Ask Me Why… Even On Shabbat… Or Not…

Last Shabbat I was wearing the button on the right at the kiddush after shul. Over kiddush people will be talking about sports, their children, the weather and even politics. To me, the button is an invitation to political dialog and quite a few people took me up on the implicit offer and asked me about polls, Keynesian economies, the debates, Iran and Israel.

This button was making my life easier since people interested in my opinion would approach me, and I could leave those who would rather not speak about politics alone.

All was going well until a fellow congregant yelled me out for wearing the button. He said “What are you doing?” I didn’t know what he was talking about so he continued. “How dare you wear that in the synagogue.” I saw he was referring to my button and said I didn’t see any problem with that. He raised his volume and threatened me, “If you don’t take this off right now. I am going to tell the Rabbi on you.”

I’m pretty sure the Rabbi was aware that I was wearing the button since it was reasonably obvious attached to my lapel, so I had nothing to hide. I was conflicted since I believe that freedom of speech and association allows me to express my political opinions. On the other hand, I didn’t want to cause a scene with a fellow congregant.

In the end, I backed down and removed the button, but after asking a number of my friends about this situation, I think he was wrong to ask me to remove the button, and I think I was wrong to comply with his request.

This congregant is actually the organizer and moderator of our synagogue’s bi-annual candidate forum where our Congressmen and his opponent answer questions of interest to our community. Thus, he certainly has no problem with politics within the walls of the synagogue

More after the jump.
I read information across the political spectrum in part because of the duties of my work in finance and my work for the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, in part because of my research interest in the mathematics of voting, and in part because of my passion for politics and tikkun olam. Accordingly, I have information at my fingertips to respond to many of the questions people raise. Occasionally, someone stumps me on a fine detail of policy or some new event that I haven’t researched yet. I especially enjoy the chance to research these new issues and get back to people after Shabbat.

In the past, I may have overstepped my bounds. For example, in 2000, I distributed a note in the sanctuary about how Texas Gov. George W. Bush signed a law preventing synagogues and other places of worship from prohibiting people from bringing concealed handguns onto their premises. However, I have mellowed out over the years, and think that my display of a small button during the kiddush in the social hall after services were over would not interfere with anyone’s devotion.

On the contrary, compared to the “Oy Vey Obama” buttons I see worn by members of the RJC, I think my button opened the door to a positive exchange of ideas.

A positive exchange of ideas that unfortunately at least one congregant is trying to stomp out.

I hope he is not successful.

The issues facing our country, Israel and the world are important, so discussion of them is important. I would rather “lose the debate” than not have it in the first place. That would be the real shanda.



  1. Lee Bender says

    Let me set the record straight, Dan: either you are very forgetful (doubtful), ignorant (perhaps), or intentionally deceitful and hope that you can push the boundries (no comment), break the rules and hope others don’t mind (probably), disrespectful of the sabbath in a synagogue (definitely).  When I saw your political button after services at a beautiful Bar Mitzvah celebration- one I might add that you did not pay for nor were a specific invited guest but that which was open to the congregants- I said to myself, here we go again. Did you ask the hosts if you could wear a political button, for Obama, at the celebration of their son’s Bar Mitzvah?  Of course not.  And well you should have. (By the way, they would NOT have approved whatsoever). I guess you conveniently and negligently forgot to mention that we had this very similar confrontation back in 2004, when you wore a Kerry button to services and were handing out buttons to congregants. I confronted you then that it was inappropriate to do so in shul during Shabbat, it was a desecration of the Sabbath,  this was not the time for politicking- that if you wanted to do so you should go outside the building- and you were told by the rabbi that it was also impropriate and you were told to cease.  I do not want to see anyone wearing a political button- for anyone, for any party- on the sabbath in shul. As the rabbi has stated, it is not only inappropriate, it sets a very bad, ugly tone, and the shul is a SANCTUARY, a safe place where people should not have to be exposed to the outside world’s very divisive politics like that ON SHABBAT.  That is the point that you fail to appreciate.  If you want to talk politics, that is fine, I do too and do engage others about politics in shul after services- but I do not go around wearing a button and advertize that fact, which is effectively what you were doing and for which the rabbi would have told you to cease had he saw your button. How do I know this?  I was talking to him about this with several other congregants after you reluctantly took off your button after I confronted you and he reconfirmed this, and was quite disappointed that we had been through this with you before.  Regarding the issue of hosting congressional candidates for a forum, you are conflating the issues:  as you well know since you have been a participant, the Israel Advocacy Committe, Mens Club and Sisterhood have been inviting candidates to the shul over the years during election time to give us all a chance to meet and greet the candidates in an intimate setting. It is never on the sabbath, and it is in a controlled environment, well advertized in advance. So be honest about what was going on here. Your conduct was wrong, and inappropriate.  And you should not only be embarrassed by it, but be a man about it and apologize. It is NOT a matter of free speech- which you have, like we all do, to an extent- not unlimited- in a private religious context. It is matter of decorum, for which you have very little and little respect for others who are celebrating the Sabbath.  

  2. Lee Bender says

    Sorry, Dan, your response above is NOT compelling. The shul itself, not simply and merely the sanctuary, ON THE SABBATH is a SANCTUARY. You seem not to understand this, or do not want to since you are so intent on politicking.  I, the rabbi and many others who do not speak out, do NOT want our synagogue to devolve into a maelestrom of politicking and effectively campaigning on the sabbath, and it would turn off many many folks who come to shul TO PRAY. This is not the equivalent of wearing a kippah with American and Israeli flags, a pin with American and Israeli flags, etc. to shul on Shabbat.  So what that the rabbi speaks about Israel, and politics in general in sermons– HE HAS NEVER POLITICKED FOR ANY PARTICULAR CANDIDATE, nor should he. But you blatantely were. This was not the time nor place to do so.  Why can’t you understand this?  Apparently you do not want to. You are wrong and are desacrating the shul, the sanctuary and the sabbath. I will not stand for it. Perhaps it’s time for you to find a different shul where this kind of behavior is commonplace and acceptable.  It is not at our shul, and you were told this by myself, others, and the rabbi back in 2004.  Wise up, or go.

    • donnascohen says

      I agree with Lee Bender that a shul is not a place to campaign but is a refuge from the sturm and drang of daily life. My husband and I fired our rabbi, Elliot Holin,of Kol Ami when he used the Yom Kippur Service to bash Bush in 2008. We just stood up during his sermon and left. Yom Kippur! Just the thought of that night stirs the embers of my anger once again. I go to shul to hear the word of G-D, not to hear about my rabbi’s naive political views. He may vote as he sees fit, but he may not hold me captive to his bully pulpit. I did not pay an exhorbitive fee to leave shul feeling angry on the most sacred day of our calendar. By the way, Dan, my husband and I, like Joe Biden, gave $5000.00 in charity. Although I have not seen the Biden’s tax returns, I estimate that we make substantially less per anum. Various studies have revealed that Conservative Jews and Christians give more to charity than Liberals, who only want to spend other people’s money. Tikum Olam is therefore a Conservative ideal, not a Liberal one.

      • jsmagid says

        First Donna, discussing politics is hardly the same as campaigning. I would agree that it would be inappropriate for a candidate to be asking for votes in synagogue. For congregants to discuss politics is wholly appropriate IMO as elections are so important to our lives.

        As for the implication that contributing to charity is the sum total of Tikkun Olam, that I can’t disagree with more.

        There are many, many ways to contribute to the health and well-being of society encompassed by the concept of Tikkun Olam. In fact I will go so far as to say that trying to so narrowly define it only proves the narrowness of the perspective you are claiming to be superior.

  3. says

    Just to clarify a few points.

    While it is true that in past years I have given out buttons, I always did so discretely to people who admired my button and wanted one of their own. It would make no sense to waste buttons on people who don’t want them.

    Saying the “shul is a sanctuary” is confounding the shul with the sanctuary, prayer space within it. As I mentioned above, in 2000, I made the mistake of politicking in the sanctuary during services. I was wrong. No side conversation whatsoever is appropriate there and then whether sports, weather, or politics. The Rabbi asked me to limit myself to outside of the sanctuary/prayers. He was right and I was wrong, and since then I have refrained from doing so.

    The Rabbi himself brings up political issues in his sermons and other people wear political symbols of all sorts including pro-Bush, pro-Romney, or simply an upside-down flag.

    Much of my politics is based on my values of ahavas yisroel, tikkun olam, and pikuach nefesh, and as such I view no day more appropriate than Shabbat talking about politics to those who are similarly interested.

    Let the bar mitzvah family speak for themselves, but I certainly congratulated the family and they seemed happy to see me, and they made no sign or indication that they objected to my button.

    One elderly women was staring at my button, and probably had trouble making out the smaller writing since she asked “Ask you why what?” I explained that I was an Obama supporter and would be happy to answer any questions. She just said “ok” and “Shabbat Shalom.”

    You were the only who indicated any issue with this, and I initially had no idea what you were talking about. Indeed I had just found out there was a 3rd person to speak at the candidate forum you are running, and I was approaching you to find out who that person was.

    You were the one who raised your voice to me, so I backed down in the interest of shalom bayit.  

  4. siweni says

    On Shabbat it is customary to wish each other a Shabbat Shalom – A Sabbath of Peace. Wearing a political button in Schul or at the Kiddush table certainly will not foster ‘peace’. On the contrary, it often results in acrimonious debate which ends in heated arguments resulting in hard feelings.

    If you must share your opinion about politics I suggest that you take it outside, along with your button. In that way your political opinions can be thrashed out, with those interested, in a place closer to the gutter where politics seems to have found a home during this election.  

    The only things one should be wearing in Schul on Shabbat, outside of their finest synagogue attire, is a Talit and Kippah.

    • jsmagid says

      I see no reason for politics, critical to so many aspects of our lives, to be barred from the public forum that our synagogue provides any more than any other area of discourse. The fact that a person cannot have such conversations without losing control of their emotions is that individual’s issue. I see no reason to force everyone else to refrain from such important conversations because some are unable to control themselves and act appropriately in the synagogue setting.

  5. Lee Bender says

    Again, you miss the point. Our shul does not ban discussing politics after services at a kiddish luncheon if people voluntarily want to engage in it. But the synagogue is a house of prayer, a sanctuary, on the sabbath. If you cannot respect that, then don’t go, it is that simple, since you are being offensively disrespectful to the vast majority of congregants. Do not wear any political buttons for any political candidates on the sabbath in synagogue– period.  

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