Rabbi David Wolpe is retiring from L.A.’s Sinai Temple
In addition to his pulpit, Wolpe has cultivated one of the most prominent rabbinic voices in the United States
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
It was perhaps symbolic that Rabbi David Wolpe chose to announce his retirement from Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple, after 25 years in the pulpit, by posting his letter to Facebook and Twitter, where he has more than 87,000 total followers.
Wolpe, 63, announced on Thursday that he will become emeritus rabbi of Sinai Temple, one of L.A.’s largest synagogues, at the end of June 2023. He will assume a yearlong fellowship at Harvard Divinity School a few months later.
In addition to his pulpit, Wolpe has cultivated one of the most prominent rabbinic voices in the United States — appearing on lists of influential rabbis, staging debates against public intellectuals and forming relationships with politicians and celebrities. And even though he has proven adept at social media, he told eJewishPhilanthropy in a brief exit interview that he’s concerned about the influence of the news feed, and worries that younger rabbis are too tied to the daily news cycle.
“People are fashioning their views by looking at the second hand on the watch rather than by looking at the calendar — it’s just what’s happening at the moment. I feel like part of my task and ambition is to give a longer, broader view,” he told eJP. When it comes to Facebook and Twitter, he added, “I both see them as useful tools and things that have considerable peril.”
Wolpe has been no stranger to the news cycle himself — commenting on U.S.-Israel relations, domestic politics and more. In 2012, he sparked protest from some quarters by giving the benediction at the Democratic National Convention, though he said it wasn’t an endorsement of Barack Obama. When told about a recent terror attack in Israel at the start of the interview, he mentioned that he had already posted about it to Facebook and Twitter. He’s also written opinion pieces for a range of national publications as well as eight books — one of which, a biography of King David, has been optioned for a movie by Warner Bros.
In this next stage of his career, though, Wolpe says he plans to focus on “Judaism and Jewish life, more than speak about political stuff… I want to talk about religion and society.” Wolpe cited two rabbis as role models: Rabbi Milton Steinberg, the 20th-century scholar and author, and Wolpe’s father, Gerald I. Wolpe, a longtime Philadelphia-area pulpit rabbi.
During his own time at the pulpit, he said, he’s proud to have advanced the message that “not everything in the Jewish tradition has to be taken literally and absolutely, and it can still be deep and life-changing.” That was perhaps an allusion to one of the more famous sermons Wolpe delivered, on Passover 2001, in which he said, “The way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” Orthodox rabbis protested, while Wolpe countered that he was trying to honestly convey the research of archaeologists to his congregants.
Wolpe said he fears what he sees as a decline of Jewish education and commitment: “The greatest threat to Jewry is within Jewry,” he said. But he also said that there may have been no better time in history than the present to be a Jew: “In another way, this is the golden age of the Jewish people,” he said. “There are more safe, productive, excelling able Jews in the world today than probably at any time in history, and I think that that’s an incredible and wonderful achievement.”