Where Are the Clergy of Courage?
Gov. Gavin Newsom (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool)

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached that the church is "not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state". Just one quote from one of the greatest ministers of the last century, but one that seems to have been forgotten by all too many current clergy in these times, especially in my home state of California.

I live in a state that is the leader in generating draconian executive orders preventing the free expression of religion in the name of preventing the spread of Covid-19, but my anger is not with the public officials. Gov. Newsome, like many leaders, is attempting to dance a fine line between protecting people and destroying civil rights one at a time. He has previously declared religious practices non-essential, limited legal attendance at services, and tried to demand that worship services be either "drive-thrus" or streamed. Most recently, he forbade by executive order the practice of singing and chanting during religious services; and this week he has now forbade any religious service indoors. I truly believe he is trying to do good, but has no conscience to guide him when it comes to religiousity. My sadness is not directed at him, but at my clergy colleagues who seem to have lost the courage and willingness to publicly stand up for what they know in their hearts is right and righteous.

I am aware that singing as prayer is important in many Christian and Catholic traditions. While I will not speak on other faiths' practices, in Judaism there is a tradition of chanting our prayers as a community for over 2000 years. To ask us to speak our prayers as opposed to singing them collectively is analagous to going to a baseball game and being told you can only say the words of the Star Spangled Banner, not sing them. The ancient melodies are a deep part of our worship practices.

Many of the Jewish liturgical services are timed to times of the day or evening, and attempting to hold our services outside, especially the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in September, is onerous and nearly impossible on every level, including the additional financial costs that would be required. Moreover, observant Jews take the biblical prohibitions for the Sabbath and holidays seriously, and are forbidden from using electricity on these days — making streaming a theological impossibility without breaking religious law. These civil laws are destructive to religious practices, but are being justified by the Governor based on the dangers of Covid-19 and with the intent of stopping the spread of the virus.

And yet city, county, and state officials kow-tow and pander to BLM protests, where thousands of people march without masks or social distancing. The marches in support of BLM, an organization devoted to hate and that promotes the destruction of Israel in its manifesto are allowed and even encouraged by these government officials — but safe and sane religious practices are prohibited by the State.

One would think that this combination of state sponsored prohibitions would encourage an outcry from clergy of all faiths, and yet clerical voices have been noticeably silent here in California.

With the exception of some pastors assembled through the Advocates for Faith and Freedom, clergy of all faiths have remained silent. They have refused to participate in changing the policies of the State, and most have even encouraged their congregants to quietly go along with the State's measures.

Have we learned nothing from history? Especially the history of Europe in the last century?

Months ago I wrote of my concerns about San Francisco's mayoral orders to close down houses of worship, and how it could open the doors to even more draconian and authoritarian laws that could irreparably hurt religious freedoms. Many of my colleagues took me to task, saying that the closure of churches and synagogues would only be for a few weeks. But here we are six months later, and the laws have become even more restrictive.

And still, the vast majority of clergy are silent.

When the executive order prohibiting singing was placed on July 3, many clergy were approached to be part of a lawsuit against the State for immediate injunctive relief. One would assume that dozens if not hundreds of clergy would jump into the fight to help Gov. Newsome understand the importance of singing as prayer.

Including myself, only three Rabbis were willing to be plaintiffs in this fight. When confronted, the majority of other clergy were too concerned about losing liberal congregants; or were convinced that the law would quickly change; or just didn't have the time or energy to be involved.

If the voices of faith leaders remain silent, that "conscience of the State" will become non-existent, God forbid.

Historically, we know that the voices of spirituality have always been the deterrents in preventing over-reaching from the State. It is why one of the first goals in authoritarian regimes has been to silence religious voices, and one of the reasons for the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

But it would seem that all too often, religious voices no longer need the State to silence them, they are quietly acquiescing to silencing themselves.

2000 years ago, the great Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am not for myself who will be for me? — If I am only for myself, what am I? — And if not now, when?" Religious leaders need to stop being concerned only about ourselves, and perform our sacred task of speaking the conscience of the State. We need to worry less about losing potential donors and concern ourselves more with being ethical role models and spiritual leaders who are willing to passionately teach our faith traditions and practices; and who stand up, even and especially against the State when religious freedoms are being constricted.

Each individual of faith also needs to stand up and remind their clergy of their sacred responsibilities as spiritual leaders. I enjoin each person of faith to encourage your clergy to stand up for God and your faith. To stand as leaders and no longer remain silent; but to serve the people by leading in voice and action so that worship services can be safely practiced throughout the nation.

Many are familiar with Pastor Neimoller's quote from the Holocaust about how silence about the oppression on any one group ultimately leads to all groups losing their rights. Spiritual leaders of all faiths must find their own courage, and lead their congregants into the courageous acts of speaking up against any acts that compromise the rights of any group — lest all groups suffer.

May all clergy find the courage to speak up for religious freedoms; all individuals stand up for each other's rights; and let us all treat each other with true respect and create peace.

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About the Author

Rabbi Michael Barclay
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village, CA, and the author of Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together; and can be reached directly at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.