal than global.”
A few miles up the road, Rabbi Barry Blum of Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall sees it differently. In fact, he had a congregant at his Conservative synagogue speak about DACA and how it pertains to Jews during a recent Shabbat.
He’ll expand upon that theme next week.
“The whole idea of the stranger came to my mind as a really appropriate topic,” said Blum, who learned that his grandfather came to this country from Russia through HIAS. “As Jews, we’re strangers throughout our history.”
A portion of his upcoming sermon was written by Monsignor Ralph J. Chieffo of St. Mary Magdalen Church in Media, who joined Blum in the spring for a combined Passover and Easter celebration. Such interfaith cooperation has been a constant at Beth El-Ner Tamid, which hosted Catholic church students from Kentucky when Pope Francis visited Philadelphia in 2015.
“We’re all refugees across the world. So on Rosh Hashanah I’m addressing the stranger based on Judaic teachings,” he affirmed. “On Yom Kippur, I’ll be asking what God wants from us and talking about the connections Jews need to make with the Christian community.”
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I knew by the spring of 2016 I would be leaving a synagogue that I had belonged to for over 20 years. Although by then there was no going back, I was highly insulted when one of the rabbis after Torah study one Shabbat informed me that I “had” to vote for Clinton, if for no other reason than Trump would get rid of Roe v Wade. This discussion came about because I said during Torah study I didn’t intend to vote for president because I thought it better than stating I was voting to Trump and having the entire class gang up on me. The rabbi was in his 30s, I was in my 60s and had been voting for over 40 years — in other words I was old enough to be his mother and had been voting since before he was born. I later found out he had tried to talk at least one other congregant out of voting for Trump (didn’t work with that congregant, either). Furthermore, I am a rarity among Reform Jews — I believe abortion is murder, although I make exceptions for rape, incest, the health of the mother and medical problems with the baby. As I stated, I already knew I was not going to return in the fall, but if I had been on the fence this would have sealed the deal for me. Politics do not belong on the pulpit.