If you want to keep politics out of your Judaism, I guess you probably shouldn’t read the Torah

Last week, this Forward article by Bethany Mandel popped up in my feeds: Please Leave Politics Out Of Your High Holiday Sermons.

Some version of it appears every year. Different author. Same message. Everyone quibbles about it.

Now there’s a twitter poll asking rabbis what they think.

I was thinking about this yesterday, when a community member said to me, with just a *tinge* of sarcasm: “Well, if you want to keep politics out of your Judaism, I guess you probably shouldn’t read the Torah.”

The Torah *is* a political document. The Tanakh *most definitely* is a political document. The Talmud is seeping with political wisdom.

If you don’t read the Torah and think about our responsibilities to the immigrants and refugees in our midst; if you don’t read the Tanakh and think about our fundamental religious obligations to lift up the most vulnerable; if you don’t read the Talmud and think about how to engage in civil discourse… then you’re missing some of the most fundamental messages of these texts.

When I posted the article on Facebook, it garnered some fantastic comments:

There’s certainly no way I can read passages like Genesis 21, Leviticus 19, Isaiah 58 and think “what nice, calm, apolitical texts these are.”

From Max, a rabbinic colleague

There is literally nothing apolitical in human society! The only people who think there is are those who are most privileged as to not be directly impacted.

From Carly, an old friend from Jewish youth group

Our work in Jewish communities aren’t meant to be comfortable, they are meant to be aspirational. If we need to use Jewish texts to guide our viewing of the world, that isn’t called “politics”…it’s called Judaism.

From a current rabbinical student


Disclaimer: These aren’t the only messages you can glean. These aren’t just nice texts upon which to hang our liberal commitments to justice. But political messages are certainly front and centre.

What the Torah, Tanakh, and Talmud have to say *aren’t* partisan political platforms. They don’t advocate for candidates or parties. So I can understand and even agree with some of Mandel’s argument. People (at least most, I think) don’t want to come to shul to be lectured or chastised. They often come for spiritual growth, not partisan political moralizing.

But I believe it’s misleading to suggest that our foundational texts don’t have something to teach us about our current world – including politics.

They represent thousands of years of distilled wisdom. Some of it seems anachronistic. But much (dare I say, most) of it is not. It’s the height of arrogance to think that we’ve reached the apex of human intellect and that we can’t learn from those who came before us.

These texts are the stories of people who grappled with the fundamental questions of human existence. They can bring us sublime wisdom, if we are open enough to approach them with curiosity and humility.

A final thought: if you are of the mind that the rights of refugees, the impoverished, the hungry, and the disenfranchised are just political issues – that very line of thinking is part of the problem. Considering our responsibilities in light of these matters is a fundamental *religious* obligation of every serious Jewish person.

So… should rabbis talk about politics in their sermons?

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