Sep 18, 2008

Crossing a line?: Many local names sign on to controversial Rabbis for Obama list

Crossing a line?: Many local names sign on to controversial Rabbis for Obama list

Friday September 19, 2008
by dan pine, staff writer for the J.

Can ordained rabbis publicly endorse a partisan political candidate? Apparently, yes they can. More than 400 American rabbis have lent their names to Rabbis for Obama, a Chicago-based organization that has endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Rabbi Menachem Creditor, of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, is one of the pulpit rabbis signing on for Obama. He’s not the least bit worried that he has crossed a line. “I’m not representing my congregation,” he says. “That would be a violation of the tax code and the church-state divide.”

It’s not like the Rabbis for Obama will hop on the campaign bus or show up arm-in-arm at a rally. Mostly they signed a letter (available on the Web at www.rabbisforobama.com), which reads in part, “We join together to support Senator Obama for president, and we do so in the belief that he will best support the issues important to us in the Jewish community.” The letter goes on to read: “We are fully aware that a smear campaign against Senator Obama has been waged in the Jewish community, and we feel it is our duty as Jewish leaders to fight for the truth and against Lashon Hara,” the Hebrew term for evil speech. A Republican Jewish leader found that latter passage of the letter particularly objectionable.

“It’s irresponsible and unprofessional as rabbis to give a hechsher in accusing us of lashon hara,” said Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Brooks said the reference to “guilt by association” seemed to be referring to the RJC’s criticism of Obama’s links to his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and some who have been listed as the Democrat’s foreign policy advisers — two topics that Brooks believes are fair game in the debate over Obama’s record.

The rabbis for Obama live in every region of the country, including the Bay Area. Local rabbis participating include Creditor, Brian Lurie, Michael Barenbaum, Pamela Frydman Baugh, Carol Caine, Steven Chester, Jack Gabriel, Margaret Holub, Lori Klein, Lawrence Kushner, Michael Lerner, Janet Marder, Dorothy Richman, Laurie Hahn Tapper, Martin Weiner and Josh Zweiback. Of those, a handful are senior rabbis at local congregations. Others are either retired or serve agencies such as Hillel or Jewish day schools. Dan Shapiro, the Jewish outreach director for the Obama campaign, said his team is “delighted to have leaders with credibility” in the Jewish community come forward to “make a difference.”

Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, said he believes Rabbis for Obama is a first in the Jewish community. “I certainly can remember many newspaper ads that rabbis would sign” backing a candidate, Sarna said, but “I can’t remember another organization with this kind of title.” Creditor says that if McCain or his supporters had protested “the outright smear campaign of Obama having a Muslim background or not being a friend of Israel, I probably would have thought twice about signing up.” But, in his view, that did not happen.

Like Creditor, Zweiback, an associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, also cites what he calls a “smear campaign to spread untruths about Obama and Israel” as the reason he, too, got involved. He sees no problem with a rabbi endorsing a political candidate, as long as it’s done as a private citizen. The Rabbis for Obama Web site lists the names and locations of the supporting rabbis, but not their synagogue or organization. “None of us speak for our institutions, as we’re rightfully not allowed to do,” Zweiback says. “Rabbis have an obligation to exercise care in how they do things like this, but just as people in other settings have a right to endorse, by virtue of being citizens, so do rabbis. They don’t give that up.”

Hillsborough resident Norman Epstein, a local senior official in the Republican Jewish Coalition and a McCain supporter, begs to differ. He is outraged by the idea of a Rabbis for Obama. “I feel this is stepping over the line of what I believe a rabbi’s role in the community is,” Epstein says. “To be clear, that is to be a spiritual leader, not a political activist. Judaism is a religion, not a liberal political movement. So are these rabbis telling Jews for McCain ‘not to bother attending my shul’? Talk about offensive, disrespectful and shameful.”

Zweiback couldn’t disagree more. “The notion that the work of a rabbi is apolitical shows a lack of understanding of rabbinic Judaism,” he says. “The concerns rabbis have classically devoted themselves to — so much of it is political. When Isaiah talks about the real meaning of Yom Kippur, un-shackling the cruel chains that oppress the poor, what is he talking about if not [politics]?” He also counters that church-state prohibitions apply to religious institutions, not individuals. “The issue is not a rabbi, but a 501(c)3 charity institutionally cannot take sides,” he notes. “We’re careful and make sure we don’t cross the line that the institution itself is supporting a cause or candidate.”

One rabbi familiar with politics welcomed the rabbinical group. “I endorse Rabbis for Obama and I endorse Rabbis for McCain,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “I believe religious people ought to be engaged in the public world.” The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, who has been critical of mixing religion and politics, said he was OK with the group. Rabbis don’t have to give up their rights, he said. As long as they’re not endorsing candidates from the pulpit, Foxman said, “I don’t have a problem with it.”

Creditor admits not everyone in his Berkeley congregation shares his political leanings, but he believes his endorsement of Obama will not offend. “Members of my shul are glad to know I care about the future of our country,” he says. “Some disagree with my political commitment, but its important to know our synagogues are places to have the conversation.”

Tell that to Norman Epstein. “This is a slippery slope for our spiritual leaders,” he says. “I am glad my rabbi is not on the list. He would hear from me if that were the case.”