Rabbis Leading Prayer at National Party Conventions

This blog post is excerpted from a sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, during Shabbat services on Friday, September 7, 2012, immediately after the conclusion of the Republican and Democratic National Party Conventions of 2012. In this talk, he is responding to the new development of seeing prominent rabbis speaking at national party conventions, offering prayers and invocations to those in attendance. We invite your response, or for you to share with others.

An article now making its way around the circuit begins by suggesting that while Republicans and Democrats do not have much in common during an election season this year they do agree on having their political conventions blessed by well-known American rabbis.

Surely many of us watched the speeches in recent weeks by Governor Romney, Congressman Ryan and former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice, by Michelle Obama, former President Clinton and President Obama. But apparently the Jewish Telegraphic Agency had its eye squarely on a different set of speeches. They focused attention in their article on Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, a rising leader within Modern Orthodoxy, who each shared prayers at the podium of the recent party conventions.

The spectacle of rabbis at such particular stages, and not in universal settings, raises the question of what the nature and efficacy of prayer is in these non-prayerful settings.

  • Likely there are people in each party cynical enough to pray for an incumbent of the opposing party, whether it is President Obama now or President Bush four years ago, to face worse times ahead.
  • There are many others who suggest that it is either a specific faith beliefs of a candidate or the notion that he or she has faith at all- be it in a creator of the universe, or in a creative spirit within our American people, leads them to a particular political policy.
  • There are others who truly believe, in their heart of hearts that the dictates of their holy books- lead them directly to be a Democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian, and nothing else. To them, the implicit clergy endorsement of a particular candidate is more binding, and if you don’t mind my saying, troubling!

For in my heart of hearts, I believe what I have been taught as a Reform Jew- that prayer is at its very best when it is “true speaking.” Dr. Barry Holtz of the Jewish Theological Seminary taught this exquisitely in his book Finding Our Way: Jewish Texts and the Lives We Lead Today (Schocken Press, 1990). He explained that when prayer is sincere, at the instant we speak we “become the words we say. There is no deception, no ego to defend, no manufactured self. We speak from the heart, and we trivialize prayer if I see it as a shopping list of requests. Prayer is carved out time, the moments in which we allow ourselves… to look at the world not as an unending chain of little trials and triumphs, but a chance to see as largely as we can. The time of prayer is when we can say to God, ‘This is what matters the most.'”

So in case you didn’t watch my fellow rabbis share what mattered most to them at the party conventions, let me share with you some clips of their prayers, when each spoke truthfully from very contrasting ideas and ideologies about the society in which we are living.

Soloveichik said: “We Americans unite faith and freedom in asserting that our liberties are Your gift, God, not that of government, and that we are endowed with these rights by You, our Creator, not by mortal man.” Indeed he stressed the limitation of fellow citizens impact on our freedom, and instead stressed gratitude to one source of all life and freedom.

In his closing exhortation of his prayer, Rabbi Soloveichik, and here I am quoting the JTA article, “hinted at the notion popular among conservatives that we are in danger of losing, and must recover, a proper understanding of liberty. He asked God to “help all of us as Americans renew our dedication to the principle of God-gifted liberty, so America can remain a beacon of faith and freedom for generations to come.”

You won’t be surprised that my colleague Rabbi Wolpe — in addition to finding a way to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, took a different route to expressing what he thought matters most.  He said in his prayer at the Democratic National Convention that America is “founded on the highest principles of freedom and resourcefulness and creativity and ever-renewed strength.”

But then he showed the belief that individual freedom, to his rabbinical judgment is not the sum total of America’s mission. He added, “We understand that those worthy ideals stand alongside the commitment to compassion, to goodness, our sacred covenant to care for those who are bereaved and bereft, who are frightened, who are hungry, who are bewildered and lost, who seek shelter from the cold.” He went on to quote Isaiah, teacher of  “ defend the orphan and fight on behalf of the widow,” and to suggest a broad Jewish belief in universalism, saying that “We know that our lamp is lifted not only to illuminate our way but to serve as a beacon to others that here, this land, is a place where the dreams of a weary world flourish and endure.”

This whole thing, rabbis of congregations praying for the welfare of presidents during election years, could if you obsess over such things, lead one to question: who gets to publicly pray for the Jewish people. But I have to tell you- I’m not interested in the answer to that question. I get easily bored watching and listening to my rabbinical colleagues drone on in prayer!

I love many of my teachers, but as you know I’ve found that more often than not, my spiritual outlook on the world is best understood by my interfaith colleagues whom I’ve spent time in prayer, in activism, or in the work of building understanding and peace\. We rabbis involved in interfaith work all care very much who wins elections. We have personal views. But these elections also help reveal to us undercurrents to us of what concerns the people in our pews.

But as I listen to the candidates and those that speak out to vouch for what their offering, I am intrigued by a different question. I listened over the last couple of weeks to leaders as broad-ranging and diverse as Secretary Rice, Mayor Castro, President Clinton and Governor Christie. From each you heard the same inspiring story that s told in our Torah in this very week’s Torah portion!

In our portion this Shabbat, Ki Tavo God instructs the Israelites that when they get to the promised land, they should offer up the first fruits of their harvest. But their obligations are not complete with this offering. They must also verbally ritualize their arrival at this station in life, speaking aloud a short narrative of their history, beginning with their earliest ancestors and ending with their own arrival at the land. The narrative is the master story of our people. It tells  of unprecedented liberation and growth of a people that defies expectation, and is evidence of God’s compassion for them and their endeavors.

You know the  passage of which I speak, because you read it around your Seder Tables at Passover. One of our seder guests reads:

“My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation…” (Deuteronomy 26:5)

But the passage continues to express God’s faith in our people: “The Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us, and placed hard work upon us. But we cried out to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice and saw our affliction, our travail and our oppression. The Eternal took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great awesome might and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place, and…”

You know the rest! But think about the convention speakers of all political backgrounds who invoked their ancestors immigration to a place flowing with milk and honey in the narratives of their lives as they spoke about their political philosophy and beliefs.

I have one of these stories myself, about my great-grandparents, and I bet many of you do as well. I am politically concerned just as I know many of you are. But do any one of us own the liberation story? Do any of us personally have proprietorship over the idea that God kept faith with those who came before us?

In this election, does that rightfully belong to the incumbent, President Obama, or his challenger, Governor Romney? Both men had ancestors, who’d have never been able to predict their children’s circumstances, or just how difficult it would become in this country during these times of war and terror? Their ancestors would have only hoped to get milk and honey to flow from this land in America, so that we might all share in the bounty of being alive and free in this remarkable society, and that ties both candidates together.

I have a practice. It is just my practice. But I invite you to try it with me and maybe we’ll discover some new fruit that for our outlook during election season in American life. It has two steps.

First, when I am in a time such as that in which we are living, where every other minute I encounter a billboard or advertisement on TV or in the paper that claims: Mitt Romney will eat my children alive, or Barack Obama, is back at my home, stealing my possessions. I try to turn my attention to the brilliance of living in a society where no matter how difficult on my ears is such bitterness and distasteful rhetoric, people are free in our society to speak these words, to write them to the editor of the paper, or even to the political leaders themselves, without fear. Likewise, if I think what another rabbi says from any platform, is hateful or misleading from any platform, I can go get myself a taller platform or a louder microphone and be sure my voice is calling out the truth as I understand it.

Second, at times like these, I try to read books on the issues, credible books written by people who have diametrically opposing points of view. I read these books in the same period, and the same days as the ad buys on television or growing in number. Doing this I find is a healing and perspective-gathering ritual.

As we approached the election in 2008, I read at the very same time: Staunch neo-conservative Bill Kristol’s book – The War in Iraq, and NY Times columnist Christopher Hedges highly liberal War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.

Today in September of 2012, I’m reading the following two books.

One is called The Secret Knowledge, and it is a book by self-proclaimed Reformed Liberal David Mamet on how he believes the political left in our country is dismantling our culture and our security. At the same time, I am reading a book by Jonathan Miller called The Compassionate Community: Ten Values to Unite America.

Both authors are Jewish men. In the former case, I am a fan of David Mamet’s previous literature to this book, including numerous screenplays and dramas, and books of essays from before he chose to become a staunch conservative. The other author, Mr. Miller, is a contemporary of mine, who was the NFTY President when I was in high school. He himself has spoken at a national convention himself, when he previously served as Kentucky’s state treasurer.

Both men, neither rabbis, have sought in their books to use their understanding of the same Jewish texts to buttress their radically different views about how societal leaders and political leaders in our country ought to understand those texts and live by those teachings. The texts they have chosen return to the master idea of Torah: The one of liberation from bondage.

David Mamet first points us to the parting of the Red Sea by God at the risen staff of Moses. He says: “Rather than intervening to create a path of unitary substance, [Moses] demonstrated that freedom lay in the ability to see distinctions; that is, that life could be seen as divisible into good and evil; moral and immoral; sacred and profane; permitted and forbidden- that the seemingly unitary “sea” of human behavior and ambition could actually be divided.” He adds that slaves cannot “make these distinctions. All of his behavior is circumscribed by the will of his master. The necessity of making distinctions, he argues is the essence of freedom, where one not only can but must choose… [So] the sea was not the path to freedom, the sea was freedom. The essence of freedom was and is choice.”

You can take Mamet’s argument to its politically conservative end. He posits in his book that the left’s unwillingness to choose teams. He hits left-wing Jews hard in particular for what he feels is an abandonment of Israel, because to Mamet, the left-wing liberal Jew has held on to the “herd mentality” of slavery, and is beholden to others to make choices that Jews ought to have learned through our history must only be in the hands of other self-determining fellow Jews.

Jonathan Miller says that there is “no better Biblical story” than God’s liberation at the Red Sea of our people” to illustrate the value of God’s gift of freedom.” But to him, the Torah text contains a clear signal at the “true meaning of freedom” and it is not at the sea at all that we find it. Miller offers:  “The Bible’s most dramatic words, “let my people go,” are followed by another Hebrew word: Ve’yaav’duni, that they may celebrate a festival for Me.” Moses’ goal was not simply to achieve liberty from physical slavery for the Hebrew people, but also to free them spiritually to follow God and his commandments, so that they could later enter into covenant with God at Mount Sinai.”

Miller tells us passionately in his book that the story of the exodus is not an end in itself. It is rather a story that shows how “freedom is accompanied by responsibilities to ourselves, our community and our God.”

You can take this too- to a politically liberal end. The subsequent political issues that Miller connects with the freedom and responsibility taught at the Red Sea include: the control of guns, civil liberties in a post 9/11 era, and the challenges faced by military families.

You tell me. Who is right? Who owns the red sea mythology? To whom do we need to pay royalties for quoting our Aramean father lineage?

In a text study offered by my Reconstructionist colleague Rabbi Brant Rosen in Evanston, IL, he suggests, in commenting on different long-time recorded interpretations of “My father was a wandering Aramean” that two vastly different spiritual models are suggested to us, depending on how we translate and internalize these words. “One highlights our wanderings, identifying our people-hood with our collective seeking – our desire to journey toward a better and more blessed future. The second model suggests we are essentially a hunted and hated people, forever on the run from those who would seek our destruction.

Rabbi Rosen adds that “These two readings illuminate a critical question inform our collective Jewish self-understanding to this very day.  Centuries later, the question remains: with which narrative will we identify? A narrative in which we are perpetual victims or [one in which] we are spiritual seekers? Does our story forever pit us against an eternal enemy – or does it ultimately celebrate our sacred purpose and the promise of blessing?

I don’t think this is a question you should determine simply by listening to your rabbi fromhis pulpit. What I love about being a Jew is that no matter how popular the rabbi, no matter the size of his congregation or following, we do not live in an autocratic community where an endorsement I could offer would bind you to vote in a particular way.

That may seem an obvious thing to say in a congregation such as ours. But indeed what frightens me is the way in which I have heard from friends who are political conservatives that they have often been treated to a great deal of heat and venom from fellow Jews in congregations from liberal Jewish movements.

My friend Adam writes a blog he calls Wiseman of Chelm. Recently, I read and responded to a post he wrote called: “You’re a Republican: But You Seem Like Such a Nice Guy.” In that post, he wrote that these very words are the reaction he gets fairly often for being both a Republican and very active in his Liberal (Reform) Jewish congregation. He writes: “Not only am I active in the Jewish community, my wife and kids love me. I give regularly to charity and genuinely strive to be (and sometimes even achieve being) a nice guy…”

“…[So] this presumption of Republican evil used to be very puzzling to me.  I am an active Republican and I know many Republicans who are perfectly lovely people.  I don’t know any who are megalomaniacs, or think that women should not be allowed to work, or who want homeless people to starve, but the painful truth is that there are not very many of us in Reform congregations and so we are something of a novelty.  When you do find someone who is a Republican, they often feel the need to apologize for it and clarify that they don’t agree with everything the Republican party does.  Of course not!  Who does? For some of my fellow congregants, I am the only Republican they know… and certainly the only one they associate with on a regular basis.  [But] when we talk about political issues, there is a large set of prejudice that I have to overcome to even hold a real conversation.  So why do I always feel that I am having to fight a nasty preconceived evil notion of what a Republican is?”

The answer to Adam’s question is a subject for his sermon, not mine. Though I’d look forward to hearing it!

But I am terribly concerned that there are people in our communities who have felt a profound heat for expressing conservative or republican-oriented views, for standing up for what they believe in, and writing and speaking it in the community.

Because, let’s be clear about this- we Jews ought to know better! Judaism and the way we practice it, through the writings of the rabbis, has always been propelled by numerous different interpretations and minority opinions. We carry as members of our Jewish community a very precious right to register our point of view, no matter how difficult it is on the ears. That is true, whether one is speaking out for liberal views in a deeply conservative Jewish setting, or speaking out for conservative views in a deeply liberal Jewish setting.

Judaism and Jewish principles do not operate well in a polarized society in which no one has any room for independence of spirit or mind from their elected or appointed leaders. Indeed at its highest ideal, our synagogues ought to be places where in addition to learning from sacred texts, we also learn from encountering one another. But this only works when we can speak honestly, freely, with encouragement for every view of every Jew to be registered and exercised with equal path to voting. Surely many characteristics have led to our survival as a Jewish people. We have negotiated our faith against numerous backdrops. And liberation and crossing the Red Sea to a promised land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, surely does lead Jews to radically different conclusions about God and prayer and blessing.

We here in Cleveland, Ohio, will over the next several weeks be bombarded with terrifying and polarizing messages. It can lead us to stigmatize others who have different points of view. When the urge arises to do so,  we would do well to lay claim together to the one truth from which all of us know comes our perspective on the world.

We were all slaves in Egypt. All our fathers wandered and withered under depravity and tyranny. Because of this, we should know the feelings of the stranger. What will do now, right now in the next several weeks, and in the next four years matters most when we show that we know the feelings of the stranger, and love for fellow human beings with all their frailties, their prejudices and perspectives. To do this properly, relating our views on foreign policy or domestic affairs, on the economy or other vital topics, we can all, democrats, Republicans, and independents, use all the prayer, blessing and support we can get!