Should Rabbis Intervene in Politics?

[Be-Ahavah U-Emunah – Yitro 5771 - translated by R. Blumberg]

Question: Is it proper that rabbis engage in politics? Maybe their job is to engage in Torah study and in exalting the individual in his private life, which obviously will bring great blessing to the nation. Maybe they shouldn't be engaging in general communal matters, let alone weighty, controversial questions affecting the public, when they receive their salaries from the state.
Answer: Indeed there is such an approach which argues: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto G-d the things that are G-d’s.” The government will deal with state matters in this world, and the clergy will deal with matters of the soul and the World-to-Come. This is the well-known Christian approach, advanced by Jesus to our Sages the "Pharisees".
The problem is that, in the meantime, we as individuals live in this world, in this country, and we intend to remain here for a long time, as long as G-d, in His kindness, lets us. And the problem is that precisely by means of what happens in this world, we arrive in the World-to-Come. (Mesilat Yesharim chapter 1).
The problem is that our ideal is not just heaven but also earth, following the precedent of Avraham, who was commanded, "Go forth to your land" (Bereshit 12:1). Likewise, Moshe was commanded by G-d, "You have remained near this mountain too long. Turn around and head towards the Amorite highlands…. See! I have placed the land before you” (Devarim 1:6, 8). This is the special quality of our Torah. There is not only a Torah for the individual, but a Torah for public affairs, as well. More precisely, there is both the Torah of the public and a Torah of the individual. Or, even more precisely, there is a Torah of the individual that derives from the public Torah.
What, after all, is “politics”? It is a Greek word meaning, "the conduct of the city". And in its expanded meaning, it connotes the conduct of the nation, of the country.
Therefore, not only are rabbis permitted to engage in this -- they are obligated to. They bear spiritual responsibility not just for the individual but for the community.
Obviously, the issue here is not the political details and technicalities, but political philosophy. As an example, a rabbi does not deal with medicine, but with medical ethics. He is not an economist, but he deals with business ethics. He is not a military commander, but he defines the legitimate use of weaponry.
The rabbi engages in politics in the sense of guiding the nation and the country, the purview of men of the spirit. The politicians themselves have a narrow perspective. They lack the tools to solve general problems touching on the historic, ethical, and spiritual. That is the task of Torah scholars.
Towards that end, the rabbis have to be familiar with the facts and the problems. They have to know the institutions involved, be able to make value judgments, and to know when historic processes are taking place. In a word, they have to be pedagogues of the nation.
Obviously, even the political technocrats have to be honest people dealing faithfully with the needs of the public -- they can't be sunk in the deep mire of unethical political back-scratching. Yet even if they are faithful public servants, they cannot rise up to the exalted role of fashioning a society the way a Torah scholar can. The Torah scholar can be classified as an idealist-realist. Therefore, men of the spirit were always involved in politics, starting with the prophets, and on through the sages. In other words, rabbis must know the reality well, they must establish what the goal is, and they must sketch out a plan. This is called educating the nation.
With this comes an answer to the question: what should rabbis who receive a salary from the state do if government institutions order them to remain silent on political matters?
It's very simple. They should continue to talk, as our prophets did, as well as our Sages down through the generations, even in the exile.
There was the case of Rabbi Menasha of Ilya who expressed sharp criticism of the Russian regime for its “Cantonist” decree, by which ten-year-old Jewish children were drafted into the army for twenty-five years under the aegis of the tzar’s “Russification” program. Jewish communal leaders pronounced that because he was an official rabbi of the community, receiving a salary, he was not allowed to express himself in this matter. That great Torah scholar, a disciple-contemporary of the Vilna Gaon, responded, “If so, I quit this minute. I am no longer your official rabbi. I want no salary, and I shall say everything I want and must say.”
That is how our rabbis should conduct themselves now. It is also very logical and essential. A rabbi’s influence does not depend on his official appointment. He can’t force anything on anyone. He only teaches Torah, and only to those minds and hearts that want to hear it. If so, his quitting does not mean that he will stop talking and influencing, but only that he will stop receiving money for it. What emerges is that if he agrees to remain silent for the sake of money, he can no longer be classified as one who “hates profit”, and that constitutes a substantial flaw. By such means, obviously, he will lose the public trust, which will view its spiritual leaders as filtering their words in a filter of silver.
Therefore, if a nightmare ever comes true of rabbis being forbidden to speak out on public issues, they will have no choice but to resign and support themselves through other holy works. Then they will be able to express themselves freely.
Obviously, there may well be rabbis who will not speak out on public matters because they do not understand them, and they are certainly right in remaining silent, because they don’t understand.
What a shame they don’t understand, however, since such issues are part of their duty. Likewise, rabbis can also make mistakes. Indeed, rabbis must study each issue in depth before commenting, but that does not exempt them from the duty of studying and understanding. Rabbis may also have trouble drawing the line between public issues and the technical side of politics, and that is an error as well.
Generally, however, rabbis are definitely required to involve themselves in politics, and that, despite their receiving a public salary. Rather, the very fact that they receive a salary intensifies their duty to worry about the country.
We are quite familiar with the approach according to which religion should be kept separate from the state, and should shirk its responsibility to rectify injustice. In that regard Karl Marx said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world”; and, “The aim of religion is to anesthetize the people’s political consciousness, to describe to them an illusory world transcending the contentment that can be found here. It accustoms man to a world without a soul.”
Yet that is not our way. When Rabbenu, Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook was asked whether it was good for rabbis to intervene in politics, he responded, “It’s very good! According to the Torah, they are obligated to intervene. If they don’t, they’re traitors! The Torah says, ‘Fear no man’ (Devarim1:17).” (from the introduction to the book, “Bama’aracha Ha-tzibburit”).
Another time when people argued that things he had said had stirred up a public debate, and that rabbis shouldn’t engage in politics, he responded: ‘I don’t ask anybody’s permission. Whatever is truth and justice I am obligated to publicize, in accordance with the Torah. The politics of the Jewish People constitutes Torah. It is holy.”