Reform Head Blasts Right For ‘Bigotry,’ ‘Blasphemy’

By Jennifer Siegel

Published November 25, 2005, issue of November 25, 2005.
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HOUSTON — In the second major attack on religious conservatives by a Jewish communal leader in recent weeks, the head of America’s largest synagogue movement delivered a speech last week condemning “zealots” on the “religious right” who spend more time fueling “anti-gay bigotry” than fighting poverty and other social ills.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, made the remarks in Houston November 19 during his Sabbath-morning sermon at the organization’s 68th biennial convention. In addition to applauding Yoffie’s comments, delegates to the Reform parley approved a resolution opposing the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel Alito and another calling for the White House to outline a “clear exit strategy” for the war in Iraq.

With the resolutions, the Reform union, representing about 900 congregations with an estimated 1.5 million members, became the largest Jewish organization to oppose Alito, and the largest to speak out against the Bush administration’s handling of the war.

Yoffie’s rebuke of religious conservatives appears to reflect a wider communal shift: It comes just two weeks after the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, delivered a November 3 speech in which he warned of a growing campaign to “Christianize America” and called on Jewish organizations to join him in coordinating a communal strategy for confronting religious conservative groups.

Since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in September 2000 and the September 11 attacks a year later, Jewish organizations, including ADL, have shown a much-discussed tendency to ally themselves with pro-Israel evangelical Christians on foreign policy issues, while downplaying or even overlooking their deep disagreements on domestic issues. Even liberal Jewish communal leaders who have not embraced this alliance have mostly steered clear of criticizing it openly or attacking religious conservatives. But as public support for the war and President Bush’s approval ratings plummet, this stance appears to be changing.

In his sermon, Yoffie defended religious liberals against the criticism that “the opposite of the religious right is the voice of atheism.”

“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?” he said.

Yoffie also criticized the “hateful rhetoric that fuels the hell fires of anti-gay bigotry.”

“We cannot forget that when Hitler came to power in 1933, one of the first things that he did was ban gay organizations,” Yoffie said. He added that “the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, has far more to say about caring for the poor than about eradicating sexual sin.”

“When people talk about God and yet ignore justice, it just feels downright wrong to us,” Yoffie said. “When they cloak themselves in religion and forget mercy, it strikes us as blasphemy.”

Yoffie’s sermon included at least one olive branch to opponents. He said there were things that religious liberals and conservatives could learn from each other, and he urged both sides to work together when common ground exists.

As opposed to Foxman, who had singled out several conservative Christian groups for criticism in his speech, Yoffie steered clear of naming any specific person or organization. The Reform leader told the Forward that his comments were aimed at members of all faiths — including Judaism — who were guilty of religious intolerance or hypocrisy.

One of Yoffie’s top lieutenants, Rabbi David Saperstein, had been scheduled to meet with Foxman on Monday to discuss forging a joint approach to countering the efforts of religious conservatives. But the meeting was canceled, and later an ADL spokesman told the Forward that Foxman was sick.

Several Jewish communal insiders based in Washington told the Forward that the Reform union’s decision to oppose Alito could prompt several other major Jewish organizations to take a similar stance, including the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Hadassah, a women’s Zionist organization that, with 300,000 members, is the largest non-synagogue membership association.

“Does it influence us? Yeah,” said Shelley Klein, Hadassah’s director of advocacy. But Klein said the organization would withhold judgment until Alito fills out his Senate questionnaire and testifies before the Judiciary Committee.

Like the Reform movement, Hadassah did not oppose John Roberts. The United Synagogue, the congregational arm of Conservative Judaism, endorsed Roberts as “qualified.”

Reform delegates voted to oppose Alito on the grounds that he would shift the court’s ideological balance on several contentious issues, including abortion rights and civil rights, and would also vote toshift more power back to the states.

Communal insiders said there was no sign that the ADL, the American Jewish Committee or the American Jewish Congress — three organizations often seen as the Jewish community’s leading advocates for a robust separation of church and state — would abandon their reluctance to endorse or oppose judicial nominees.

The national officers of Agudath Israel of America, a leading Orthodox advocacy organization, have authorized the group to support Alito’s candidacy for the high court. Agudath Israel, which was reviewing the judge’s record before making a formal announcement after Thanksgiving, has frequently taken more conservative stances than many other Jewish organizations on reproductive rights and on church-state issues.

It was unclear what impact, if any, the Reform movement’s resolution calling for a “clear exit strategy” from Iraq would have on other Jewish organizations.

The resolution described the situation in Iraq as an “untenable war, with no end in sight” and called on the White House to begin troop withdrawals after Iraq’s December 15 elections.

Delegates to the convention also passed resolutions denouncing the use of torture, opposing economic boycotts of Israel, urging the federal government to insulate scientific inquiries from religious ideology and supporting workers’ rights to bargain collectively.

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