Ki Tavo 5772: The Politics of Holiness

on Friday, 07 September 2012. Posted in Sermons

In polite society if you wish to avoid controversy, you are taught early on in life, two subjects are off-limits—religion and politics. Well, here we are in synagogue on Friday night and you know we are going to talk about religion. So why not go for the homerun and talk about that other great taboo subject, politics?

Frankly, this week that's hard to avoid. This week some of you have been watching the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, which concluded last night after President Obama's acceptance speech, and last week I suspect some of you watched the Republican National Convention, which was held in Tampa, Florida and concluded with the nomination of Mitt Romney. I must admit that what impressed me the most about these political extravaganzas of self-congratulation and vilification of the opposition most was the quality of the production values in both shows. I recall watching national political conventions as a child and thinking that they seemed really, really boring—lots of politicians getting up and talking for a very long time; in those days the only interesting stuff happened outside the convention hall where people were rioting. The convention itself was a dreary succession of speech after speech after speech.

Ah, but nowadays it's very different! Today we have special videos every few minutes created by important movie and TV directors, rock bands performing, giant video screens, sound effects, lightshows, you name it! I mean, you still have long speeches by politicians, but they are photographed from a variety of angles that show the crowd, you can control you own view if you stream them on your computer, and before the governor or congressman or mayor goes on too long the music starts playing and some other piece of elaborate political theater smoothly slides into place and you are watching something else. I think that made the only really fascinating piece of retro political work in either convention much more interesting; that was actor/director/movie star Clint Eastwood's remarkable, rambling dialogue with an empty chair last week that was supposed to symbolize President Obama somehow... It was bizarre and very entertaining, like something out of the Beverly Hillbillies, perhaps, or like watching a car crash is very, very slow motion.

In any case, this has been a pretty good week for Jewish symbolism on the American political scene. We may only be 2% of the population of America, but there is still nothing like a rabbi doing an invocation or benediction at a national political convention to prop up your support in the Jewish community in a close presidential race, I always say. This practice has been going on for many years. I remember the summer of 1984 when I began working full time as a cantor at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and the Senior Rabbi, Jacob Pressman, flew off to San Francisco and gave the benediction at the convention that nominated Walter Mondale—remember him?

Having a rabbi pray publicly at your convention, albeit briefly, especially very early or very late in the program, is certainly a useful way to curry favor with Jewish voters, who can help swing a key state like Florida, for example. This week Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, author and radio and TV personality as well as actually being a Conservative Rabbi delivered the benediction after former President Bill Clinton's address to the Democratic Convention. Last week Orthodox Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik began the Republican Convention in Tampa with an invocation. Both are prominent guys: Soloveitchik is the great nephew of the truly great modern Orthodox giant of the 20th Century, Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, the Rov who wrote some very fine existential philosophy and led the push for Torah im derech eretz, for the study of Torah married to contemporary education and full participation in the modern world. His grandnephew, Meir, has smicha from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D from Princeton and heads a big modern Orthodox shul in New York. Meir Soloveitchik actually started the whole Republican Convention in Hebrew, although he didn't say much, to be honest, but still, it was startling to see a guy in a suit and yarmulkeh reciting Torah to a large group of folks dressed in red white and blue from head to toe...

For the Democrats Rabbi David Wolpe did the benediction the other night, very late, just after Bill Clinton finished speaking and everyone in the hall left and the rest of the country switched channels to Conan O'Brien, I suspect. This was nonetheless an interesting moment, since Wolpe was and is the rabbi at the shul where Monica Lewinsky grew up and went to religious school, and Wolpe had slammed Clinton publicly during the Lewinsky scandal and Clinton's impeachment for lying about it, saying of Clinton, "He was a brilliant, talented, extraordinary child, and for the leader of the United States we need an adult." It must have been fun in the green room beforehand with Clinton and Wolpe that night, no?

Rabbi Wolpe got a little controversial by deliberately referring to "that golden and capital city of Jerusalem," a reference to the mini-controversy the Democrats got themselves into in a platform fight about whether or not the US should move its embassy to Jerusalem.

Both Wolpe and Soloveitchik were in a long and pretty distinguished company. While no one seems to have records on this, quite likely the first Rabbi to address a national political convention in America was Samuel Sale of St. Louis, a prominent Reform rabbi, way back in 1896. His selection was a "compromise" engineered by the managers of William McKinley's presidential campaign. Since the Republican Party in 1896 included both many upscale Catholics as well as members of the staunchly anti-Catholic American Protective Association, a Protestant group, it was hoped that Rabbi Sale — who actually had family ties to the Democratic Party — would satisfy both camps.

As is always the case, a hidden political agenda also underlay the invitation to the rabbi. The Democratic Party, amidst a severe economic downturn, lurched leftward in 1896, renouncing the conservative pro-business policies of outgoing Democratic president Grover Cleveland. Populist calls to repudiate debt and remove the country from the gold standard made traditional urban Democrats, Jews among them, deeply uneasy.

Rabbi Sale's prayer, that "the credit of our government shall remain untarnished forever," reflected that concern. The hope was that wavering Jews might end up in the Republican camp, which adhered to the then-in-force gold standard, which of course couldn't be tarnished. Get it? When the silver-tongued orator William Jennings Bryan, casting himself as a crucified Jesus and proclaiming, "you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," became the Democratic standard-bearer, the hopes of the Republican Party were realized. Many Jews, along with other frightened Democrats, jumped ship, and McKinley won the election.

The Democrats tried to even things up at their next convention and four years later in Kansas City when they had Reform Rabbi Harry H. Mayer, who was all of 26 years old and the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jehudah in that city, perform the honors. He courageously prayed that, "the partition walls of party affiliation and racial affinities dividing men against themselves may be leveled." Whether any Jews returned to the Democrats after they re-nominated Bryan as their standard-bearer cannot be determined, but the Republican McKinley won in a landslide.

The pattern was pretty much set thereafter. Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch of Chicago gave the invocation in that city for the Republican convention that nominated Warren G. Harding in 1920; and Rabbi Steven S. Wise—my grandmother's Confirmation Class teacher in Portland, Oregon in the early days of the 20th Century, by the way—addressed the Democratic Convention in New York in 1924 and was, apparently, a bit hit, partially because he was much briefer than most of the other speakers. As the New York Times said at the time,

"The invocation set the keynote of this session, even though it was far briefer than the keynote prayers or keynote speeches usually are. Dr. Stephen S. Wise, rabbi of the Free Synagogue, opened the meeting with an appeal for Divine guidance that the delegates might be 'dauntlessly resolute for the right,' that they might 'battle for the truth and not for advantage.'

"The galleries applauded the prayer, something that had not happened before in this convention."

Rabbi Steven S. Wise was likely the first, and maybe the only, rabbi to give an invocation or benediction who was also an actual voting delegate, by the way. Today he is known as a great Zionist and the namesake of the largest Reform congregation west of the Mississippi.

Perhaps in response to rising currents of anti-Semitism, in 1932 both parties invited rabbis to deliver invocations: One prayed for peace, the other appealed for the needy. Apparently, the needy won: Roosevelt defeated Hoover primarily on the basis of the Depression.

Even without any rabbi invoking God at his party's national convention, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1944, won more than 90% of the Jewish vote. Four years later, however, he was dead and his successor, Harry Truman, appeared politically vulnerable. So in a bid to draw Jews away from their Democratic moorings, Republicans turned to the great rabbinic orator and Zionist leader, Abba Hillel Silver of Cleveland, to deliver an invocation. The majority of Jews remained unswayed, but one scholar calculates that Truman's opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, upped his total to as much as 28% of the Jewish vote that November. Silver, a registered Republican, was again invited by his party to deliver invocations in 1952 and 1960. In 1956, President Eisenhower's World War II advisor on Jewish affairs, Judah Nadich, delivered the Republican invocation, perhaps the first Conservative rabbi ever to do so.

Orthodox rabbis entered the national convention scene in 1976, when Rabbi Emanuel Feldman of Atlanta gave the benediction for Jimmy Carter. In 1996 there were two dueling prime-time invocations delivered by Orthodox rabbis, Daniel Lapin for the Republicans of Bob Dole and Moshe Faskowitz for the Democrats of Bill Clinton.

Four years ago, in a bid to seize the religious mantle and the presidency away from the Republicans, Democrats dramatically increased the role of religion at their convention. My friend and colleague, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, delivered the most prominent invocation in 2008, on the night when Barack Obama accepted the nomination. A record seven different rabbis offered prayers of one kind or another at that convention: two were Orthodox, three Reform—including Steve Foster and Amy Schwartzman--one Conservative, Jack Moline, and one Reconstructionist, the JCPA director Steve Gutow. In the face of this overflow of rabbis in Denver, the American Jewish Congress council Marc Stern observed, "I assume Obama has a goy or two as well."

So this year was kind of modest on the rabbi front, by comparison. Still, both sides tried to get rabbis up front on their convention agenda.

May all of this Jewish pandering, er, reaching out to rabbis help make the presidential campaigns more honest and more moral... it's unlikely, but let's be optimistic.

Anyway, this survey of rabbinic involvement at the presidential election campaign level, along with the formation of groups like Rabbis for Obama—613 rabbis signed on this year for the group, led by a recent guest of the Too Jewish Radio Show, Conservative Rabbi Burt Visotzky of JTS, and a Reform rabbi who is a ski-convention friend of mine, Rabbi Sam Gordon of Chicago—leads directly to thinking about just what the proper relationship between the pulpit and politics should be. Surely there is some requirement in today's world to acknowledge that there are moral issues that are also political ones, and that we have an obligation to address those challenges of our time and place in ways that reflect Jewish values and meaning.

On this front, there is a remarkable midrash about the construction of the beit Hamikdash, the great and holy Temple in Jerusalem. In the ancient world, the windows in all stone buildings were made in the same way: they were cut on the bias, so that they were narrower on the outside and wider on the inside. This allowed light from the outside world to penetrate into the dark interior of the masonry buildings, while keeping most of the danger and dust and noise outside. It was a logical and reasonable arrangement. Narrower on the outside, wider on the inside, so that the light of the outer world would enter the dim inner rooms.

But the Midrash tells us that the windows of the Temple in Jerusalem were built differently: they were narrower on the inside, and wider on the outside. This, we are told, was because the Temple generated its own holy light, and the windows were narrower to allow the gorgeous light that emanated from the Shechinah, the holy presence of God, to spread out into the world. Narrower on the inside, but wider on the outside...

I have always thought that described the proper relationship between the politics of the world and the sacredness of the synagogue. People come to temple to pray and to study, to learn, to mark sacred occasions, and to feel and touch holiness. Our task is to try to bring the holy into the profane, to allow the sacredness of God's space here to carry its light and its message out to the often dark world beyond the walls.

It's for that reason that I rarely focus on politics in sermons here at Temple Emanu-El. It's not that I'm uninterested in the affairs of the world—or, sometimes, the affairs of politicians. It's just that I believe pretty firmly that it is far more desirable to spread the light of holiness, ethics, and inspiration that exist here in the temple out into the challenges and frustrations of daily life, rather than to bring the pettiness and ambition of the outside world into the sacred space of the synagogue. To keep the windows narrower on the inside and wider on the outside, as it were. A temple should shine its light of holiness outward, rather than ingest the darkness that so often permeates the outside world.

You see, if politics is the art of the possible, then Judaism is the art of a good life— and those two arts are very different in character, quality, and morality.

But sometimes situations arise that obligate a rabbi to speak to the problems of the wide secular world, when the issues of the day push their way into the sanctuary of the Temple, even at the holiest time of the year—because sometimes those issues are essentially moral in character. Judaism, from its very start and at its very core, is an ethical imperative to live a good and holy life. And when we face situations that challenge our ethical character we are obligated to speak up.

It is that which makes Judaism relevant, and powerful, and meaningful today, as it has been since the time when Abraham spoke up against the destruction of the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah. And it is that imperative to which we will continue to adhere, whichever side of the political equation we land on, no matter what convention we are addressing—or even which rabbi we are watching address that convention.

Our Torah portion, Ki Tavo, gives us strong and powerful commandments about how we are to live in society. We are commanded to be moral, to protect the rights of the impoverished, the widow, and the stranger. We are to be honest in business, careful of the needs of the hungry and the homeless. We are to create a society of ethical practice and moral concern.

Even in an election year—perhaps especially in an election year—we must remember this. And we must strive to bring holiness, even into our political discourse.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

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