Rabbi David Wolpe, stepping down from a top pulpit, wants you to stop arguing and start listening
July 14, 2023
(JTA) — David Wolpe has been called one of the most quoted rabbis in the United States, and not always to his advantage. As senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, one of the largest and most visible Conservative pulpits in the country, the decisions he makes and things he says are often treated as bellwethers of centrist American Jewry. When he questioned the historicity of the Exodus story or began performing same-sex marriages, for example, he made front-page news.
Wolpe has also led an unusually diverse synagogue, with pews filled both by largely liberal Jews of Ashkenazi descent and Persian Jews with roots in Iran who tend to be more politically conservative. Bridging these divides has been a signature of his rabbinate, and in recent years he has been writing and tweeting about civil discourse in increasingly polarized times.
On Friday, Wolpe, 63, became emeritus rabbi of Sinai Temple, where he had been the senior rabbi since 1997. As he prepared to step aside – he’ll spend the next year as a fellow at Harvard Divinity School — he joined me in a public Zoom conversation Tuesday to talk about what he learned as a rabbi, the changes he has seen in American Judaism, and his hopes and fears for the future. But I especially wanted to talk about the polarized political climate and his views on moral and political discourse (with which I have occasionally disagreed). We also talked about rabbis who speak about politics from the pulpit, a topic which led to a fascinating back-and- forth among Wolpe and his colleagues in the pages of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.
“We’re much more polarized than we were in 1997,” Wolpe, the author of eight books and a long-running column in the New York Jewish Week, told me. “Everybody knows that. And you can get into much more trouble by expressing an opinion on one or the other side of a controversial issue than you could back then.”
Our conversation was wide-ranging. Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity, focusing on our discussion of civil discourse.
You have a famously diverse synagogue. What were some of the cultural and political divides that you had to bridge and how have they changed?
There were political divides, first of all. I have right and left. I have some very ardent supporters of Trump and very ardent detractors. And there was a cultural divide because the patterns of language and so on of the Persian community and the Ashkenazi community were different. I wrote about this in a forthcoming New York Times editorial, about the two best ways to bridge [these divides]. I’ll take a step back to explain it more fully than I did there. We don’t have a common culture. Nobody reads the same books. Nobody watches the same movies. Nobody watches the same television shows. The one thing everyone has in common is politics. So when people talk, when they meet each other, they start with politics, which is guaranteed to cause division.
One of the things I tried to encourage in the synagogue was to get people to know each other in different ways than opening the conversation about politics. Talk about your kids. Talk about school. Talk about what you’d like to do on vacation, talk about food. Talk about life so that you know the person as a person before they express their opinion so at the outset of the conversation you wouldn’t totally dismiss them. And the other thing I encourage, which is difficult, is just listening. Understand that growing up in Tehran gives you a different view of the world than growing up in Philadelphia. And I have to respect the fact that it’s a very different orientation. And in order to understand it, I can’t tell someone else what to think. I have to listen to what they think and ask questions about it. Which is not easy. Here’s a little Hebrew lesson: The word “savlanut,” which means patience in Hebrew, comes from the word “seivel,” which means to suffer. Because patience is suffering sometimes, but you have to go through it to understand others.
I want to talk a little bit more about how you bridge those gaps. But I want to go back to a famous moment in your rabbinate. This is in 2001, when in a series of sermons you cited archaeologists who said that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all. The L.A. Times picks up the story. And you were accused by some as being the rabbi who chose science and history over faith and Judaism. I want to ask not just about that, but also what you think a rabbi would have to say today to spark a similar furor.
I’m going to start with the first part. My whole point in the sermon was that it didn’t matter — that actual faith transcends the facts of the case. And that I celebrate Passover the same way despite the fact that archaeologists rebut the historical record, and also that you can’t make historical claims and then tell archaeologists “what you say doesn’t matter.” But that is a separate controversy for another time.
I think today it’s very audience-dependent. If you got up in a Reform congregation and said that, you wouldn’t cause a ruckus, but if you got up in an Orthodox congregation and said that — most, but not all — you would cause a furor. When I came out for same-sex marriage, it was on the front page of The New York Times and the L.A. Times because it caused such a furor in the congregation. When that happened, I said to my daughter, “I want you to know when you go to school tomorrow, people are going to be saying bad things about your father,” and she said to me, “Why?” And I said because I’m sending a letter that I’m going to be doing same-sex marriages. I remember her looking at me and saying, “What took you so long?” Because for her it was like I was saying, “I’m gonna marry brown-haired people to blonde-haired people.” She didn’t understand why that was an issue. The nature of controversies change a lot, but there will always be controversies.
So how did you weather it? What helps you keep congregants on board – or not, and decide it’s okay to let some congregants slip away?
If you believe what you’re saying matters and is true, it helps a lot. I also told my daughter what Churchill said, I think after the Boer War, which is “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” In other words, the people who didn’t like me before didn’t like me after, and the people who loved me before loved me after. You realize that there is an immediate cost to being true to yourself, but there’s a long-range, huge benefit and that it’s worth it. So I was very fortunate. I didn’t lose my job. I didn’t lose my friends. You know, there are people who take stands and they lose much more than I did. And obviously, you know, if you’re in a different kind of country, you lose even more than that. So, I think if you’re given a pulpit, then to the extent that you believe something, it’s really important to enunciate from the pulpit, and that you can [create] change by doing it. You have a responsibility.
Still, there’s a big debate over whether rabbis should be talking politics from the pulpit. Where do you stand on that? What do you think are the limits of literally the bully pulpit?
I’m very, very opposed, actually, to rabbis talking politics from the pulpit, and I’ll tell you why I say that. First of all, it’s not like I know more about politics than my congregants. So if I talked about gun control, for example, about which I have strong feelings, I’m talking to people who know as much or more about it than I do, who see it differently. And it seems to me it is an illegitimate arrogation of my role as a rabbi to say that “because I see it this way, this is Judaism’s position,” which is generally how it’s framed. I actually gave a class years ago where I took a whole bunch of issues — immigration, abortion, women’s rights — and I gave all the Jewish sources on both sides, just so people should realize that Judaism speaks to both sides of these issues.
I always ask rabbis who speak politically from the pulpit, “If you were not a rabbi, if you were not even Jewish, would your political position be different?” In other words, is your political position mandated by what you understand the Torah to be even though it’s not your personal position? Or is it just your personal position filtered through the Torah? And almost inevitably, it’s the personal position, filtered through the Torah. That to me is just basically preaching politics with a little Judaic twist. And I don’t think that’s what a rabbi should be doing. If there is one place that can be a refuge in a country that is saturated with politics all the time, so that you can actually elevate your soul and hear things about your life and about Jewish history and aspiration, it seems to me it would be the synagogue. I should say as a caveat, I exempt Israel from that: Being pro-Israel seems to me a fundamental Jewish tenet and not a political one.
But I want to push back a little bit. Historically, we look back with such pride on rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel or Joachim Prinz in Newark, who in a very polarized time in this country took a strong stand and threw their Jewishness, threw their pulpits, they threw their whole selves into the civil rights movement.
That is the example that people always point to: Heschel. And I say that’s exactly right, because it’s the exception, it’s not the rule. If there is a radical injustice being perpetrated — and I felt, for example, [the denial of] gay marriage was a radical injustice — then you speak up. But everything becomes a question of radical injustice now, everything, every political issue. Civil rights was a uniquely morally urgent issue, about which I really believe it was right to speak up, but those are few and far between. And instead what happens is everything gets thrown into the same pot. Minimum wage becomes just as urgent and people will invoke civil rights to argue one way or another on minimum wage and every other issue in the world, and whether you should be a Republican or a Democrat. And the way that they speak about the other part of the country, it’s like, “they’re obviously radically immoral and terrible.” And I don’t think the rabbi should contribute to that discourse, except in the most extreme circumstances, which obviously civil rights was.
You’ve been writing frequently in the journal Sapir about the ethics of dialogue. And in one essay you ask, “How should we respond when someone promulgates a view with which we disagree, or one that we find offensive, repugnant, even dangerous?” So I’ll throw that question back to you. How do we respond?
The first way you respond is you ask the person, “Why do you believe that?” Because you’ll learn much more and you might discover interesting facts both about the person and about the belief that you didn’t know at first. I’ve had this discussion many, many times with people who have political beliefs that differ from my own and once you actually interrogate the belief, then you can respond to it. But we’ve become a culture in which the way you respond is by attacking the person. I also want to say that, in my experience, most of the political diatribes that we hear change nobody’s mind. Instead, they make your team feel good. And the other team doesn’t even listen to you.
What also tends to happen is that if you reach out your own team gets upset, because you’re just supposed to be supporting them and you’re not supposed to be listening to the other side. But the Talmud is filled with argument and debate. And the reason you listen to the house of Hillel and not the house of Shammai [two famous antagonists in the Talmud] is because of the way they conducted themselves during the debate. They let Shammai express their opinion first. They listened. They were kind. They were understanding. So this is a multifaceted question. It’s not just a question of abstract opinion. It’s also a question of the way you bear yourself in the public square.
But I wonder if something’s changed. I don’t know if you’ll agree with me, but in terms of public debate I think there’s a different dialogue when one side is trying to muster facts and good-faith arguments, and the other side responds with straw man arguments and conspiracy theories. I’m wondering when trying to seek an argument for the sake of Heaven falls down because one side isn’t really willing to play by the rules.
First of all, I’ve seen both sides indulge in conspiracy theories and false facts. And while one side may be more egregiously guilty of this than the other, I’m always suspicious of someone who thinks their own side doesn’t do this. So if you’re willing to fess up and say “we do this” and then you turn to the other person and say “I see your side doing this,” that’s the beginning of a dialogue. Instead, what I hear is, “My side does facts. Your side does conspiracy.” That’s not going to start a dialogue. So if you’re willing to look at your own shortcomings, then you have the possibility of actually starting a dialogue. But that isn’t what I see. And I don’t want to make this all about the worst actors on [either] side. Because there’s a range and I see that in the people that I talk to.
You also recently tweeted, along the same lines, “Being right is increasingly favored over searching for truth. A healthy society like a thoughtful individual values discovery over justification.” That sounds like a summary of what you’ve been saying.
I had this proposal that I don’t know will ever be realized. I wanted everybody to have a politics dinner. And the idea was, you had to take the other person’s position. You could not express the opinion you believed in. You just had to take the other person’s position and see how well you could articulate what you think the other believes. Because when you start to do that, you start to realize that the other side actually has things that are worth hearing, and truth never resides entirely on one side of the argument. I want to be clear: That does not mean that I don’t favor certain sides over other sides and there aren’t people in the public sphere that I am not fans of, to say the least. But that alone doesn’t help advance the dialogue. To say that doesn’t move things forward. And I’m really interested in trying to move things forward.
What does “moving things forward” mean in this regard?
Genuine discussions with people who you really disagree with — that’s what I think of as moving things forward. Not ruling them out of court because they support this candidate or that candidate. This is not too crazy. You and I grew up in an America where people actually did this. Let me give you a statistic that I find really striking. When I was young, if you asked the average American, “How do you feel about your child marrying someone of another race?” The percentage was very small of Americans who felt good about that. If you said, “How do you feel about your child marrying someone of another political party?” Overwhelmingly, people were in favor of that. Now the numbers have exactly flipped. Now, that shows you that we can change for good and we can change for ill but the only way to change for good is by actually really engaging with the other. Otherwise, we’re going to dig deeper and deeper bunkers. And that can’t be good for America or for the world.
What are the limits of engagement? I’m thinking of when organizations are pressured to cancel a speaker because one side claims the other poses a threat or is somehow beyond the pale. Are there red lines that Jewish organizations shouldn’t be expected to cross?
I would not invite a Holocaust denier to speak to a Jewish organization.
I wouldn’t invite an anti-Zionist, but if a Jewish organization did, I would not say that they should never have done that. But I would say that they have an obligation to have somebody speak to the other side of that question. Because anti-Zionism to me often shades into antisemitism — they’re not exactly identical, but they’re closer than second cousins.
My general predisposition is that the way you combat bad ideas is with good ideas, not by saying those bad ideas can’t be heard, because we know this strategy doesn’t work. All it does is give fuel to the people who have bad ideas [to say] “Oh, you see, you don’t even want to engage with me. That’s because my idea is so dangerous that you can’t stand to hear it.”
I can give you other examples. I wouldn’t invite a Jew for Jesus to speak at a Jewish institution either. I have specific reasons. But it’s tricky, and there is no perfect distinction that you can make. I think we should try to err on the side of being a listener, as opposed to a censor.
I’ll throw out one more example and this is purely hypothetical: perhaps inviting an Israeli cabinet member who represents anti-democratic tendencies in the Jewish state.
If I were in that [institution] I would ask them to have somebody cross-examine this person, as opposed to just have them speak, because I think those views are too important to pretend they don’t exist, but they’re also too toxic to not be challenged.
At the risk of making you repeat yourself, I want to refer to the chat that is accompanying this Zoom. I don’t know if you have been following it but what I’m seeing is people saying that there are political questions that are moral questions, and if we overdo the idea of trying to learn from the other side, we are conceding a moral, just stance.
I hear this all the time. But what you don’t understand is that you hear it from both sides.
But that doesn’t mean both sides are right.
My brother who’s an ethicist [Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University] says ethical dilemmas are almost always a choice between two rights, not between a right and a wrong. And in every political question there are usually buried in it two things that are principles that everybody agrees with but just that we favor one principle over another. So for example, with immigration, the humane treatment of human beings, the right of a country to define its own borders and to decide who it is and who it isn’t. And we see this in multiple ways. And it’s not so easy to say this is clearly right and this is clearly wrong. And understand I’m not asking you to not take a stand. If someone wants to ask me my private opinion, I’m always happy to give it. I pull no punches when they ask me what I think of this person or that person in private. That’s not the question. The question is how do we conduct public dialogue so it’s not just two people shouting at each other? And believe me, as soon as you say to the other side, “I’m just right and moral and you’re just wrong” you have just closed down the possibility that you can talk. And if you want to do that, you can, but realize that that will just mean that everybody in your camp will agree with you, and everybody in our camp won’t listen to you, and nothing will get done.
People always hear listening as giving up on your own moral position. But it’s not. It’s listening. It’s being able to hear that someone else also has a moral position, even if you disagree with it. And if you really understand, if you can express the other person’s opinion really well — if you can do that well, then I think you’re ready to say, “and this is why I disagree with it.” But if you’re going to caricature it as just, well, “you’re an immoral jerk,” then honestly, you don’t understand what you’re arguing against.
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