Until my last months at college, I assumed that I would pursue a career in politics or public policy. Even after my decision to become a rabbi, I have maintained an interest in politics. I am an avid reader of political journalism and I spend far too much time scouring political blogs. My interest in politics is not abstract or bi-partisan. A poor showing for my preferred candidates on election night can leave me with feelings of despair and sadness that can last for weeks. A victorious election night fills me with pride, as though I personally played a major role in my candidate's victory.
Given this background, and given the close presidential campaign, one might think that I would jump at the chance to sway the election by signing up with one of the competing lists of rabbis supporting President Obama or Governor Romney (the list of "Rabbis for Obama" was released several weeks ago; the list of "Rabbis for Romney" is being actively solicited but has not yet been publicized). But instead, I find the entire enterprise unsettling.
As rabbis, students and congregants seek our guidance regarding questions of Jewish law and practice, they ask our opinions about philosophical quandaries both ancient and modern, and they solicit our advice on challenging personal relationships with parents, spouses, children and colleagues. It can be so easy to be seduced by the trust that others place in us and to believe that we do indeed possess the wisdom that our congregants' questions imply. This seduction is dangerous. Our ability to offer guidance is the product of years of study and training. We are able to help others as rabbis because it is a profession in which we have trained and not a sphere where we dabble as well-intentioned amateurs.
Many argue that political decisions have profound moral implications and that political endorsements could be part of a rabbinic responsibility to educate the Jewish community about authentic Jewish values and the moral issues of the day. Broadly speaking, there are four counter-arguments:
1. Many political disputes are empirical and not ethical. All Americans want to live in a prosperous and secure nation. Political disputes emerge from different opinions on how to achieve that common goal. Whether one economic or foreign policy will bring about the hoped for outcome is a question for economists, students of diplomacy and experts in public policy -- and is not a moral question with a unique Jewish perspective.
2. The major American political parties function more like grand coalitions than coherent parties with distinct ideologies. Even in instances where clear Jewish values or interest seem to advocate for or against a specific policy, it is much less clear how to evaluate that issue in the broader context of a candidate who has positions on dozens of issues, domestic and foreign.
3. The urgent need right now in all of our synagogues and Jewish communities is for creating welcoming and inclusive communities. Is there truly a shortage of compelling Torah messages such that a rabbi needs to make political endorsements that could alienate potential congregants?
4. The IRS, in forbidding tax-exempt religious institutions from endorsing political candidates or legislation, is carving out a sphere for "religion" in the public square which is distinct and separate from politics. This role for religion is emblematic of the Modern West and one of its distinguishing features that contrast it to other contemporary global cultures and the medieval paradigm in Europe. One may rightfully note that treating Judaism as a "religion" in this sense is an inauthentic imposition of a modern Western notion on an ancient tradition in which nationalism, culture, worship, ethics, law and language are all unified. However, it is harder to object to the pragmatic gains that have accrued to Jews (and others) as a result of the concerted effort to create a public sphere that is religiously neutral. Democratic citizenship depends upon citizens voting based on their own judgments and consciences. Critics of the recent Egyptian elections that propelled the Muslim Brotherhood to power have rightly noted that voting for the candidate endorsed by one's cleric preserves the outer form of democracy without internalizing the values needed for it to succeed.
The rabbis who endorsed presidential candidates in America know this. They know that American Jews are not looking to rabbis to tell them how to vote and they know that they would not want to live in a country where people voted according to instructions of their clerics.
Is there a way for those of us with passionate beliefs about political questions to integrate those passions into our lives as committed Jewish professionals? I believe the answer is simple yet subtle. The job of rabbis is primarily to educate and teach. It is ultimately left to our students and congregants themselves to figure out how to apply our lessons to their choices in the ballot box.
This answer is simple but subtle, too -- properly understood, a rabbi's job is often as a teacher and not a decider even within the narrower ambit of Jewish law and practice where a rabbi might be asked to render a decision. Some questions I have been asked have simple yes or no answers. But the more interesting and challenging ones often call for a more humble response. A rabbi can and should educate and provide knowledge to students and congregants. In the end, each individual preserves his or her right and responsibility to make a final decision.
We have a profound and unique ability to shape lives, support and accompany members of our communities at tragic and joyous moments and, ultimately, to leave the world a better place. Our impact can be greatest only if we act with professional restraint and accept both the limits and the power inherent in our rabbinic role.