What do rabbis have to say about Barack Obama’s relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright?
On the premiere edition of Rabbis Roundtable, rabbis of different denominations and perspectives debate the appropriateness of the relationship between presidential hopeful Obama and his controversial preacher, and what speaking freely from the pulpit really means, as well as:
*President George W. Bush’s policies on Israel;
*what ex-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s infidelities suggest about morality and politics;
*and whether or not the Jewish community should embrace intermarried couples.
Watch clips from this episode:
Do Rabbis Sympathize With the Rev. Jeremiah Wright?
Moderator Rabbi Eliyahu Stern opens up the discussion by asking if the rabbis, all of whom are pulpit rabbis, have any sympathy for Rev. Wright, having to deal with the pressures of coming up with a sermon that will engage and inspire their congregations every week. Everyone agrees that Wright’s words were “hateful” and “despicable,” but Rabbi Kenneth Hain, of the Orthodox Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence, New York, has some sympathy for a preacher who must not have realized the fundamental Jewish teaching that wise leaders are supposed to be careful with their words.
The controversy raises the issue of where to draw the line regarding a preacher’s allowance to speak freely from the pulpit. Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, of the Reform Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, explains that his synagogue was established on the principle that the rabbi should be able to speak openly from the pulpit, leaving congregants responsible for deciding whether or not they agree — and when to “sever” their relationship with their rabbi.
The debate steers to whether or not Obama was wrong for sticking with his minister. The table is split equally between the rabbis who praise Obama’s conduct and those who are critical of him. Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, Associate Rabbi of the Conservative Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Manhattan, says Obama was “tremendously sophisticated” for separating his respect for Wright as his minister on the one hand from his denouncing Wright’s inflammatory preaching on the other hand.
Hain views Obama’s speech more skeptically, calling it a “beautiful speech on race,” but emphasizing that it was an “exquisite” political move that reflects Obama’s “quality politics–not quality morality.”
Can Bush Ease Tensions in Israel?
To celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary, President Bush is planning to visit the Holy Land. Although he believes Israel faces a long road to peace ahead, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch calls the President’s policies on Israel “correct.”
But Rabbi Kenneth Hain points out that the United States is not the “number one prime mover in the Middle East” — Islamic fanaticism is, he argues. In response, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen counters that America’s role in the Middle East has only “fanned the flames of extremism,” and, unlike Hain, she remains critical of the Bush administration’s policies in the region.
The roundtable concludes by speculating on what could be done to improve the situation in Israel and how to fight extremism, recognizing that Israel, after all that it has been through, can be an inspiration to all struggling peoples around the world.
Do We Need Fidelity in Our Public Leaders?
Former New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer’s recent infidelity scandal is a reminder that the public’s desire for morally-impeccable leaders is often met with shock and disappointment when those leaders are found to be fallible. Do public leaders have a responsibility to act morally in their private lives? Moderator Rabbi Eliyahu Stern inquires of the panelists.
“The very people who are attracted to politics in the first place,” Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch contends, “are people who have a propensity towards power–and the sex drive, frankly.” He separates candidates’ family lives from their public image, and casts his vote with those who represent moral public policies, regardless of their personal behaviors.
Stern responds by asking, “If you can’t be ethical to those closest to you how are you going to be ethical for millions of people?” Hirsch counters with the fact that F.D.R. had an affair and still “saved America” with his New Deal policies during the Great Depression.
But Rabbi Kenneth Hain still believes there’s not a “neat barrier” separating the public image from the private man. “David was a flawed man,” Stern comments.
Should the Jewish Community Embrace Interfaith Families?
“Absolutely,” says Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of the Reform Temple Israel of Lawrence, NY. He begins the debate by acknowledging that his congregation favors patrilineal descent, recognizing a child with either a Jewish mother or father as Jewish.
As an Orthodox Jew, Rabbi Kenneth Hain argues for the importance of remembering tradition and that Judaism traditionally held that faith is passed down through one’s mother. He believes in conversion, but only when the process is carried out according to strict Orthodox standards.
In response, Rosenbaum reinforces the importance of Jewish unity, and says that it’s a blessing that Jews have “many different doors to enter through,” be it Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative Judaism.
The issue of authenticity is raised, and Rabbi Ayelet Cohen says she feels “blessed” to serve a diverse congregation that has members of different sexual orientations and races, who want to feel and are authentically Jewish.