Exercising Rabbinic Leadership in Politically Divisive Times

I think that if you are a leader, remaining silent on troubling issues is just plain wrong, even knowing full well from personal experience that taking a stand has public consequences.

By Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D.

If you are a rabbi, cantor, Jewish educator or Jewish professional, these are tough times. If you make a statement about Israel, you risk being accused either of being too hawkish or too dovish. If you speak about President Trump, expect to have extended talks with board members, donors or constituents, who, while ambivalent about the president, may have voted for him. And, if you speak about President Trump’s views on Israel, then you may as well pitch your tent and plan to stay the night because you will have some groups of people who want to express supportive views, and others who demand your resignation on the spot. Having served in many different Rabbinic capacities, I share my beliefs on how and why Jewish leaders, and especially rabbis, are obligated to speak out on issues that are divisive, not because controversy is inherently good, but because these are the times when we’re called upon to use our deeper knowledge and training and speak from a Jewish values perspective. I hope that these three beliefs will help you understand why it is important for Jewish leaders to address significant matters and how they may do so respectfully.

  1. Even if you don’t agree with what they say, you want Jewish leaders to express a point of view based on some aspect of Jewish tradition. Whether you’ve hired the C.E.O. of a Hillel organization, Jewish day school, camp or federation, and especially if you’ve hired a congregational rabbi, you’ve done so because you hope that he or she embodies and expresses Jewish values. Try to remember that even when you vehemently disagree with your leaders’ framing of issues around Jewish values, they are fulfilling their professional mandate and, in the case of most rabbis whom I know, are speaking with a belief in divine purpose. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t accountable for what they say and how they say it. And you are entitled to hear how their Jewish values and training have informed their perspectives. But if you don’t want them to raise matters of significance, then how can you complain that they are “boring” or “don’t say anything important?”
  2. Sometimes, we still act surprised when two knowledgeable rabbis can draw the opposite conclusions around a given issue. But even a cursory familiarity with a page of Talmud or a reading of just about any period of Jewish history will tell you that disagreement is normal. In part, the resilience of the Jewish tradition has been in its ability both to foster dissent of thought and encourage consensus of action. That does not mean that every community acts in the same way, but that communities, while acknowledging disagreements, can still mobilize to do important work together.
  3. Dissent and differences are beneficial because they broaden our thinking about issues. Our noble opponents shed light on aspects of issues that our blind spots cover. They also remind us that there are many good people in the world who hold different opinions from us, and engaging with them helps us avoid the trap of stereotyping everyone who holds a different view from us as somehow “deplorable.” Maintaining respect for someone with a different opinion is not easy for us. But, it’s also not easy for the person on the other side of the issue. With that acknowledgement, we may agree to work on the 40% of issues around which we have consensus, rather than fight to prove that the other is wrong about the 60% around which there is disagreement.

These three guiding principles are nice theory. But leading is about action, so here is how I am applying these principles as a U.S. citizen, who is a rabbi and an American Zionist. Like many U.S. citizens, while I’ll still love America, I’m not feeling very proud now about the state of government affairs. This is not a new feeling, but one that has intensified since the recent presidential campaign season and election. And like many American Zionists, I’m incredibly frustrated with the leadership of Israel’s majority coalition government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu. I don’t believe in walking away from the things that I love when I am conflicted about them. Rather, in tough times, I believe that caring is more constructive than despairing. I also think that if you are a leader, remaining silent on troubling issues is a just plain wrong, even knowing full well from personal experience that taking a stand has public consequences, just as not taking a stand also has negative private consequences.

So – as a U.S. citizen who has a daily stake in life in America, I have a first amendment right to express my political views, drawing upon my rabbinic training and religious values. It is never acceptable to diminish the dignity of another human being. We all share the same divine image that is of equal and infinite worth, and using terms that are vulgar, misogynistic, derisive of people with disabilities, or stereotyping entire groups of people because of nationality or religion as “other” and therefore by implication as dangerous offends Jewish values.

It is legitimate to have discussion and debate about issues relating to pathways to legal citizenship, and what those requirements should entail. It is legitimate to have discussions about a primary duty of government to protect its citizens. But it is never acceptable to do so in a way that displays callousness in view of the Torah’s commandments to be especially careful about those who are legally vulnerable.

As a U.S. citizen, I will support causes in the United States that align with fundamental democratic values (America as a welcoming home for immigrants who are inspired by our Constitution and committed to live by its laws; an independent media that is unafraid of coercion; racial, gender and economic equality; free and fair elections; respect for all branches of government, etc.). As an American Zionist, I will join with other groups that share those values. I will first seek out groups that do not mix international politics with domestic issues by including statements in their platforms that I judge to undermine Israel’s legitimacy. But as an American citizen, if a cause is too important for me to ignore, I will not automatically rule out collaborating even with groups that have anti-Israel statements in their platforms. If I do collaborate with them, I will call out their one-sided, anti-Israel motives.

As an American Zionist and a rabbinic leader who spends a significant amount of time in Israel, but is not an Israeli citizen, I have the right to express my views about events in Israel, but with caution and humility. On a very limited basis, I have experienced some of the effects of wartime in Israel. I had the experience of running to seek shelter within 90 seconds from incoming rockets targeting civilian areas, and taking off from Ben Gurion Airport on a night when 70 missiles were fired at the airport gave new meaning to the verse from the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air….”

But that doesn’t mean that I’ll ever know what it means to watch my 18-year old child be inducted mandatorily into the army to defend his or her country or, for that matter, a 30-something year old with a family to be activated for military service because of an enemy attack. I’ve been in Israel during the “knife intifada,” and several terrorist attacks have occurred close to my apartment while I’ve been there, but that doesn’t make me a political or military expert on Israel. Unlike some of my left-leaning and right-leaning friends or politicians who are very certain on their pronouncements about Israel, formed primarily from what they read or want to believe, I realize that debates about pressing issues like Israeli settlements are much more complex. Just spend some time with Israelis, and you’ll hear plenty of robust and diverse political debate about what constitutes a settlement verses a city or suburb, and how necessary some are or aren’t.

In addition to spending increasingly more time in Israel in the future, the way that I’m going to demonstrate my hopes that Israel will live up to its promise of a Jewish, Zionistic and democratic state will be to support Israeli Jewish groups that bolster democracy in Israel. Additionally, as an American Zionist, I will no longer support American Jewish organizations that uncritically back the current U.S. administration when its policies and bigoted rhetoric conflict with my Jewish values. Yes – there’s a lot at stake for Jewish organizations in opposing any U.S. administration. But personally, I feel like I’m selling out my Jewish values if I remain silent when President Trump, or a member of any U.S. political party, makes ad hominin attacks that directly conflict with Jewish values on human dignity and civility.

When it comes to the Jewish community, the rabbinic leadership obligation and, I believe the leadership imperative of any Jewish professional who directs a Jewish organization, is to address significant issues when they conflict with Jewish values and to applaud those that support Jewish values. Addressing critical issues is a bipartisan Jewish leadership principle, one that allows a person to lead with integrity and authenticity. As a member of a faith community, we have the right and I believe the need to express our perspectives on critical issues in our country, recognizing that we are speaking within the context of a secular democracy. We get to contribute to a national conversation, using our authentic voice, but with the recognition that we have some truth to contribute, as others do as well. Along with that obligation, we have the responsibility to speak with empathy for those who do not agree with us, and humility so that we can learn from others. Ultimately, as a U.S., rabbinic American Zionist, I believe that an America that lives up to its highest values is good for America and good for Israel. What do you think? And looking forward to your respectful response – thank you.

Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is an author, consultant and nonprofit organizational futurist who holds a doctorate in Organization and Management. A “C-suite” leader, Hayim has worked with over 300 rabbis and congregations of all sizes and denominations throughout North America on issues including assessment, volunteer leadership development, strategic planning, organizational foresight and innovation. His most recent publications are Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose, with Dr. Terri Elton (2016) and, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today. Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish (2012).