Rabbi Sharon Brous’s Advice for Small Towns (and Everywhere, Really)

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin

Over at The Atlantic, there’s an interview with Rabbi Sharon Brous, the senior rabbi at IKAR, a non-denominational synagogue in California. See ‘I’ve Spent My Life Studying These Books That Say Decency Actually Matters.’ Rabbi Brous describes religious belief among progressives in contemporary America, and two of her observations are particularly suited even to Whitewater (or other small towns). Emma Green conducts the interview —

On the need for interfaith outreach:

Emma Green: You’ve been hanging out with William Barber, right? Wasn’t he recently at IKAR?

Rabbi Brous: Before launching the Poor People’s Campaign, he did a series of massive town halls around the country. They called to ask whether I would speak the night before Rosh Hashanah. And I said, ‘I’ll happily do that if William will come to share a little bit of his Torah with us the next day.’ It was an incredibly powerful moment for our community, and I think for him, too.

There is a bigger national conversation happening right now, and Jews are a part of it. It is about progressive religious voices not being afraid to say there’s decent, and there’s indecent. There are people who are fighting for dignity, and people who are fighting to deprive other people of their dignity. We have to be willing to stand up and fight with a prophetic voice.

One unites and allies with others, including new friends from faraway places, to a general advantage.

On faith and political controversy:

Rabbi Brous: I went to give a talk at a [synagogue] in the early spring, and I asked the rabbi in advance of the talk, ‘Are there any hot-button issues I should avoid?’ I don’t really go there to get them in trouble; I want to make sure I know where the community is. And he said, ‘You can talk about anything you want, but not politics.’ He said, ‘We have three Trump supporters in the community’—three, out of a community of 1800 families—‘and they will go ballistic.’ He was told, after the inauguration, not to say the word ‘Pharoah’ because it seems political, like an attack on Trump. Rabbis are being told, because there are three people who think that the most profoundly indecent candidate for president that we have ever seen, and the most unqualified, reckless, bigoted and indecent candidate has risen to power, that now we can’t speak Torah anymore because it might make people think we’re uncomfortable with that person and his values.

For me, I say what I need to say. I’m not looking to build the biggest, widest tent so that any person with any political perspective should and could feel absolutely comfortable here. I think in those environments, we become so neutral and so numb that we can’t actually say something.

The new normal is not normal. I’m glad I’m not in an environment where I’m afraid to say out loud, ‘This is not okay.’ I say that not because I’m a political pundit, but because I’m a rabbi, and I’ve spent my life studying these books that say decency actually matters….

There’s great truth, and sadness, in her observation. Formerly, in a place like Whitewater, a few local notables – mostly mediocre and wholly entitled – expected and received undeserved deference for their ill-considered positions and self-promoting claims. Theirs was a kind of big-government conservatism, with public resources disproportionately controlled and unevenly distributed. They walked around like they owned the place.

Their own errors were That Which Paved the Way for something worse, and beyond their control: a brassy, loud, ignorant nativism that doesn’t think – and so doesn’t care – about anyone outside itself. See Old Whitewater and Populism.

Neither Old Whitewater nor a new Populism deserves deference and appeasement. These Old Whitewater men and women who are silent in the face of Trumpism either implicitly support its aims or are too weak to resist.

Men and women, having as children graduated from crawling to walking, shouldn’t willingly return to their original method of locomotion.

Rabbi Brous wisely offers a better way: say what one needs to say.

The Rev. William Barber at the Democratic National Convention 

I watched the national conventions of both major parties, although I am a member of neither. Of the many speeches over many days, some were exceptional. The one from the Rev. William Barber, for example, is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

The Rev. Barber’s political views, to be sure, sometimes (but not always) depart from my own libertarianism; the traditional and passionate commitment that underlies his speech, however, is admirable beyond any particular American politics. 

Budget First

Last week, Gov. Walker declined to answer Englishman’s question about whether he, Scott Waker, believed in evolution.

Today, in the Journal Sentinel, one learns that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos does believe in evolution

(I’ll bite: I was raised in a liturgical, high-church tradition that taught that the theory of evolution was consistent with faith.  I was well into my teens before I even met someone who contended otherwise.)  

Yet, let me ask this question, faith-and-evolution-reconciling man that I am: does it truly matter to the immediate politics of our state whether Walker or Vos believes similarly? 

If you’re a conservative, do you feel less inclined to either Walker’s or Vos’s policies knowing that Walker won’t answer affirmatively, but that Vos will, on a question about evolution?  

If you’re a liberal, do you feel more inclined to either Walker’s or Vos’s policies knowing that Walker won’t answer affirmatively, but Vos will, on a question about evolution?  

Let’s assume that Walker rejects evolution, and Vos accepts it.

What practical difference will an answer make – this year, in this budget, for the next biennium – to our state? 

The answer does have meaning; I see that. 

It’s simply that it doesn’t matter in a way that changes our politics (or should change our politics) between now and the next state fiscal year. 

There’s a budget proposal before us; it’s the allocation of those billions, for millions of Wisconsinites, that’s the key question in the months ahead.  

Presence Rather Than Partisan Answers

Years ago, during a controversy in Whitewater, someone told me a story about an official who, I learned, asked God’s help to relieve that official from a political burden.  The official delivered his request, apparently, in blunt, specific terms.

I don’t know whether the official received an answer to his prayers, or whether he believed that he did.  

In any event, one may be confident that the official did not receive an affirmative answer, as the subject of his request remained living and in good health.

I was reminded of this account, nearly forgotten to me, when I recently read the observation of a pastor about God’s possible reply to prayers: “we go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”

This seems profoundly right to me.  We misunderstand God, surely, when we believe that we are owed what we want, in the way that we want it. It’s a staggering arrogance that would lead us to believe that God, Himself, serves as a political consultant.   
   
Lincoln certainly understood this — it’s not possible to read his Second Inaugural without seeing that Lincoln held a divine, transcendent will to be fundamentally removed from particular, partisan concerns.

That leaves us, as just as it left Lincoln in his time, often to experience God’s presence alone.

Far from being too little, that presence is, by definition, then and there exactly what should be.

(Of views on the divine nature, I have enjoyed two books from David Bentley Hart.  On the historical ignorance of skepticism, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. On misunderstandings about the transcendent nature of divinity, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.) 

As for our particular and partisan political questions, we would do well to manage them to the fullest of our own abilities.  

In fact, I believe, that responsibility is among the least that God expects of us

Merry Christmas


The Solemn Proclamation of Christmas, Midnight Mass 2011. Broadcast live from St George’s RC Cathedral, Southwark on 24th December 2011. Director of Music: Nick Gale, Soloist: Dominic Keating-Roberts. Text: New ICEL translation 2010.

Happy Easter 2013

A portion of the Urbi et Orbi Message, Easter, 2013:

We too, like the women who were Jesus’ disciples, who went to the tomb and found it empty, may wonder what this event means (cf. Lk 24:4). What does it mean that Jesus is risen? It means that the love of God is stronger than evil and death itself; it means that the love of God can transform our lives and let those desert places in our hearts bloom.

Happy Easter

Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” — and that he had said these things to her.

The Continuing Global Growth of Christianity

There’s a distinction between separation of church & state and secularization, although the distinction isn’t always grasped. America and France both have a separation of church from state, but France is the more secular society. Religion is more visible in American civil society, compared with France (if anything, that’s a considerable understatement).

There’s much worry among the religious about secularization in America, but I’d guess it’s unnecessary worry: America is and will remain a predominantly religious country.

Beyond America, this is even more true: religion, and particularly Christianity (yes, Christianity), is flourishing. Historians and demographers have noted this trend, among them Philip Jenkins, and Walter Russell Mead writes about it today in his fine blog:

A new report from the invaluable Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the most important source for information on religion in today’s world, will make a lot of people unhappy. The report looks at religious belief worldwide and finds that Christianity in the last one hundred years grew to become the world’s most widespread and diverse religion as well as the largest. Roughly one third of the world’s almost seven billion people are (or at least say they are) Christian. The second largest religion, Islam, claims about one fourth of the world’s population.

The demographic trends favor Christian expansion in Asia and Africa, and Mead speculates on the influence that expansion may have on democratization and human rights.

See Walter Russell Mead’s Via Meadia Blog.

For the report, see Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’ s Christian Population.