REMARKS BY RABBI ERIC H. YOFFIE at the rededication of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism March 30, 2003 What good are words of Torah that don't touch the real problems of society?
Before we hear from our featured speaker, David Saperstein has asked me to say a few words about what the Religious Action Center means to Reform Judaism in North America. Let me begin by taking a brief look at the history of our Movement.
In 1959, the Union passed a resolution to establish an advocacy center in Washington, together with the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Its purpose would be to influence Congress on the great moral issues about which our Movement had spoken, and to educate our membership about these issues as well. However, once the implications of the resolution became clear, a number of major Reform congregations urged that the decision be reconsidered. At the 1961 Biennial, therefore, the issue was brought forward again, and the debate that ensued was stormy and intense.
The opponents of the Center offered a number of arguments. They said that it would be arrogant for any institution to presume to speak for us all-we Reform Jews are famously unable to agree on the time of day. The rabbis don't agree with the laypeople, the Midwesterners don't agree with the Easterners, the traditionalists don't agree with the classical Reformers. But the key argument was this: while both sides acknowledged that ethics are central to Reform Judaism, the opponents insisted that ethics means personal ethics and individual conscience, and not collective political action.
When the debate was over and the smoke had cleared, supporters of the Center had beaten back the opponents by a vote of almost four to one. The Reform Movement by that vote set its course and made a statement about fundamental values from which it has not deviated in 42 years. And our statement was simply this: Yes, personal ethics are important. G'milut chasadim-acts of kindness-are important. Setting up soup kitchens, food pantries, and clothing drives is important. It is good and right that we reach into the river of despair and rescue people who are drowning. But, there comes a time when you need to move upstream and see who's throwing them in.
Amos said: "Let justice roll down like the waters." Justice, he said, and not charity, and for good reason. Because while charity alleviates the effects of poverty, justice seeks to eliminate its cause.
That Biennial vote in 1961 was an acknowledgement that our synagogues, naturally enough, tend to be long on charity and short on justice, and that therefore we were establishing a Center in Washington to promote justice on our behalf.
And how has the RAC done?
Consider how far we have come since 1961. In that year, most Americans were still not accorded full citizenship in their own country. Blacks lived under a system of virtual apartheid, subject to terrifying violence whenever whites chose to subject them to it. Women were relegated to a handful of professions and a subordinate role in all things. Gays and lesbians were forced into a bitter, shadow existence in which they, too, could be abused at will. But in the intervening years everything has changed. Freedom has been secured for these Americans-not completely, by any means, and not without ugly scenes, unseemly conflict, and real struggle. But in large part, their freedom has been won; it has been won by educating, advocating, and lobbying our politicians, and by mobilizing the essential idealism and optimism of the American people.
We do not, of course, claim all the credit, but the RAC has done its share, and more. The historic civil rights bills of the 1960's were written in our conference room. Jewish opposition to the Vietnam War began with us. Gay and lesbian rights were championed by us. Vouchers and school prayer were opposed by us, and the wall of church-state separation was maintained, in no small measure, by our efforts.
The leaders of the RAC never surrendered to despair or cynicism, or to the privatizing forces of the day. When others were reduced to inconsequential hand wringing, they gave our synagogues a plan, a purpose, and a course of action. When the moral outrage of others was too feeble, they inspired us and kept us on the moral offensive. When too many churches and synagogues were down to management and therapy, they reminded us to challenge the entrenched and to work for a better day.
Is our task now complete? Not even close.
Yes, we've won some victories, but political virtue is fragile. In many ways, American politics right now are fundamentally broken, corrupted by abuse, moral indifference, and politicians who spend their days dialing for dollars.
And our task is vastly complicated by the wars in which we are engaged-the war against terrorism and the war against Saddam Hussein. While we stand united in the struggle against terror, Americans, and members of our Movement, have not been of one mind on the war in Iraq. While that war is not my topic tonight, I know that with the battle underway, we are grateful to the men and women of our armed services who have answered the call of their country and who risk their lives on our behalf. And we share a desire for a swift conclusion to the fighting, for minimal casualties to our troops and to civilians, and for a rebuilding of Iraq that will leave her citizens secure and free.
But my major concern at the moment is that whatever our opinion on these wars, this Movement believes that they cannot take the place of all our other wars: against poverty, hatred, and exploitation.
My concern is that during times of war, hatred becomes respectable, even though it has to masquerade under the guise patriotism, and that the Jewish values of justice, respect, and equality may be lost in the shuffle.
My concern is that with the guns of war blazing, we will forget Guantanamo; we will forget that it is wrong to confine people indefinitely without even telling them the charges against them; we will forget the balance that is required between security and liberty, and that if we win the war and lose the constitution, we will have lost everything.
My concern is that for this generation, a coat hanger is just a coat hanger, and if we do not pay close attention, Congress will start by banning late-term abortions, will then give the fetus rights that surpass those of women, and will end up chipping away and finally destroying a woman's right to choose.
My concern is that at a time of savage inequality in our public schools, and of growing inequality between rich and poor, we need more affirmative action and not less if we are to build a just community; but if we allow ourselves to focus only on the war, universities will soon be able to admit legacies, musicians, and athletes who can't read, but will be banned from admitting a qualified, racially diverse student body.
My concern, in short, is that during wartime, with the media in its one-story mode, with time for nothing but Iraq, our understandable concern for the war and the welfare of our soldiers will cause us to lose sight of our highest priorities and most basic values.
If we raise these issues during wartime will we be accused of disloyalty? Perhaps. But our disloyalty will be not in our dissent but in our subservience. Yes, there's a fight going on against terrorists around the globe and a despotic regime in Iraq. But just as certainly there's a fight going on here at home, to decide just what kind of a country this will be.
So how important to us are David Saperstein and the RAC? More important than ever. David, our man in Washington, the dean of American Jewish lobbyists, is following in the footsteps of Vorspan, Eisendrath, and Schindler, but, as they would readily admit, he has surpassed them all. With his superb staff, and his overworked and underpaid legislative assistants, he is already involved in all of these issues and goading us to keep on track. If we succeed, it will be only because David has lifted our sights and summoned our hearts to justice, decency, and a better America.
Now let me tell you where David will be particularly busy in the weeks ahead. He will be hard at work helping us to find the right answer to the question: Who will pay for this war?
This administration is the first in the history of our country to ask the sons and daughters of working men and women to risk their lives in war while asking the wealthy to pay less in taxes.
When democratic countries go to war, they usually pursue domestic policies that promote national unity and social solidarity. They recognize a special obligation to those who bear the direct burden of war, and those who benefit least from the affluence of democracy. But this administration wants a $700 billion tax cut, three-quarters of which in the first year goes to the richest five percent.
And who will pay the price of these tax cuts? The working poor and the near poor. Forty-one states have already cut Medicaid, and many, many more cuts are yet to come.
Those at the top of the income ladder are already receiving a bigger slice of the income pie than at any time in the past 60 years.
Is this a time to suggest, without a touch of irony, that we redistribute wealth upwards?
Is this a time to craft tax breaks for billionaires while claiming that the sky will fall if we raise the minimum wage to anything approaching a living wage?
Whenever I read Torah, what I find there is that the poor are never a problem to the rich. It is always the rich who are a problem to the poor. But the way we are cutting taxes for the wealthy and social programs for the poor, you would think it was the other way around.
The tax cut has been approved by the House but reduced by the Senate, and its ultimate dimensions are uncertain. So this is what the RAC will be working on. Now, we know that this kind of talk will ruffle some feathers. But what good are words of Torah that don't get under anyone's skin? What good are words of Torah that don't touch the real problems of society? What good are pious phrases that don't bother anyone?
And the RAC's message for 42 years has been: if feathers are ruffled, so be it. Because now is the time for a full-bodied Judaism of ritual profundity and moral rigor-a Judaism that doesn't cower and wait, but boldly leads.
Passover will soon be upon us. We will gather in our homes and read the story of Pharaoh, and Moses, and the exodus from Egypt-a story that shows, if it shows anything, that religion is not on the side of the established power.
And who is Pharaoh? He is a passive king in a land without revolution or promise or hope, in a world that never changes from generation to generation.
And who is Moses? He is the man who introduces prophetic passion to human history. He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew-something that has happened a thousand times before. But somehow he sees what no one else has seen-misery in the human heart and misery in the heart of God. And while others responded with bitterness and fatalism, he responds with passion and with anger, and with a readiness to care, to suffer, and above all, to act. It is the passion of Moses that changes our world and that provides us with spiritual nourishment.
The passion of Moses is today more important than ever. Without it we are left dispirited and inert, victims of moral lassitude. Without it, we have already gotten used to nuclear weapons and genocidal wars, and soon we will get used to starving children and the plague of AIDS. We need prophetic passion to save us.
And that is what the RAC does. It injects us with this passion whenever we are suddenly cynical or overwhelmed by reality. And it reminds us that despite squalor for the poor and gated communities for the rich, the great mass of Americans have not yet given up on "We, the People."
Ted Kennedy, who was with us this afternoon, said in his eulogy for his brother Robert: "He saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."
That's how I see David Saperstein and the RAC. For 42 years they have been saying, in the name of our tradition and sacred texts, that justice is inseparable from our religious mission, and that the experience of God cannot be divorced from ethics. And so, on behalf of all of us, I say to them: We are grateful, and we are with you.