Yom Kippur

09.24.12

A Day For Politics Or Not

I've spent the morning grading papers and trying to figure out why the Orthodox Union (OU) wants to disturb my Yom Kippur. The OU is America's oldest and most prominent Orthodox group. On Israel, it makes AIPAC look like Jewish Voices for Peace. But it does valuable work pushing for government support for Jewish education. (I'm one of at least six American liberals who feels that way.) And when I read or watch the insights on the OU website about the weekly Torah portion and other Jewish topics (something I do occasionally over lunch at my desk, except on Mondays after the Patriots have won), I always learn something.

I won't, however, learn anything from the proposed prayer for a nuclear-free Iran that the OU and its sister organization, the Rabbinical Council of America, are urging congregations to include in their Yom Kippur services. "On Yom Kippur," the OU declares in a new press release, "the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Jews worldwide spend the day in fasting, prayer and repentance. Yom Kippur is not a day for politics."

So far, so very good. In fact, the absence of politics is part of what drew me to Orthodox synagogues decades ago. It's often said that many American rabbis fear discussing Israel. But in my experience, what many Reform and Conservative rabbis fear discussing even more is the weekly Torah portion. Yes, Israel is touchy, but at least people care. The unstated assumption in many non-Orthodox synagogues—nurtured by years of lack of investment in Jewish education—is that because the folks in the audience find Jewish texts esoteric and dull, rabbis are best off discussing something that recently appeared in the New York Times.

Sometimes the effort to make Judaism relevant to contemporary social issues is excruciating: I still remember reading the sermon of a Reform rabbi who decided, inexplicably, to structure his Passover thoughts around a long analogy with the Final Four. Sometimes the effort is earnest and moving. In my book, I write about the gutsy, in-your-face attempts by Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf—later Barack Obama's neighbor—to rouse his suburban Chicago congregation from its apathy during the civil rights and Vietnam years.

Still, one of the things I've always appreciated about the Orthodox synagogues I've attended is that they don't do that. Usually, the rabbi chooses some sliver of the Torah portion the congregation has just heard, offers some glosses from rabbinic tradition and ties it up with thoughts of his own. He may use the text to offer insights about the way individuals should behave or society should be organized, but the lessons are usually broad and abstract enough that you'd never confuse them with a Bill O'Reilly (or even Thomas Friedman) monologue.

What I've admired about the Orthodox rabbis I've known is their self-confidence that the texts themselves can yield wonders. And their recognition that it is in explicating these texts—not offering pointers on American domestic or foreign policy—that rabbis have a comparative advantage. I think that's part of why Orthodox Judaism is doing so well in the United States. It's because Orthodox synagogues—more than their Reform and Conservative counterparts—offer an alternative to the discourse in contemporary American society rather than trying to ape it.

So then why on earth would the OU—having rightly said that "Yom Kippur is not a day for politics"—declare in the next sentence that "Yom Kippur 5773 is different. On this Yom Kippur—the world faces an evil regime whose leaders have publicly committed themselves to destroying the State of Israel and to harming Jews worldwide; in addition, the Iranians are a threat to the global community."

So let me get this straight. In general, Yom Kippur should be politics-free but 5773 is an exception because Israel and the Jewish people face a terrible threat from Iran. But what about, uh, 5772 and 5771 and 5770? Weren't Tehran's leaders seeking nukes and saying anti-Semitic things then too? And what about 5761, when Israelis were being blown up by suicide bombers at the height of the Second Intifada? Or 5766 when Israel fought a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon?

I happen to agree that the Iranian regime is repugnant and that we'd be much better off if they remain nuke-free. But if we should pray for the prevention of a nuclear Iran (or is that "nuclear-capable" Iran?) this year because Israel is threatened, then we should pray for an end to all kinds of specific threats to Israel every year. I think the increasingly permanent occupation of the West Bank also represents a pretty grave threat to the Jewish state. How about throwing that in? And if we're including Iran because it threatens "the global community" (exactly the kind of clichéd foreign policy-speak I go to shul to escape) then how about global warming? It's likely to threaten "the global community" from now until we're all inscribed in the wrong book.
Yes, we have a prayer for the State of Israel. Yes, it calls for God to "Strengthen the hands of those who defend our holy land, grant them deliverance, and adorn them in a mantle of victory." But that's abstract enough to allow people to read into it what they will and avoid the hornet's nest of contemporary politics. It's certainly abstract enough to allow anyone who wishes to think about the IDF dropping bombs on Fordow to do so, if they so desire.

There's nothing wrong with rabbis having public opinions about Iran or any other political issue. But when rabbis express those opinions too overtly from the pulpit, they diminish themselves by entering an arena in which they have no special expertise. Similarly, there's nothing wrong with synagogues bringing in speakers to talk about Iran, Israel or anything else. But when synagogues bring those topics into a religious service, and ask congregants to bring a specific political issue into their prayers, they diminish the necessary distance between a synagogue and the street. Liberal Judaism has at times hurt itself in the United States by elevating liberal political causes—worthwhile as they may be—over a serious engagement with the texts that form the core of Jewish tradition. The OU's political orientation is more conservative but by injecting a prayer for a nuclear-free Iran into the Yom Kippur service, it risks going down the same path.

There are many appropriate days, and many appropriate places, for Jews to discuss all the terrible things for which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad need atone. In shul this week on Yom Kippur, however, I'd rather focus on the atoning I need to do myself.