A moral compass

Reluctant to speak on political issues, as deaths mount, a rabbi takes a stand

Taff’s “moral compass” compelled him to speak out about the Iraq war. “It’s time for people of conscience to stand up and to raise our voices.”

Taff’s “moral compass” compelled him to speak out about the Iraq war. “It’s time for people of conscience to stand up and to raise our voices.”

SN&R Photo By Anne Stokes

Rabbi Reuven Taff is the spiritual leader of Mosaic Law Congregation, Sacramento’s conservative synagogue. Trained as a teacher and cantor, Rabbi Taff also has served on the board of directors of the Northern California Region of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He was among the founders of the Committee on Conscience, an organization devoted to ending the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

What do you say when you talk to your congregation about what’s going on in the Middle East, particularly the war in Iraq?

Every single Sabbath, we say a special prayer for our country and we recite the prayer together. It’s a very beautiful prayer that expresses a desire to bless our government, our president and all who advise him to govern and lead our country toward justice. And at the end we have a quote in the prayer from Isaiah, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they war any more,” and that peace shall reign throughout the world, etc. Every single Shabbat morning we recite a prayer for our country, and we will continue to.

Now I usually have not spoken on political issues. I think people don’t want to hear, they don’t want their rabbi or clergyman talking on that—it depends on the congregation. My focus is not to speak on political issues.

But my moral compass did compel me, on June 2, to speak to my congregation on the subject of the war in Iraq. I felt that, with the numbers of soldiers killed in battle each week—most of whom are being killed by explosive devices, car bombs and that sort of thing—I felt that I no longer could be silent, so I spoke to my congregation.

I mentioned to them that over the past several weeks, while the media had been focusing on the two whales in the Delta, and while the media has focused on Paris Hilton’s legal difficulties, the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq continues to escalate, with the death of these soldiers relegated to some obscure page in our newspapers and barely reported in the news.

I said that it’s time for people of conscience to stand up and to raise our voices and tell our president that the war will not solve the issues which Iraqis themselves must work together to resolve. … This is not a Democratic or a Republican issue; this is a moral issue that should concern all Americans. I believe that it’s important for all people—certainly if we’re responsible for this country—to share our feelings about what concerns us. The bottom line is that we never want to say “It could have been different if we’d acted.”

Does the relationship of American Jews to Israel and Middle East politics affect the position you take?

I think that I can separate the two. I think the war in Iraq is very, very different than what’s happening in Israel.

Obviously, I’m very, very concerned about what’s happening in Israel, and with Iran’s influence on Hamas, and on Hezbollah and on other terrorist groups—which have only one goal, which is to destroy Israel and to annihilate the country. So obviously I have strong concerns about Israel’s plight living amongst—living in a hostile neighborhood. They can’t get a break. … I don’t think that what’s going on in Iraq is helping Israel or hurting Israel. I’m seeing more and more American soldiers killed every week. I’ve begun reading the names of all the American soldiers killed in battle at the end of our services, before recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I began two weeks ago reading their names and ranks of every American soldier. These are precious human beings.