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Rabbis agree with IRS rules, say shuls shouldn’t endorse candidates

By Leon Cohen and Andrea Waxman
of The Chronicle staff

October 23rd, 2008

Some 33 Christian pastors in 22 states — including one in West Bend, according to an Associated Press report — recently attacked what they believe to be restraints on freedom of speech in religious institutions during elections.

But their effort receives little sympathy from a group of Wisconsin congregational rabbis interviewed by The Chronicle last week.

The pastors participated in a project of the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which the AP described as a conservative legal group.

The pastors devoted their sermons on Sept. 28 — which they called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” — to endorsing candidates in the coming presidential election.

They did this to protest Internal Revenue Service rules instituted by Congress in 1954. These rules strip tax-exempt status from non-profit organizations, including religious institutions — and organizations like The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle — that endorse political candidates.

ADF contends, according to a release on its Web site, that these rules violate First Amendment freedom of speech rights of clergy; and the Pulpit Freedom Sunday project seeks to provoke a legal challenge to the rules.

“I think they are wrong,” said Rabbi Shaina Bacharach, spiritual leader of Congregation Cnesses Israel (Conservative) in Green Bay.

The IRS rules help to preserve lines separating church and state, and “I don’t like to see those boundaries crossed,” she said.

In fact, “I think Congress is doing us a favor” with these rules, said Rabbi Shlomo Levin of Lake Park Synagogue (Orthodox) in Milwaukee.

“Politics is polarizing and the clergy’s role should be to tone down the debate,” he said. “We should be humble and admit that it’s difficult to make good decisions.”

Rabbi E. Daniel Danson of Mount Sinai Congregation (Reform) in Wausau added, “When religious institutions move in lockstep with a party, they lose their voice.”

Moreover, just as certain Talmud rulings “build a fence around” Torah laws, so do these IRS rules “build a fence around the Constitution,” Danson said.

Moreover, at least one rabbi would maintain silence about candidates even if the IRS rules were changed to allow religious institutions to endorse them.

Rabbi Shmaya Shmotkin, spiritual leader of the Chabad Lubavitch-affiliated The Shul (Orthodox) in Bayside, said, “It’s been a long-standing policy of Lubavitch, instituted by the Rebbe, that as an institution we are not to be involved in politics.”

“The reason is the way we view our role: to enhance and serve every single Jew, regardless of ideology or political leanings,” he said.

“Anything that could potentially deter from that mission or make someone with a different view uncomfortable is in our view detrimental.” Therefore, “even if by law we were able to, we wouldn’t do it.”

 
Addressing issues

That is not to say that all local rabbis ignored the election when they spoke from the pulpit during the autumn holidays season.

Rabbi Jacob Herber, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel (Conservative) in Glendale and president of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, said he has spoken “about issues related to this campaign and specifically about the harmful and dangerous rhetoric that is taking place.”

“I put [these messages] in the context of the charged political rhetoric [in Israel] that preceded the assassination of [Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin [in 1995],” Herber said.

Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim (Reconstructionist-Renewal) in Madison, also has spoken about issues relating to the elections.

In fact, on Yom Kippur, she discussed why immigration reform should be considered a Jewish issue, and “from now until the election, I will talk about the economy,” she said.

Rabbi Joseph Prass, associate rabbi at Congregation Shalom (Reform) in Fox Point, reported that his synagogue sponsored a Yom Kippur study session about the elections with Mordecai Lee, former state senator and now professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The idea, Prass said, was to talk about the issues through a Jewish lens. “People were allowed to discuss this election, but … it was not meant to lead to one candidate or another.”

However, some local rabbis did try to avoid even dealing with political issues in their High Holidays addresses.

Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Congregation Beth Jehudah (Orthodox) said, “All my sermons were personal growth-oriented” during the holidays, ranging from the Jewish people’s “mission to the world” to repentance and how sinning is “beneath the majesty that is our souls.”

 
Rabbis for Obama

Some of the rabbis differed on whether they should publicly endorse candidates on their own, as rabbis but not as spiritual leader of their synagogues.

Rabbi Joshua Ben Gideon of Beth Israel Center (Conservative) in Madison did not address the election in any of his High Holidays sermons.

But he is one of eight Wisconsin signers among the 500 rabbis nation-wide who have signed onto a public letter from a group called Rabbis for Obama in support of Democratic presidential nominee Barak Obama. (The others are Rabbis Renee Bauer of Madison, Marc Berkson of River Hills, Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Dena Feingold of Kenosha, Michael Remson of Kenosha and Roxanne Shapiro of Fox Point, as well as Herber.)

However, as one can see on the Rabbis for Obama Web site, the rabbis are listed by name and locale, not by their institutional affiliations.

“I am expressing support for a candidate,” said Ben Gideon, but not in the name of a congregation, and “that is different than preaching from the bimah about a candidate.”

But Bacharach and Danson both refused to sign onto this. “I don’t believe I should publicly advocate for either candidate,” said Bacharach.

And although Danson said that “people I have respect for” signed onto the Rabbis for Obama letter, he declined because “this is one hard disconnect, supporting somebody officially even if not as rabbi of whatever congregation, from how it is publicly perceived.”

At present, there is no similar group of rabbis announcing support for Republican nominee John McCain.