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    Should rabbis keep out of politics? – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Should rabbis involve themselves in political issues?

    microphone press mediaA. Before there were rabbis, the spiritual leaders were the priests and prophets. The priests were not confined to the sanctuary. They supervised public health, they taught, they gave guidance and information. But they were not activists. It was the prophets who raised their voices and goaded the government.

    By Greco-Roman times prophecy had waned, and the priests stepped out of their customary confines to become the formal face of the community, though some were mercenaries who toadied to the authorities and relied on government patronage.

    Now jump across the centuries. In modern democracies the clergy (of all faiths) go everywhere and speak out on everything. Not without controversy. If vested interests feel threatened, voices are raised: “Clergy, back to your Bible! Preachers, stick to your sermons! Rabbis, keep to your bimah!

    Let me speak rather personally, reflecting how I saw my role in many decades as a pulpit rabbi. Others worked differently, but many privately agreed with me and told me so. In Britain, my views on racism even got quoted in the House of Lords, though some of the noble peers thought I was a nosey-parker: what Australians call a sticky-beak.

    In Australia I weighed into countless national debates: Should abortion be restricted? Should the unemployed do voluntary work? Should the media peddle smut? Should athletes pray to God for a win? Should Australia keep the Queen? Should politicians take courses in civics? Should homosexuals parade in the streets? Should advertising tell the truth? Should immigration be controlled? Should rich nations help the poor? Should education recognise pupils’ individual differences?

    I engaged with these and other issues. Generally there were no grumbles from the Jewish community: I was careful not to let the side down. Yet when I took up a position on Aboriginal welfare, one of my congregation refused to attend services unless I kept quiet. I occasionally received threats to my life but apart from obvious precautions I just kept going with my normal activities.

    I knew that some people whose toes I trod on said the clergy should stick to teaching the Bible. My answer was that all this actually was “teaching the Bible”. Justice, peace and truth are what the Biblical prophets spoke and wrote about, even though they risked being ostracised or even imprisoned because they would not hold their tongues.

    When film stars and swimmers made statements on education and the economy I objected that they had no special qualifications in these areas. In contrast, when it comes to the quality of society this is precisely where the clergy do have special qualifications. Clerics rightly refuse to be muzzled. Their views are not always correct: the Bible has many faces. But bringing Biblical principles into the market-place of ideas is not just being a sticky-beak. In England, Archbishop Temple used to say, “God is interested in a lot of other things besides religion”.

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