What can US rabbis say about Clinton vs. Trump during High Holidays?
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What can US rabbis say about Clinton vs. Trump during High Holidays?

With the Jewish holy days looming, many clergy want to address the US elections, but are afraid to violate the terms of their synagogue’s tax-exempt status

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (JTA/Drew Angerer/Getty Images) and Republican rival Donald Trump (JTA/Christopher Gregory/Getty Images)
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (JTA/Drew Angerer/Getty Images) and Republican rival Donald Trump (JTA/Christopher Gregory/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — With this year’s Jewish Holidays roughly a month before the US presidential election, many rabbis throughout the country are agonizing over whether to address what will undoubtedly be on the minds of many sitting in the pews.

The 2016 election cycle has already brought its fair share of strong reactions from many in the Jewish community. As Republican nominee Donald Trump has galvanized supporters who self-identify as white nationalists and who harass Jews on social media, the Anti-Defamation League has urged — to no avail — the bombastic billionaire to condemn those backers, especially after he himself tweeted a photo of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton superimposed with the Star of David and wads of cash.

“We’ve been troubled by the anti-Semites and racists during this political season, and we’ve seen a number of so-called Trump supporters peddling some of the worst stereotypes all through this year,” said the group’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in a statement. “And it’s been concerning that [Trump] hasn’t spoken more forcefully against these people.”

Many other Jewish groups have been repelled by ways Trump has targeted other ethnic or religious groups, such as his previous calls to temporarily ban Muslim entry into the United States and to initiate a massive deportation force to deport millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants.

Indeed, at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, several groups of rabbis refused to remain in the arena for the former reality television star’s highly anticipated speech.

“We are here right now because, in truth, we are people who cannot and will not tolerate hatred, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny and calls to violence to reach the highest office in the land,” Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights, Minnesota, said to those boycotting Trump last March.

A group of rabbis gather in the outer concourse of the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. to protest Donald Trump's address to the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference (Eric Cortellessa/Times of Israel)
A group of rabbis gather in the outer concourse of the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. to protest Donald Trump’s address to the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference (Eric Cortellessa/Times of Israel)

But can US Jews who plan to attend services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this October expect their rabbis to take a stand on this election? Well, not from the bima.

Because rabbis lead non-profit religious institutions classified under the 501(c)(3) Internal Revenue Code, they can’t use the resources or platforms of their congregations to endorse a candidate or engage in any kind of partisan activity, but they can say or do anything they want in their private role as a citizen.

‘The basic deal is that they cannot from the pulpit or using the resources or name of the synagogue take a position on the election’

“They have guidelines about what can and cannot be done by clergy. The basic deal is that they cannot from the pulpit or using the resources or name of the synagogue take a position on the election,” said Joseph Sandler, a tax attorney who specializes in election law and non-profit organizations.

“They can’t say anything that implies endorsement or opposition for a particular candidate for public office,” added Sandler, who served as staff counsel to the Democratic National Committee in the late 1980s. “That being said, they can, in an individual capacity, outside of synagogue, speak out against candidates. They can say, ‘I’m not speaking for my synagogue, but you can cite my position for identification purposes only.'”

Sandler also said in his phone interview with The Times of Israel that rabbis can, however, talk about public issues — without identifying a particular candidate — and take a position. One example would that, in recent years, many rabbis have spoken from the bima about addressing gun violence.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld delivers a psalm at the presidential inaugural service at the National Cathedral. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

But with the ongoing election stirring up such strong emotions in the American Jewish community, leaders like Julie Schonfeld, the Rabbinical Assembly’s executive vice president, have said that many clergy across the nation are struggling over how to handle it this year.

“I think that this election season is very challenging. There are a lot of issues that are larger than the election, they are about our society” she told The Times of Israel last week. “Many of those things, from the point of view of a rabbi, are fundamental to the teachings and principles of Judaism. A lot of rabbis are experiencing a high level of anguish to talk about these issues in a way that is absolutely compliant with the law.”

For Schonfeld, whose organization is one of many to issue guidelines over what rabbis can do legally when addressing political matters, this issue carries with it as much drama morally as it does legally, if not more.

Illustrative photo of rabbis on stage at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College's 2013 graduation ceremony (Courtesy of RRC/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities/JTA)
Illustrative photo of rabbis on stage at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s 2013 graduation ceremony (Courtesy of RRC/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities/JTA)

“First and foremost, I advise rabbis to comply with the law. That’s what we all must do and want to do,” she emphasized, before going on to discuss how some rabbis are conflicted about voicing a political stance in ways that are legally permissible, like writing an op-ed or attending a rally or posting something on social media.

“It’s not a one size fits all answer,” she said. “Each rabbi has to look at the issues they are inspired by through their moral imaginations, and to find a way to really bring those questions back to Jewish texts, tradition and history, so that it edifies the people they are addressing.”

Lay leaders in the Jewish community recognize that the task Schonfeld describes — and which many rabbis now face — is not so easy. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s executive director Ron Halber is among those who think it a challenge to separate one’s private role as citizen from one’s public role as rabbi.

‘There are a lot of leaders in the Jewish community who want to speak out against Trump. I mean, it’s no secret’

“I’ve always found that, even though there is some room for maneuvering, it is a very difficult position for rabbis, because it’s almost impossible to divorce your public from your private role.” he told The Times of Israel. “The reality is that that individual’s voice would not be valued in the community if not for the fact that they have this following. But it’s really an individual choice.”

“There are a lot of leaders in the Jewish community who want to speak out against Trump,” he added.” I mean, it’s no secret. But I think there are a lot of clergy chomping at the bit who want to enter the fray, and they also have to remember that they have guidelines. But It’s really an individual choice. I don’t condemn or applaud. It’s up to the individual rabbi.”

Schonfeld, too, said she recognized the need for each rabbi to decide what is right for them — and also added that in an election season like this one, the resonance of public issues may be more evocative to people than in years past.

“The opportunity of these high holy days is to grapple with our sense of awe at our personal responsibility living in a time in which so much is at stake,” she said. “We have this year perhaps a new layer of our experience of awe, for many of us.”

Schonfeld added: “Our society is facing a heightened level of challenge in many ways that has not always felt so imminent and present to every person sitting in the pew, unless it was something about their particular life experience that made a public issue personal for them. But this year very public issues are very personal issues for all of us because so much is at stake.”

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