While many rabbis steer clear of politics in their High Holiday sermons, others tackle them with vigor. And such was the case with Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, whose passionate speech on Monday gained widespread media coverage.
Why? Because Commess-Daniels is the former rabbi of White House senior adviser Stephen Miller. And he used his pulpit at Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, California, to slam the current US administration and Miller in particular.
"Mr. Miller, the actions that you now encourage President [Donald] Trump to take, make it obvious to me that you did not get my or our Jewish message," Commess-Daniels said Monday, in a sermon that was broadcasted live on the synagogue's Facebook page. The rabbi said that Miller's role in crafting the White House policy of separating families trying to enter the US "is antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish values."
The rabbi's message was well received by congregants of Beth Shir Shalom, a self-described "Progressive Reform synagogue" in California. But use of the pulpit for such messages is a highly divisive issue in a highly divisive political year.
An op-ed last week in the Forward by Bethany Mandel urged rabbis to "please leave politics out of your High Holiday sermons," while an opinion article by Jan Zauzmer in JTA last month requested that spiritual leaders "take a stand in your High Holiday sermons."
Clearly falling into the latter camp, Commess-Daniels devoted his entire sermon on Monday to addressing Miller, who he once said attended his synagogue and school.
"I was once your rabbi," he said at the outset of the speech. "When you were about 9 or 10 years old, your family belonged to our synagogue.You attended our religious school."
But Commess-Daniels said Miller's actions vehemently defy anything he may have learned at the temple.
"I can assure you, that what I taught is a Judaism that cherishes values that are honed over four millennia; wider horizons and an even wider embrace," he said. "Mr. Miller, the policy that you've helped conceive and put into practice is cruel."
Commess-Daniels later added: "Honestly, Mr. Miller, you set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole through your arbitrary division of these desperate families at our southern border... you've permanently damaged the lives and psyches of thousands of families - and particularly thousands of children - with your immoral policy."
But, in the spirit of the holiday, Commess-Daniels said it was not too late for Miller to repent for his actions, and to attempt to make some reparations for his behavior.
The rabbi ended his sermon by paraphrasing a quotation from Hillel the Elder in Pirkei Avot: "In a place where nobody is acting like a mensch, be one."