At my lodge we follow two simple rules: no religion, no politics. We also have a very strict “no chicks” policy, but that’s not really germane to this post. We do that because they are the two (well, three) things people start wars over. No religion and no politics, brings harmony.
But I’m not at my lodge right now, so I’m going to talk about both of them.
Having changed jobs lately (from having one to not having one), I’ve suddenly found myself with weekends free, so my family has finally been able to attend our temple’s morning Shabbat service. On the surface it’s a good fit. Reconstructionists are kind of oddball, like me and Tiffany. They’re not necessarily into the dogma or traditional spirituality of Judaism, but they’re very into the traditional practice of Judaism, so most people are wearing kippot and tallitot, and doing all the proper knee bends and bows, etc, and it’s actually pretty nice, but as I collected my siddur the lady handed me a blue sheet as well.
It was a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love human rights. Like any good person, I’m a champion of them, but I personally don’t consider about half the things on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights to actually be human rights, as I find that some contradict others. Also I’m pretty sure the rabbi slipped one or two new ones in on her own.
We sat down and learned that it was recently World Human Rights Day or something, so we’re not only observing these but we’re shuffling them into our prayers throughout the day, then everyone began chanting about how G-d totally wants us all to have socialized universal healthcare.
I’m not here to start a debate on socialized universal healthcare, or what is or isn’t a human right. This isn’t the place for that. But then is synagogue the place for that either? I’m not sure. On one hand Jews are either the inventors of, or at least among the earliest adopters of human rights as we know them today. That’s not a coincidence. Jews are, to many, meant to fix the world, and one can’t do that by avoiding controversial issues. Some of the greatest humane causes, like the American anti-slavery movement, originated in houses of worship, and since you can’t really separate human rights from politics, you can’t really separate politics from religion.
But on the other hand my life’s already political enough. I spend a week getting into snarky fights on facebook, being alienated from friends, alienating others, etc, and when I get to temple all I really want to do is be uplifted by the rushing spirit of G-d in the company of my community.
I suppose I could find a more like-minded synagogue, though let’s face it, Jews are predominantly on the political left and I am not. I’d probably have to go to an ultra-orthodox temple to find political conservatives, but then their mitvot-sense would start tingling and they’d realize we have no plans to circumcise any future sons and I’d be alienated all over again.
I was thinking of all this as I continued my tortured trudge through services, feeling completely devoid of any connection with anyone else there—partially due to the political climate and partially because I don’t know jack about Hebrew and can’t follow along in this DaVinci Code of a siddur—and I came to the conclusion that you can’t really separate the two things. When you adopt a new religion, you are in some way adopting its politics as well.
I’m not alone in my loneliness. I could find good company among the swaths of pro-choice Catholics, or the peaceable Muslims who pop into a new mosque only to find a suspiciously inordinate amount of emphasis on the murdery bits of the Koran, but most of these people probably voted for Obama too, so that wouldn’t leave us a lot to talk about.
Still, I’d like to think that true, proper religion, while not shying away from our responsibilities to this world, can transcend the bitter, divisive, and limited scope of modern politics and activism. Nothing can be added to the Torah. That’s a mitzvah. And to me that means G-d doesn’t need us telling each other how something He said totally means we have to support Wisconsin Union protests. G-d said what He said, and it was pretty smart, and it was pretty wise, and it was pretty damn on-point, and you should be the one to figure out how you can apply that to our world.
The job of a congregation, it seems to me, isn’t to agree or disagree, but to give you the one thing so many of us lack in our world: harmony.
(Photo: Mike Licht, Notionscapital.com)
Thank you for the thoughtful post.
I would like to add that Shabbat is supposed to be our day of rest. We are supposed to worry about, and work for, human rights, etc. 6 days a week. On Shabbat, we’re supposed to relax and act as if the world is already perfect as it is.
So your instinct to sigh when you got the handout and to feel that it was interrupting what you were hoping to get from the service was a very traditional, and wholly authentic, reaction.
As an Israeli I can say that politics and religion can definitely walk hand in hand, especially in the middle east where you have countries like Israel and Iran that are very much based on religion and the outcome is a very unhealthy relationship between politics and religion.
When you take a look at Jewish history you can see that the synagogues weren’t just a place of worship, they were more a place of gathering for the whole community, a place to argue about ideas and making peace between neighbors. It was a place where people discussed the latest news or latest restrictions imposed by the Czar.
So it’s not surprising that political activities took place at synagogues, now we can say it’s “tradition” (And as we all know from the story “Fiddler on the roof” the most important thing is “Tradition”).
Let’s keep the tradition alive, it’s been keeping us alive and kicking for over 2000 years of exile.
There is no place to interpret Judaism through politics, this one is a dangerous one, but the is room to discuss politics along Judaism, and there is no better place to that than in a synagogue where you can find a lot of different ideas and in most cases the number of ideas will exceed the number of participants in the services, but that’s another tradition 🙂
Enjoying harmony in our congregations, without regard for the world outside our four walls is not what brings me to shul each week. I am a member of a congregation that may be perceived by some as “political” at times, and frankly that’s why I am there.
I do not go to Shabbat services merely to feel comfortable. If being a committed Jew includes enacting Tikkun Olam, why should we not also give prayerful, congregational consideration to the means we have available to us to restore the world to godly perfection — namely, through the process of social engagement? How can we sing prayers for peace (Shalom Rav or Oseh Shalom, anyone?) and not also pray, either explicitly or implicitly, for the safety, security and dignity of all people? How can we say Kaddish without the memory of anonymous others who have died at the hands of evil oppressors anywhere being woven in between these sacred words?
I agree wholeheartedly that Shabbat is G-d’s gift of sacred time to Jews and anyone else who wishes to observe this commandment. I vehemently disagree, however, that Shabbat is a vacation from our responsibilities and troubles, a comfortable “time out” if you will. We do not turn away from the world on Shabbat. Rather, we turn toward G-d and each other to spend prayerful, restorative time that helps us to be the best people we can be. I believe that requires thinking about how to take action in the world, If not now, when? And that may indeed make us feel uncomfortable.
I’m not Matthew, but being his wife, we’ve talked a lot about this, and this post is actually an offshoot of something I wrote in my private blog, so I understand the basic sentiment quite acutely.
There is being political in the philosophical sense and there is being political in the specific sense. I feel that religion is, implicitly, a form of political philosophy. It influences how one sees the world and, unless one chooses to live in a bubble, one’s politics. However, when we get to talking about very specific political viewpoints, I cringe a bit. I am a person who is very libertarian on social issues and very conservative fiscally. I feel strongly, for example, that people of any sexual orientation should be able to have the same legal rights to “marriage,” but I also feel that the state doesn’t really belong in “marriage.” So it’d be difficult for me to support the concept of “gay marriage,” because I see a distinction between civil unions (being the government sanctioning a partnership) and marriage (being a religious term). There are people who are pro-gay-marriage who will not give me the time of day because of this distinction.
And that’s what bothers me, personally, about politics in religion. Not even everyone sitting in the same shul is going to have the same idea of G-d. Why would they have the same idea of something that’s much more tangible and immediately relevant? Harmony doesn’t mean you must agree. Harmony means you work together, regardless of specific political beliefs, to achieve a common goal.
Now, I totally acknowledge that temples have traditionally been places of community and not just worship, but that is also a concept that is foreign to me. My friend commented last night that she can’t imagine politics and religion not being together, as that’s what she was raised with. I, on the other hand, went to Lutheran services, and no one dared utter a word about politics. It’s a very different experience for me to see politics and religion together.
My problem with this, Christopher, is not that my rabbi asks me to try to save the world, but that she insists that she knows how to do it.
I truly believe that my political beliefs do help the world become a more peaceful, just place. Otherwise I wouldn’t believe them. And while I don’t mind people implying that I’m wrong, I don’t relish it, and certainly don’t think it should come from the pulpit…do Jews have a pulpit? I actually don’t even know what a pulpit is, to tell the truth.
The point is when a religious leader stands up and tells you, in specific terms, the things you need to be doing to get right with G-d, that is the very source of the negative connotation of “preaching”.
There was a rather large section of the original piece that I took out, because it was really a separate post in itself, but it’s connected. That as a result of my eclectic collection of beliefs, and peoples general preference to let themselves be sorted into groups, I’ve spent most of my life as an oddball. And it’s always disappointing to continue being an oddball, even when I go to a place that is meant to be welcoming.
Now, that isn’t to say that my synagogue isn’t welcoming. They’re extremely pleasant people, but because divisive things are discussed (or universal things are discussed in divisive ways) people get divided from each other. And that’s a shame.
It’s also a reality, because we have freedom of association, so I have to just deal with it, but I kind of have to wonder where I can go for some unity and harmony nowadays.
FYI, the rabbi speaks from the bimah, when speaking from an elevated platform from which the Torah is read in front of the congregation.
You have an excellent point. It’s one thing to say, “go out in the world and make it a better place,” and it’s something completely different to say, “and you can make the world a better place by…” voting a certain way, or buying a certain thing or making a donation to a certain cause, etc. It’s by assuming that one’s own politics are the right one and that others are wrong that we invite alienation. On the other hand, rabbis are supposed to lead by example, and giving examples can be helpful.
It’s also important to remember that the rabbi is not like the Pope – we are not expected to follow everything the rabbi says like it’s gospel. It’s perfectly okay to argue (respectfully) with the what the rabbi is saying. And if your rabbi doesn’t allow that, then I’d say you should find another rabbi.
I think it’s important that we all learn to discuss our differences in a respectful manner, and to accept people whose politics are different than ours. Again, if that’s not the culture of your synagogue, you may want to find a different synagogue.
And I would like to reiterate that while it’s important to discusss and act on these issues six days a week, it’s important to have one day a week of rest in which we allow ourselves to be grateful for all that we already have.
Thank you for your comments, Susan.
And I’d like to reiterate that I’m not pointing out my synagogue specifically. I’ve only been to a few and can’t say what the norm is, but I feel the same way when I watch an episode of Family Guy and they get a dig in. Can’t I just not be attacked for just a minute, please?
It’s tiring. The folks at my synagogue are very nice, however, and seem welcoming enough. And the rabbi is also very nice and thoughtful. This is in no way about them.