There is an inherent danger in mixing politics and religion.
That is one of the solemn warnings Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has emphasized in recent interviews promoting his new book, “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.”
Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and a moral voice respected worldwide, is dismayed by the trend of U.S. religious leaders to weigh in politically on behalf of, or against, particular politicians or parties.
“The division between politics and religion is absolutely fundamental,” Sacks told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last month. “It’s one of the greatest things Judaism ever taught the world: Don’t mix religion and politics. You mix religion and politics, you get terrible politics and even worse religion. It’s an absolute and total outrage.”
Sacks has written many books about politics, and even touches on the topic in his newest one. He has never, though, aligned himself with a political party. Likewise, when he served the U.K. as its chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013, he prohibited the rabbis in his domain from using their own pulpits to espouse politics as well.
“I can see that that is not the case in America,” Sacks told the JTA. “And I’m afraid American Jewry is making a big, big, big mistake. This is not a small thing. It’s a very, very big thing.”
There is an intrinsic divisive nature to politics, Sacks points out. And when religion becomes political, it becomes divisive as well.
The consequences of blurring the line between politics and Judaism can be devastating, according to Sacks.
“I’m afraid I have absolutely not the slightest shred of sympathy for anyone who, as a rabbi, tells people how to vote,” he said.
The first example of a system of separation of powers can be found in ancient Judaism, Sacks has said. While in other ancient civilizations, the head of state was also the head of religion, the paradigm was different for the Jews. The king in ancient Israel had no power over religious matters and the high priest had no role in government.
But in 21st-century America, the two realms are sometimes intermingled. Some rabbis on the right — such as haredi leader Shmuel Kamenetsky, who, in a statement in Mishpacha magazine, urged Jews to vote for President Trump, and Rabbi Aryeh Spero, who blessed Trump at the Republican National Convention — have used their influence as spiritual leaders to advocate on behalf of a candidate that many other Jews find repugnant.
On the left, there’s the Facebook group “Rabbis for Joe Biden 2020.” So far, more than 100 rabbis have joined the group. Its members publicly comment on the strengths of the Democratic presidential nominee whose “policies as most consistent with our values, hopes and work for a better America.”
Regardless of denominational affiliation, the prospect of alienation among congregants of these vocal rabbis whose politics may differ is troubling.
While rabbis speaking in their individual capacities are not prohibited by law from advocating for a politician or party, if they do so in the name of a tax-exempt organization — i.e., a congregation — that organization could lose its nonprofit status pursuant to the Johnson Amendment of the Hatch Act. In a 2017 article in The Atlantic, Rabbi David Wolpe of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, wrote in defense of the Johnson Amendment, then under threat of being repealed.
“I lead a politically diverse (not to say ‘divided’) synagogue,” Wolpe wrote. “In the United States in our age, politics is far more potent in separating people than religion. There are many kinds of religious positions one can stake out in my synagogue, and while some may not agree with them, they do not threaten the fabric of the community. But a political declaration from the rabbi will have a percentage of the congregants heading for the door.”
“[W]hen someone stakes out a political position, people no longer feel they are part of the same spiritual enterprise,” he continued. “In our age the battle is less over the Bible than the ballot.”
This is not to say that Jewish religious leaders should refrain from advocating for moral positions and policies based on Jewish values, and we encourage them to do so. But we also urge them to consider the threat to communal unity that may come from aligning with a particular candidate or party — or claiming that one political party or candidate best represents Jewish values — before they decide to speak out.
Particularly during these High Holidays, when so many of us are forced to be physically separated from each other, let’s not increase the chasm by underscoring an ideological separation as well. PJC