Meeting With Pope Francis: Tough Questions in Tough Times

Inside Leadership

Meeting With Pope Francis: Tough Questions in Tough Times

Pope Francis and Rabbi Rick Jacobs

The New York Times reported last week on a sweeping new survey of the political attitudes of American clergy. Among the survey’s least surprising findings: Reform rabbis are the most liberal cohort.  (Conservative Rabbis are not far behind.)

Since the election last November, we have heard time and again how synagogue attendance is up. People are searching for a place to be with others, in a safe space and a welcoming space –and indeed, perhaps in a cable-news-free space as well.

But in a time of uncertainty, as this moment represents, it’s important that our synagogue leaders – clergy and lay leaders – look behind the numbers and the headlines, first to ensure we are asking the difficult and prescient questions, but also to make sure that in so doing, we are strengthening and enriching our sacred partnerships with each other, and working together to ensure that our sanctuaries are sanctuaries of inclusion and holiness for all who enter their doors.

For these reasons, I posed a counter-argument to an opinion piece in the LA Jewish Journal by Rabbi David Wolpe, of Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple when he argued that politics should stay outside the synagogue walls.

As I wrote:

Sermons that “speak up” on the great moral issues of our world and our lives may address politics and policy as a means of addressing such moral issues but they are not about politics. On the contrary, they are about our Jewish values; the values we teach and the values we pass on to our children; the values that have kept us together as a people for centuries.

The role of the rabbi is not to eschew such issues in their sermons but rather to lift up the insights of our tradition that can illuminate these debates and model civil discussion in a manner that shows respect for differing views and avoids divisive language or ad hominem attacks on those who disagree.

As Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of America’s most influential rabbis of the first half of the 20th century, responded to criticism by those who made the argument Rabbi Wolpe made, that he should not address political issues from the pulpit, such as the power of monopolistic corporations and the abusive treatment of their workers:

“If, however, there is a larger and a higher duty, it is the duty of the Synagogue pulpit. … [T]he pulpit of the synagogue is charged with the responsibility of the prophetic memories and prophetic aspirations. If the Jewish pulpit ought to speak out at this time concerning the industrial situation, then upon the pulpit in which I stand, pledged to the truth-speaking under freedom, there lies a most solemn and inescapable duty. I could not with self-respect remain silent. …”

Now, more than ever, with millions of refugees suffering the crushing burden of wars and dislocation, the planet on the verge of confronting the irreversible, devastating consequences of climate change, Muslim and Jewish Americans fearful in the face of escalating hate crimes, and millions at risk of losing lifesaving health care access, rabbis cannot — nor should not — abdicate the call of the prophets and the teachings of the rabbis by “standing idly by the blood of our neighbor.”

A few weeks ago, I was extraordinarily honored to meet one of my contemporary heroes, Pope Francis. I was at the Vatican to attend a conference co-sponsored by Religions for Peace, an international multi-faith organization founded by our movement’s Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, z”l. Entitled “Ethics in Action,” the gathering offered opportunities for participants to debate how global faith leaders can amplify efforts to help the world’s more than 60 million refugees and migrants find safe harbors.

I was granted a one-on-one audience with the His Holiness, during which he and I discussed precisely this issue – how spirituality can never be separated from social justice. Pope Francis’ first trip outside the Vatican was to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, where he ministered to African migrants whose rickety boats had washed up on the island’s shores. I shared my view that his moral leadership, particularly on climate change and refugees, had not only touched the heart of millions of non-Catholics worldwide, but also agitated lethargic political leaders around the globe.

Unequivocally, our synagogues must not become partisan halls, but we must not forsake our responsibility as professional and lay leaders to speak up for those who most need to hear this message. How can we make their congregations welcoming for all, particularly when addressing the difficult issues we face as a people and as a nation?

Our lives are filled with decisions and debates that need smart, relevant, and caring responses. The reason more people are coming to our sanctuaries to share in our sacred communities is not so they can escape from a confusing reality, but rather so they can make informed and loving decisions.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest Jewish movement in North America, with almost 850 congregations and nearly 1.5 million members. An innovative thought leader, dynamic visionary, and representative of progressive Judaism, he spent 20 years as the spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY. Deeply dedicated to global social justice issues, he has led disaster response efforts in Haiti and Darfur. Learn more about Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

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