Reform Judaisms Leader Criticizes Religious Right for Intolerance; Movement Will Convene New National Forum on Religion in the Public Square
HOUSTON, Nov.19, 2005From the heart of the Bible belt, the leader of Reform Judaism today criticized the Religious Right for its exclusionary beliefs and statements that say unless you attend my church, accept my God, and study my sacred text, you cannot be a moral person.
We are particularly offended by the suggestion that the opposite of the Religious Right is the voice of atheism, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. 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?
Yoffie called for a major new effort to bring the voices of religious people who often disagree with the Religious Right to the public square. He announced that the Union would be reaching out to a wide array of such voices in a new forum to be co-convened in Washington by Yoffie and Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Reform Movements Religious Action. He also called for increased dialogue with the Religious Right on issues of common concern.
Yoffies comments came during an hour-long sermon at the Unions Biennial Convention meeting here this week, during which he also urged the 4,200 Reform leaders to change the face of North American Judaism by increasing the ranks of affiliated Jews and asking non-Jews who are involved in synagogue life to convert to Judaism. And he also asked the leadership to stem the tide of teenage sex and hooking up by teaching youngsters what their faith has to say about sex, love and relationships.
Yoffie said the lay leaders and clergy assembled are religious Jews, gathered in Houston to study, pray, and commit ourselves to God. And yes, we are generally liberal in our politics, adding, our liberalism flows directly from our religious commitments.
Drawing the distinction even further between a liberal religious believer and the Religious Right, Yoffie continued, saying that the former believe that family values requires 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.
And, he said, it means believing in legal protection for gay couples, noting that there is room for disagreement about gay marriage, but there is no excuse for hateful rhetoric that fuels the hellfires of anti-gay bigotry.
Yoffie accused the Religious Right of refusing to acknowledge that there are religious perspectives different from its own, and of misreading religious texts sacred to both Christians and Jews. He noted that the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, has far more to say about caring for the poor than about eradicating sexual sin.
Despite the stark differences on so many issues, Yoffie acknowledged there are areas in which they agree, including battling religious persecution, sex trafficking abroad, and the coarsening of popular culture, and said he hopes that joint work can begin on these issues.
Yoffie argued for a balanced approach to religion in public life and a religious discourse intended to educate and convince rather than exclude. Religion should not be hidden from view, he said. But, no matter how profoundly religion influences you, when you make a public argument, you must ground your statements in reason and in a language of morality that is accessible to everyoneto people of different religions or no religion at all.
And the starting point for this discussion, he said, should be that tolerance is an American value and a religious necessity; that religion is far too important to be entangled with government; that we need beware the zealots who want to make their religion the religion of everyone else; and that we all need to put our trust in America, the most religiously diverse country in the world.
The Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) is the central body of Reform Judaism in North America, uniting 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900 synagogues. Union services include camps, music and book publishing, outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, educational programs, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC.