Included in the gracious invitation from the Arizona Jewish Post to offer approximately 500 words to appear in the “Rabbi’s Corner” on a Jewish topic of my choice was the addendum that my words “may or may not be related to the weekly Torah portion.” In other words, no restrictions would be applied to my “corner.”
Yet, the very nature of this kind invitation elicits the tension that besets rabbis and laity committed to freedom of the pulpit. For acutely sensed in our community, but not just in our community, is the insistence that rabbinic offerings ought merely to evoke the Spirit of the parashah, or ought to avoid straying from “Jewishness” into “political” waters, or both.
Yet, even purely biblically based homilies cannot escape the text on which they are based. For, as an eminent scholar, Michael Walzer, writes:
The Bible is, above all, a religious book, but it is also a political book. Its histories give us a fascinating amount of what is today called regime change — the tyranny of Pharaoh gives way to the leadership of Moses and Joshua; which is followed by the intermittent rule of the Judges, also called the rule of God; which is rejected by the elders and the people, who demand to be ruled by kings; who are overthrown centuries later by conquering armies of Assyrians and Babylonians and replaced by foreign emperors and their priestly collaborators. All this is described in some detail, so you find in the Bible all the material necessary for a comparative politics. More than this, the biblical books include … rules for warfare, ideas about justice and obligation, social criticism, visions of the good society. … Until the very end of the biblical period, Israelite religion is emphatically this-worldly. …1
Is there any doubt that politics concerns the specific, not theoretical, distribution and exercise of power? Surely, it is about who gets what, when, where and how. Is there any doubt that ethics concerns the specific, not theoretical, access to and shaping of power for noble and humane purposes? Surely, it is about loving-kindness resounding beyond as well as within the corners of our sanctuaries. Is there any doubt that politics and ethics cannot be separated one from the other lest we resign ourselves to the law of the jungle or to preaching pablum or to “benign” neglect?
For rabbis, fashioning an effective message poses a rhetorical challenge. Hearkening to any one of the competing voices of our tradition tests interpretational humility. And preaching to the choir produces an echo unless the choir needs a booster shot and unless we need to reaffirm our authenticity.
1 Walzer, Michael. In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Preface x-xii.