Last Wednesday, I received an email from someone whom I do not know personally, but who has been commenting to me directly on my articles. I guess he reads them online because he emails me before the paper is distributed.
In the email, he seems to be generally approving of the thrust of my recent article “For These Things I Weep,” and appreciated my reference to the passing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l. He included a link to an article by Rabbi Sacks, in which he was critical of rabbis who make political endorsements. Rabbis, Rabbi Sacks felt, should stay clear of politics. Mixing religion and politics is never a good idea. I was not sure if the writer was just sharing a thought-provoking article by Rabbi Sacks, or if he meant to be critical of me for my own article, which was laced with my own political assessment of the aftermath of the presidential election.
Rabbi Sacks was likely reacting to the very public endorsement of Donald Trump by Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita. The endorsement was followed by a letter signed by numerous roshei yeshivah and admorim imploring Jews to vote for Mr. Trump as an expression of hakaras ha’tov, gratitude, to the President for all he has done for the Jewish People here and in Israel. I do not know if Rabbi Sacks was well enough to read the public endorsements of Joe Biden by a mashgiach ruchani (spiritual guide) of a major yeshivah in Manhattan, plus a rosh ha’yeshivah in a well-known yeshivah in the Gush in Israel, in addition to other rabbis who were public in their support of Mr. Biden.
I responded to my emailer that it is interesting to note that the current British Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, was publicly critical of the Labour Party and its head Jeremy Corbyn for their overt anti-Semitism and anti-Israel hostility. Rabbi Mirvis was hailed as a hero by most for being so outspoken on such a critical issue (See The New York Times, November 26, 2019).
It seems that it all depends on how important the issue is for it to be considered kosher for a rabbi to express himself politically. My belief is that a rabbi should be politically involved but should never become a politician. That is, if a rabbi feels that the situation demands that an approach be taken for the benefit of the Jewish People, then it is his duty to speak up. But a rabbi must never engage in politics simply to be busy with the political leadership. A rabbi’s sole purpose is to lead his flock, not to see and be seen without a specific reason.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, in 1940, then the spiritual leader of the Boston Jewish community, delivered a classic eulogy on Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, chief rabbi of Vilna, Poland. The title of the hesped, given in Cincinnati, was HaTzitz V’HaChoshen and was published in HaPardes on October 7, 1940. The main thrust of his words was that the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) during the era of the Temple carried two major articles of significance upon his body. One was the Tzitz, which was a gold band upon his head that had the words “Kodesh LaShem,” or Holy Unto G-d, engraved in it. The other was the Choshen, the breastplate that carried the names and precious jewels associated with the twelve tribes. The Tzitz was used as a halachic inspiration to help determine the most delicate questions of ritual purity. The Choshen, on the other hand, based on the miraculous illumination of the stones, helped the Kohen Gadol decide the most critical military as well as political decisions for the Jewish People.
Rav Soloveitchik explained that the same Kohen Gadol, who had to preside over the most profound and detailed halachic or legal matters, presided over fateful military and political decisions at the same time. That was the greatness of Rav Grodzinski, who, despite many battles, mastered both abilities.
Although rabbis today are neither the Kohen Gadol nor Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, nonetheless they are duty-bound when appropriate to express themselves in their role as Torah leaders. The trick is not to be swept into the lure of political activism while losing sight of their mission as spiritual leaders. The other trick is to be right.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.