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SS 42 – Religion and Politics with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield

Episode: 42

Guest: Rabbi Brad Hirschfield

iTunes: Stream Episode

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Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the President of CLAL–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He’s a blogger at the Washington Post’s “On Faith” column and Co-founder and Executive Editor of He has been ranked three years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s “50 Most Influential Rabbis.”

Rabbi Hirschfield talk about religion in politics and why it is so important for politicians to be religiously affiliated. He thinks so many politicians are faking religion. Rabbi Hirschfield thinks politicians’ religious views affect their political decisions, as evidenced by Mayor Bill De Blasio rough start as Mayor of New York City.

Rabbi Hirschfield finishes the conversation by discussing the difference between true religion and real religion.

Find out more about Rabbi Brad Hirschfield at

Visit CLAL–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership at

Acclaimed commentator on the role of religion in America, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is vice president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank, and resource center. Recognized as a leading advocate for religious pluralism, he was a speaker at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music and Colloquium in Morocco and a panelist at the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona. His involvement at the latter event was featured in the critically praised documentary, “Freaks Like Me,” which explores our fear of the “other.”

Currently, Rabbi Hirschfield is filming an 18-part series, “Building Bridges: Abrahamic Perspectives on the World Today,” which he conceived for Bridges Television (American Muslim TV Network) for fall 2006. He is also co-producing a film on religious fanaticism in America, “The Believers.” A popular media analyst, Hirschfield has been on ABC-TV’s “Nightline UpClose” (the only rabbi ever featured), PBS-TV’s “Frontline” and “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly,” CNN, MTV, Court TV, NPR, and is frequently quoted in the press. A popular speaker, he has appeared at the Aspen Institute, the Washington National Cathedral, the Islamic Society of North America, and many universities and religious institutes. Co-author of “Embracing Life & Facing Death: A Jewish Guide to Palliative Care” (CLAL, 2003), he is completing a book on the challenge of Holocaust memory in the 21st century. Learn More About Brad Hirschfield Visit the “Freaks Like Me” (DVD).

Check out this episode!


ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the Solomon Success Show, where we explore the timeless wisdom of King Solomon and the Bible, as it relates to business and investing. False prophets and get-rich-quick schemes are everywhere; let’s not be distracted by these. Instead, let’s go to the source: the eternal principles that create a life of peace, power, and prosperity. Here’s our host, Jason Hartman.

JASON HARTMAN: Welcome to the Solomon Success Show. This is your host, Jason Hartman, where we talk about Biblical principles applied to business and investing. Learning from King Solomon, of course. And we will be back with a fantastic guest for you in just a moment here. But be sure to visit our website,, or Take advantage of our extensive blog library, and our free content. I think you’ll find some fantastic things there. So, be sure to visit us on the web at


JASON HARTMAN: It’s my pleasure to welcome Rabbi Brad Hirschfield to the show! He is president of the Center for Learning and Leadership, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a blogger at the Washington Post On Faith column, and cofounder and executive editor of Or it’s actually Ranked three years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s top 50 most influential rabbis, and it’s a pleasure to have him here to talk about some current sociopolitical events. Rabbi, welcome. How are you?

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: I’m great! It’s good to be with you, and please feel free to call me Brad.

JASON HARTMAN: Yes. As I was before we were taping. I just thought I’d be a little more formal in the introduction, but thank you. You’re coming to us from New York City today, and we were just talking off air about the decision that made it into the media yesterday about CVS pharmacies—or, I should say, stores. They’re bigger than pharmacies—deciding not to sell any tobacco products, which I applauded. I love this decision. And I love the fact that it wasn’t a law; it was a choice. What are your thoughts?

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: We’re in exactly the same place. This’ll be very easy. I think it’s a wonderful decision they’ve reached, and I do, like you, think it’s very important that it was voluntarily reached. I tend to be a little bit suspicious of too many rules that clamp down on people’s right to make the wrong decision. Clearly I think the use of tobacco is a bad idea, but I do think people have the right to make bad decisions. That said, I think it’s better when they make good decisions, and CVS made a very good decision here. Because they decided that although there will be about a $2 billion bottom line lost in the first year when they do this starting October 1st, that long term, their health as a company, as a brand, of their customers, all were worth taking that short term loss for a much more important long term gain. I think it’s fantastic.

JASON HARTMAN: Yeah. I think so too. I’m just applauding it, and I hope Walgreens follows suit, and a whole bunch of others do too. Again, as a choice, not as Bloomberg saying a soda can’t be over 16 ounces, that’s the law. I mean, it’s ridiculous!

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: I hear that. It’s funny. I do think there are times when those kinds of decisions can be good, and it’s funny, because I actually supported Bloomberg on that one.


RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: Here’s the one—yeah. And I’ll be happy to tell you why. In that sense, I do have—I would be okay with certain laws about cigarettes, only for one reason: when personal choice becomes a public health issue, we all have to pay for it. And so that’s the one issue. Because the accountability and personal responsibility issues don’t end with the consumer or the user, it becomes a little bit more complicated. So for example, if someone said, I’m going to live an unhealthy life, but I promise no one but me, or those who I love and who love me, will ever have to pay the cost for it, I would make no rules whatsoever. But because it turns out that the unintended consequences of even our personal choices have real public implications, then I do think there become ways in which you can step in and legislate some of this stuff. As one friend of mine said, who was involved in health policy at a national level, said unless they’re prepared to sign a contract—talking about smokers—that says when they get sick, the only thing they can turn to insurance or the government for is morphine—then I don’t think we should have cigarette smoking be allowed. But if they’re willing to go with that, and just have pain control, because we are a compassionate society, let ‘em do whatever they want.

JASON HARTMAN: Right, right. But obviously that leads into a whole discussion of ObamaCare and everything else, which I get the feeling you wouldn’t be a fan of, necessarily. But I don’t know.

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: Again, it’s the same thing. I’m not a fan of what’s going on with ObamaCare, the Affordable Care Act, for the same reason I don’t think the current healthcare system is in a great place: because I think they’re both fundamentally avoidant. Neither—and that’s because we as a culture are not really ready to ask, what pieces of healthcare do we really think are rights? What pieces of healthcare are really privileges? The truth is, there are pieces that fall into each category. And instead we have people who assume it’s all a privilege, so if you don’t get any, that’s your tough luck, and then the response from the other side, from the left, is no, no, no—it’s all a right. It doesn’t matter what it costs. Everyone can have everything. And that’s just stupid. And we’re beginning to see the backlash now, as people who are offering lower cost plans and of necessity closing out certain options, certain doctors, certain hospitals, and now all of a sudden they go, you can’t do that to me! And you begin to ask, where did you think the savings were going to come from?

JASON HARTMAN: Yeah, right.

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: So, to the extent that the Affordable Care Act will open more choices for people, I’m a big fan. But the idea that those choices don’t come at a cost, and they were sold to the American public as if they don’t come with a cost, that’s what I’m most opposed to. I actually think there’s always a lot of options for a healthy society. Not talking about the real costs of the decisions we make, or the assumption that we’ll just do that and there is no cost to pay for it—that’s dangerous.

JASON HARTMAN: Very, very accurate. Very true. Let’s talk a little bit about politics and religion, or maybe more specifically, politicians and religion, rather than politics and religion; the two things you can’t have a polite conversation about, right? As they say. But, do you think a lot of politicians are faking religion? You know, it’s just sort of funny. Like, that’s sort of the default of every politician’s got to be a church-going, God-fearing, and I don’t—that doesn’t seem to reflect everyday society. I mean, I know a lot of agnostics and atheists out there. And frankly, I don’t believe in atheism at all. I think that is a religion.

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: Well, as you say, it’s a belief system. And disbelief when practiced that way is a belief, so I think that you’re 100% right. Here’s the funny thing. I don’t want to accuse people of faking or not faking, though I think you’re right to be worried about that, so I guess I just did a little bit. I try and remain cognizant of two things, and I think the politicians should also. And that the voting public should also. Number one is that we remain a nation by and large of believers. Now, believers is different than going to church or synagogue or mosque every week, alright? We are a nation which about 90% of us still believe in God or some higher power. I think that that’s actually a remarkably positive thing. I think, by the way, the credibility of faith in America is deeply linked to the freedom of faith that is largely unique to the United States.

Throughout Western Europe, there are official—you know, there’s state religion. And it turns out that the greatest enemy, historically, to people’s faith, is state religion. So the interesting thing is that what we either stumbled into or were brilliant, our founding fathers, was the understanding that a genuine respect for the importance of faith and religion is best guaranteed by giving the widest amount of freedom of religion. Not by trying to control it. Now, one of the downsides for people who are part of traditional religious communities is that along with the fact that we are a nation of believers, the fastest growing religious group in America are the Nones! And I do not mean Catholic religious women.

Not nuns, but Nones, who consistently check the “None” box, but I don’t think if the evidence is really looked at carefully, from the American Religious Identification Survey, or from the Q Foundation—that the people checking the none box are saying no to religion, because the number of atheists and agnostics in the country is holding steady. What I think they’re saying is, we do believe that there is more to life than meets the eye. But you can’t put the content of our souls—you can’t take the complexity of our beliefs, and shove them into a demographer’s box. Jewish, if Jewish, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Christian, if Christian, Evangelical, Mennonite, Protestant, Catholic—so they’re checking the box “None.” It’s a way of really saying, we are more complicated spiritually than any of those little boxes. I believe the politicians who can actually speak meaningfully to that, who can embrace a deep sense of faith and larger purpose in life, and also reassure people that it doesn’t have to be housed in any one denomination or church; those are the politicians that are the most interesting to me, and I think speak to the widest number of Americans out there.

JASON HARTMAN: Yeah, very good point. You know, I asked you about politicians, and their stated religious beliefs, or showcased religious beliefs, if I can put it that way.


JASON HARTMAN: But what about the reverse of that? Why is it that, you know, so few religious leaders—or I guess, I would have to speak only and say that Christian religious leaders, they just don’t really talk about or address politics. And I’ve gotta think that that’s not because they don’t have strong opinions about it, but it’s because, you know, if they’re a pastor in a church, for example, or rabbi, they’re gonna lose their tax-exempt status if they start talking politics from the pulpit, right?

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: Well, that’s certainly true, although it’s funny, I think there are a lot of people who are sort of the reverse—the people who are abusing their tax-exempt status and doing a lot of politicking. But I think what’s crucial to your question is that that is correct; to the extent that people want to continue the kind of tax privileging that houses of worship and religious organizations receive—and I get that’s an open question for some people, but to the extent that we continue that, they’re gonna come with obligations. Which, by the way, is in any healthy system, whether it’s government or family or anything, an organization. Every time you have certain rights, it should always generate some new obligations or responsibilities. So it turns out that houses of worship and religious organizations—they get some extra privileges or rights. They get to be tax-exempt. What comes with those privileges or rights, are new responsibilities and obligations. What I would say, if you want to not worry about those obligations and limitations, then give up those rights and privileges. They really go together. What I worry about is when anyone talks about having rights or privileges without also acknowledging their concomitant or concurrent obligations and responsibilities.

JASON HARTMAN: Yeah, fair enough, very good distinction. You know, that sort of begs the question though, should religious organizations even have tax-exempt status in the first place?

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: Right, and it’s a good question, and like I said, that’s an open debate. I want to be clear: for me the answer is yes. It’s obviously a little self-serving. A rabbi? I work in a 501(c)(3) organization that benefits from that. But I would like to think my answer in the affirmative is not simply self-serving, but I just want to be honest that it’s a part of it. By the way, if we could just get answerers of any significant question to admit their own personal attachment to their answer, we would have better answers, I don’t care what they were. But the other reason—I do think that over time, the social good that is brought to the larger public culture by virtue or religion and religious organizations, is pretty demonstrable. By no means is it perfect; by no means is any one religion or religious organization always doing everything right. But in the context of genuine freedom, as we have in the United States, where there isn’t a state-sponsored religious, as we do not have in the United States, I think there is a genuine public good that religion and religious organizations contribute to, and that is why they have that piece of tax-exempt privilege. If they cannot contribute to that larger public welfare, then actually I would be the first one to say, get rid of the tax-exempt status.

JASON HARTMAN: I almost wanted to drill down on that question more, and maybe we can take just a couple of quick minutes here to drill down on it. Because when you look at the former Soviet Union, or any of these really oppressive, disgusting communist states that we’ve had throughout history, it’s like, without exception, Brad, they are—they quash religion. I mean, I remember—I knew a girl whose uncle was put in jail for eight years in Romania, when it was behind the Iron Curtain under Ceausescu for distributing Bible illegally.


JASON HARTMAN: I mean, why is that—is it really that important that these Marxists make—I mean, do people just have to—there has to be like this vacuum in the belief system, or people can only believe in government? The state has to be the ultimate power? I sort of wonder why it’s such a big deal to them. Why do they have to exterminate religion in order to run communist states?

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: Well, I think they have to, and communism is one version of it; Nazism is another version of it; to the extent that Maoism is a different form of Marxism and other communism, it’s an example of it—because they are in fact religions themselves. They are totalitarian religions. And totalitarian anything, typically demands the extermination of everything that it doesn’t agree with. I want to be clear; I even appreciate that all of those socialist utopian communist orientations, although it ended up being true for Nazism too, claimed to be getting rid of God to save humanity. Forget that it’s crazy. But that was the claim. But here’s what we now know in the 21st century where we still see vestiges of it. Try and be a Christian in North Korea or Iran. It can get you dead very quickly. Right, so I want to be clear. I can even appreciate why they started out imagining after centuries of religion-inspired violence saying if we just get rid of God, it’ll be better for people. But over the course of the 20th century, all those systems that wanted to get rid of God to save people? Murdered more people in the name of no God, than all the religious violence in the 15 centuries previous to that. So it turns out, the common thread is, whether it’s people using God to get rid of other people, or people getting rid of God because they think it’ll be good for people, they’re both wrong. If your ideology is driven by what or who you have to get rid of, it’s not going to work out well for anyone, including you.

JASON HARTMAN: Yeah. Just, let’s just ask the 2-300 million people who died in the name of these utopian, nutty ideas.

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: Right. That’s exactly right. That’s the point. The argument that—when people say to me, don’t you know that religion is the source of all violence?

JASON HARTMAN: Not even close.

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: And I say to them, you know, it’s funny. I’m the last one to be an apologist for religion. But don’t you know that in the 20th century, the movements against religion murdered more people in 100 years than religion managed to kill in the previous 2000?

JASON HARTMAN: Yeah. Great point. Very good point. I wish modern liberals would realize that, because they always—they always start talking about the Crusades. And it’s like, you don’t have to go back that far—

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: —in a terrible chapter. But I’m curious, why do you not talk about Pol Pot? Why do you not talk about Joseph Stalin? Why do you not talk about Adolf Hitler? Because they, too—they were practicing the religion of no God. And the religion of no God, in very short order, each managed to martial the technology of their day to do, in any given year, what generations of Crusaders couldn’t accomplish. It doesn’t mean the Crusades get a pass. It doesn’t mean it’s a pretty moment. It does mean that I as a religious person don’t worry every day about the harm that religion done badly can do. But if anyone doesn’t appreciate the harm that secularism done badly can do, then they need a history lesson. The truth is, for me, religion—and it’s true for anything important, but since you asked about religion and faith, I’ll do it with that—faith is like a fire. It can burn down our homes and the rest of the world, or it can feed us and warm those homes and give us light to grow by. The issue isn’t religion or no religion. It’s the people using it, and how we use it. The issue actually, if I really pushed on this, isn’t belief or no belief. It’s how you use whatever you believe or disbelieve in a way that doesn’t just leave you better off, but gives greater freedom and dignity to others around you. And if you’re willing to use it that way, whether I end up agreeing with you or not, my guess is you’re contributing to the larger good for all of us.

JASON HARTMAN: Excellent point, excellent point. Last thing for you, and I know we’re time constrained here. But, you wrote a piece on the recent Super Bowl. And I just wanted to get your take on that. Give us the title of that, if you would?

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: I honestly don’t remember, but it was probably something like, Is The Super Bowl the Sacred Bowl? Because for me it really is a sacred event. And I don’t say that cavalierly or lightly.


RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: But over 100 million Americans are paying attention to something. For me, in a tradition that believes in the dignity, the infinite dignity of every individual, 100 million of us paying attention to anything is already important. If you care about people, whatever your views are, religious or secular—if 100 million of your fellow citizens are paying attention to something, you better pay attention to it. The fact that we do come together. People open their homes, and they put on special clothes, and they eat special foods. If that doesn’t sound like a ritual, I don’t know what does. And the ability to be reminded of what people, with a combination of naturally born, God-given—that’s a theological debate we don’t need to have—that combination with real discipline and focus, how they can lift their bodies to achieve things that most of us can only wonder about. It’s a real reminder of what human beings with the right kind of gifts and the right kind of hard work can accomplish in other parts of our lives as well. So, between the numbers of us paying attention, the ability to open our homes and celebrate together, and the reminder of what people can do with a combination of native talent and real hard work—if that’s not the stuff of the sacred, I don’t know what is.

JASON HARTMAN: So you’re saying that—that could be perceived either way. You’re saying, that’s a really positive thing for society.

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. For me it’s a hugely positive thing. I should be clear here. When I use the word sacred, I only mean it that way.

JASON HARTMAN: In a positive way, okay. Because, you know, you could almost say that’s cultish—people put on certain clothes, they do these rituals—

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: Yeah. And by the way, every religion, including my own, and all the other ones that are well respected, can become cultish. The fact that something becomes cultish is not whether or not it looks foreign to us. Right? That’s a whole larger discussion we’ll have one day. But the simple version is, cults are not cults because they’re odd or they’re new. Cults are cults because they actually practice in secrecy, practice denial, are harsh to those who leave them, and hateful to those who won’t join them.

JASON HARTMAN: Hmm, now very, very good distinction.

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: Whether whatever you’re a part of is an established religion or a cult, if it does that, it is a cult. And if it doesn’t do that, however loopy and weird they think it is, if it doesn’t have those problems, I’m happy to call it a religion. And in that sense, if people want to practice the religion—and I mean this a little bit lightly, but a little seriously too—the religion of football, so that it opens their homes, generates compassion, teaches them to respect their bodies, have a sense of the value of hard work and how it can lead to great accomplishments, and help them pay attention to what 100 million of their fellow citizens are doing, it’s not the worst religion in the world.

JASON HARTMAN: Very good point, very good point. Brad, give out your websites, if you would, and tell people where they can learn more about you.

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: Sure. The best place to find what I’m doing these days is at, and [unintelligible], or at

JASON HARTMAN: Fantastic. Well, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, thank you so much for joining us today for a very interesting and enlightening discussion. I very much appreciate it.

RABBI BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: It was really my pleasure.


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ANNOUNCER: This show is produced by the Hartman Media Company. All rights reserved. For distribution or publication rights and media interviews, please visit, or email [email protected] Nothing on this show should be considered specific personal or professional advice. Please consult an appropriate tax, legal, real estate, or business professional for any individualized advice. Opinions of guests are their own, and the host is acting on behalf of Platinum Properties Investor Network, Inc. exclusively.

Transcribed by David

* Read more from Solomon Success
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The Solomon Success Team


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