Rabbis must take on social issues

The time has come for Reform rabbis to speak their minds on pressing social and political issues of the day.

In truth, it’s always been the time. Being an outspoken moral leader is part of being the rabbi.

But in his presidential sermon last week at the 119th convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Peter Knobel urged his colleagues to be articulately, emphatically and publicly outspoken on issues beyond their obvious purview — beyond the holidays, beyond the stories of the Torah.

Considering that the overall theme of the convention was “The Challenges of Moral Leadership,” I believe that Knobel was exemplifying one of those challenges, despite the predictable grumblings of those who found his sermon less than inspiring.

Some in attendance said that Knobel did not break new ground. Perhaps so. Rabbis have always reminded their followers that Jews are supposed to live by a set of moral imperatives, even when they have known that their reminders might be unpopular, that their followers might disagree with them, that they might run certain risks if they spoke out, that those imperatives were not necessarily easy, safe or convenient. Should we reform rabbis do any less at this time in our history?

Reform rabbis are trained not to be mouthpieces, and not to repeat what people want to hear just so they can stay in their comfort zones. We are heirs to a prophetic tradition that insists that we do our best to articulate the moral issues of the day in ways that will inspire our people to take risks, if necessary, for the ultimate betterment of society as a whole, including, but not limited to, the Jewish people.

While it is certainly our role to comfort the afflicted, it is equally our role to afflict the comfortable. Knobel said no less. And he said it, coming as he does from Illinois — where the outspoken and often controversial remarks of a Sen. Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, have raised all kinds of questions about what religious leaders should say in public, how they should say it and who will be affected by what is said — with full awareness of the context of potential controversy.

The discontent I heard about Knobel’s sermon was that it didn’t go far enough, that he simply repeated the imperatives with which we are already far too familiar. He could have taken the entire time for his sermon by just listing the litany of issues that are eating away at the fabric of society. Instead, he focused on just a few, maybe his favorites, because he knows, as do the rest of us, that each rabbi has his or her own set of favorites on which we focus our attention, occasionally shifting emphasis from one to another as they cry out for response.

Listing my favorite issues, too, would stray from the point: Reform rabbis must continue to speak out, or resume speaking out, on whatever they’re preaching.

At the convention we viewed a new DVD produced by the American Jewish Archives titled “Voices for Justice: Reform Rabbis and Moral Leadership in America, a Videographic History.” The point of creating this video — and of showing it at our convention — was to remind our colleagues that it is no less important today to speak prophetically and powerfully than it was in the days of our predecessors. In fact, it may be more important than ever, as we review the daunting amount of work that we must collectively do to repair, maintain and improve our world.

It is easy to say that there is too much to do, that we cannot possibly hope to accomplish what needs to be done, that the forces working against us are too strong, determined and clever for us to win the day. Rabbis often risk our popularity in speaking out forcefully on issues that may be deemed controversial. Yet if we do not speak out, who will do so for us? If we do not speak out, loudly, clearly, forcefully, morally and insistently, we will have abrogated our solemn responsibilities, not only to our fellow human beings, but to God as well. And we will make it even harder for those who come after us to clean up the mess that we have made.

Knobel was reminded of how easy it is to say something that is unpopular. He risked the ire of his colleagues by daring to say that, despite the difficulties we face in trying to rouse our constituencies to action, including our own colleagues, we really have no choice but to do so, and to do so unceasingly and unapologetically.

He was leading by example, often the hardest kind of moral leadership. Instead of saying, “Do as I say,” he was saying, “Walk with me, and together we can make the necessary difference.”

In an age when moral leadership seems so lacking in the political and religious realms, I would follow his example anywhere, and I would encourage, in the strongest possible terms, my colleagues and fellow sojourners to do so as well.

Rabbi Allen Bennett is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Alameda.