Portrait of Rep. Ed Stafman next to the stained glass window in the Grand Stairway at the Montana Capitol. (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan)
The first question of Jewish law that Representative Ed Stafman had to settle following the beginning of his tenure as a rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Bozeman was, naturally, related to fishing.
Is it, as a person of the Jewish faith, ethical to catch a fish and release it back into the river, a member of the congregation wanted to know.
On one hand, catching a fish causes it pain; to not venerate its existence by ending its suffering and providing sustenance to the fisherman would seem unethical. At the same time, fishing as a form of recreation provides relaxation, fulfillment, other benefits to the fisherman that go beyond the physical realm.
“What do you think?” Stafman said. “There’s two opinions.”
Now, Stafman is tasked with interpreting and making laws of a different kind: those in Montana’s annotated codebook, which govern the daily lives of everyone in the state, whether or not they’re a Jewish angler.
He’s serving his first term in the Montana Legislature as a Democratic representative from Bozeman. Though the history books are not exhaustive in this regard, Stafman is likely one of the first, if not the first, rabbi to be elected to a state legislative seat anywhere in the country, according to rabbinical organization T’ruah.
“I wanted to continue doing public service work, but I could have been just as happy volunteering to work with the food bank,” Stafman said.
While Stafman’s election would have been groundbreaking in just about any state, it’s especially remarkable in Montana, where the small Jewish community has ebbed and flowed with local history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when cities like Butte were full of mining wealth and new residents, Montana had one of the largest Jewish populations between Chicago and the Pacific, but within a few decades, that community was largely eroded —Jewish Montanans had gone to seek opportunity elsewhere.
Stafman came to Bozeman in 2008, when, six-months shy of ordination as a rabbi, he came across an open position at Beth Shalom on a listserv for rabbinical positions.
“Outside Magazine said Bozeman was the number one place to live in the U.S., and they were looking for a rabbi,” he said.
After a hike with temple leadership to Fairy Lake, he was convinced.
“I became the rabbi in 2008, and stayed in that position for 10 years,” Stafman said. “I was the first resident rabbi there probably ever.”
That he would end his term and move into politics is not entirely surprising.
Born to a “nominally observant” family, Stafman attended law school in Florida in the 1970s. He would go on to defend (and exonerate) incarcerated people on death row (one of his legislative proposals this year is to abolish the death penalty in Montana), to litigate civil rights cases, and even to serve as lead counsel on one of the Bush-Gore election lawsuits in 2000.
At the beginning of the millennium, Stafman said he was talked into attending a Jewish renewal retreat, where he said he experienced the divine and ignited a desire to reinvest in Jewish life.
“It was the first moment of realization that there’s something to this,” he said. “I had these experiences where I learned to better see the divine in people and things around me. It gives rise to a sense of responsibility, that you and I are part of the same ecosystem.”
His legal practice began to drop off as he became “enamored” with Judaism as a way of life, enrolled in rabbinical school and began pursuing a doctorate in religion.
“Over the course of the next eight years, my law practice went from full-time to part-time to none,” he said.
The first synagogue in Montana — in fact, the first between St. Paul and Portland — was Temple Emanu-El in Helena. One hundred and thirty years later, the building houses offices for Helena’s Catholic Diocese.
In that time, Montana’s Jewish community underwent profound changes. As mines opened up in Montana, Jewish immigrants from Europe came in droves, but by the 1930s, the congregation in Helena was so small that Emanu-El fell into disrepair and was eventually sold off.
Beth Shalom, where Stafman was Rabbi, was founded in the 1960s, as Jews began to again move from other reaches of the country to Montana, clustered around its larger cities and college towns.
Rabbi Mark Kula, who replaced Stafman at Beth Shalom, said his wife’s great grandparents actually spent around a decade in Billings and Harlowton operating a dry goods store in the teens and 1920s, but, as with many other Jews in the state, left for greener pastures.
“There was a significant Jewish population that came out here, people explored, they were settlers,” said Kula, who moved to Bozeman from Florida.
That history of a fluctuating but often thriving community left a unique imprint on Montana.
“People want to feel their Jewishness here,” he said. “In the big cities, they can do whatever they want. But here, they have to engage.”
Even those who aren’t Jewish in Montana will often point to family members of the faith who came to Montana in decades past.
“One of the most fascinating parts about being here is people who come over to me and say, if I’m wearing a head covering, ‘Oh, my grandmother is Jewish!” Kula said.
By 2018, Stafman said he had given everything he had to give to Beth Shalom. A year later, he learned a seat in Montana House District 62 was open, and seeing a through line from his time as a lawyer and rabbi, he decided to run, eventually defeating Libertarian candidate Francis Wendt by almost 50 points.
As a rabbi, “you have a sense of being at service to a community,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization. “You’re a pastoral caregiver, you help people find meaning and get people engaged.”
In this sense, there is a natural path from rabbinical service to politics — there’s a long history, Jacobs noted, of rabbis being politically involved in their communities, both in Europe and the U.S, just not as elected state representatives, for one reason or another.
“Even though most rabbis have not taken this step of running for office, it’s a different way of trying to make an impact,” she said.
There is a similar history of Jews fighting for human rights and dignity, a core tenet of Stafman’s politics. Appearing on the House floor with a yarmulke covering his head and a face mask covering his beard, some of Stafman’s first key moments as a legislator came during debate on bills to limit abortion and medical care for transgender youth in Montana.
“Many of you promised limited government: `freedom, liberty, individual choice,’ you proclaim,” he said in January. “But this bill would interfere with the sacred freedom of all Montana women and families to make health-care and religious choices together with their doctor, their clergy, their conscience and their god.”
In Judaism, Jacobs said, whole sections of religious text concern “how we’re supposed to live in the world together” — from how much income one must give to those in poverty, to worker-employer and landlord-tenant relationships.
“In Judaism, the very first thing that we learn about human beings is we’re created in the image of God. There’s an obligation to treat people that way,” she said
Stafman said he doesn’t consider himself a member of the “Jewish left” or any other political-religious affiliation.
“I’m motivated by the divine flow that directs where I go,” he said. “(Left) is a label that someone puts it on me, but I just put it on the values, Jewish values that are evident from our tradition and teaching. If that happens to align me on certain issues with what we call the left, so be it.”
To intermix religion and politics is, as Stafman put it, “dicey.”
“The reason is, there’s a temptation to begin with politics and then to try to figure out how religion can fit in,” he said. “We start with the accepted parameters of debate, and we tend to use religion to justify whatever our existing commitment might be.”
There’s a temptation to assume that to be an openly religious lawmaker is to be conservative, he said. (As an aside, Stafman said he’s hoping to attend one of the Legislature’s Bible study sessions.)
In many cases, religious progressives “think the only way to honor their religion is to stay out of politics,” Stafman said. “Whereas on the right, generally speaking, their religion tells them to get into politics, which has created this false impression that religious people are far right.
“The question that I ask myself, and that I would prefer some people on the right ask themselves, is what if we make our inward journey our starting point, what if our politics were rooted in our participation with the divine flow,” Stafman explained. “We’re no longer guided and constrained by what we think is politically possible, but instead compelled by what is most real.”
Kula calls this a “universal message of Jewish wisdom,” a message of liberation that has persisted throughout Jewish thought for 3,000 years.
“It was a natural step for Rabbi Stafman,” Kula said. “That was one of his prominent perspectives on the world. That’s been his call. That’s an important part of Jewish wisdom and tradition, to repair the world and seek justice. That is his call.”
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