By Jake Novak
To be truly wise, a person first needs to know what he doesn’t know.
But that would probably make Facebook really boring!
Sorry Mark Zuckerberg, but we could all use a break from that kind of behavior on social media. When every debate becomes an excuse to shame people who may disagree with you, Jews and everyone else could really use a strong dose of rabbinic wisdom and patience instead.
But this week, we saw too many of those rabbis wade right into the debate over our government’s policy of separating illegal immigrant children from the adults who bring them to the U.S. border illegally. In so doing, they became outspoken about an issue probably none of them truly understands.
For rabbis from the less traditional Jewish movements, who long ago became much more about liberal politics than Torah, this is nothing new. But now we’re seeing more Orthodox rabbis suddenly jumping into the political and culture wars. Many saw fit to denounce President Donald Trump and this immigration policy, and quoted the Torah and Talmud to make their cases.
I’m not a rabbi and I don’t play one on TV or in editorial columns. So it’s not ever going to be my intention to name any of the offenders or impugn any rabbi’s Judaic knowledge.
Here’s the problem: I am lucky enough to know many rabbinic scholars. I’m also lucky enough to know many people who are experts about immigration and the situation at our southern border. The problem is, not one of those rabbis was also one of those immigration experts and not one of those immigration experts was also a rabbi.
It’s time for those rabbis speaking out so loudly to consider a few things before they choose to browbeat this government. They can do that by answering the following questions:
- Have you ever visited a border town in Texas, Arizona, or California?
- Did you know a large amount of the adults who bring children to the border aren’t their parents, but are human traffickers?
- Are your children attending a public school that is now mostly attended by the children of illegal immigrants?
- Has crime increased in your neighborhood because of sanctuary city policies?
- Is your job endangered by cheaper illegal immigrant labor?
- Do you know anyone who has been adversely affected by illegal immigration?
- Have you studied the effects of illegal immigration for years and stayed on top of the news on this topic for at least 10 years?
- If you answered “no” to more than two of the above questions, you really should leave the moralizing and shaming to someone else.
Also, our Torah, Talmud, and other sacred texts are not to be brought down to the base level of the political issues of the day. Yes, Jewish texts should often inform our political theory. But that is an overall belief system, not a cheat sheet for deciding whom to vote for in presidential races or what side to join.
Thankfully, we do have many rabbis who dedicate their lives to showing how relevant our teachings are when it comes to any issue at any time. But they do so by carefully studying the texts and those issues for years. That includes the precious handful of rabbis with medical degrees who offer learned decisions on questions of life and death. But these rabbis and other Jewish scholars with great secular knowledge don’t tend to go on Facebook or CNN to take cheap shots.
Those who ignore this need for true expertise and a separation of Jewish teaching from partisanship make a terrible mistake that damages them personally and the community as a whole. Rabbis and Jewish scholars appear to be joining a partisan side when taking a public position on any current issue. From that point on, those rabbis and scholars risk losing their status as “above-the-fray” religious leaders, and every decision and comment they make going forward is eyed with political suspicion.
Does that mean we can’t speak out about political issues? Of course not. It’s even fine to do so while publicly identifying yourself as a Jew. But the key is to avoid using the Torah and Talmud and other key texts as a weapon or “proofs” in that public debate.
Here are some other rudimentary “dos and don’ts” to follow:
- Candidate endorsements both from the pulpit and anywhere in public are an obvious no-no.
- Feel free to weigh in on any issue, but go easy on the Talmudic and Torah quotes to back your argument. If you find yourself parroting the rhetoric of a political party platform or the dominant news media tropes, tear everything up and start over.
- When it comes to advocating for Israel or Jewish communities throughout the world, engagement with political leaders is essential. But when praising or attacking a politician or party, keep it to their records on those Jewish and Israeli issues.
American history is riddled with examples of rabbis who got too close to a politician or political party, only to see that relationship backfire. Reform Jewish leader Rabbi Stephen Wise was famously misled into believing President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a stalwart friend of the Jews during the Holocaust. Several rabbis were similarly taken in by Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Obama, all of whom either turned out to have a personal animus for the Jewish community or betrayed America’s relationship with Israel at one time or another. The list goes on.
It’s time for us to say a special kind of havdalah. We need to separate the chol of our base political passions from the kodesh of our higher calling as Jews. When more of our rabbis make this commitment, it will become easier for the rest of us.
Jake Novak has been a TV news producer and editorial columnist for more than 25 years, with expertise in political, economic, religious, and cultural issues. He has produced shows at CNBC, CNN, FOX, and several local stations across the country. Novak is a graduate of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University, and a master’s degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny and watch out for future columns on 5TJT.com.