Tevi Troy: The White House’s Advice for Your Rabbi

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JEWISH ACADEMIC & UNIVERSITY NEWS

President presses: Preach politics from the pulpit

Source: WSJ, 9-23-11

The Jewish High Holidays are upon us, so naturally it’s time for the White House to feed political talking points to rabbis.

As has become its annual practice, the Obama administration on Thursday convened a conference call with several hundred rabbis and Jewish leaders. According to a participant on the call, President Obama promoted his jobs bill—noting that those who have been more blessed should pay their fair share—and briefed the rabbis on U.S. efforts to counter the push for a declaration of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

I was on another such call recently, the purpose of which—according to the Jewish rabbinical group that invited me—was to help listeners “understand the current state of the economy; learn about the impact of the proposed budget cuts on the poor and disenfranchised; consider the consequences of the increasing gap between the rich and poor in America; and, glean homiletic and textual background to help prepare their High Holiday sermons on this timely topic.”

The agenda of the call organizers was clear. Two speakers, one of whom was a (non-Jewish) Democratic senator, spoke of our country’s need for “raising revenue,” the new code phrase for tax increases. When I suggested that we separate politics from spirituality, a third participant pushed back, saying “the Torah is a political document.” A curious assertion in a crowd that would quickly denounce any invocation of the Bible in political discussions.

Of course the Obama administration didn’t invent the politicized sermon. In the Conservative temple in which I was raised, the joke (not an original one) was that the rabbi would take homiletic guidance from the New York Times editorial page. In his memoir, former Nixon speechwriter William Safire told of his displeasure with a Yom Kippur sermon in which the rabbi warned “not to let our country be divided and polarized by those who use the technique of alliteration”—referring to Vice President Spiro Agnew’s critique of “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Related Video

Tevi Troy on political sermonizing in synagogues.

So President Obama is taking advantage of an existing proclivity toward political sermonizing. Other presidents have acted similarly, hosting calls around holidays or meeting with Jewish leaders before the White House Hanukkah party, as George W. Bush did. But Mr. Obama has innovated, as by focusing on a specific issue or two with rabbis before the High Holidays each year.

In 2010, according to the New York Post, he “asked a conference call of about 600 rabbis to preach his Mideast peace plan from the pulpit.” In 2009, he invited a group of 1,000 rabbis to discuss his health-care plan and then preach about it afterward. Some certainly delivered. Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., for example, gave a Yom Kippur sermon that year entitled “The Jewish Understanding of Health Care: A Moral Imperative,” declaring that “working towards health care for all, however that might be accomplished, is a Jewish mandate.”

Political sermonizing is a mistake for many reasons. First, the Holy Days are supposed to bring forth a universal message about the unity of the Jewish people, the importance of our shared religious tradition, and the need to rededicate ourselves to observance of the Torah in the year to come.

Then there’s the risk of alienating part of the congregation. Even if you know that 70%-80% of your synagogue votes one way—and public opinion polls suggest that this may be the case in Conservative and Reform synagogues—why risk alienating the other 20%-30%? In many (or most) communities, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the only time certain congregants set foot in synagogue that year. Why risk driving them away with a message that could offend?

Furthermore, while it may appear easy to find support for left-wing political positions in the Torah and rabbinical sources, the truth is that the Jewish tradition doesn’t give much guidance on the optimum level of marginal tax rates, Medicare restructuring, or food-stamp funding. To claim otherwise is to give false guidance.

The passages read aloud on the High Holidays each year are filled with the most important problems of the human condition, including Jonah’s attempt to shirk his responsibilities, Hannah’s desperate plea for a child, and God’s testing of Abraham’s faith with the binding of Isaac. All of these stories still resonate today, and skillful speakers can use them to guide congregants.

The mandate of religious leaders is to convey to their communities spiritual encouragement and the wisdom of the ages. For the other stuff, there’s cable news.

Mr. Troy, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and former deputy secretary of health and human services, was a White House Jewish liaison under George W. Bush.

Tevi Troy: Bibi 4, Obama 1

Cliff May is right about the Netanyahu speech. It was a strong speech, and Congress warmly, even rapturously received Netanyahu, with 30 standing ovations by my count sitting in the House Gallery. The recent disagreement with the White House over President Obama’s Thursday speech if anything made the congressional welcome even friendlier than it would have been otherwise.

Netanyahu’s speech was the capstone on the complex five-act play that took place in Washington this past week, one in which Netanyahu scored a decisive 4–1 victory. Act One took place last Thursday, in the form of Obama’s speech at the State Department. If Obama was expecting huzzahs from the Arab world for his speech, he certainly didn’t get them, and the president himself seemed to have been caught by surprise by the strong negative reaction from the pro-Israel side. Still, the Obama speech hit Netanyahu & Co. hard, and has to be seen as a loss for Netanyahu.

But Obama inexplicably chose to give the speech on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, which gave Netanyahu an opportunity to reply at their joint press appearance on Friday. In the tense, on-camera exchange of views, Netanyahu seemed to take Obama on a visit to Hebrew school, telling him the basic realities of existence in the tough neighborhood of the Middle East.

On Sunday, Obama spoke to the pro-Israel group AIPAC, and while he did not quite walk back his remarks, he clearly tailored them to avoid restating his most controversial points in order to forestall the very real possibility that he would be booed. He was not, but the cheers were not quite at the level that a president who won almost 80 percent of the Jewish vote would expect. Furthermore, the fact that he appeared to have softened things for the AIPAC audience was a sign of weakness in his apparent effort to stage a confrontation with Israel.

Monday night, both Senate Majority Leader Reid and House Speaker John Boehner gave forceful pro-Israel remarks to 12,000 people at AIPAC, and Politico characterized Reid’s speech as an intraparty “rebuke” to the president. The two speeches constituted a bipartisan statement that Obama is out of step with both parties and with both houses of Congress on this issue.

And then this morning came Netanyahu’s impressive speech to a joint assembly of Congress. Unlike Obama, he did not wiggle or waver, but instead gave a powerful defense of Israel as a vibrant democracy and steadfast ally of the U.S. Even an interruption from a Jewish, pro-Palestinian protester gave Netanyahu a chance to shine, as he noted that such protests are allowed in free countries like Israel or the U.S., in contrast to what he called the “farcical parliaments in Tehran or Tripoli.” The ad-lib earned him another one of his many standing ovations.

All of this should have been fairly predictable to the Obama administration when they started this process last week. They knew Netanyahu was coming; that Obama would have to speak to a potentially skeptical if not hostile crowd at AIPAC; and that Netanyahu would likely hit it out of the park in front of the friendly audience in Congress. The only potentially unpredictable element was the Reid speech, as the Senate majority leader might have had some hesitation about rebuking his party’s leader. But even without Reid’s reproach, the events were not aligned in President Obama’s favor as he embarked upon this course of action with last Thursday’s speech. There was no action-forcing event dictating that he give that kind of speech right before Netanyahu’s arrival. Presumably his own State Department would have invited him whenever he wanted to appear.

The policy Obama laid out last Thursday remains worrisome. But the lack of strategic sense that led him to give the speech when he did is truly baffling