Rabbis and Politics–just prior to the Wentworth by-election

The mainstream press was all abuzz last week with talk about my colleague Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, longtime rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue in Woollahra. For those of you who don’t know Sydney, Woollahra is right smack in the middle of the Wentworth electorate. News emerged that Rabbi Kamins had used the synagogue’s email list and website to ask his members to consider the disastrous implications of climate change in deciding who to vote for in the upcoming election. He did not actually suggest which candidate his members should vote for, but even so his appeal caused quite a stir. I would dare say that if the Liberal party had an actual progressive strategy on climate change, Rabbi Kamins’ plea would have not have resulted in such a fuss. But because the party and especially the government has chosen to ignore the IPCC report from last week, Rabbi Kamins is seen as encouraging his membership not to cast their votes for the Liberal candidate.

In wading in on this election that the Saturday Paper called “The race that stopped the nation” Rabbi Kamins has raised an eternal issue for rabbis and other clergy: how active do we get in the political life of this country? Over the last several weeks, I’ve been to two very different gatherings which married the religious and the political. The first was an event on religious responses to climate change, run by the Multifaith Association. That organisation has generally steered clear of politics in the past, but I’m personally encouraged that it has decided to wade in on this and perhaps other issues. I’ve concluded over the years that the best chance for meaningful multifaith relationships to develop is to join together to work on social justice and community service projects. I was serving as chair of the ministerial association of my little town of Ambridge, Pennsylvania, when I suddenly found myself thrust into the role of re-inventing our local food bank to be more effective in meeting the needs of the many who were not able to make ends meet each month. It was hard, hard work, but it also brought together people from nearly every one of the 24 congregations in the town.

The second event was a conference held by the Anti-Poverty Network, an organisation made up of those who are trying to get by on low incomes and Newstart as well as their advocates. The conference took place at Clayton Wesley Uniting Church—the enormous monolith at the corner of Portrush Road and the Parade. Although much of the day was non-religious, it was significant that this church had opened its doors up to the meeting and that its volunteers catered lunch. I was part of a panel that included the vicar general of the Adelaide Catholic Archdiocese and the South Australia moderator of the Uniting Church. I must say I felt like quite a small fish, making a tiny splash in a state where care for the most vulnerable is dominated by church-based agencies. After we panelists spoke, there were questions and comments from the audience. One audience member, a long-time advocate for the homeless, wanted to know why it was that religious organisations were now so meek when it came to standing up for the poor. What had become of our prophetic voices? Why weren’t we doing more to speak out for those who felt themselves voiceless? Sue Ellis, the very impressive moderator of the Uniting Church, spoke of declining numbers of church members leading to decreased funds and a lowered ability to get things done. She said, “This is the reason—but it’s not a justification.” Meeting in a church named in part for an early Christian abolitionist, we were reminded of how religious leaders have often been at the forefront of battles for a more just world.

It can be a delicate balance. I recently read a stinging Facebook comment by someone who noted that Chabad has been successful worldwide in luring Progressive Jews to their fervently Orthodox synagogues because they are as passionate about Judaism as we Progressive Jews are about social justice. Ouch. Not too long after I read that, a colleague on one of my rabbinic Facebook lists lamented that she had to lead services for the first day of Sukkot when what she really wanted to be doing was getting arrested to protest the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. I was so astonished that I had to work very hard to suppress the desire to write, “Was that why you became a rabbi? To get arrested while wearing a tallit?”

An old adage says that the role of a clergy person is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Congregations are often completely happy when their clergy comfort the afflicted. But those of us who are comfortable would clearly prefer not to be afflicted. Too often, that means ignoring suffering happening very nearby. There are plenty of people out there in need of comforting, and we could do much to be of help to them. I was reminded yesterday that a significant percentage of Australians are trying to live on a Newstart allowance which has not been raised by either party since 1994. Most of those folks are so caught up in trying to meet their daily needs for shelter and nutrition that they have no energy left to advocate for themselves. That’s where we come in—not only clergy like me, but caring citizens like you. We Jews are part of a proudly prophetic tradition. Isaiah, Amos and, yes, Abraham, whose story begins this Shabbat, all spoke up on behalf of others. It is possible to rejoice in our lives as Jews and also advocate for a more perfect world. Let’s strive to do both. Shabbat shalom!

If you have three minutes, I recommend the song “It’s Time,” which advocates for a raise in the Newstart allowance. I spotted a familiar face in the choir! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1-m53y0Xi4

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