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Rabbis Consider Presidential Election In Yom Kippur Sermons


Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, starts tonight. Rabbis are putting the finishing touches on their sermons and grappling with whether to talk about the thing everyone else is talking about, the presidential election. We called up Jen Lader, a rabbi at Temple Israel, a Reform congregation outside of Detroit. And she put the dilemma this way.

JEN LADER: There are things happening in the news that we can't really ignore. And so each time something like this happens, we bring the conversation back to the table and say, is this the moment when we should be speaking out? Is this the moment when we should be having these conversations that we wouldn't normally have in a typical election cycle?

CORNISH: We're going to talk now to someone who's heard a lot about these concerns from rabbis across the country, Rabbi Rick Jacobs. He's president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents nearly 900 Reform congregations in the U.S. Welcome to the program.

RICK JACOBS: Thank you. Good to be here.

CORNISH: So how many people have you heard from? And have they been raising the same question as we just heard there from Rabbi Jen Lader?

JACOBS: I've heard from dozens and dozens of rabbis over the last couple of weeks. And I think every rabbi, as he or she prepares for this holy day, is trying to balance how to reflect the profundity of the Jewish tradition and address some of the most critical, disturbing and complex issues of our day.

I really don't know a rabbi who's not wrestling with this. But at this point, the die is cast. They're ready to go. They're going to stand before their congregations. And I imagine that many, if not most, will touch the issues of the election - if not the names and the particulars of the candidates, they will have to speak about the things that matter most to those sitting in the pews.

CORNISH: We know that IRS rules prevent tax-exempt organizations like synagogues from making political endorsements. So, to you, is there ever a place for rabbis to talk about politics and policy?

JACOBS: In this environment, it is very important not to be politically partisan but to be strong and clear and moral. The section of the Bible that we read tomorrow morning in all synagogues is from the prophet Isaiah, who says, raise your voice like a shofar - like a ram's horn. And don't only think about the fast from food. Think about ending injustice, sharing your bread with the hungry, letting the imprisoned go free.

It makes it clear that if you're not focused on the things that are really at the core of a society of justice and compassion, you're not doing your Jewish job.

CORNISH: This is also a year where there have been accusations of anti-Semitism, basically, levied at one of the candidates - you know, in Donald Trump - accusing him of embracing anti-Semitic supporters. So you already have, especially within the Reform Jewish community, a lot of anti-Trump sentiment. I mean, is it preaching to the choir anyway, so to speak?

JACOBS: I think it's important always to speak up and to speak out against bigotry, against xenophobia, misogyny. And it can be the case that many will already be there. But you have to actually raise that voice.

And you have to affirm for people the things that really are at the heart of being a person of Jewish faith or of any faith. And we have to call out those egregious and very, very divisive and, frankly, hateful words.

CORNISH: I don't know where you're going to be for the High Holidays. But what are you hoping to hear from your rabbi?

JACOBS: I want a faith that expresses a seriousness of intellect and a moral clarity and a sophistication with the really key issues, whether it's racial injustice, whether it's immigration reform, whether it's, you know, the voting suppression laws that are keeping so many people from the voting booth.

I want my Torah to be alive. I want my rabbis to have courage, to have backbone. But to do so with sensitivity - we don't - we can disagree without demonizing. That would be such a welcome, new type of voice to have in this very, very political moment.

CORNISH: Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

JACOBS: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.