Engaging Controversial Issues:
Nine Scenarios Involving Rabbis and their Congregations

Photo: Isti Bardos, Temple Israel, Memphis, TN. Screen capture: ReformJudaism.org

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

As we approach the High Holy Days, the subject of the rabbi’s sermon often becomes a primary point of discussion. Should the sanctuary, for example, be a place for sharing political perspectives?

As an observer of the Jewish scene and as a non-rabbi, I respectfully want to introduce these observations of the various roles that rabbis are playing in connection with this question.* Whether we are talking about Israel and foreign affairs, domestic policy matters or the forthcoming presidential election, the deep political divisions within our society are strikingly present within our communities.

It is no secret that when rabbis offer statements on political issues or present controversial sermons, they can face private and public criticism, member resignations, even efforts to remove them, and/or threats directed against them, among other expressions or manifestations of reaction. At the same time, one should not minimize the positive feedback that is often extended to our rabbis for their moral leadership around these issues.

Inspiration represents a central feature of religious worship and the teachings offered by our rabbis. Indeed, when a sermon or teaching does not conform with a congregant’s belief system, in particular his or her political views, that disconnect can in fact damage their pastoral relationship. As one rabbi suggested, “it’s much deeper than just a tribal disagreement based on red or blue!” Another scenario involves “political theatre” as often congregants are in search of a place away from the “drip drip of politics,” seeking instead a safe space. The rabbinic challenge involves the expectations of synagogue attendees who look to their rabbis for real exposure to what our texts teach. The reality here is that many texts lend themselves to different interpretations!

While these nine scenarios are presented through the lens of the synagogue, similar patterns of practice can also be found among communal professionals who often must also manage these divisive issues.

Scenario One: Politically Neutral Environment. The synagogue is off limits for controversial political topics. In this model the congregation is acculturated to understand that the pulpit will not be the centerpiece for such sermon themes. Leadership has defined the parameters. There are of course exceptions, i.e. responses to mass shootings, terrorist attacks and other national or Jewish tragedies.

Scenario Two: Selective Engagement. With the knowledge of key leadership (one’s board and/or officers), the rabbi engages the congregation, tackling from time to time controversial issues, introducing these topics by offering a contextualized framework by employing Jewish references and general texts in support one’s position. “My study of Jewish tradition leads me to…” Rabbis walk their congregants through the struggles that they as Jewish professionals have when dealing with challenging issues. This process itself can be a powerful learning moment as the community is introduced to both the personal dilemmas confronting the rabbi and the complexities often found within the tradition itself.

Scenario Three: Culture of Activism. The culture and history of the congregation create certain expectations. In those settings where rabbis have been expected to speak to the issues of the day, does such a practice still hold true, and are rabbis necessarily comfortable always to speak out? (In most cases, where there is such an activist tradition, a rabbinic applicant would most likely have been asked during interviews – will you fit into the expectations of the congregation?

Scenario Four: It’s Generational. Rabbis, who have held their positions for a significant period of time or feel secure in their pulpit, may feel more empowered and secure to speak out on certain issues. In turn, younger rabbis may not yet be ready to do so, citing their level of personal comfort and the vulnerability of their position. Is this notion concerning generations any longer true?

Scenario Five: Acharai. Some rabbis will seek to inspire their congregations to “follow them” in connection with certain types of specific actions. Based on a clearly articulated moral imperative, the call to action represents a framework for mobilizing in some tangible and specific form. Here, the credibility of the rabbi is central to this model.

Scenario Six: The Organizer. This approach employs both the sermon and the “street” work of the rabbi in building coalitions for mutual action. The end product here is centered on the outcomes.

Scenario Seven: Actions Speak! Transforming the congregation but not the sanctuary into a public activist space. The social justice work is the political statement of the community! The rabbi here is the enabler!

Scenario Eight: What Drives my Rabbinate? And how much bandwidth defines my rabbinate? Starting from where I am or what I want my rabbinate to represent are critical components. How much space or credibility do I have as a clergy person to engage my congregation? In constructing what is possible, where do I place my priorities, energies and passions?

Scenario Nine: The Prophetic Disrupter. Especially in these challenging times, must we not speak out? Some rabbis hold to the notion that unusual circumstances require an ethical intervention, with or without the support of the community. Urgency dictates action! In some settings it is the rabbi expressing through his/her actions, a part from the congregation, the moral imperative to respond.

Factors and Conditions:

  • These nine scenarios can be applied to the same community at different moments, and they can exist simultaneously in one congregation. 
  • At times and depending on the issue, region of the country, and the demographics of the congregation define the political territory.
  • Different issues evoke different responses (What garners a high risk vs. a low risk reaction?)
  • No matter what the nature of response, many members will disagree. That factor cannot be ignored. The rabbi – or the Board – feels one way – but a vocal minority of members disagrees. How should that situation be handled?
  • After years of holding to one position, a rabbi embraces a different approach? Was the previous approach wrong? How does he/she account for such changes?

Preparing the Community: Strategies for the De-escalation of Conflict

  • Produce Civility Statements or Introduce Existing Materials on Managing Controversial Discussions (Is civility however always the goal?)
  • Prepared Statements: Statements (sermons) made by the rabbi that are likely to provoke controversy should be fully written out in advance and available for distribution. Questions concerning “what did the rabbi actually say” can be quickly clarified by the presence of such texts.
  • Words matter! The language at times is as important as the content, as particular phrases carry with them politically-charged messages.
  • Meet with Key Congregational Leaders: Such conversations can be held in advance, so as to alert leadership about the potential fall-out over a forthcoming sermon or public action.
  • Ask the Rabbi Session: Following such a sermon, host a conversation with the rabbi where congregants can gain further clarity in connection with the rabbi’s message.
  • Create Table/Living Room Conversations: In response to or in anticipation of a controversial sermon presentation: https://www.resettingthetable.org/
  • Bring in an Outside Facilitator: If you believe that having a neutral voice in the room will help to deflate anger and focus the conversation to be more productive, you may wish to use such a resource.

End Notes:

We are reminded that often out of a deep personal sense of obligation and loyalty to the tradition, our rabbis are seeking to reflect in their words and actions the ideals and mandates of Judaism. Their rabbinate is their Torah.

Acknowledging that our communities are experiencing great divisions around both domestic policies and international concerns, it is important to understand what are the possible pathways for moving forward when introducing such complex and controversial issues. This is a snapshot into certain patterns of rabbinic practice. It represents a sampling of the current set of behaviors and practices being employed and the challenges that are present!*

  • The material introduced here was part of a recent presentation to a group of rabbis.
  • I am particularly appreciative of the input provided for this article by a number of rabbis, including Stanley Davids, Denise Eger, and Jocee Hudson.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.