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July 2, 2010

We Are Not One, Genetically

As a Reform rabbi serving a 500-family congregation, but who has no “Jewish genetic markers” from my ancestors, I am deeply offended by your June 11 editorial “We Are One, Genetically.”

The editorial asked whether, as “genetic distinctions fade away,” our sense of peoplehood will remain intact. I was shocked and saddened to find such a racist conception of Jewish peoplehood endorsed on the editorial page of the Forward.

If our future is in danger, it is not as a result of a diminution of Jewish genes but rather a lessening of commitment and identity — no matter what our genetic makeup is. More important: Unless we learn how to welcome the stranger who wants to join us, we risk losing not only him or her, but the born-Jewish spouse and their children as well.

Rabbi Geoffrey M. Huntting
Temple Sinai
Sarasota, Fla.

Focusing on Judaism And Social Action

I want to offer a thought in response to Jonathan Sarna’s fine exploration of Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s tenure as president of the Union for Reform Judaism (“Rabbi Yoffie’s Legacy: ‘Old Ideas’ for Reform Judaism,” June 25).

As chairman of the URJ’s board of trustees from 2003 to 2007, I worked with Yoffie almost daily for four years, and, like Sarna, I know that “the Yoffie era will go down as an important period in the history of the Reform movement.”

I am surprised, however, by Sarna’s insistence on setting up a conflict between (in his words) “making Reform Judaism more Jewish” and vigorous engagement with the world around us. That is a false dichotomy. I think that part of Yoffie’s particular genius is in teaching us — by word and deed — how “looking inward” (Sarna’s phrase) and “initiatives dealing with social action” are not two goals at odds with one another, but, rather, are two pieces of a holistic, liberal, religious worldview.

It is not a coincidence that before he became the URJ’s president, Yoffie was director of the Reform movement’s Commission on Social Action; at every step of his rabbinate, Yoffie has powerfully combined a renewed focus on study and mitzvot with a profound commitment to the repairing of our all-too-broken world. That synthesis will be, I believe, among his most important legacies.

Robert M. Heller
New York, N.Y.

Name-Calling That Misstates History

Alan Dershowitz’s analogy regarding Judge Richard Goldstone and Josef Mengele is historically baseless (“Israelis Condemn Goldstone’s Role In South Africa During Apartheid,” May 21).

Regarding Goldstone’s explanations of his conduct as a judge in apartheid South Africa, Dershowitz said: “That’s what Mengele said, too. ‘We just followed the law.’ When you are in an apartheid country like South Africa, you don’t follow the law.”

But Mengele was never captured as a Nazi war criminal (he was held only briefly by the U.S. as a prisoner of war, with his true identity unknown) and therefore was never tried. He never invoked the “just-following-orders” defense. In fact, the historical record indicates that Mengele perceived himself as a research scientist undertaking innovative, path-breaking medical research. Therefore, it is unlikely that at trial, he would have resorted to such a defense.

Call Goldstone by whatever names you so choose, but please don’t misrepresent the historical record.

Michael Berenbaum
Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics
American Jewish University
Los Angeles, Calif.

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