A Rabbi's Voice

As a rabbi, one of the most powerful tools I have is my voice. For reasons I, to this day, don't fully understand, many people are willing to listen to me drone on and on in divrei Torah on Shabbat, bulletin articles, adult education classes, public forums and online. A rabbi's voice is perhaps the most important tool that we have as clergy to inform, teach, persuade, convince, question and debate.

This past March, I chose to use my voice at the AIPAC conference. When it was announced that Donald Trump would be addressing the conference I used my voice to counter his. I raised my voice along with hundreds of other rabbis, cantors, Jewish professionals, AIPAC supporters and friends to counter his messages of hate and ignorance with messages of love and respect.

This same voice that has sung hundreds of songs, taught countless classes, comforted dozens of mourners and laughed with so many children was now amplified to an extent I did not expect. My voice was heard across the country on news broadcasts, in the papers and on blogs. And this voice, that had been my most important partner in my career now put that very career at risk.

Most religious organizations file for 501c3 status. We do this for the many benefits it offers: Tax-deductibility of donations to the organization, lower nonprofit postage rates and limited liability for directors and officers for operations of the organization. With these benefits come some limitations. The most obvious is that political activity (support of, or opposition to, candidates for public office) is absolutely prohibited for 501(c)(3) organizations. Our activism at AIPAC caused many to wonder how representatives or employees of 501(c)(3) organizations could raise their voices without risking their organization's status. After consulting with legal professionals any concerns I had were put to rest. As long as I was speaking for myself and not on behalf of my congregation and as long as my activism did not make its way to the bimah or the temple bulletin our status was safe.

This debate challenged me to think long and hard about the power and peril of my voice. We Jews have always known the power of words. God created the whole world with words, "Vayehi or." And we have learned that just as words can create - they can also destroy. Were my words creating chaos? Were they risking the destruction of my synagogue - or worse yet, the trust that my congregants had put in me?

The answer is of course, yes and no. My voice against hatred and bigotry certainly ruffled some feathers. My voice also helped raise awareness about an evil that is looming. My voice, our voices, would not be silenced in the face of unprecedented ugliness - even if it meant risking a little chaos.

A rabbi's voice is, indeed, a powerful tool. At every moment we have to choose to use it to create the kind of world in which we want to live. We should always be wary about raising our voices in inappropriate ways that risk our institution's legal status. We should never shy way from raising our voices to teach Jewish values. We should never be silenced when we see others using their words to destroy worlds.

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© 2016 by Rabbi David Paskin

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