During the month of March, I took part in five different gatherings of rabbis or rabbinical students on the subject of speaking about Israel in congregational settings and, more generally, the role of the rabbi when it comes to religious leadership in relation to Israel. In most of these gatherings, the tension that many rabbis feel around these topics was palpable.
The groups involved – convened in several institutional contexts – represented rabbis of varying political stripes, denominations, years in the field, and other demographics. Yet all were drawn to these sessions, and it seems to me that the nature of the anxiety was different from how it might be in conversations about rabbinic leadership regarding spirituality, theology, observance, social justice, and other matters of central importance to Jewish life and to rabbis across the denominational spectrum.
On more than one occasion, rabbis expressed concerns about losing members or even losing their jobs should they express the “wrong” position on Israel. Indeed, sociologist and iEngage Fellow Steven M. Cohen’s
research has shown that organizational leaders whose missions are narrow enough that they are able to avoid speaking about Israel often do so, in order to minimize the risk of alienating key donors and thus jeopardizing their institutional survival. Some otherwise-outspoken rabbis similarly avoid sermonizing about Israel so as not to alienate congregants of different political persuasions; I confess that I often did this myself in my first job as a congregational rabbi straight out of seminary.
In contrast, when I once decided to deliver a High Holiday sermon on the topic of doubt, I felt no need to defer to my president’s concerns that congregants would walk out of shul thinking their rabbi didn’t believe in God and therefore renounce their memberships. In fact, it was one of my most well-received sermons and my instincts were correct. But where were those instincts when it came to speaking about Israel?
Must rabbis really be constrained by this kind of fear? To be sure, it takes months and years of building social capital in a congregational setting before one can fully speak one’s mind on controversial issues, and, when a rabbi does choose to speak about a politically fraught subject, she or he should take care to speak in terms that congregants will be able to hear.
But I wonder if rabbis are sometimes unduly reticent around Israel. Perhaps their congregations are more diverse, and more open to hearing a range of views, than they might assume. I often think back to one Shabbat sermon when I went out on a limb in sharing a parashah-based perspective on how American Jews might think about our role when it comes to critiquing Israeli governmental policies, and, to my surprise, people came out of the woodwork during kiddush to say how much my words resonated with them.
Our Engaging Israel curriculum should, ideally, raise both the tolerance and the appetite – of both rabbis and congregants – for substantive conversation about Israel in synagogues. Conversations about Israeli politics can happen in all sorts of settings; but conversations about the meaning of the State of Israel in our religious lives, and the nature of our relationships with that complex national entity as religiously identified Jews in the modern period, are uniquely suited to synagogues and other religious communities. What a loss if we are too afraid to have them.
Yisrael Salanter, the 19th century leader of the Musar movement, said: “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no mensch.” Non-rabbis: where do you stand? How should rabbis approach speaking about Israel to their congregations, especially if they aspire to embrace the broadest possible spectrum of pro-Israel views potentially held by congregants? Particularly if you took an iEngage course this year, I am eager to hear your thoughts on this question that so persistently preoccupies rabbis as they gather in safe spaces behind closed doors. Please share your comments below.