I tend to be outspoken, both in my synagogue and out in the community, on issues of Tikkun Olam – Social Justice – even when they are controversial; perhaps especially when they are controversial. Over the years, I have advocated for the hungry, for the homeless, for the newcomers to our shores. When African American churches were being set on fire in the South, Rabbi Stanley Herman and I organized the Burned Churches Fund. When local bigots burned crosses in West Davenport, Dan Ebener, who was then the Social Action Director of the Diocese of Davenport, and I organized a Say No to Hate Rally at Sacred Heart Cathedral; a rally which filled the cathedral to overflowing. When it became apparent that while our community had many wonderful agencies to address the needs of the homeless, they needed help in raising funds of their efforts, I, along with a group of caring citizens, several of them from my congregation, put together a fund raising organization called In From the Cold, which focused its efforts of supporting agencies serving the homeless. When it became increasingly clear that in my community the primary religious voice that was making itself heard in the publid forum was the voice of conservative Christianity, I joined with Rev. Dan Schmiechen of the United Church of Christ and Rev. Charlotte Saleska of the Unitarian Church in organizing a group called Progressive Clergy, which would serve as the voice of socially liberal religious traditions in our community. When I became aware of how many of our local school children were without adequate winter wear to fend off the Iowa cold, I got together with the superintendent of the Davenport School District and organized a program called Coats for Kids whose function it was to collect, clean, and distribute gently used winter coats to needy children. When there were those who were burning the Koran in protest to the proposed opening of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, I was one of the primary supporters of an interfaith solidarity gathering at the Moline mosque. I have testified before the city councils of both Davenport and Bettendorf in support of both women’s reproductive choice and extending the categories of groups protected by our civil rights ordinances to include the diversity of sexual orientation. When John Deere sought to cut the health care benefits of its retirees, I led the clergy in protesting that action. This list can go on and on.
As a Jew, my passion for Tikkun Olam comes naturally to me. The Torah continually instructs us to be proactive in matters of social justice. So many are the times when the Torah calls upon us to pursue this course, reminding us, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”; reminding us that as Jews, we have known what it means to be the victims of injustice and from those experiences, we must take away the lesson of how imperative it is for us to pursue justice for all people – “tzedek, tzedek tirdof! – Justice, justice shall you pursue!” Where the Torah leaves off, the prophets picked up, for their voices were clarion in the call for the pursuit of justice. Indeed, when Reform Judaism had turned away from the rigors of ritual mitzvot such as kashrut as the primary expression of our Jewish identity, we turned to focusing on the ethical mitzvot, especially the social justice mitzvot. And what did we call ourselves? We called ourselves prophetic Judaism. Indeed, to this day, across the Judeo-Christian spectrum, when we talk about pursuing social justice, we refer to it as a prophetic mission and the prophetic tradition.
There was a time, really not that long ago, when this was almost expected of faith communities and their religious leaders; when the pursuit of social justice was considered an essential part of the mission of communities of faith. So we saw wonderful images, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking side-by-side with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the cause of civil rights for all people regardless of race. We saw clergy and congregations across faith lines speaking out and marching in protest to the Viet Nam War. In my own community, sometimes I would be approached by congregants who would say, “You know, Rabbi, people out in the community tell me how much they respect you for most of the stands that you take, but they are really troubled by your stand on Planned Parenthood…” In saying that, they were informing me that while there were those who disagree with me, no one was challenging the appropriateness, or legality, of taking a stand on a social issue.
Now you need to understand that for tax exempt not-for-profit organizations like synagogues and churches there is a very important line that separates social issues advocacy from political advocacy. While it is perfectly appropriate for organizations like synagogues and churches to take stands on social issues, it is strictly prohibited and jeopardizes their tax exempt status if they advocate for particular political candidates or parties.
For most of my rabbinate, and before, the lines separating those two types of advocacy were pretty clear and such conflicts were easily avoided. But in the course of time something has changed, and these lines have gotten blurred. They seem to have gotten so blurred that today there are those who feel that they can claim that advocating for particular social issues is, in effect, advocating for one particular political party over another; one political candidate over another. Therefore, for a synagogue – and perhaps even its rabbi speaking and acting outside of the synagogue – to advocate for a particular social issue would seem to violate the prohibition against engaging in partisan politics.
In the world of politics, it seems that times have changed. There was a time when a political figure’s stand on any given social issue was not a function of party politics but rather of personal conscious. There was a time when our political leaders felt freer to follow their consciences rather than the agenda of their parties. Anyone who has seen the recent movie “Lincoln” knows from whence I speak. The 16th amendment passed, granting freedom to African Americans, because there were those in Congress who were willing to vote their conscience rather than their party. As a youth I recall reading with wrapped attention John F. Kennedy’s book, PROFILES IN COURAGE, in which he raised up 8 U.S. senators who courageously crossed party lines in order to vote their conscience.
But somewhere along the line, the landscape of American politics changed. I remember first clearly noting that change while watching President Bill Clinton delivering one of his State of the Union addresses. As I watched, I noticed that when it came to the applause, the members of Clinton’s party applauded every time. However, the Republicans only applauded when signaled to do so by their Congressional leadership. The members of both sides never really chose for themselves but rather they stood by their parties. Once aware of this, of course I needed to test my theory. So I would continue to watch State of the Union addresses with this in mind, and sure enough, this held true during the presidency of George Bush with the Democrats reserving their applause only to those times when they received the signal.
What I was witnessing is something that we all already know; that our country has become divided along political party lines. As a manifestation of that political divide, each of the parties has staked its claim on one side or the other of social issues. Therefore, if you take one side or the other, you can be accused of lining yourself up with one party or the other. As things have shaken out, the Democrats tend to be more on the left, and the Republicans more on the right. So no matter which position we as a faith community take – the more liberal or the more conservative – there will be those who accuse us of engaging in partisan politics.
This situation tends to paralyze American congregations and clergy of all faiths. They so fear becoming identified with one political party or the other, and therefore risking the loss of their tax exempt status, that they choose to refrain from all Tikkun Olam activities or restrict themselves to only the least controversial, or the non-controversial, such as supporting meal sites and hunger programs. While these are indeed good works, and should be pursued, that is not nearly enough for faith communities, for if faith communities relinquish their role as the guardians of conscience in our society, then who will pick it up? Regardless of what faith we profess, our faith calls upon us to be courageous in our efforts to care for and protect all of God’s children. We must be courageous as the prophets were courageous; we must be outspoken as the prophets were outspoken. Because there are those who accuse us of being partisan in our politics, that does not grant us license to abandon the demands of our conscience.
We must come to recognize that the problem does not reside in our having become partisan in our politics, for we are not. As long as we focus our words and actions on the issues and not on the political parties or the individual politicians, we are not engaging in partisan politics. We are engaging in Tikkun Olam. Where the problem does reside is to be found in what has happened to our political system, where the party line has drowned out the call of conscience. And that is partly our fault. It is our fault in that we no longer demand of our political leaders that they be people of conscience; people who are willing to cross party lines to support what they truly believe in; people who are more interested in advancing the interests of the American people than then interests of their particular political party; people who would qualify for inclusion in John F. Kennedy’s book PROFILES IN COURAGE. We have the power to make that happen, for we have the power of the vote. We have the power to tell those who aspire to political leadership that our top priority is that they do the right thing – following the dictates of their conscience – even when it is not the party thing. Then once again, we will find ourselves living in an American where there can be times when Republicans and Democrats stand together to do the right thing. When standing on one side or another of an issue will no longer be confused with engaging in partisan politics.