Encourage Conversion; Judaism’s Teachings on Teen Sexuality
Rabbi Eric Yoffie delivered this sermon at the 68th Biennial Convention of the Union for Reform Judaism on November 8, 2005, Houston, TX
In our Torah portion for this week, God sends messengers to Abraham and Sarah to inform them that Sarah will have a child. Sarah, who is old, laughs in disbelief, but God assures her that it is true. The messengers depart. We expect the scene to end at this point, but it does not. God then says, to no one in particular, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” God proceeds to mention the possibility that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed.
Hearing this, Abraham launches into a daring criticism of God’s plan. “Will You sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” he asks. But the fate of these cities is not affected by Abraham’s challenge because, as God surely knows, there are no righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah. So, why does God involve Abraham at all?
Because, the Rabbis tell us, God sees this as a test. Will Abraham respond to the possibility that innocent people will suffer? God had to be certain that the first Jew would not turn his back on injustice in the world.
What this passage is about, then, is Judaism’s greatest gift to Western religious thought: the idea of the defiant man of faith. From the very beginning of recorded history, a Jew is a believer of unshakable faith who is horrified by worldly misery and refuses to accept tragedy and suffering.
It is fitting that this portion should be read in Houston because it is here in recent months that these values have been implemented and affirmed. When the convulsive, unpredictable powers of nature unleashed chaos and death on New Orleans, it was to Houston that some 3,000 members of the Jewish community fled. And the Jews of this city responded with the profound faith and defiant activism that our Torah mandates. They reached out to their fellow Jews, offering them every manner of refuge and support. And they joined in helping the tens of thousands of other Americans who came here in search of comfort and healing.
And not only New Orleans. Many other areas were impacted as well, including our congregations in Lake Charles, Beaumont, and Mobile. And not only Houston offered comfort to the afflicted. Our synagogues in Baton Rouge and Jackson were extraordinary in this regard, as they were in Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio; and in Memphis and Alexandria, Louisiana.
Indeed, every single congregation in our Movement played a role, sheltering the displaced and providing supplies, money and volunteers.
And all of this means that our Biennial Assembly must assume a greater burden this year than in years past. When we arrive here as delegates, we each have our pekel of tsores—our unique package of concerns. But we have among us this year those who have lost livelihoods and homes, and delegations from our devastated New Orleans congregations. They seek consolation, and we must hear their call. They seek practical help, and we must provide it. As you know, we have created a second disaster fund solely for the purpose of nurturing these congregations as they return to life and sacred work in their shattered city. It is for such purposes that our Movement exists. Let us all do our share.
We were not alone, of course, in the ranks of the first responders. From the very beginning, America’s religious community was on the front lines, functioning as a beacon of hope and doing so with a remarkable degree of common purpose. One example: Two elderly Catholic ladies drove a van to our Jacobs’ Ladder warehouse in Utica, Mississippi, to pick up supplies donated by our congregations for storm victims. One of the women remarked to one of our staff members: “This is the most ecumenical project I have ever seen. Here we are, a group of Catholics, coming to you, the Jews, for these supplies, which we are dropping off at a Southern Baptist church, which uses Methodist volunteers to assist the needy.”
Contrast this to the government response at all levels. This is a story that has been told many times and that I need not repeat.
But it is important that we draw the proper conclusions.
Incredibly, federal officials are using this tragedy to promote so-called faith-based initiatives. The failures of government and the successes of religion are now seen as a reason why churches and synagogues should be state-funded to do what the government has been unable or unwilling to do.
But this is absurd for many reasons. First, we religious people do what we do because it is God’s work and it is right. People of faith do not need government handouts to do what God expects of us. The last thing we want is politicians dangling million-dollar grants in front of us with a promise of more if only we will support them. Some may think that religious leaders will somehow be immune to the corrupting influence of power and money, but believe me, we will not.
Second, religious programs can only supplement government programs; they can never replace them. The damage caused by Katrina and Rita was so devastating that years will pass before some areas return to a semblance of normality. In these situations, religious acts of charity, no matter how laudable, can never be enough.
What is required in these cases is a competent, well-financed, and well-prepared government response. So let’s be clear: The lesson of Katrina is that religious institutions play a big role in American life, but social service is the job of government and cannot be farmed out.
Now let us return to our portion and examine a second theme. Why is Abraham chosen to be the father of the Jewish people? In this week’s sedra we read: “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Eternal….”
God singles out Abraham to be a parent and to pass along to his children the ways of God. This and this alone explains our special status as a chosen people. All of Jewish life revolves around this magnificent obsession. Not everyone can be parents of children, but everyone can support our efforts to teach them diligently.
How then are we doing when it comes to teaching our children?
Our record is mixed.
On the one hand, our congregants take parenting seriously. They know that we have to turn off the television once in a while and share with our children the inherited wisdom of our people.
On the other hand, our parents are overworked and overwhelmed. And because the world they live in is so totally different from the world in which they grew up, they sometimes lose confidence in themselves. They become reluctant to tell their children too much because they fear that they will steer them in the wrong direction.
The subject of sexuality is a prime example. Our kids desperately need our direction in this area, but too often we do not provide it. Teenagers experimenting with sex is hardly new, of course. And it need not be a source of concern. Most of us who went through the sexual revolution of the ‘60s grew up to be perfectly respectable citizens.
But what is happening now is radically different.
Today we have the Internet—which means that sexual material is more available to our kids than ever before. Popular culture, meanwhile, continues on its downward spiral, exposing us to ever more sexually explicit images. And in the midst of all this, our kids reach puberty a full two years earlier than they did a century ago.
And what is the result? A growing number of middle school students are sexually active, and oral sex is both prevalent and widely accepted. Most striking of all is a social ethic known as “hooking up” that severs sex from any pretense of a relationship. “Hooking up” can refer to different kinds of physical contact, but it always means a casual, no-strings-attached sexual encounter. It means getting physical without getting emotional. It means never having a healthy relationship and not knowing what’s involved in developing one.
In short, we are now witnessing changes that go far beyond sexual experimentation of the past.
Are our kids in our synagogues impacted by these developments? Of course. We see them struggling with these issues in our camps and youth groups, and on our Israel trips.
Our parents are concerned, but many, I suspect, don’t have a clue how to be helpful. According to study after study, the communications gap is immense. Kids say that their parents don’t talk to them about sex, while the parents say that they do, regularly. And parents who are absolutely certain that their kids are not having sex are wrong about half the time.
But it is not only our parents who are failing. Our youth groups and camps do a pretty good job of policing our kids’ behavior, but not a good job at all of teaching the values of our Jewish tradition. And our congregations, with some notable exceptions, are doing no better.
The problem for parents may simply be that these are tough, complicated issues and that they just aren’t sure what to say. The problem for our synagogues may be that we are not very good at saying “no” in Reform Judaism. We are the most creative and forward-looking movement in Jewish life, but in the realm of personal behavior, we are reluctant to ever use the word “forbidden.” Yet in dealing with kids engaged in destructive behavior, the concept of autonomy leaves us unable to set limits and make sound judgments.
That our kids need our guidance is indisputable, and they are puzzled by our failure to offer it. The following comes from a teenage girl, a member of one of our congregations: “I have the opinion that [my Judaism] should have a lot to say about my relationship with a guy. It’s not just whether or not to have sex. What about honesty? What about communication? What about touching? What about respecting and being respected? No one helps you with this. The Torah has all these confusing teachings. Which parts really apply to life today?”
The issue here is not the cold and clinical biological facts, which are generally available. The issue is the ethics of relationship and sexuality, which are not. Our kids want to know how sex relates to love and a caring relationship; how to deal with fears and temptations; what is permissible and what is not.
The simple truth is this: Our kids are frustrated by the combined failure of their parents and their synagogues to offer them practical help here. More often than not, hookups leave them depressed, confused, and guilty. But very few of them see the synagogue as a place to go for support, or their Judaism as a source of comfort and direction. And they wonder why. Since we have told them again and again that Judaism is an all-embracing way of life, they expect that their tradition will have something to say about matters of such importance.
And they are right. Judaism does have something to say to them.
It tells them that they are created in the image of God, and each and every one of them is unique, of infinite worth, and entitled to respect.
It tells them that the guiding principle of sexuality in the Jewish tradition is K’doshim tih’yu—“You shall be holy,” which means that sexuality is linked to blessing, commandment, and God.
It tells them that in our tradition, both partners in a sexual relationship must be sensitive to the sexual needs of the other. In Judaism, a woman never exists to be a subordinate vessel to the man.
And it tells them that it is impossible to make love only with your body without dragging in your heart and soul. Judaism teaches that we cannot divide human beings into component parts. Since we are creatures of God and holiness is attained through loving relationships, sex for its own sake leads to exploitation and hurt.
To convey these lessons, the Union has created a six-session course for Bar and bat mitzvah-age students in our religious schools. A second course for incoming high school students will be introduced at the NFTY Convention in February 2007. Both courses draw on the experience of counselors, educators, and youth leaders from our schools and camps, as well as experts in the field of adolescence.
But let us be clear. Our kids will not be satisfied with generalities or platitudes. We can help them only if we speak plainly and apply the insights of our tradition to the real issues that they confront. That is what these courses do.
For example, we do not tell our kids that sex before marriage is forbidden. Since many of them will not marry for fifteen years after the onset of puberty, it is unreasonable to suggest that this traditional standard should be maintained for young people who are adults. Very few of our parents are telling their twenty-five-year-old unmarried children to refrain from having sex. Still, we stress that the Jewish ethical principles that apply inside marriage apply outside of marriage as well.
On the other hand, we say in the clearest possible way that high school students should not be having sexual relations. Our teens are not adults. They are beset by tension with parents, pressure from friends, a desire for approval, and an uncertain sense of self. This means that students in high school are not yet ready for the loving, mutual relationships that make sex an experience of holiness.
We are not naive. We do not promote abstinence from all forms of physical contact. We talk about the kinds of sexual expression that teens who care about each other might consider. But we do take on the issues of oral sex and hooking up. We tell both boys and girls that sex is not about controlling or servicing the other. And we tell girls in particular that their worth is not defined by what they do for boys. For nearly half a century, the Reform Movement has dedicated itself to promoting the equality of our women and all women. But this is worth nothing if Jewish girls define their worth by how they please boys. A positive approach to sexuality must not rely on casual sexual encounters that leave girls feeling used and degraded and boys ending up numb to feeling.
We also talk to parents. We remind them that kids need parents who know how to listen and who are able to set firm limits that, most of the time, their kids respond to with relief.
There is one other thing that we tell parents: Gay and lesbian children are the children of God just as heterosexual children are, and parents need to be prepared for the possibility that their child is gay. And if that is so, they need to create a home that will allow this child to grow into adulthood more easily than he could without their help. It goes without saying that teens who are gay and lesbian have the duty to live by exactly the same Jewish values as do heterosexuals.
And finally, what do we need from our congregations?
We need them to think about the events they are hosting. No one wants another long, tired discussion about over-the-top bar mitzvah parties, but there’s no denying that some of these parties are sexualized, very adult affairs that transmit all the wrong values to thirteen-year-old kids. We may have no control over what happens elsewhere, but we should pay attention to what goes on within our own walls.
And let’s start by teaching these classes. Our synagogues, of course, can adapt them to reflect their own approach. But let’s let our kids know that they can talk to us about the toughest issues that they face in their lives. Let’s tell them that we are not just going to discuss “options,” but that Torah has some real answers to offer. Let’s let them know that in a media-driven world that too often demeans women and makes a mockery of gentleness, Judaism offers a message of holiness and hope.
Our parashah suggests a third theme.
According to our tradition, Abraham as a young man was an angry rebel. Later, he became an itinerant preacher, wandering from place to place while teaching God’s message.
But in this week’s portion we see yet another side of Abraham. Older now and living in the Land of Israel, he welcomes three strangers and implores them to enter his tent and accept his hospitality. According to Maimonides, Abraham wined and dined his guests and engaged them in conversation, supremely sensitive to each individual’s needs. And in fact, it was precisely these qualities—hospitality and welcoming—that drew others to Abraham and his God.
There is a message here. Abraham was a fighter, activist, and champion of justice. But here he emerges as the exemplar of chesed. And it was his acts of chesed that brought the Jewish people into being. We need prophets and we admire activists, but they do not create religious communities; this is done by anshei chesed—by doers of goodness and purveyors of kindness, by those who embrace the guest and welcome the traveler.
And as Jews of the synagogue, we are called upon to follow Abraham’s example—to lift the Jews out of their aloneness and to help them establish true community.
Are we doing it? To a degree. Nearly 80 percent of North American Jews will join a synagogue at some point in their lives.
But here is the problem: About half of them will leave, usually in three to five years, often right after celebrating a child’s bar or bat mitzvah. Approximately one million North American Jews once belonged to a synagogue but no longer do. If we could put an end to this exodus, Jewish life would be immeasurably strengthened.
Our challenge, then, is to create a synagogue whose message of Torah is so inspiring, whose spiritual energy is so transforming, and whose web of kinship and caring is so embracing that no one who enters its gates will ever consider forsaking the holy community that it provides.
Many of our congregations serve as role models in this regard. Therefore, this past June I sought the counsel of members of this Movement, and thousands responded, sharing with me their thinking on what we need to do both to expand our membership rolls and to retain our current members. What I offer here, therefore, is a reflection both of your thinking and my own.
As our first commitment, we are going to intensify our efforts to reach the 20 percent of North American Jews who have never joined a synagogue. We intend to argue for every Jewish soul.
This means education programs for the unaffiliated, such as Taste of Judaism, and the introduction of appropriate advertising that informs Jews on the fringes about the joys of synagogue life. It also means encouraging our members to do what we have been so reluctant to do: Invite those with no congregational connection to accompany us to synagogue. I suspect that if I were to ask how many of you had recently invited an unaffiliated Jewish friend to Shabbat dinner and then services at your temple, the numbers would be exceedingly modest. But if every temple board member in our Union did this just twice during the next year, as many as 100,000 unaffiliated Jews would be welcomed into our congregations.
And what would they find there? They would hopefully be exposed to the authenticity of our worship, the profundity of our Torah study, and the vitality of our social justice work. But we must always remember the lesson of Abraham: No matter how powerful the program, if we are not welcoming and hospitable to the stranger, Jews will not join us. And by the way, if you want to know if a synagogue is truly hospitable, ask new members and longtime members who are not in the leadership. If they tell you it is, then it is.
The second commitment that we will make, therefore, is that we will fashion our synagogues into face-to-face communities of intimacy and warmth. This is what our best congregations are. Like Abraham’s guests, our members need to feel safe, comfortable, and connected. They need a congregation where you are supported in the deep experiences of life; where you are there for other people and they are there for you; where they notice when you are missing and take the trouble to find out why; and where you never face a crisis alone.
If we are to succeed in this effort, we must, like Abraham, rush out and embrace our members the minute they appear on the horizon. We need to invite new members to our homes; listen to their Jewish story; direct them to that part of temple life that responds to their unique Jewish concerns; visit them with a gift of ritual objects and a CD on Shabbat observance; and pair them up with a veteran temple member who will guide them for a full year and take an interest in their Jewish path. These, as you know, are things that our most welcoming congregations already do.
But many others do not. As one temple leader told me: “The truth is that new members join just before the holidays, and we don’t have time to deal with them. We know what we should be doing, but we just don’t do it.”
When someone joins a synagogue seeking a transcendent vision of the meaning of life, what do we usually do? We put her on a committee. But if we don’t reach out to her personally in the first thirty days, we may never reach her at all. Because she will have no reason to think of the synagogue as a place that is genuinely interested in her and that is serious about its covenant with God.
Virtually every congregation in our movement has an impressive program to educate and involve bar and bat mitzvah celebrants and their families in Jewish life. What we need to do is to spend as much time educating, involving, and embracing our new members as we do training our thirteen-year-olds.
The third commitment that we will make is to pay more attention to points of transition. We know that there are particular moments in our members’ lives when they think about coming aboard and when they think about dropping out. Most of our membership problems come from fumbling these transitions. For example, we have 10,000 four-year-olds in our nursery schools but fewer than 4,000 in the kindergartens of our religious schools. This means that our post-nursery school dropout rate is higher than our post-bar mitzvah dropout rate. These parents walk into our synagogue buildings every day; surely we can find ways to lovingly embrace them and keep them in the congregational fold.
Similarly, we know that many members in their Fifties drop their memberships after their children have left for college. This is supremely ironic because these empty nesters are leaving the synagogue at precisely the time when they are looking for the spiritual sustenance that only the synagogue can provide. They are part of a culture that offers them Viagra, hormone replacement therapy, and pep talks on how hip it is to be fabulously Fifty, but what they really long for is meaning and spirit. Yet often they will not come to us; we need to go to them, ask what they want from the temple, and base our actions on what they have to say.
There are other things that we need to do as well.
We need to create a place in our synagogues where, amidst all the frantic activity, our members can sit down, have coffee and a bagel, and talk about what is happening in their lives.
We need to do a better job training our office staff, who are the face of the congregation and who set its Jewish tone. Ideally, all of our staff would be trained in hospitality by the Four Seasons Hotel chain. And most of our employees are very good. But let’s admit more than a few seem to have been trained by the U.S. Postal Service. If the synagogue is to be our sacred space, our fragment of Jerusalem, then every employee and every volunteer needs to play a part in advancing its mission.
And we need to remember the basics. While most of you shared success stories, I also heard from distraught temple members who told of eating Shabbat dinner alone week after week. These stories, many of which involved single parents and older adults, were heartbreaking. Strands of belonging are not built by programs and committees but one on one, when a Jew who loves Judaism is willing to share her time and caring with another seeking soul. In Eastern Europe, when the community would gather for the early Erev Shabbat service, no one who needed a place for dinner would leave the shul without one. At the Hillel in Boston, where my daughter is a graduate student, a Hospitality chairman finds a place at a Shabbat dinner table for all who request one. If our synagogues aspire to be open and welcoming, we can do no less.
What I am proposing is that we rededicate ourselves to the work of expanding our membership rolls and retaining our current members. To this end, the Union’s Department of Outreach and Synagogue Community has prepared a detailed guide for Membership Committees, including extensive resources and a two-year action plan. It is predicated on the idea that while our professionals have a critical role to play, the primary work of welcoming strangers, embracing seekers, and involving current members is done by empowered laypeople who become ambassadors of Judaism. Communities, after all, are not built by professionals; they are built by us all. And we invite Membership chairs and all interested congregational leaders to be certified as Membership Fellows at a training program to be held next year on March 23 to 26.
Can we be successful in these efforts? We can and we must. We can no longer tolerate the attrition from synagogue life that has become the plague of the Jewish world. And we all know that the synagogue will thrive only when it extends a loving hand to each and every Jewish soul, both synagogue members and members yet-to-be.
Let’s talk now about welcoming of a very specific sort—welcoming non-Jewish spouses and converts to Judaism.
There is no better place to raise these issues than in Houston, for it was in this very city twenty-seven years ago that Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler initiated our Outreach program. He declared that we would not merely tolerate converts; we would enthusiastically embrace them. And he proclaimed that we would not sit shivah for our children who intermarry. This was not an endorsement of intermarriage, but rather a refusal to reject the intermarried. We would welcome them into our synagogues, our families, and our homes. We would do this in the hope that the non-Jewish partners would ultimately convert to Judaism; and if not, that they would commit themselves to raising their children as Jews.
The outreach revolution was Alex Schindler’s greatest legacy to us and one of our Movement’s greatest legacies to the Jewish world. It is, nonetheless, a revolution that remains unfinished.
To begin with, we need to do far more for the non-Jewish spouses in our midst. We welcome all such spouses, of course, including those who do not identify as Jewish. But when a spouse involves herself in the activities of the synagogue; offers support to the Jewish involvements of husband or wife; attends Jewish worship; and, most important of all, commits to raising Jewish children, he or she is deserving not only of welcome but of our profound thanks.
These spouses are heroes—yes, heroes—of Jewish life. While maintaining some measure of attachment to their own traditions, and sometimes continuing to practice their religion, they take on responsibilities that, by any reasonable calculation, belong to the Jewish spouse. And very often they do all of this without recognition from either their Jewish family or their synagogue.
I would like you to meet one such hero. Helen Dreyfus met Richard, her husband-to-be, on a blind date and later took an Introduction to Judaism class with him. Although she enjoyed the class and admired Judaism, she did not think that she could convert. But she and Richard agreed to raise their children as Jews and joined Temple Emanuel here in Houston. When her two boys started preschool, Helen felt embraced by the synagogue. Over time, much of the family’s holiday and Shabbat preparation fell to her, and she grew to enjoy it. She also became involved in the Parent-Teacher Organization of the religious school. When her husband fell ill with colon cancer in 2003, Judaism was a source of consolation and the temple offered support throughout. Following Richard’s death earlier this year, Helen and her sons—Daniel, 10, and Adam, 8—have remained immersed in religious school and temple life. I would like to ask Helen to stand.
Our obligation is to extend our appreciation with a full embrace to Helen and to others like her.
One way to express our thanks is with a formal ceremony of recognition. Some of our synagogues do this in a low-key way, perhaps at an annual breakfast meeting. Others choose a dramatic point in the liturgical cycle. Rabbi Janet Marder asks non-Jewish spouses to come to the bimah on Yom Kippur morning and then has the congregation stand as she blesses them with the Birkat Kohanim. Whatever approach we choose, surely we can agree on the need for every Reform congregation to recognize these remarkable individuals.
Another challenge that we face is the decline in the number of non-Jewish spouses who convert to Judaism. There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that interest in conversion has waned in our congregations.
In the early years of Outreach, Alex Schindler often returned to this topic. Alex told us: “We need to ask. We must not forget to ask.” And for a while, our Movement actively encouraged conversion. Many of our congregations began holding public conversion ceremonies during regular worship services, but such ceremonies are far rarer now.
The reason, perhaps, is that by making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in our congregations, we have sent the message that we do not care if they convert. But that is not our message.
Why? Because it is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew-by-choice. Because the synagogue is not a neutral institution; it is committed to building a vibrant religious life for the Jewish people. Because we want families to function as Jewish families, and while intermarried families can surely do this, we recognize the advantages of an intermarried family becoming a fully Jewish family, with two adult Jewish partners. Judaism does not denigrate those who find religious truth elsewhere; still, our synagogues emphasize the grandeur of Judaism and we joyfully extend membership in our covenantal community to all who are prepared to accept it.
And by the way: Most non-Jews who are part of synagogue life expect that we will ask them to convert; they come from a background where asking for this kind of commitment is natural and normal, and they are more than a little perplexed when we fail to do so.
So we need to say to the potential converts in our midst: “We would love to have you.” And, in fact, we owe them an apology for not having said it sooner.
Special sensitivities are required. Ask, but do not pressure. Encourage, but do not insist. And if someone says, “I’m not ready,” listen. If we pursue conversion with a heavy hand, the result could be to generate resentment. And yes, there will be those for whom conversion will never be an option.
But none of this is a reason for inaction. The time has come to reverse direction by returning to public conversions and doing all the other things that encourage conversion in our synagogues.
There is one other Outreach issue that requires our attention.
It sometimes happens that when an identifying Jew marries an identifying Christian, the couple will bring both religions into the family. They tell themselves that “if one religion is good, then two religions are better.” But what this does is cause confusion for a child, who recognizes at a very young age that he cannot be “both,” and that he is being asked to choose between Mommy’s religion and Daddy’s religion. Virtually all psychological experts agree that interfaith couples should choose a single religious identification for their children. And the great majority of children in this situation report growing up lacking any sense of belonging. Nonetheless, some parents, desperate to avoid conflict with each other, insist on passing the conflict on to their children by asking them to decide for themselves. And they then enroll their child in both a Christian Sunday school and a Hebrew school, even though few can sustain two schedules of religious education.
Ten years ago, on the recommendation of our Outreach Commission, the Union Biennial passed a resolution encouraging our congregations to enroll only those children who are not receiving formal religious education in any other religion. This was a wise and a humane decision; still, some synagogues have been reluctant to comply. In some cases, they have adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; even if a child is attending a church school, as long as the parents say nothing, the synagogue says nothing.
We understand the reasons for this reluctance. The Jewish parent, wishing to avoid conflict with a spouse’s family, may feel that some Jewish exposure is better than none; and synagogue officials are reluctant to take steps that may alienate interfaith families. Nonetheless, there is no escaping that dual education is harmful and unfair to the child. It also causes problems in the religious school, where teachers are often unable to handle the conflicts that arise. Experience has shown that it is far better for our congregations to adopt our 1995 policy and present it in a sensitive way to all concerned. As our resolution stated, our Rabbis and educators should also meet with parents, explain the reasons for choosing a single religious tradition, and offer them study and counseling that will enable them to make this choice wisely.
True, it is difficult to formalize boundaries and to say “no,” particularly for our Movement, which always prefers to open doors and build bridges. But sometimes it is necessary. Let us not forget the lesson of King Solomon, who—faced with two mothers claiming the same child—knew that the parent who refused to cut the child in half was the one who loved him more.
The Union’s Department of Outreach and Synagogue Community has prepared a comprehensive guide to assist us in all of these areas: in recognizing the non-Jewish parents in our congregations; in inviting and supporting conversion; and in revisiting our resolution on religious school enrollment. By any accounting, our Outreach agenda is an ambitious one.
But so be it. In a little more than a quarter of a century, our Reform Movement has made the once radical idea of Outreach into a central pillar of Jewish life. In the process, we reached out to the affiliated and the unaffiliated, to the intermarried and the Jew-by-choice. And in so doing, we shared with others the beauty of Judaism and strengthened our destiny as a holy people. This is the legacy of Alex Schindler and we remain true to his vision.
Permit me now to mention one final reason why meeting in Houston has special significance for us.
We live at a time when religious matters are at the center of our country’s political agenda. And Houston is the site of a history-making development in church-state relations.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy was attempting to become the first Catholic to be elected president of the United States. Under pressure to confront “the religious issue,” Senator Kennedy appeared before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12 to clarify his position on the relationship between religion and state. Listen well to his words:
“It is apparently necessary for me to state once again—not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in. I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference…. I believe in an America…where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind—and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”
This statement was greeted by acclaim by the Protestant leadership of this city and by the religious leadership of America. And Senator Kennedy’s words remain a superb statement of how government and religion should interact in this great country. That being so, what do we have to say to our fellow Americans on the Religious Right, here and elsewhere, who challenge these principles?
First, let’s be clear on what we are not saying. We are not saying that religion should be hidden from view. We have only respect for those elected officials who profess a deep religious belief, and we are appalled when media voices pour scorn on religious people.
But we are saying that 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 everyone—to people of different religions or no religion at all. In our diverse democracy, Americans need a common political discourse not dominated by exclusivist theology. They do not want to hear that 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. 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?
So we ask our neighbors on the Religious Right to take note: We are religious Jews, gathered in Houston to study, pray, and commit ourselves to God. And yes, we are generally liberal in our politics. But our liberalism flows directly from our religious commitments.
And we worry that you don’t understand what this means, or what it means for anyone to be a liberal religious believer.
What it means is this: that we bring a measure of humility to our religious belief. We study religious texts day and night, but we have no direct lines to heaven and we aren’t always sure that we know God’s will.
It means believing that religion involves concern for the poor and the needy, and giving a fair shake to all. When people talk about God and yet ignore justice, it just feels downright wrong to us. When they cloak themselves in religion and forget mercy, it strikes us as blasphemy.
It means that “family values” require 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.
It also means believing in legal protection for gay couples. We understand those who believe that the Bible opposes gay marriage, even though we read that text in a very different way. But we cannot understand why any two people who make a lifelong commitment to each other should be denied legal guarantees that protect them and their children and benefit the broader society. We cannot forget that when Hitler came to power in 1933, one of the first things that he did was ban gay organizations. And today, we cannot feel anything but rage when we hear about gay men and women, some on the front lines, being hounded out of our armed services. Yes, we can disagree about gay marriage. But there is no excuse for hateful rhetoric that fuels the hellfires of anti-gay bigotry.
All of these views are deeply rooted in our religious beliefs and texts. We are surprised that when it comes to the Hebrew Bible, a text we hold in common, your reading of its message is so different from ours. As for the New Testament, we claim no expertise, but our liberal Christian friends point out that there is much there that supports our approach. Jesus healed the sick, so he might have some concern for those 45 million Americans without insurance who are unable to see a doctor; he was not a hater, so would surely not join in demonizing gays; and he spoke constantly of the poor and the marginalized. In general, the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, has far more to say about caring for the poor than about eradicating sexual sin.
In short, there are alternative ways for deeply religious people to understand the important issues of the day; we need to talk to one another about these matters; and we suggest, humbly, that there may be things that you can learn from religious liberals in these discussions.
At the same time, there are things that we can learn from you. You have talked about the coarsening of popular culture that makes it difficult to raise honorable, decent children. Reasonable people don’t want television constantly pushing junk food on their children, and they don’t want wardrobe malfunctions when they are watching the Super Bowl with their ten-year-olds. While we oppose censorship in these matters, it should be possible to arrive at voluntary standards to which networks and sponsors would adhere.
We can also agree on other things, such as battling religious persecution and fighting sex trafficking abroad. So let’s focus on working together in these areas, and on discussing everything else with civility.
And while we bring no preconditions to the table, our starting point will be Senator Kennedy’s starting point forty-five years ago: 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.
Let the dialogue begin.
Finally, I would like to touch upon recent events in Israel.
The sobering developments of the past year have reminded us yet again of the profound challenges that Israel faces; we have seen, too, that not all of these challenges come from external enemies. As Israel withdrew from Gaza this summer, the opponents of disengagement demonstrated that Judaism is not immune to the religious fanaticism so prevalent in our world today. The settler leaders and their Rabbis fomented civil rebellion, urged soldiers to disobey orders, and profaned the Holocaust by making despicable comparisons between Nazi expulsions and actions of the Israeli government. The pain of the evicted could not, in any way, excuse or justify such outrages.
Still, what is important is that the extremists failed. And the disengagement became a proud moment for the Jewish state; it demonstrated, once more, the good sense of the Israeli people and her determined prime minister. We saw that Israel will be governed by its democratic institutions and not by the messianic zealots who profess to speak in the name of God. And we saw again that while Israelis will never compromise in their battle against terror, they will compromise on matters of territory.
We hope and pray that Abu Mazen will do what until now he has refused to do and will crack down on the factions that murder Jews and challenge his authority. If he acts, we can expect a return to negotiations, renewed American involvement, and progress toward the two-state solution that is the only road to peace.
Our task in the Reform Movement is threefold. First, we must bring many more Reform Jews to visit Israel. I am weary of all the empty talk about what is required to promote better ties between Israel and North American Jews. What is required is getting Jews to go there, because once they do, they find a rollicking, dynamic, fervently Jewish country that invariably sells itself.
ARZA is undertaking a major campaign to promote tourism to Israel. In addition, Robert Heller and I will lead a national Reform Leadership Mission in March 2006, and we invite each of you to join us.
Second, we must register every Reform Jew for the World Zionist Congress election, and then make sure that our members vote for the ARZA slate. The Congress is the most democratic and inclusive organization in the Jewish world, and a vote for ARZA is an act of Reform solidarity with the Jewish state. It is also a way to assure that Reform institutions will receive their fair share of WZO and Jewish Agency resources. If you haven’t yet registered to vote, do so here. And if you haven’t yet signed up most of your synagogue’s members, launch a campaign the minute you get home.
Third, we need to intensify our support for the growing Israeli Reform Movement. The dynamism of our faith and the egalitarianism of our ways have allowed us to thrive in Israel as never before. Three dozen Reform congregations are now to be found up and down the country. Our network of schools is expanding and our seminary is flourishing. Your support is critical because in the short term, only North American dollars will sustain the Movement. But we will not be able to bear this burden forever. For that reason, I want you to be aware of a case that our Israel Religious Action Center has brought to Israel’s Supreme Court.
Rabbi Miri Gold is the rabbi of Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel. She counsels kibbutz members, does wedding and funerals, and prepares the children for bar and bat mitzvah. In the regional council of which Gezer is a part, fifteen rabbis serve other communities and do exactly the same work that she does. All fifteen of them receive a salary from the state; only Rabbi Gold does not because she is Reform and a woman.
In our petition to the High Court, the Religious Action Center asks that Rabbi Gold be treated just as her colleagues are treated.
She is with us this Shabbat morning. I would like to ask that she stand and that you greet the person who we expect to be the first officially recognized, government-supported Israeli Reform rabbi. Rabbi Gold.
This is an important case that we intend to pursue with all the resources at our disposal. If you love Israel and believe in democracy and equality before the law, then you must support Rabbi Gold. Because if she wins, Israel wins, and so, too, do all who cherish religious freedom.
My friends, who can deny that we live in difficult times? This is a time when people work harder than ever before and spend far more time alone. Ours is a materialistic, grab-what-you-can culture.
What is the synagogue’s task in these times?
To help heal the pain of our deeply fissured society.
To battle messianic escapism and deadly despair, and to offer in their place the wisdom of Torah.
To give our young people love, clear direction, and the guidance of our ancestors. And to show them that we are ready to sacrifice for our Jewish ideals.
To create a synagogue community where rich and poor, oldand young, meet in equal dignity; and to make it a place of both believing and belonging—a place that welcomes all, that embraces all, and that softens the rough edges of our abrasive world.
There is nothing easy about this task, but it is not beyond our reach.
For almost 2,000 years, Jews have read these words of Isaiah on the Sabbath of Consolation:
“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Eternal God will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.”
If, as the prophet has asked, we maintain our hope in the Eternal, we, too, will renew our strength. We, too, will soar on wings like eagles.
And as we do, we will be agents of hope to an eager community.
And we will move this world one step closer to redemption.