NEW YORK – On September 9, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York will fly to Washington, DC to lobby Congress to reject the Iran deal. But on September 14, when he stands before his congregation to welcome the Jewish New Year, he will not mention Congress, Iran, or nuclear weapons.
“It’s not that politics aren’t important, they’re very important. It’s just that on Rosh Hashana I like to speak to personal things, to broader moral and religious issues,” said Lookstein, an Orthodox rabbi.
Because the High Holy Days coincide with the US congressional vote on the Iran deal, rabbis nationwide find themselves weighing the degree to which politics belong on the pulpit. Some, like Lookstein, will refrain from delving into the subject. Others intend to plunge right into the controversy.
While there is no consensus among rabbis on the appropriateness of speaking about the deal, when speaking with rabbis across the denominations, one theme stood out: the issue has created deep fissures within the American Jewish community and the High Holy Day sermons offer a chance for rabbis to bridge that ever-widening gap.
“This has been the most contentious debate that I remember in a very long time. Here at the New York Rabbinical Board we have a saying: ‘Unity of spirit, diversity of ideals.’ I hope that spirit prevails because we need to stand together,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis and rabbi emeritus at the independent, egalitarian Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn.
Rabbinical umbrella organizations such as the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly have all been outspoken on the issue.
While the Conservative RA supports a diplomatic solution, it said any deal that doesn’t ensure Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons should be rejected.
“We must not enable this dangerous regime to increase its power through nuclear weapons. Now, we turn to Congress to carefully review and assess this proposed agreement and call on our representatives to ensure that Iran will be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” according to a recent press release from the Conservative organization.
Still, the RA has not issued a set of recommendations to its rabbinate relating to High Holy Day sermons.
For its part, the Reform movement’s CCAR sent an email blast to its members earlier this month called “Talking about Israel during the High Holy Days.” The newsletter includes a number of resources for rabbis, including a comprehensive memo detailing the Iran nuclear agreement as well as links to sites and interviews with those who either support or oppose the deal.
“We’re not telling them [the rabbinate] to discuss or not discuss Iran,” said Los Angeles-native Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of CCAR. “It is more important that rabbis should speak about Israel. I also think there is an obligation for the rabbi to speak about the severity of the discourse surrounding this. We need to learn how to respect the diversity of views in the American Jewish community and the American community.”
That’s why, even though he has come out publicly for the Iran deal, Reform-ordained Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois will not tackle the issue head on.
‘I don’t think it’s appropriate for a rabbi during the High Holy Days to address it directly, to tell their congregants to contact their congressman and to vote a certain way’
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a rabbi during the High Holy Days to address it directly, to tell their congregants to contact their congressman and to vote a certain way. I certainly will not be doing that,” Gordon said. “But, there are other ways to address what has been a divisive issue in the American Jewish community.”
Gordon was one of four rabbis to author a letter urging Congress to approve the Iran agreement; 340 American rabbis signed the missive. The letter cautioned a rejection of the deal would have significant consequences for the US, Israel, the Jewish community and the world.
Nevertheless, when Gordon speaks to his congregation, he said he plans to call for an end to the acrimony that has punctuated the discourse over the Iran nuclear deal. He prefers to speak about the dangers of the misuse of rhetoric, the dangers of demonizing those with opposing views, and the need to listen to others with respect.
Likewise Rabbi Abby Jacobson of Conservative Emanuel Synagogue in Oklahoma City will not speak about Iran.
“There are so few Jews in Oklahoma that it already feels so isolating. People here are dwarfed by the surrounding culture and they tend to want to talk about something Jewish when they come here,” she said of her 150-family congregation. “They want to talk about the things we can all share and all agree on. I feel as a rabbi that I must be everybody’s rabbi and try to minimize political views.”
For others, Iran is the elephant in the sanctuary – everyone knows it’s there, and to disregard it would be not only irresponsible, but also impossible.
“I think it’s not proper to completely ignore it,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsh of New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. “It’s a central debate in the Jewish community, it’s preoccupying many Jews. I will not ignore it. I think rabbis need to say what’s on their mind and I wouldn’t be critical of any rabbi who would speak their heart.”
Hirsh, a Reform rabbi, acknowledged that while many Jewish organizations have come out against the deal, polls show American Jews are split down the middle. A Los Angeles Jewish Journal poll conducted in July shows American Jews support the deal 49 percent to 31 percent.
Without giving away details of his sermon, Hirsh said he would reiterate the nature of the Iranian regime when he speaks to his congregation. A regime he called “anti-Democratic, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-American and anti-Semitic, religiously extreme, and fundamentalist.”
But most importantly, he wants to use his sermon to “heal the breach that has been opened in the American Jewish community.”
“Above all, it’s vital rabbis consider the day after the vote is cast,” CCAR’s Fox said.
“We can’t allow this experience to create any rift among us,” Fox said. “We must reinforce the very close relationship and connection with Israel and between Israelis and American Jews. We need the US to continue to support Israel regardless of the outcome of this vote.”