As he’s done every year during Jewish Holy days since his election, President Obama today hosted a conference call with Jewish rabbis.  With each call, he’s focused on political issues of the day, providing talking points to the rabbis so that they can then go forth and proselytize their congregations from the pulpit, as Tevi Troy explains, writing in the Wall Street Journal:

In 2010, according to the New York Post, he “asked a conference call of about 600 rabbis to preach his Mideast peace plan from the pulpit.” In 2009, he invited a group of 1,000 rabbis to discuss his health-care plan and then preach about it afterward. Some certainly delivered. Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., for example, gave a Yom Kippur sermon that year entitled “The Jewish Understanding of Health Care: A Moral Imperative,” declaring that “working towards health care for all, however that might be accomplished, is a Jewish mandate.”

Is Obama not asking the rabbis to violate the tenets of the tax exempt status for their temples and synagogues?   Tax exemption that is awarded to religious organizations carries a caveat:  that the religious organization not be a political organization in disguise, and that the religious organization not engage in overtly political activity, such as telling its members which way to vote on issues or candidates.  It is why, for example, churches don’t endorse specific candidates. 

According to the IRS circular governing the tax-exempt status of religious organizations, religious organizations may not, “devote a substantial part of their activities to attempting to influence legislation, [and] they must not participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”  Furthermore, “A church or religious organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation”, which sounds exactly like what Rabbi Schwartzman did with her sermonizing on health care. 

I’m making an assumption here:  that Jewish temples and synagogues enjoy the same tax-exempt status as any other religious organization.  There is no ascertainable reason, except perhaps their own unwillingness to accept the tax exemption, why they shouldn’t.  Even though Jewish congregations may like raising other people’s taxes to pay for things like health insurance, it’s hard to imagine they would voluntarily undertake paying taxes for which they are exempt.

Tevi Troy offers that political proselytizing from the pulpit is a bad idea, regardless of whether it endangers tax exemption (but doesn’t discuss the implications for tax-exempt status due to political sermonizing in his article).  I agree, for a number of reasons.

The Bible certainly says nothing directly on point, for example, about whether morality demands universal health care.  The Torah generally provides that charity towards one neighbors is good, but it must always be remembered that when the Torah was written and compiled, the “neighbors” with whom it was concerned were the members of God’s Chosen People, i.e., the Hebrew nation.  The God of Abraham had no compunction with distinguishing the sort of charity morality commanded  the Hebrews show towards one another and the charity they show their enemies.  God basically said to be kind to one another;  take care of the less fortunate among you, but kill every man, woman and child in Canaan as a condition of accepting my gift of the Promised Land.   It is such a convenient and compelling situational morality that there is little wonder the Torah, not the New Testament, provided the rationale and morality for the conduct of the European empire-building nations, from the fifteenth century until today, that have otherwise professed Christianity as their guide and salvation. 

It is a measure of how powerful relative to its size is the American Jewish population that President Obama would want to speak directly to its leadership.  Jews are less than 2% of the population, yet Obama felt it necessary to sell his jobs bill, etc., specifically to its leadership.  As the following chart from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows, Obama’s addressing the Jewish leadership on his jobs bill during their Holy Days is roughly tantamount, in terms of relative population, to him having the Mormon leadership over on Pioneer Day (July 24th) to discuss the Palestinian question.

Major Religious Traditions in the U.S.

It’s no secret that black churches routinely skirt the boundaries of tax-exempt propriety when election season rolls around.  Black or white, politicians ignore the opinions of black preachers at their peril.  Perhaps this is where Obama got the idea to host a conference call of rabbis.  But I doubt swaying the rabbis to one’s side would be as effective as convincing a black preacher of one’s cause, for the simple reason that temples, synagogues and their rabbis likely have far less influence in the daily lives of mainstream, secularized Jews as churches generally do in the daily lives of blacks.

(*a bit of pointless alliteration, except that it rolls off the mental tongue nicely)