Most non-Orthodox Jews in America, which represents the majority of American Jews, do not attend regular synagogue services. But they do show up in greater numbers once or twice a year during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Conservative and Reform rabbis carefully prepare their sermons each year knowing they will have the attention of large numbers of people they likely won’t see again until next fall.
While we don’t know what they’re planning to talk about, we can guess. In a typical year, many rabbis enthusiastically advocate for left-leaning political interests from the pulpit. The temptation this year to double down is obvious. Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, elections, riots, vaccinations, immigration and public safety are all likely candidates for exploitation.
As a practical matter, we have all been at home too much, glued to our various screens, marinating in 24/7 (or for some Jews, 24/6) news cycles. What can the average rabbi offer about the list of social and political issues that plague us that public discourse, politics, the media, social media, academia, sports and big corporations haven’t covered over the last 12 months? No one needs another CNN newscast.
But the deeper point is not even about the politics or the misrepresentation of Judaism as having an American partisan leaning. It is about the lost opportunity to speak to American Jews about the enriching legacy of their faith exactly at the moment they are most open to it. There are not nearly enough moments of opportunity like this. To use the ones that we do have to promote political ideology is neither a good use of precious time nor a service to Jews looking for a bit of elevating spiritual guidance. And after a year like this, some spiritual guidance is sorely needed.
It is also a bad strategy. At a dinner a few weeks ago with two couples who are longtime members of a prominent Reform temple in Manhattan, one friend was recommending Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s daily online Bible class (Bible 365). He said something every Reform and Conservative Rabbi should take note of. “I learned more about my faith and Jewish thought in the first few sessions of this class than my temple has taught me in more than 40 years of attending services there.” Surprised by the biblical text’s sophisticated insights into human nature and its inspiration for contemporary living, he said that he felt deprived by his rabbi, whose Rosh Hashanah sermon last year focused on race in America.
If rabbis continue to send the message to their twice-a-year Jews that religion is simply a lens for politics, those Jews will continue to do what they have been doing—lose the lens and access the politics directly through other venues better-suited to the task. When they do seek Jewish inspiration, they won’t look to the same people who have denied it to them in the sanctuary. American Jews have options. Increasingly, good Jewish content and great Jewish teachers are available online and can easily fill the void left by synagogues that act as tier-two political action centers. Across the United States, Conservative and Reform synagogues are struggling to attract new members. Perhaps mission creep is a contributing factor.
Rabbis preparing their social-action sermons right now should reconsider their topics. The god of politics is nothing to worship, and it certainly can’t address the deeper human need for meaning in a year of enormous anxiety, loss and confusion. Judaism can and does. Rabbis know this and should share that knowledge with their congregants, or else those same congregants will find it elsewhere.
Rebecca Sugar is a freelance writer and philanthropic consultant in New York.