Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why not Jewish plumbers against the deal and Jewish lawyers for the deal and Jewish doctors against the deal and Jewish teachers for the deal and Jewish hairdressers against the deal and Jewish gardeners for the deal?


Imagine the following headline: 340 Jewish plumbers urge Congress to disapprove Iran Nuclear Deal

The US Congress (Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

I have nothing against Rabbis. In fact, some of my best friends, and some of the wisest people I know, and many other good people, are Rabbis. I also have nothing against plumbers, even though, one must admit one’s shortcomings, I don’t have any plumber friends. But I have employed more than my fair share of plumbers, and some of them were fine people, smart and funny, efficient and useful.

 Truth must be told: when there’s a leak, a plumber is more useful than a Rabbi. Here's proof:

There are also times – so I’m told – when  a Rabbi can be more useful than a plumber (Not quite sure about this). 

One thing is quite certain: Rabbis have no advantage over plumbers when it comes to understanding and assessing the agreement with Iran.

 They have no better professional qualifications and no more relevant experience. Thus, when 340 rabbis signed a letter urging Congress to approve the Iran nuclear deal I shrugged. So what if they did?

Let me say it again: I have great appreciation for Rabbis. I talk to a rabbi every week to learn about the weekly Parsha. I study the Talmud with the assistance of Rabbis. But when I need to fix something in my bathroom I do not consult with a Rabbi. And when I need to understand the ups and downs of an agreement with Iran I do not call a Rabbi – nor should you, nor should Congress.

I understand why the Rabbis signed the letter to Congress. They wanted to demonstrate to the public and to the legislators, that the Jewish community is split on the Iran deal, that many within the community support the deal. They signed the letter as leaders of the community. And this raises a serious question: should Rabbis play the role of political leaders in the Jewish community?

Of course, no one would doubt that Rabbis should be spiritual leaders of the Jewish community, and educational leaders of the Jewish community. This is what they are trained to do. But politics is a different field. Politics is the field of, well, political leaders. Is it not?

The questions about the role of a Rabbi in a community are quite serious and interesting. Take Israel as an example, and test your own views on this matter: do you think that it is good for Israel to have political parties that get their marching orders from Rabbis? Or does it seem annoying to you that Israel has such parties and such Rabbis?

I suspect that many of the Rabbis who signed the letter to Congress – generally speaking we are talking about Rabbis associated with progressive streams of Judaism – would not really hesitate to also sign a letter denouncing the Israeli parties that adhere to Rabbinic rule. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they would only sign a letter denouncing the policies of these parties, and not their habit of adhering to Rabbinic rule. Namely, maybe they would argue with the rulings of these politically engaged Rabbis but not with the fact that Rabbis are the ones that dictate the policies of political parties.

And what if we find 1500 Rabbis in opposition to the deal and only 1300 Rabbis supportive of the deal – would that be counted as a definitive Rabbinical decision? And what if we find that most Rabbis support the deal but most Cantors oppose the deal – would that make any difference?

340 Rabbis is a lot – but I don’t think it should be a problem to find 340 Rabbis who oppose the deal. In fact, some Rabbis who oppose the deal – Rabbis who belong to the OU and the RCA – have already expressed their views. I should say that their negation of the deal has no more merit than the more recent support expressed by the group of 340.

To conclude:

We know that the Jewish community is split on the issue of Iran. We know it from surveys and from articles. We know that many liberal Rabbis, and congregants (some of whom, perhaps, are plumbers), “fully support this historic nuclear accord”. The Rabbis’ letter did not much add to our knowledge.

We also know that there are arguments with which to support the deal: the Obama administration has made these arguments known to the public, and experts of all types have been volunteering additions and variations to these arguments. Here, again, the Rabbis’ letter does not add much to our knowledge.

Rabbis in America and in Israel are used to speaking about political issues. They do it all the time. Do I want Rabbis in America – not that it matters if I do – not to speak about Israel from the pulpit? Not to encourage their congregants to support Israel in certain times? Not to speak for human rights? Not to speak against BDS or anti-Semitism?

Rabbis in America and in Israel talk about political issues all the time, and maybe it is appropriate to ask whether that is a good policy for them and for the community.

Of course, it is somewhat suspicious that I tend to this issue following a letter that supports a view with which I do not agree. I plead guilty: the content of the letter was annoying, and that is why I began thinking about the role of Rabbis in debates about political issues. I also admit that it is not easy to argue that Rabbis should never speak about political matters. It is not easy for a practical reason: because Rabbis have the habit of doing so and would be hard pressed to give it up. It is not easy for a more inherent reason: because all matters are political matters. Even a Dvar Torah is – in some way – political.

Then again, why should it be just Rabbis? Why not the members of other professions? Why not Jewish plumbers against the deal and Jewish lawyers for the deal and Jewish doctors against the deal and Jewish teachers for the deal and Jewish hairdressers against the deal and Jewish gardeners for the deal?

You might say: because Rabbis are special. And I agree – they are special? But one might argue that hearing them speak about issues on which their knowledge is limited to what most other people also know makes them less special, not more special.