Should rabbis keep out of politics?…ask the Rabbi

June 23, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.


Q. Should rabbis involve themselves in political issues?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

A. Before there were rabbis, the spiritual leaders were the priests and prophets. The priests were not confined to the sanctuary. They supervised public health, they taught, they gave guidance and information. But they were not activists. It was the prophets who raised their voices and goaded the government.

By Greco-Roman times prophecy had waned, and the priests stepped out of their customary confines to become the formal face of the community, though some were mercenaries who toadied to the authorities and relied on government patronage.

Now jump across the centuries. In modern democracies the clergy (of all faiths) go everywhere and speak out on everything. Not without controversy. If vested interests feel threatened, voices are raised: “Clergy, back to your Bible! Preachers, stick to your sermons! Rabbis. keep to your bimah!”

Let me speak rather personally, reflecting how I saw my role in many decades as a pulpit rabbi. Others worked differently, but many privately agreed with me and told me so. In Britain, my views on racism even got quoted in the House of Lords, though some of the noble peers thought I was a nosey-parker: what Australians call a sticky-beak.

In Australia I weighed into countless national debates: Should abortion be restricted? Should the unemployed do voluntary work? Should the media peddle smut? Should athletes pray to God for a win? Should Australia keep the Queen? Should politicians take courses in civics? Should homosexuals parade in the streets? Should advertising tell the truth? Should immigration be controlled? Should rich nations help the poor? Should education recognize pupils’ individual differences?

I engaged with these and other issues. Generally there were no grumbles from the Jewish community: I was careful not to let the side down. Yet when I took up a position on Aboriginal welfare, one of my congregation refused to attend services unless I kept quiet. I occasionally received threats to my life but apart from obvious precautions I just kept going with my normal activities.

I knew that some people whose toes I trod on said the clergy should stick to teaching the Bible. My answer was that all this actually *was* “teaching the Bible”. Justice, peace and truth are what the Biblical prophets spoke and wrote about, even though they risked being ostracised or even imprisoned because they would not hold their tongues.

When film stars and swimmers made statements on education and the economy I objected that they had no special qualifications in these areas. In contrast, when it comes to the quality of society this is precisely where the clergy *do* have special qualifications. Clerics rightly refuse to be muzzled. Their views are not always correct: the Bible has many faces. But bringing Biblical principles into the market-place of ideas is not just being a sticky-beak. In England, Archbishop Temple used to say, “God is interested in a lot of other things besides religion”.


Q. How can two contrasting Hebrew words, “shachar” (dawn, light) and “shachor” (black) come from the same root?

A. This often happens with language. Take the English word “root”, which can mean to plant or to pluck up. Or “cleave”, which can mean to adhere or to separate.

The “sh-ch-r” root is found in a statement in Pir’kei Avot (3:12) which reads, “Hevei… no’ach l’tish’choret” – in the context of the statement possibly “be submissive to a superior”, though it is hard to see how the root leads to this conclusion, but more probably “be affable to the young”, understanding “tish’choret” as a person who is young because they are at the dawn (“shachar”) of their career or one whose hair is black (“shachor”).

It is also possible that there are two separate roots from different origins with the same letters of “sh-ch-r”. (This is the approach of Brown, Driver and Briggs in their lexicon.)


3 Responses to “Should rabbis keep out of politics?…ask the Rabbi”
  1. Eleonora Mostert says:

    Dear Michael, I’m not a Rabbi but I’d like to give you and answer too. Homosexuality is a choice, but do they really need to let everyone now their sexual preferences so publicly? I don’t believe I’ve seen Heterosexuals parading the streets in like manner.
    I don’t think anyone should behave in such a manner in public. But I’m just an old fuddy duddy.

    • Michael Barnett says:

      You’re so right Eleonora. Yup, I chose to be homosexual. How silly of me. I wonder why I chose to be homosexual? Because I wanted to be bullied by the likes of you, or just because I wanted a more difficult life path? But you’d know about this sort of choice, wouldn’t you?

      Heterosexuals parade all the time. Haven’t you heard of the global concept of Mardi Gras (or more locally, Moomba)? Surely you’re a worldly person?

  2. Michael Barnett says:

    Dear Rabbi Apple, what is your position on homosexuals parading in the streets? Should parading just be limited to heterosexual people, or are homosexual people welcome to join in the parading?

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