Rabbis for Obama does not cross a line

No ethnic or religious group has been more protective and supportive of the First Amendment than Jews. When it comes to patrolling the line between church and state, we are at the forefront.

So how do we then reconcile a new organization calling itself Rabbis for Obama?

A story in this week’s j. examines this organization of 400 rabbis openly supporting the Democratic presidential candidate. These rabbis say they have not violated the First Amendment (or the tax codes governing nonprofits) because they make no endorsements from the bimah. They claim to speak for no one but themselves.

Jewish Republicans are understandably disturbed by this organization, arguing that as spiritual leaders, rabbis have no legal or moral right to endorse partisan political candidates.

The implication is that, even if they refrain from making partisan political statements from the bimah, the rabbis’ relationships with their congregants is such that any endorsement would carry undue influence.

We disagree.

This assumption gives American Jews far too little credit for being the independent, informed thinkers and voters that they are.

But more importantly, it is incorrect to presume rabbis have no business weighing in on the key issues of the day. The issues Jews care about — human rights, civil rights, war and peace, religious freedom and social justice — all have political implications. Rabbis weigh in on these issues all the time. Why can’t they, as private citizens, support those candidates that best fulfill their aspirations?

After all, Christian ministers and Catholic bishops long have taken strong stands on many hot-button political issues, with scores of them all but endorsing George W. Bush in the last two presidential elections.

As private citizens, members of the clergy have every right to take partisan stands, just like any other American. To do so in no way violates the rules governing 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofits.

Lest anyone read into this editorial an endorsement of Barack Obama’s candidacy, think again. We would like to see Rabbis for McCain establish itself right away to provide some balance, and to show that Jews are not monolithic in their thinking.

Americans on both sides of the partisan divide agree on one thing: This is one of the most important elections in U.S. history. Everyone, including rabbis, understands the stakes.

Rabbis are more than mere officiants at Jewish religious services. They are community leaders. We need to hear their voices loud and clear, even if we don’t always agree with them. The conversation is too important.