Monday, November 21, 2005

The world says no to war

The Union of Reform Judaism biennial just ended in Houston. Velveteen Rabbi has blogged about it at great length.

The most important part of the week was that the URJ delegates overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for an exit strategy from Iraq and a withdrawal of troops.

In addition to the development of an exit strategy, the resolution calls on the Bush administration to provide more transparency regarding all aspects of the war and calls for a bi-partisan, independent commission to determine the lessons learned from this war’s failures. It also condemns “in the strongest possible terms,” violations of the Geneva Conventions, including torture and abuse of prisoners and detainees in US custody, and condemns those who would use opposition to the war as a justification for anti-Israel efforts.

Full press release and full text of the resolution.

Kudos to the URJ. Finally, the organizations perceived as speaking for the Jewish community are breaking their silence on this disastrous war. It would have been even better if they had shown this kind of spine in early 2003, but hey, better late than never.

The delegates also voted to oppose the Alito nomination, support voting rights for the District of Columbia, and support the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Yasher koach.

The other highlight of the Biennial (for me, sitting over 1000 miles away) was that my aunt was an honored guest at Rabbi Eric Yoffie's "State of the Union" sermon, like the special guests who stand up during the president's State of the Union address (except Rosa Parks z"l, who "may get up or not as she chooses").

Yoffie said:

To begin with, we need to do far more for the non-Jewish spouses in our midst. We welcome all such spouses, of course, including those who do not identify as Jewish. But when a spouse involves herself in the activities of the synagogue; offers support to the Jewish involvements of husband or wife; attends Jewish worship; and, most important of all, commits to raising Jewish children, he or she is deserving not only of welcome but of our profound thanks.

These spouses are heroes—yes, heroes—of Jewish life. While maintaining some measure of attachment to their own traditions, and sometimes continuing to practice their religion, they take on responsibilities that, by any reasonable calculation, belong to the Jewish spouse. And very often they do all of this without recognition from either their Jewish family or their synagogue.

I would like you to meet one such hero. Helen _______ met Richard, her husband-to-be, on a blind date and later took an Introduction to Judaism class with him. Although she enjoyed the class and admired Judaism, she did not think that she could convert. But she and Richard agreed to raise their children as Jews and joined Temple Emanuel here in Houston. When her two boys started preschool, Helen felt embraced by the synagogue. Over time, much of the family’s holiday and Shabbat preparation fell to her, and she grew to enjoy it. She also became involved in the Parent-Teacher Organization of the religious school. When her husband fell ill with colon cancer in 2003, Judaism was a source of consolation and the temple offered support throughout. Following Richard’s death earlier this year, Helen and her sons—Daniel, 10, and Adam, 8—have remained immersed in religious school and temple life. I would like to ask Helen to stand.

Our obligation is to extend our appreciation with a full embrace to Helen and to others like her.

The sermon also included other great statements on behalf of the Religious Left. After praising the Jewish community's role in disaster relief following Hurricane Katrina, Yoffie says:

Contrast this to the government response at all levels. This is a story that has been told many times and that I need not repeat.

But it is important that we draw the proper conclusions.

Incredibly, federal officials are using this tragedy to promote so-called faith-based initiatives. The failures of government and the successes of religion are now seen as a reason why churches and synagogues should be state-funded to do what the government has been unable or unwilling to do.

But this is absurd for many reasons. First, we religious people do what we do because it is God’s work and it is right. People of faith do not need government handouts to do what God expects of us. The last thing we want is politicians dangling million-dollar grants in front of us with a promise of more if only we will support them. Some may think that religious leaders will somehow be immune to the corrupting influence of power and money, but believe me, we will not.

Second, religious programs can only supplement government programs; they can never replace them. The damage caused by Katrina and Rita was so devastating that years will pass before some areas return to a semblance of normality. In these situations, religious acts of charity, no matter how laudable, can never be enough.

What is required in these cases is a competent, well-financed, and well-prepared government response. So let’s be clear: The lesson of Katrina is that religious institutions play a big role in American life, but social service is the job of government and cannot be farmed out.

Also, his attack on the "Religious Right" has been lauded all over the liberal blogosphere:

We are particularly offended by the suggestion that the opposite of the Religious Right is the voice of atheism. We are appalled when “people of faith” is used in such a way that it excludes us, as well as most Jews, Catholics, and Muslims. What could be more bigoted than to claim that you have a monopoly on God and that anyone who disagrees with you is not a person of faith?

So we ask our neighbors on the Religious Right to take note: We are religious Jews, gathered in Houston to study, pray, and commit ourselves to God. And yes, we are generally liberal in our politics. But our liberalism flows directly from our religious commitments.

And we worry that you don’t understand what this means, or what it means for anyone to be a liberal religious believer.

What it means is this: that we bring a measure of humility to our religious belief. We study religious texts day and night, but we have no direct lines to heaven and we aren’t always sure that we know God’s will.

It means believing that religion involves concern for the poor and the needy, and giving a fair shake to all. When people talk about God and yet ignore justice, it just feels downright wrong to us. When they cloak themselves in religion and forget mercy, it strikes us as blasphemy.

It means that “family values” require providing health care to every child and that God cares about the 12 million children without health insurance.

It means valuing a child with diabetes over a frozen embryo in a fertility clinic, and seeing the teaching of science as a primary social good.

And it means reserving the right for each person to prayerfully make decisions for herself about when she dies.

It also means believing in legal protection for gay couples. We understand those who believe that the Bible opposes gay marriage, even though we read that text in a very different way. But we cannot understand why any two people who make a lifelong commitment to each other should be denied legal guarantees that protect them and their children and benefit the broader society. We cannot forget that when Hitler came to power in 1933, one of the first things that he did was ban gay organizations. And today, we cannot feel anything but rage when we hear about gay men and women, some on the front lines, being hounded out of our armed services. Yes, we can disagree about gay marriage. But there is no excuse for hateful rhetoric that fuels the hellfires of anti-gay bigotry.

In an otherwise excellent address, I found a few things perplexing. First of all, the Reform movement appears to be petitioning for a Reform rabbi to receive a state salary like her Orthodox counterparts. This position of antidisestablishmentarianism seems inconsistent with the movement's other positions. Particularly in light of Rabbi Yoffie's Katrina comments above, shouldn't they be seeking to dismantle the Israeli theocracy rather than broaden it? I understand that getting funding for a few Reform rabbis is a more attainable goal than removing funding from thousands of Orthodox rabbis. But it would be even easier (and wouldn't even require court intervention) to say "you can't fire me, I quit!" and spin the lack of government funding for the Reform movement by saying that the movement doesn't believe in taking government money. This allows the movement to declare victory and go home, and keep its hands clean from the corrupting influence of excessive entanglement.

Also, a major section of the sermon dealt with making synagogues into welcoming communities for everyone. Obviously this is a praiseworthy goal, and I agree with everything Yoffie said. The problem is what he didn't say. Yoffie mentioned specific constituencies to reach out to, such as single parents, or empty-nesters who leave their congregation after the kids move out. Apparently I don't exist. There was no mention anywhere in the address of the existence of Jews who are between high school age and becoming parents (even college students weren't mentioned, though most Hillel Reform minyanim are pathetic). They haven't listened to a thing I've said. And these unaffiliated Jews who are to be reached out to are presumed to be Jewishly uneducated. Is the Reform movement triaging us, because they simply see educated lay childless adults as a lost cause?

If the Reform movement is advocating for causes I believe in but doesn't want me as a part of it, I'll just have to accept that and continue to admire its advocacy from the outside. There's room for both of us.


  1. Thanks for the hat tip -- I'm glad you enjoyed my blog coverage of the con!

    I applauded the resolutions in question, too. (It was telling me that we never needed to resort to paper ballots; support was nigh-unanimous...)

    And wow, that was your mom? :-) That's so cool. Mazal tov to your mom, and your whole family. It takes courage to be singled-out like that, and I'm really glad she was willing to rise and let us all applaud her.

    I had some minor issues with some of Rabbi Yoffie's points, but on the whole I thought it was a good speech. You raise a good point, though, that Jews who are older than HS but aren't parents were basically ignored. (I'm in that boat myself, so I also noticed the omission -- though I'm also intermarried, so mostly I was listening intently to his points on that, hoping like hell he wasn't going to say anything that would piss me off. :-)

    For what it's worth, I have mixed feelings about the Reform movement as a whole. I love my little Reform shul, but I'm leftier and fringier than mainstream organized American Judaism in general, and that includes even the (laudably lefty) Reform movement. (This would be why I'm studying in the Renewal rabbinic program rather than HUC.) So I also feel a little bit like I'm applauding the movement's good sides, and remaining kind of outside it, even though I was a voting delegate at the convention...

  2. Also, clearly I cannot type straight, as I meant to say "wow, that was your aunt?" and somehow my fingers failed to follow the input from my brain. :-)

  3. it is worth noting that the RRA, JRF, and RRC released a joint statement on behalf of the movement in 2003 calling for diplomacy as an alternative to war and attacking warmongering in general.
    though the movement is small, it was early to oppose armed conflict. so Your statement that:
    "Finally, the organizations perceived as speaking for the Jewish community are breaking their silence on this disastrous war," is not entirely correct but I agree with the sentiment. the recon movement is small and media coverage of its opposition to the war was much less widespread.

  4. As always, the Recon movement is ahead of the curve!

  5. The Dems are so funny. They are calling for the same exit strategy that Bush has had since the beginning.

    You can't do diplomacy with people like Saddam Hussein. Current example: Iran. Older example: Hitler. The UN did diplomacy with Saddam for 12 years, and all he did was game the system.

    Do any of you social activist caring tikkun olam types give a shit about the Iraqis voting and developing their democracy? They seem pretty positive about it. Maybe some day the Left will care as much about liberating people from oppression as the neo-cons. It's sad. Not to mention profoundly hypocritical.

  6. Nonetheless, Ben, I nominated you for best Jewish Religion blog in the Jewish blog awards.