My Dear Rabbi Column for December 2014: Outrageous Political Rabbi

Dear Rabbi,

I don’t understand why my local rabbi has been saying outrageous public things — preaching and publishing political rants. I want to know what makes a rabbi do this, and I need to know what to do about it.

Ranted at in Bergen County

Dear Ranted,

You ask why a person engages in the kind of public rants that bring humiliation to himself and his family and his extended community.

O.K. That person first may be driven by hereditary factors. He may have a variety of the thrill-seeker gene that makes him crave attention and controversy. At the same time, his innate circuit breaker, the psychological mechanism or filter that normally protects a person against putting himself in danger, or engaging in self-destructive, antisocial behavior, appears to be defective. Such a person would benefit from therapy to help him understand his risky drives and deficiencies and to help him become more vigilant in monitoring his problematic behavior.

The issue of your rabbi’s contentious behavior does prompt me to discuss more general related aspects beyond this rabbi’s problem.

When any rabbi veers off into politics, I think that is a bad thing. He’s not doing his job. A rabbi is by definition a teacher of Torah. Rabbis are not trained in politics, nor are they employed to engage in politics. They become rabbis by passing exams in Torah texts, including the oral Torah, the Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud.

Teaching Torah (or any subject) is a respected profession that someone enters through preparation, expertise, and apprenticeship. Politics is a different profession, and it is entered by another route of training and experience.

Through the ages, rabbis on many occasions have ventured into politics — as politicians, not as rabbis. A few have succeeded. Some have failed dramatically. One of the greatest Torah scholars of our history, Rabbi Akiva (whom I referred to above), led his students into a disastrous revolt against Rome in the second century CE. He unsuccessfully supported the rebellion of Bar Kochba, and as a tragic result he was tortured to death by the Romans and thousands of his followers were massacred.

Much more recently — in 2012, as you may recall — one of our neighbors in Bergen County, a celebrity rabbi and author, ran for Congress. He was trounced in the election. Though he emerged from that experience personally unscathed, the example confirms the pattern. Rabbis throughout the ages have made poor politicians.

I prefer to think that there’s nothing specific to the teachings of the Torah that make someone a bad politician. But it’s worth speculating further on this matter. Perhaps the idea that God is behind you and that makes your ideas right and worthy is a weakness, not strength, to those who enter the arena of public political discourse and activity. In that venue ideas rise and fall on their merits and their appeal, not on their claims to divine sponsorship.

Also, politics is a set of activities where success involves a good deal of negotiation and power brokering. Rabbis cling to their notion that the divine rights and imperatives of their principles prevent or at least discourage the idea of negotiation. Thinking that “my way is the high and mighty way,” leads a person to act and to declare the non-negotiable stance that “my opponents must take my way or go away on the highway.”

To be sure, rabbis are not easily adept at being political. Yet in spite of that you would think that they ought to respect the accepted modes of public political discourse. The rabbinic literature that they know is rigorous in its formulaic requirements and its rhetorical and logical forms. Free-style ranting is not one of its genres. And going back further to the classical biblical prophets, we find the same. The exhortations of those Israelite preachers use controlled manners and speech with sharp and clear moral and theological messages.

The dangers of mixing politics and religion are even more pronounced and complex when you consider that many varieties of religious terrorists incite their followers to commit atrocities and crimes against humanity based to a frightening extent on religious grounds and on claims of their gods’ approvals.

A few years ago, at a course on religion and terrorism I taught at FDU, I analyzed many instances of terrorism committed by members of religious communities. I took cases drawn from Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Aum Shinrikyo (a Japanese cult), Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions. The dangerous recent historical record that I examined in that course of the mix of religion and terror is extensive, impressive, and terrifying.

My advice to you as you confront your immediate situation is best expressed in one word: beware. A rabbi or any religious leader who goes off like a loose cannon in unpredictable rants advocating racism, violence, or terrorism ought to make you cringe.

Stay far away from him. Nothing that you can do or say will deter him. He is a danger to your community, to stable society, and to civilization. He does not represent any aspect of what is worthwhile in either the clerical professions or in the political realms. And he does not represent in any way what we good ordinary citizens want in a just and righteous world.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.

Tzvee Zahavy earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi: The Greatest Talmudic Advice” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays — all available as Kindle Edition books at Amazon.com.

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