June 22nd: Politics and Religion are Intimately Linked, Whether We Like It Or Not

The purpose for religion, for many people, is a way to attempt to do the right thing in the world, according to some notion of morality. What do we do, then, when our religious ideologies get different people to arrive at different outcomes? And what do we do when we are faced with politically motivated ethical questions?

This is the question that stuck with me when I read an article in the New York Times last week that looked at political party affiliation amongst American religious leaders. The study assessed what percentage of rabbis, priests, pastors, and other religious authorities throw their support behind a particular political party, and what that means in terms of their leadership of their congregations. According to the story “like their congregants, religious leaders have sharply divided themselves along political lines.”

Interestingly enough, the study also found that the religious leaders tended to find themselves even further down the political spectrum than their congregants. A rabbi who supports the democratic party, for example, is generally more liberally leaning than the congregants they serve. A pastor who identifies as a republican does so more vehemently than do most of their flock. Why is it, then, that religious leadership and political activism seem to go so hand-in-hand?

It is first important to note how fascinating it is that, as a general rule, religious leaders are coming to their political beliefs based on ideas of morality. Religious thinkers generally are trying to “do what is right” according to some kind of faith-based doctrine, generally by looking through the Bible itself or historical commentary on it. The fact that rabbis, pastors, priests, and leaders can read some of the same books, thinking through the same notions of morality and come to such dramatically different conclusions is proof that we cannot rest upon a single idea of right and wrong. The waters are far murkier, leaving us with the challenge of figuring out how to apply the religious dogma of our faith with the reality in which our modern lives put us.

Incidentally, this article came at almost the same time that the question arose of whether or not religious leaders should be engaging with politics in a vocal manner from the pulpit. A fascinating debate between Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Rick Jacobs recently asked the question: Should we use the opportunity of the sermon to try to inspire the political leanings of those who seek our guidance? Rabbi Wolpe argued “I know outstanding rabbis on the left of the political spectrum and others on the right. You can love Torah and vote for Trump. You can love Torah and think Trump is a blot on the American system. What you may not do, if you are intellectually honest, is say that the Torah points in only one political direction.” His argument is that we should be reading the Torah for higher values, rather than bringing it to the level of the headlines. Rabbi Jacobs argues instead that “The Judaism that I live compels me to use those lessons to understand the most urgent challenges we face.”

In today’s world, politics are everywhere, including, as the New York Times’ piece alerted us, on the pulpit. Our religious leaders hold strong political beliefs, some of which they discuss, some of which they hold privately. In either case, the politics of today is finding its way into our congregations and our churches, and demands some kind of answer in terms of how we guide people to a morally and ethically right decision.

It is possible to be religiously ethical and be a republican. It is possible to be religiously ethical and be a democrat. It is not possible to be religiously ethical and to ignore what is going on in the world around us. How we choose to use those voices is what will determine how we move the future of faith-based leadership forward.

February 16th: A Resignation for One Doesn’t Mean a Resignation for All

The American public is already highly attuned to the White House relationship with Russia. The resignation of Michael Flynn only exacerbates that concern, as leaders from both sides of the aisle call for an investigation.

After a phone call in December with Russian diplomats before Donald Trump took office, Michael Flynn misled the administration as to the content of the discussion, leading Vice President Pence to misguidedly defend Flynn on the national stage. It is for this misleading that Trump asked for and received Flynn’s resignation, rather than because of the content of the call itself.

flynn-2At face value, it is disconcerting to see a government official forced out for inappropriate conduct. It should leave Americans wondering what will be the short-term and long-term effects of another change in leadership, and how the administration will handle the development of the future relationship with the Russian government.

When asked about the situation, though, Trump didn’t talk about Russia or about the damage done by the disgraced member of his team. Instead, Trump stated that the worst part of the situation were the political leaks that led to the public finding out in the first place. He also stated that Michael Flynn was treated “unfairly” by the public for his dedication to his country.

What is most disturbing is Trump’s unwillingness to discuss the situation with Russia, instead focusing on the “unfairness” against him and his people. Rather than take ownership of the situation and lead the country through it, Trump wanted to blame someone else. Worse still, he wanted to blame someone because his administration got caught doing something wrong. The implication, of course, is that everything would have just kept going along if it weren’t for the “meddling” public finding out what was really going on.

We are less than three decades removed from the end of the Cold War, a period in this country’s history when Russia was a very real and very scary threat to both the values and the safety of our nation. Yet, the Trump administration has failed to properly distance themselves from a Russian government that has demonstrated aggression and human rights violations reminiscent of Stalin.

Most bafflingly, Trump had his scapegoat in Michael Flynn. He could have cut the advisor loose, demonstrated remorse for the situation going bad without his knowledge, and moved right along. Yet, his commitment to blaming anyone and everyone else for the mistakes of his administration has put him in a position where the public can’t help but wonder: what else is going on behind closed doors that Trump and his team are just hoping doesn’t get leaked to the public?

Flynn’s resignation leaves the American people wondering where we are going in our relationship with Russia. The lack of confidence this incident has inspired doesn’t bode well for what is certainly going to be a turbulent and anxious foreign policy experience. And if the administration isn’t going to be forthcoming with the way they are handling things, we need more transparency, not less, to be our answer for success.

January 17th: Speak Up or Say Nothing

2017 has not started off kindly for Jewish Americans. A menorah in Phoenix was vandalized, a rabbinical school was defaced, and a march was scheduled to antagonize and harass a Jewish community in Montana. Yet, one event on the horizon may or may not change the way the American public views the Jewish community, and it may or may not even be a good idea.

rabbi-hier
Rabbi Marvin Hier

Rabbi Marvin Hier is scheduled to deliver the benediction at the inauguration for Donald Trump on January 20th. Hier is the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization that describes itself as an international Jewish Rights institution. He is also the founder of the Museum of Tolerance.

For a rabbi to have an opportunity to stand in front of the country and offer words of inspiration and Torah would be an incredible honor, and serve the American Jewish community well. For several years in the early 1900s, a rabbi speaking at the swearing-in was a mainstay. Since 1985, though, no rabbi has been involved in delivering a benediction. In a vacuum, this would be an ideal situation for Hier to make a statement, both verbally and visually, of the strength and vitality of the Jewish community in this country.

With an inauguration as volatile and contentious as this one, though, Hier finds himself in a troubling situation. Donald Trump has just finished a presidential campaign rife with conflict, and left huge populations of Americans feeling disenfranchised, marginalized, or threatened. The future is a scary one for those seeking religious tolerance, and a man in the business of working to create tolerance could be in a very difficult spot.

Rabbi Hier must serve the American Jewish people by demonstrating what it looks like to be a soldier of peace, and a creator of tolerance. That could come in one of two ways.

On the one hand, Rabbi Hier could deliver opening words that bring the country together. He could speak about the importance of healing, of looking out for one another. He could demand that the incoming administration take seriously the call for all Americans to be treated with respect and given a chance to be successful. And he could insist that Donald Trump use his new position to make great the lives of all Americans, not simply the ones who match his worldview.

On the other hand, Rabbi Hier is in a position to use his selection to make an even greater statement: he could step back and refuse to speak at all. By refusing to speak, he would be telling the world that the man taking over as Commander-In-Chief has failed to live up to Jewish values, and isn’t worthy of the words of a man who uses Torah to make the world a better place. In an act of public commitment to what is right, he has the opportunity to demonstrate the American Jews will not stand for the kinds of injustices that have been suggested over the past two years.

Regardless of what Rabbi Hier chooses to do, he cannot duck the responsibility. He cannot deliver toothless words that do not demand that the world do better. He cannot afford to offer pleasantries and sweet nothings when the world is looking to him to speak out for those without a voice.

A benediction is an opportunity to take a moment and reflect upon the holiness of a moment, to connect with one another and with God. On Friday, Rabbi Hier must use the microphone to either make a very important statement in the name of Tolerance, or not say anything at all.

January 9th: Fight Like A Man

In case we weren’t focusing on the wrong “news” already, Soulja Boy and Chris Brown are having a boxing match.

After a fight on Instagram, the two have agreed to take their disagreements to the ring, and are preparing to put on a celebrity event. The two have each picked trainers as well, with Mike Tyson training Brown and and Floyd Mayweather supporting Soulja Boy.

If grown men want to start a fight on Instagram, that’s fine. That’s on them. To have two celebrities host a celebrity boxing match is no problem either. The problem is that nobody seems to be discussing the fact that Chris Brown, a known abuser of women, has no business fighting anybody, and least of all benefiting from it.

After a history of abuse, Brown should be smart enough not to put himself into the spotlight using violence to resolve conflict. Instead, he gets himself involved in an event put on by none other than Floyd Mayweather, another known womanizer and abuser.

It has been difficult to find any evidence that the money raised in the pay-per-view celebrity event will be going to charity or doing any good for the world. So we, as citizens of the world, have an obligation to ignore these men who are only trying to gain attention. These men deserve the attention of being abusive, of never receiving celebrity status again.

Men known for violence have no business profiting from it. It’s time we prove that point with our column inches, eyes, and money going to places that matter.

November 11th: No More Calls

In the 24 hours following the results of Tuesday night’s election, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a call center for those seeking help amidst thoughts of self-harm, saw a record spike in calls never seen in the history of the organization. Most calls were coming in from members of the GLBT community, who were fearful of what a Donald Trump presidency would do to their ability to live normal lives in this country.

Regardless of how you felt about Tuesday’s results, this is simply unacceptable. For any population in this country (or any place, for that matter) to feel that profoundly threatened that they would consider suicide, rather than endure the persecution they are predicting is a heinous crime we have committed against our peers and our society as a whole.

No American should ever have to feel like that. Through our actions on election day, we as a nation have created an environment in which people feel devalued, and feel real, heart-wrenching fear. Whether their fears are going to come to fruition is neither here nor there; the point is that their fear is very real to them, and we, as a nation, must do whatever it takes to ensure that every member of our society gets the chance to feel cared for, looked after, and safe.

To anyone reading this, I want to be abundantly clear: you have champions fighting for you all around. You have millions of people who will do anything it takes to ensure that your rights remain intact. You have thousands of advocates working to make sure that you have nothing to fear. And the world is a better place with you in it than without you.

We have a lot of work to do to ensure that all members of society know how important they are and that we value them as people. The fact that we have created an environment that made these people consider suicide is a big slap in the face to all of us, and will hopefully work to wake us up to the progress we need to make to ensure that our country can heal.

November 9th: Getting to Work

I know a lot of people who are saying that they aren’t going to work or school tomorrow. This day has been exhausting, and many are depressed and disheartened. I don’t blame them. But I won’t be one of them.

You better believe that, at 8 am, I’m going to be in Bible class, tired and stressed. You better believe that I’m going to daily services held at school. You better believe that I’m going to get to work. Because today is the day that I’m needed most. The world needs leaders, rabbis, who are willing to work hard when the world looks bleak. Today is the day that we need those individuals who are willing to find hope in the despair. Today is the day that we need to fight for our country and our values, even when the majority of our country are willing to side with bigotry and xenophobia, to vote for fear and not for hope.

Now is not the time to abandon the country and move to Canada. It is the time to fight, to demand that our country represent our values. My tradition teaches me to protect the weak and stand up for the downtrodden, to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked. We are a country that was built upon a foundation of taking care of all members of society, and I’ll be damned if I let a racist, homophobic, womanizer take that away from us.

So I’m going to school tomorrow to work toward being a leader. The world needs real, true, moral guides right now. We can’t afford to rest.