This high holiday season, which starts the night of Sept. 20, a group of conservative, reform, and reconstructionist rabbis will neither forgive nor forget when it comes to President Trump.
The Jewish New Year’s day, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur (“day of atonement” in Hebrew) are times for introspection and atonement, where centuries of Jewish responsa have stressed that prayer until one is blue in the face won’t wipe out sins committed “between man and fellow man.” Heartfelt prayer can lead to atonement for sins committed against God, but interpersonal conflicts require delivering apologies directly to the person one has wronged.
But what is a rabbi to do when the other person seems to be unrepentant? Many Jewish spiritual leaders struggle with this dilemma all the time, says Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, chair of the Talmud department at the modern orthodox rabbinical college Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, in New York.
“If Bernie Madoff were your congregant, how would see your role: pastor or preacher?” asks Katz, who also has a pulpit at a Brooklyn synagogue. “Do you condemn his actions and reject him … or is your role to comfort, because that’s what rabbis have to do, comfort the physically and spiritually afflicted?”
Katz notes a woman named Beruria in the Talmud, who went against the establishment and courageously distinguished between sin and sinner. “Beruria introduced this intriguing notion, sin and sinner are not one and the same, that they can be separated and one can hate the sin (whatever that means) and still at that very same time love the sinner,” Katz says. “I think it’s an incredibly sophisticated theological postulate.”
But if Katz were invited to join other rabbis on a conference call with President Trump, he says he’d sit it out. He notes, however, that he “would forever wonder if I failed my rabbinic duty; to see the person behind the evil and perhaps influence him that way instead of staying away and rebuking him.”
Staying away and rebuking is what leaders of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, The Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism decided to do after thoughtful and prayerful consideration, they wrote, when they canceled an annual call with the president that began under President Obama.
“We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year,” they wrote in a statement.
In their letter, the rabbis noted that the high holidays are a time for teshuva—repentance in Hebrew—and that they pray the president “will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred.”
Coverage in the media ranged from The Daily Beast’s teaser, “Lo Shanah Tovah”—Hebrew for “Not a sweet year,” a spinoff of the typical Rosh Hashanah greeting, ‘L’shanah Tovah,” or “To a sweet year”—to Politico, whose headline stated “Rabbis ditch High Holy Days call with Trump.” On Twitter, Mother Jones’ DC bureau chief wrote, “Rabbis tell Trump to get lost.”
But Seth Mandel, the New York Post’s op-ed editor, tweeted a very different sort of analysis. “The holiday is all about atonement and forgiveness, so the Reform groups are … boycotting the president’s annual phone call,” he wrote. “Can’t make it up.”
“This is atrocious behavior that goes against the entire purpose of the Yomim Nora’im [high holidays],” he added. “But the RAC [Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism] isn’t about faith, just politics.”