Rabbi Eric Yoffie: Rev. Falwell's influence will be felt for years, even generations, to come

LYNCHBURG, VA, April 26, 2006-In a direct but respectful speech before the faculty and students of Liberty University, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie called for the evangelicals to work with the Reform Movement on those areas in which they have agreement, including world poverty, AIDS and sex and violence on television and in media. Yoffie is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which has more than 900 congregations in the United States and Canada and represents 1.5 million Reform Jews.

Yoffie, who has in the past criticized the Religious Right for saying "unless you attend my church, accept my God, and study my sacred text, you cannot be a moral person" brought a message of tolerance and mutual respect to Lynchburg, where he appeared with the Rev. Jerry Falwell at a convocation service attended by 10,000 students and faculty members.

Yoffie was the first rabbi ever to address a Liberty University convocation. He stated that before the trip he had received a number of complaints, mostly from liberal Jews who feared that his appearance at Liberty served to "legitimize Falwell." But following the speech, his inbox has been flooded with messages of appreciation for what he said. "Most members of my movement and of the general Jewish community understood the value of a Jewish leader speaking to this audience and clearly indicating both where we differ and where we can perhaps agree," Yoffie noted.

At a luncheon following the address, the primary topic of conversation was the State of Israel, including Israel's coalition negotiations and the threat posed by Iran. Pointing out that Prime Minister Olmert had run on a platform calling for withdrawal from some West Bank settlements, Yoffie asked Reverend Falwell if he would be supportive of such withdrawals should they occur. Falwell responded by stressing his deep concerns for Israel's security and his doubts that the Palestinian leadership was prepared for any kind of peace with Israel, but noting that ultimately it was up to the people of Israel to determine what steps were necessary to assure their security.

In his speech, Yoffie said, "We need less anger and more thoughtful reflection, less shouting and more listening. Even when we disagree, let's do so without demonizing each other." But he also clearly and unequivocally addressed where he and the Rev. Falwell differ, including abortion, the separation of church and state and gay rights.

"Your religious tradition prohibits abortion; my religious tradition permits it in some cases and forbids it in others, but believes that every woman must prayerfully make the final decision for herself," Yoffie said. "You oppose gay marriage while we believe in legal protection for gay couples. We understand your reading of the Biblical texts, even if we read those texts in a different way. But gay Americans pose no threat to their friends, neighbors, or co-workers, and when two people make a lifelong commitment to each other, we believe it is wrong to deny them the legal guarantees that protect them and their children and benefit the broader society."

Then, turning directly to the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who extended the invitation, Yoffie said: "Even when we disagree, let's do so without demonizing each other. I can discuss these issues and believe what I believe without calling you a homophobic bigot, and you can do the same without calling me an uncaring baby killer. Let's promote respect for each other's religious tradition, and let's work for civility in public debate."