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.