‘I’ve Spent My Life Studying These Books That Say Decency Actually Matters’

Progressive clergy are pushing a new movement that’s unapologetically political—and deeply rooted in textual traditions.

Sharon Brous, the senior rabbi at IKAR in Los Angeles (M. Phillips / Getty)

Since Donald Trump was elected one year ago, I’ve heard from a number of rabbis who feel caught. They’re not sure how to speak into this moment of intense partisan division, nasty rhetoric, and outrage; how to console and advise those who are devastated while not alienating congregants who support the president. This conundrum is sharpest in the Orthodox world, where a strong majority of Jews lean Republican. But even liberal Jewish leaders—those in the Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative movements—many feel hemmed in by board members, funders, or their own sense of clerical propriety.

Sharon Brous does not agree. The senior rabbi at IKAR, a non-denominational spiritual community in Los Angeles, believes this is not a normal moment in American politics, and Jewish leaders need to speak out. The models of Jewish movement-building are also changing, she says: Gone are the days when the president of the Union of Reform Judaism or the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly are the only voices who can speak for American Jews. A new generation of rabbis, working outside of traditional, hierarchical structures, are building followings and defining a new, often politicized, way of expressing Judaism.

Brous is part of a tentative new religious left. Leaders like Reverend William Barber II, a pastor from Goldsboro, North Carolina, who overhauled the state’s NAACP chapter and led a regular “Moral Monday” protest movement at the statehouse for years, are gearing up for a national movement. Barber recently launched the Poor People’s Campaign, a revived version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s coalition of Americans living in poverty. It’s just one of the many seeds of a progressive religious movement, and evidence of how connected progressive clergy have become: Brous is on the campaign’s steering committee.

Yet the religious left has long been hobbled by challenges of funding, structure, and ideology. Just as many progressive religious leaders are finding new political relevance, fewer people are entering their sanctuaries and attending their seminaries. While the religious right has a sophisticated and well-financed machine for advancing a conservative political agenda, progressive religious leaders have clocked far fewer tangible policy victories in Congress or statehouses around the country. And at a time when religion has become intensely politicized, progressive faith leaders are often accused by their conservative opponents of lacking depth or seriousness about their traditions.

Brous and I discussed the nascent religious left and how it is manifesting in American Judaism. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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

Sharon 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.

Green: How do you see the traditional denominational structures fitting into this?

Brous: I grew up Reform, my parents were Reconstructionist, I decided to become a rabbi because I was inspired by Orthodoxy in Jerusalem, and then came back and went to Conservative seminary. So I’ve lived in and benefitted from all of the movements. And I have my differences with all of the movements.

When we were building IKAR, I realized that I wasn’t interested at all in the movement question. What I wanted to do was bring together people who were interested in asking, ‘What does it mean to be a Jew and a human being in a world on fire?’ I don’t, frankly, care if you identify as Reform or Modern Orthodox.

I’m not interested in diminishing the power of any denomination. If people want to be affiliated with a denomination, great. I just happen to think it’s not the most important question. And with real diversity in practice and theology, you actually build a more interesting community.

Green: How does your non-affiliated status impact your ability to fundraise and reach people outside of L.A.? How do you build a movement without the networks and resources that come with denominational structures?

Brous: The Jerusalem-recognition decision last week is an interesting example. The Reform movement put out a statement, and the Conservative movement put out a statement. I do think rabbis still pay attention to those statements that come from their movements and say, ‘Ok, this is the parameter I should be operating within.’

But for most rabbis who are out in the field, there’s a decentralized communication that’s happening right now. There are a few people like this out there—for example, Shai Held, or Yehuda Kurtzer, or Jill Jacobs. The reason people are listening to them is not because they represent a movement. It’s because they have strong voices, and because they’re saying something that feels meaningful, and feels like it’s the voice we need to hear.

I put out a statement on Jerusalem. [More than] 240,000 people saw it. That’s probably more people than would see the Conservative movement’s statement on Jerusalem. I don’t know that people are needing to look in those more traditional pathways for communication anymore.

Green: The Reform movement is pushing for a bigger footprint in Israel. Do you prioritize Israel issues in your work, or are you more focused on American Judaism?

Brous: It’s all connected. And frankly, the more the Trump administration aligns itself with Israel’s right-wing administration, the more deeply connected it is in the hearts and minds of Americans and people around the world. This is the most controversial and polarized presidency, certainly in recent history, and the closer that he makes himself to Israel—I think in the long run, Israel pays the price.

I gave four sermons on High Holidays this year. I started by talking about anti-Semitism in America, because two months ago, people were still very concerned about Charlottesville.

I gave a Jewish call for reparations on the second day, and talked about racial justice—the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that remains unresolved in America, and what the Jewish community could say about it.

On Kol Nidre, I spoke about how to maintain our breath, when there’s so much going on—a recognition of where people are spiritually and how depleted we all feel.

And then on Yom Kippur day, I spoke about Israel and denialism. The Jewish community has essentially firewalled all criticism of Israel’s right-wing policies because we think, out of love, that’s the best way to protect and support Israel, when in fact, I think it might endanger Israel.

For me, that’s a reflection of the priorities of my rabbinate. It’s both a kind of personal, spiritual journey of meaning, and finding strength and healing. It’s also about naming what’s going on in this country and figuring out what we can do.

Green: Are there any conservatives in your synagogue?

Brous: Politically conservative? There are some Republicans. I honestly don’t think we have any Trump supporters. I think they would have left by now. But we definitely have some Republicans. My board chair, who is a very strong and outspoken Republican, was very upset about the Trump nomination and wrote an article about why he was so devastated. He’s not alone.

But the real diversity in the community is on race, gender identity, sexuality, and religious practice. It’s very heavily skewed toward the progressive side, which I think is a reflection of where the majority of Jews are in America.

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.

Green: What’s ahead for the religious left?

Brous: The crisis in religion in America is that for decades, a kind of right-wing religious perspective, with its regressive politics, has been definitional for the way faith enters public life.

Part of the project is to say to people, ‘You don’t have to rid yourself of faith and religion because you don’t like that, because I don’t like that either.’ That kind of right-wing agenda that has been imprinted on religious life and leadership in America is not the only way to be religious. What we’re seeing right now is the birth of a really strong, multi-faith movement for justice in America, where people from all different backgrounds are essentially rising up in our own spaces, but there’s a connective tissue that’s weaving us to one another, where we’re saying we’re not giving up on faith, and we’re not giving up on the public sector.

And it’s real. It’s not some kind of fruffy liberalism. It’s really rooted in our traditions. That changes the conversation.