Yesterday, President Obama participated in a conference call with about 1,000 rabbis in anticipation of the High Holy Days next month—and the sermons the rabbis will give. The purpose of the call was, apparently, to urge the rabbis to support ObamaCare, or something like it, from the pulpit.
Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times writes that the call was left off the Obama schedule—an interesting note, she writes, on “Obama White House selective transparency.” Jodi Kantor of the New York Times cites a participant’s tweet that the president told the rabbis “I am going to need your help.”
The call was a joint effort of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, coordinated by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The URJ invitation read, in part, as follows:
This year, the debate over health care reform dominates public discourse, and the conference call will explore the Jewish textual and historical imperative for universal, affordable health care.
We are pleased to announce that President Barack Obama will participate in a High Holy Day conference call exclusively for rabbis. . . .
This call can provide valuable information when you decide to preach on this issue whether on the High Holy Days, during the August 28-30 national health care sermon weekend (more info at FaithforHealth.org), or whenever is appropriate for you.
A rabbinic student who received the URJ invitation and participated in the call sent me an e-mail about it that read, in part:
President Obama spoke for about 20 minutes, then got off the call and we listened to three other rabbis who had prepared discussions about “helpful” Torah and Talmud texts, and how to craft a “non-political” (that is, pro-Democratic Party but wouldn’t be able to get into legal trouble) sermon. . . .
• Pres Obama urged us explicitly to discuss healthcare reform in our high holiday sermons. He said repeatedly, “I need your help in getting this information across.” My personal feeling is that it is an abuse of the pulpit to propagate a specific political agenda in that venue. . . .
• The issue was always framed as: we need to care about healthcare reform. And too many people don’t care about it. Our job as rabbis is, apparently, to urge people to care about it. My points would be: (1) of course everyone cares about healthcare reform; we just don’t agree how to fix it; (2) to stand in front of a congregation and imply that members of the congregation do not currently care about the health and treatment of their fellow Americans is insulting and self-aggrandizing. . . .
• Pres Obama repeatedly said that there “are fears” that people who currently have healthcare would lose it, but that’s not the case—that under this bill, you can keep whatever health insurance you currently have. That doesn’t match up with what I’ve read about this bill. But whatever. In any case, I can’t see how this information would be something that rabbis should be saying from the bimah. . . .
The URJ invitation to the call with Obama ended with this suggestion:
Health care reform is a critical issue for all of us. . . . [We] hope you will . . . urge your congregants to contact their elected officials in support of health care reform this year.
In some circles, Obama is a “sort of god,” but a conference call with rabbis to urge them to give sermons relating to contentious pending legislation, on the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, seems to me to stretch the bounds of religious and political propriety.
The rabbinic student who sent the e-mail may have had a better sense of the proper rabbinic function than the rabbis who organized the call.