We interviewed Rabbi Wolf because his sermons and writings and ac-
tivism on issues of social justice were constantly pushing the Jewish
community out of its comfort zone. Many of his positions that are now
considered mainstream, including those on civil rights, community or-
ganizing, and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
were extremely radical when he first argued for them.
My personal experience is: Everything I have fought for
and believed in always lost. Without fail. If you are out to win, you are
in the wrong ball game. Our mission is to raise the standard, and stand
for what is impossible, and lose.
The three of us were aghast. We wanted to know how to win. What we
did not know was that he would teach us an entirely different way of
How do you distinguish between the two: losing big and los-
ing because you don’t achieve the Messianic Era?
Our mission as rabbis, or in-
tellectuals, or utopians, is not to produce
effect, but to stand for something. What I
know is a meta-political language, where
theology undergirds political action and
re-imagines it. And that is my function. To
say something that is not simply political
or simply practical, but Jewish. Let’s take
the Israel-Palestine issue. You might say
the world caught up with me. What I have
been saying for 30 or 40 years, lots of peo-
ple are saying now. But now I have to say
something else. I have to be more utopian,
more Messianic, more meta-political, and
see if I can move the whole discourse an-
What would be your advice to
people who are thinking of giving sermons
to congregations in a similar vein?
You cannot be a rabbi and mimic
The New Republic
The New York Times
that is not your text, it is not your expertise.
Somebody else in the congregation will do it much better than you
will. But there is something only you can do. And that’s what I call the
meta-political. You can talk about the principles that undergird polit-
ical decisions. And you can be radical about those things. But you have
to know what the other side is saying.
How do you keep going if you feel like you keep losing?
That’s called God. God is the name of what you do when
you lose over and over again. And it is not so terrible. It is, in a way, re-
assuring. If people all bought what I said, I’d have to rethink my position.
And you don’t think there is incremental progress?
It’s very dangerous to think in terms of incremental
progress. That is the illusion that the Holocaust, I believe, destroyed
the illusion that there’s human progress without cost.
I feel that my liberal Jewish colleagues – both rabbinical stu-
dents and rabbis – are really afraid of talking politics from the pulpit.
It is less dangerous to be political than you think it is. Of
course you have to be non-partisan. And you have to be fair. And you
have to learn what language to talk in.
Can you say a little bit about internal tensions – how have
you struggled with this
am keshe oref
stiff-necked people] of ours?
a book I edited in 1965, there
is an essay arguing that the
am keshe oref
in the Bible was a bad thing,
but in the post-biblical period, in the
Diaspora], it’s the thing
that has kept us alive, and I think that’s right. I like that the Jews are
Do you think the next generation of Jewish leaders is going to
need different skills and face different challenges?
Instead of politics, the ap-
parent thing is going to be psychology.
You are going to be counselors. And that is
a legitimate role. People will expect you to
be less political and less demanding and
more concessive, encouraging, and thera-
peutic. Philip Rieff in his book
Triumph of the Therapeutic
is afraid that we
have given up any standards of ethics and
politics in favor of happiness or even fun.
People expect the synagogue to be happy
and pleasant and I think that’s not our
You said: “We’re on the right side”
and “I may be in the hands of an angry
God who is not applauding.” How do you
know we’re on the right side? Have you
ever changed your mind?
I have never changed my mind about God or ethics.
I have changed my mind about me a lot. But I never thought the Torah
was indistinct. Here is a story about Heschel. He was in Selma with
Martin Luther King and came back and gave a lecture here on prayer.
And a student asked him, “Dr. Heschel, how is it that when the world
is brimming over with issues and problems and tragedies and politics,
you’re talking about prayer?” Heschel did not say to him what I would
have said: “I just came back from Selma, I did everything I could and
I’ll do more.” He said, “Prayer is also important. Prayer is important
in its own right. And you don’t have to defend it. And if you are do-
ing prayer seriously you are doing ethics seriously.” And I’ve never
forgotten that. So you don’t have to excuse yourself. The sense of be-
ing in the vanguard, in the outnumbered army, is what the best of
history knows. Someone said, “Can a small group of people change the
world?” The answer is: only a small group can change the world. And
if you change it, fine, and if you don’t, that’s ok too. What’s not ok is
Painting a Katrina-damaged house in New Orleans.
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