Silence of the rabbis

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B'nai Tzedek believes rabbis should feel free to discuss Israel with their congregations.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek believes rabbis should feel free to discuss Israel with their congregations.

A Jewish Council for Public Affairs study involving 552 rabbis, the majority of whom identify themselves as liberals, found that one-third of those polled are reluctant to express their true feelings about Israel when they are speaking to their congregations.

Eighteen percent of those reluctant rabbis described themselves as more dovish than they let on to their members while more than 12 percent say they are “closet hawks,” according to the study entitled “Reluctant or Repressed? Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel Among American Rabbis,” which was released Oct. 8.

The survey was conducted between May and July of this year. Rabbis whose email addresses appear on JCPA lists assembled over the years were asked to participate. Those rabbis are “heavily Reform and Conservative,” and mostly males in their late 50s. The study admits to a “significant under-sampling of Orthodox rabbis.”

About 40 percent of the rabbis who are not totally frank with their congregants about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cited fear of offending their listeners. Some rabbis said they were concerned about professional repercussions and others pointed to criticism from congregants. Some rabbis admitted to refraining from holding programming about Israel at their synagogue for fear of controversy or conflict.

“Though they care deeply about the Middle East and the Jewish state, there is a fear on both sides of the political spectrum — particularly among younger rabbis — that expressing their personal opinions may create a problematic and difficult situation in their synagogues and organizations,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, JCPA president.

He called that problematic, noting that a civil discourse is necessary or a rift between Americans and Israelis can only grow, he said. He pointed to problems in Congress today, noting that when people can’t speak their minds without being condemned, civil discourse deteriorates.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac was dismayed that not all rabbis share his view that “it’s important for rabbis to speak out in behalf of Israel and the Jewish people.” He said there are “no differences” in his views expressed during sermons and discussions and his personal opinions.

“I do speak passionately in support of Israel. I try not to be critical of Israel from the pulpit. I feel there is more than enough sources critical of Israel.”

He considers it his responsibility to help people put everything they hear about Israel “in context.”

Weinblatt takes his love of Israel one step higher. As director of Israel policy and advocacy on the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America and member of the National Executive Council of AIPAC, “I encourage my colleagues to speak out.”

But Rabbi Ethan Seidel, of Tifereth Israel Congregation in the District, understands a rabbi’s reluctance to speak on certain issues.

“I can imagine there being some truth to that in general,” Seidel said. Hot-button issues, like Israel and intermarriage, are controversial, he said.

Seidel emphasized that he does not cushion his remarks due to fear; “I am trying to be skillful” and determine “what can I say that is going to be heard.”

He noted, “If you get people too angry, they are not going to listen. Even mentioning them [controversial issues] can get you in trouble. These are difficult issues,” he said.

Like Weinblatt, Seidel takes his responsibility to teach seriously and said he wants to reach as many people as possible.

He noted that he would soon be leading a congregational trip to Israel that includes a visit to the West Bank where the group will speak with settlers and Palestinians. Seidel explained he was doing that “so people can be best informed,” yet when he explained that during a High Holiday sermon “that definitely got some push bank, both good and bad.”

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president American Friends of Lubavitch and director of its Washington office, called it “sad” that a rabbi would have a problem speaking his mind with his congregation.

“In a healthy synagogue or community relationship, the rabbi and the community need to be able to say whatever they truly feel to each other,” he said. “Politics on the bima is always a tinderbox. I sometimes have to worry about that myself, but changing what you think to satisfy someone else ultimately just doesn’t work.”

While the rabbis in the JCPA survey were more likely than not to be on the liberal side of social issues, the vast majority of them have visited Israel four times or more and even spent at least a year studying there.

“As many as 93 percent say they are very attached to Israel, a figure about double that found in many studies of rank-and-file American Jews,” the study noted. It also stated that most rabbis questioned had “a fairly dovish posture,” aligning with the left-of-center and leftist Zionist political parties. For instance, by a six to one margin, the rabbis in the study favored a freeze on settlements “to a great extent.”

When asked to what extent they believed the Israeli government wants peace, 20 percent responded “to a great extent” while 41 percent said a little, not at all or not sure.

About 52 percent said the Israeli government wants peace more than the Palestinian Authority, and 48 percent “gave the two sides equal scores.

“All responding Orthodox rabbis see Israel as wanting peace more, followed by just over two thirds (69%) of the Conservative rabbis, but less than half (45%) of the Reform rabbis,” the study noted.

When asked to state which political party they identified with, a whopping 78 percent said Democratic with a mere 3 percent choosing Republican.

Rabbi Gutow said the results of the poll were not totally surprising. What he did find “most compelling and surprising” was the large number of rabbis who took the time to participate. “One-third of the rabbis contacted responded. That is an unbelievably significant number.”

Gutow believes the large response could be attributed to the fact that the rabbis who are reluctant to speak their minds “wanted to get that out. They didn’t think it was a good thing.”

JCPA serves as a national coordinating and advisory body for 14 national and 125 local partner agencies involved in civic and social issues.

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  1. Standard interviews with local rabbis identifying their opinions about/and experiences in Israel, would make an interesting and important series in the WJW.


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