Reform Movement Sets Sails for Fundamental Change

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram



A new Reform Judaism is rapidly emerging: inspiring, courageous, inclusive, radically hospitable, spiritual, and relevant.

In light of “doomsday statistics” about diminishing Jewish identification and affiliation, as given in the recent, much-publicized Pew study, how is this possible?

One should keep in mind that such studies only document what had been, and typically miss the exciting new approaches across the flow of Jewish history, that percolate in every age, and sometimes catch on big time.

One watershed moment was the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial, held in San Diego last month.

As announced in the Biennial, URJ membership is no longer required for attendance at its conferences, camps and youth groups. Many of the best innovations and innovators of our times, from within Reform, Jewish Renewal, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism, were in evidence.

Each attempted fusion worked elegantly and authentically, maintaining the heart and structure of Jewish prayer while riveting the 5,000 participants even during lengthy Shabbat services. Choreographer Liz Lerman led prayer through authentic movement, for example, and virtually everyone participated (see video).

More after the jump.
The URJ is going head to head with the orthodox movement, Chabad, in terms of embracing the core Jewish spiritual practices, the mitzvot, as the URJ president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, explained:



I met recently with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a cherished member of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s inner circle, who now has the responsibility of overseeing Chabad’s worldwide activities.

Shortly after we sat down in his office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Rabbi Krinsky leaned forward and asked, “Rabbi Jacobs, can we be frank?”

I said “Yes,” not sure where he was going.

“Why are you so busy trying to get more people into your Reform Movement? After all, you don’t care about kashrut, you don’t care about Shabbat, and you don’t care about mitzvot, so what are you so busy doing?”

I responded, “Rabbi Krinsky, we care about kashrut. We care about Shabbat. We care about mitzvot. We just care differently.”

“My job,” I told him, “is exactly the same as yours: to try and bring more and more people close to the sacred core of Jewish life.”

I believe with the very fiber of my being that young Jews are hungry, but not for a Judaism frozen in a distant time, no matter how loving and warm the purveyors — including Chabad, in particular — might be.

Rabbi Jacobs himself, along with the music director for the conference — the soulful, deeply God-connected Josh Nelson — set a contemplative tone of meaningful rather than formulaic prayer.

This shift one of affect, away from services styled after the music of Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, that was often accompanied by rabbinic intoning of prayers.

It turns out that some of the senior URJ leadership has studied or been featured with Rabbi Rachel Cowan and her team at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS).


The Korean-born rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, has become a symbol of Reform inclusiveness.

The Importance of Inclusion

Another service co-leader was the new head rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, Angela Buchdahl, who is also listed as part of the non-denominational Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

Korean-born Rabbi Buchdahl has lived in the U.S. since the age of 4, and Rabbi Jacobs used her presence as a focal point to advocate for attention though kindness and inclusiveness throughout the movement, noting that people would often love her services when he and she shared a pulpit, and then ask him quietly, “Is she really Jewish?”

He later gave a shout-out to Congregation Or Ami in Clabasas, California which

 “identifies itself by saying: ‘We are also ‘Mosaic’ in that we connect back to Moses, a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians, who married a non-Jewish woman of color and became the leader of his people.'”

Jacobs spoke further about every possible category of difference and the importance of inclusion:

When we open our doors — and more, our hearts and minds — and say, “Come in, we need you,” we will have new talent and energy beyond our wildest dreams.

Al tistakel b’kankan, warned our sages, “don’t look at the bottle,” ela b’mah sheyesh bo, “but at what is inside it.”

Inside those people whom we exclude is another great gift, another opportunity of a lifetime just waiting for us. As we learn from Abraham, we cannot wait for the seekers.

The Union plans outreach to every kind of public venue. Both year-round family camping and a fourteenth camp for “Jews who love science” will open this year.

Regarding intermarriage, Jacobs advocates doors open wide:

It is not just sociology that demands that we be serious about welcoming interfaith families. It is theology as well.

We have a sacred obligation to open our doors, to add to our ranks, and to make sure that Progressive Judaism has a growing, not a shrinking, voice in proclaiming what Torah must mean for our time and for our world.

It is a veritable gift of God to have the opportunity of a millennium: more non-Jews who want “in” than Jews who want “out.”

That has never happened before. We dare not squander this gift out of fear of what new voices may say and where new opinions may lead.

Heavily “strummed” services were mostly moved to smaller breakout service times, performance sessions and variegated welcomes (see video to the right).

Best of all the many abundant approaches to helping people feel welcomed was embodied by the phrase used by Rabbi Jacobs, “audacious hospitality.”

Heightened Spirituality Broadly Evident

Shifts toward soulful approaches in both music and liturgy were abundant. The movement’s new Mishkan T’Filah prayerbook worked beautifully in the mix.

In perhaps a related development, Neshama Carlebach, daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, announced at her late-night standing-room-only conference concert with Josh Nelson that her soul is “making aliyah to the Reform movement,” an announcement for which she received resounding applause.

And in an article published immediately after the conference ended, Carlebach termed the URJ Biennial “the largest spirituality-oriented gathering of Jews in North America”:

Reform synagogues have always been “the shuls I didn’t attend.” Simply put, I had no idea how extraordinary Reform Judaism was.

The tikkun olam (social justice) mandate is so strongly bound up with the movement, and in the most joyous of ways. I was overwhelmed by the music, by the davening (prayer) and yes, my Orthodox friends, by the ever-present light of Torah.

Some of the Biennial’s Influences:

The Underlying Forces

Rabbi Jacobs description of this new approach echoes almost the identical wording of the literature of Jewish Renewal.

The founder of Jewish Renewal, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (widely known as “Reb Zalman”), once told the author of this article, “It’s really we (the Renewal movement) who have accomplished what the Rebbe set out to do.”

It must have been a nachas (pleasure) for Reb Zalman to hear what took place at the Biennial, and to know that many Jewish Renewal teachers, students and principles were strong influences in the mix. (See sidebar)

As explained by the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein
, in a recent tribute to a Renewal social activist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

The Renewal movement has not only grown into a significant presence in its own right, but has had a profound impact on the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements.

It is time that this be acknowledged. The merging of aesthetics of new liturgies and rituals, the synergy of mystical prayer and meditation, passion for social justice rolled into an expression of Judaism has brought new light into so many Jewish lives.

These two tents within progressive Judaism — Reform and Renewal — have a great deal of synergy in place already.

The Reform Movement has the numbers and the strength to reach out to the majority of Jews whom Rabbi Jacobs termed “nones” — those having some Jewish interest, but no affiliations.

Jewish Renewal, in the words of a Renewal rabbi who attended the Biennial, Rabbi Diane Elliot “is well-positioned to provide ‘midwives'”: spiritual teachers specializing in one or more modalities (chant, movement, hiddur mitzvah, etc.), who are equipped to go out into Reform communities, and those of other denominations, to help implement this emerging, Renewal-infused agenda:

Midwives are patient. They understand the global trajectory of the birthing journey, and at the same time they know how to meet the birthing mother where she is (“ba-asher hu/hi sham,” Genesis 21:17), helping her to stay present and in contact with what is happening right now, opening bit by bit, not pushing too soon, but when they time comes, pushing hard.

Midwives are coaches. In the wake of the Biennial, I saw that Jewish Renewal clergy are well suited for the role of spiritual coaching among other denominations.

While I see us continuing to serve and create new enclaves of Jewish Renewal, it seems to me that the most effective way to spread the “good news” of what we offer is not to pour energy into trying to aggressively market ourselves as a movement, thus throwing ourselves into competition with other larger and much better funded streams of Jewish life, but rather to consciously offer ourselves in service of k’lal Yisra’el, “all Jews.”

True to the role modeling of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Elliot proposes that Jewish Renewal continue “doing what we do best — opening hearts, minds and bodies to deeper and more comprehensive practice and experience, thoroughly grounded in Jewish textual, historical, and mystical traditions.”

To my mind, this kind of research and development can feel risky and even earth-shattering for some folks, given Jews’ communal trauma history, passed on unconsciously, cellularly, from generation to generation, through body language, thought patterns, and child-rearing practices, as well as through story, fiction, poetry, theater, visual art, and contemporary midrash.

So the deep work, integrating new modalities, is best done in small groups on retreat and in more intimate community settings, where trust can be built and healing manifest — for individual participants, for communities, and for Judaism itself.

Hanukkah Happening: Israeli Singer Mika Karni & Band in Cnocert

Light the second Hanukkah candle on December 9, 2012 with Mika Karni and her band at Rodeph Shalom. This special performance called Kol Dodi (a name reminiscent of Karni’s use of biblical poetry from Song of Songs) brings together a unique musical ensemble of Israeli, Moroccan, Yemenite and Ethiopian musicians. Together they create a musical landscape reflecting Israel, a place where cultures from around the globe combine as one.

Co-Sponsored by: PhillyIsrael, Rodeph Shalom, Consulate of Israel in Philadelphia, The Israeli House, Temple Students for Israel. Collaborative, Renaissance, Moishe House Philadelphia and Reform Jewish Community (RJC).

More after the jump.
Location: 615 N. Broad st. Philadelphia Pa 19123

Post-Concert – Israel music andi Dancing with Rak-Dan

Community Wide Event: “Sharing Our Light Together”

5:30 – 7:15 PM Hanukkah Shuk (vendors – food, beverages, gifts etc..)

Pre paid VIP reception @ 6:30 – 7:15 PM

– 7:30 – Hanukkah candle lighting followed by “Kol Dodi” concert with Israeli singer Mika Karni and her band.
– General admission $18 in advance, $25 at the door.
Purchase your tickets online www.phillyisrael.com

Israel Recognizes Conservative, Reform Rabbis


Rabbi Miri Gold

Israel’s Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein office announced yesterday that 15 Reform and Conservative rabbis will be recognized as rabbis of non-Orthodox communities and put on the state payroll for the first time — on a par with Orthodox community leaders. This out-of-court settlement brings to a close the 2005 petition before Israel’s Supreme Court by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and Reform Rabbi Miri Cohen of Kibbutz Gezer. The decision allows for equal financing of non-Orthodox rabbis in regional councils and farming communities throughout the country, but so far does not extend to the larger cities.

Rabbi Gold, who first heard the news on the radio said, “This is a big step for religious pluralism and democracy in Israel.  Israeli Jews want religious alternatives and with this decision the State is starting to recognize this reality. There is more than one way to be Jewish, even in Israel.”

The ruling in this case follows other successes by the Israel Religious Action Center including the placement of a Reform Rabbi in Mevasseret on the Religious Council there, the finding that forced gender segregation on public transportation is discrimination and prohibited, and the allocation of pre-fab units to non-Orthodox congregations for synagogue buildings.

According to DEBKA, “they have a long way to go before their authority is accepted for performing marriages, conversions and other religious matters along with Orthodox and Haredi rabbis.” However, this decision has hailed as an important milestone by the Conservative and Reform movements.

Reaction after the jump.  
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Vice-President of the Rabbincal Assembly
The Rabbinical Assembly is the international body of Conservative rabbis

This is a historic day for Israelis and Jews around the world. In order for Judaism to grow and thrive in Israel, it is necessary that the government recognize its obligation to provide equal funding to various Jewish religious streams and expressions that flower in the Jewish state.

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, President of the Rabbinical Assembly

The announcement of Israel’s Attorney General Weinstein represents a dramatic step forward in the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel. The historic inequities in the funding of local community rabbis in Israel has long hampered efforts to bring a greater variety of spiritual options to Israelis.  Hopefully, this decision will open the door to new and exciting Jewish spiritual opportunities that will strengthen Israel, and bring Israelis to a new appreciation of Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Daniel Allen, Executive Director of ARZA; The Reform Israel Fund
ARZA is the major American Reform Movement funder of the Israel Religious Action Center, an arm of the Israel Reform Movement, that brought the case to court six years ago.

Miri’s success is success for all of us. With patience and perseverance, we will build an inclusive democratic Israeli society. Israel’s Declaration of Independence guaranteed religious freedom, it has to be that this freedom is for all Israeli’s, Jewish as well as Christian and Muslim. This decision brings us closer to the day where this will be the reality in Israel rather than the ideal.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism

This is a watershed moment for the Reform Movement and for religious pluralism in Israel. Mazel tov to Rabbi Gold and the many activists who work so diligently to ensure the eventual and thorough embrace of liberal Judaism in Israel.

Kenneth Bob, President, Ameinu

This historical decision is an important first step toward the recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism by the State of Israel. There is still much work to be done, but it’s a big victory for pluralism and religious freedom in Israel. We salute the efforts of the Conservative and Reform movements and will continue to stand with you.

No Justifiction for Gender Discrimination in Israel


— by Rabbi David Saperstein

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism whose 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, with membership of more than 1800 Reform rabbis, I commend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres for speaking out against gender segregation in Israel. We oppose discrimination against any all individual, for the stamp of the Divine is imprinted on the souls of each and every one of us.  For anyone to be discriminated against on the basis of one’s gender, or to justify discrimination in the civil sphere based on one’s interpretation of a religion’s law is unacceptable.

Cartoon reprinted courtesy of Yaakov (Dry Bones) Kirschen www.DryBonesBlog.blogspot.com.

Colbert Highlights Super PAC Farce

— by Jonathan Backer

A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both. — James Madison

By exploiting loopholes in campaign finance law, special interests have already succeeded in denying the public of essential information about the sources of money funding political speech. A farcical attempt by one group to keep the public in the dark while also coordinating its message with candidates makes for good political comedy now, but will lead to tragedy if our elected officials begin to feel the full corrupting influence of unlimited, undisclosed, corporate contributions.

In the latest installment of Stephen Colbert’s intrepid quest to expose the absurdities of campaign finance non-regulation in the post-Citizens United era, the comedian recently discussed a new attempt by Super PACs to circumvent the few constraints that remain on their electioneering activities. The Super PAC American Crossroads recently submitted a request to the Federal Election Commission seeking permission for federal candidates to appear in its purportedly “independent” ads. The group acknowledged that ads featuring candidates would be “fully coordinated with incumbent Members of Congress facing re-election in 2012.” After all, a Super PAC would obviously have to share a script and discuss the contents of an ad with a candidate in order for her to appear in it. Nevertheless, American Crossroads would like the FEC to issue an advisory opinion stating that such ads would not qualify as “coordination.”

More after the jump.
As the Brennan Center argued in a comment to the FEC, this position runs afoul of “[c]onstitutional law, federal statutes, and common sense.” Fortunately, common sense was no barrier to Stephen Colbert, who rose to the challenge and submitted a comment to the FEC in support of American Crossroads’ request. As Colbert wrote, “The candidate would merely be appearing as a paid spokesperson, who, coincidentally, is closely aligned with the candidate that he or she also is.” To illustrate the paper-thin separation between supposedly independent Super PACs and the candidates they support, Colbert offered an illuminating metaphor:

For example, an ad in which the Kool Aid man decries our nation-wide childhood thirst problem would not necessarily be an ad for Kool Aid brand juice drink. That being said, would a tall glass of Kool-Aid solve that thirst problem? To quote one expert: “Oh, yeaaahhhh!”

Colbert’s letter far and away outstrips the competition for funniest public comment to a regulatory agency, but even the comedian’s most ardent fans recognize that the consequences of a ruling in favor of American Crossroads are far from amusing. After Colbert emailed his comment to supporters of Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow (Colbert Super PAC), hundreds of individuals emailed the FEC calling for the agency to deny American Crossroads’ request.

As one civically-engaged student, wrote,

As a young citizen of this country, I shudder to think of the ferocity at which campaigns are currently forced to solicit donations-the thought that they will be fighting for an even bigger chunk of shadowy money absolutely terrifies me….I hope we can find ways to avoid exacerbating this problem.

Comedians and middle-school students don’t constitute what one would describe as usual suspects for submitting public comments on advisory opinion requests to the FEC. But the legal gymnastics that groups like American Crossroads are performing to subvert campaign finance regulations touch a nerve with large numbers of Americans. A request as absurd as American Crossroads’ belongs properly in the realm of farce, and the FEC should heed the outpouring of opposition and refuse to further expose our democracy to the tragic consequences of outright corruption in the political process.

Reprinted courtesy of the Brennan Center for Justice.

A level playing field for independent candidates

— by Bruce Ticker

Pity the poor independent voter whose attitude toward the two major parties is simple:

A pox on both your houses.

That long-standing phrase could be taken literally given GOP control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Democratic control of the U.S. Senate.

Many independents voted for Republicans last November to send a message: If those in charge mess up, we will vote them out. At this rate, Republicans will be vulnerable to voter wrath in November 2012. The budget plan that effectively scraps Medicare is already a campaign issue that should terrify Republicans.

As television host Rachel Maddow correctly points out, Republican candidates pledged to focus on supplying jobs to the millions of Americans who are out of work. GOP House members insist that all their legislative initiatives since early January are tied to new jobs.

It is a stretch that their Jan. 19 repeal of the Affordable Care Act has anything to do with job creation. Or their new proposals on Tuesday, Feb. 8, to add restrictions on funding for abortions and eliminate federal financing for women’s health care clinics that provide abortions. Republican House members engaged in internal party squabbles over funding reductions.

An end to gridlock? Republicans can barely agree on a bad course of action, much less any course.

American voters will always be upset with this country’s direction so long as Democrats and Republicans are fighting one another. Why must we tolerate this?

More importantly, why must voters be forced to choose between candidates from the two major parties? Each Democrat voted out of Congress was replaced by a Republican. Did the dissidents specifically want Republicans in charge? Would voters consider electing a credible independent with a viable chance of winning?

Let’s suppose that in your Congressional District an independent candidate with a sensible platform entered the race against the Democratic incumbent and the Republican challenger. Voters are disappointed, justly or not, with the Democratic incumbent and are not enthused with the Republican. What would they do?

Under the present system, they might fear they will throw their vote away for the independent because most of their neighbors will vote Democrat or Republican. Or, the independent might draw votes from the lesser of the two partisan evils. Also, the party candidates no doubt are better financed and operate more efficient political organizations.

Suppose a system is created in which no one candidate draws votes away from another candidate. Instead, citizens can vote for their candidates and then list their next preferences. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, then a person’s vote can be transferred to a next-preference candidate with a larger share of the votes.

The Center for Voting and Democracy describes further how the system, called Instant Runoff Voting, operates:

“IRV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Voters have the option to rank as many or as few as they wish, but can vote without fear that ranking less favored candidates will harm the chances of their most preferred candidates.

“First choices are then tabulated, and if a candidate receives a majority of first choices, he or she is elected. If nobody has a clear majority of votes on the first count, a series of runoffs are simulated, using each voter’s preferences indicated on the ballot. The weakest candidates are successively eliminated and their voters’ ballots are redistributed to next choices until a candidate earns a majority of votes.”

IRV has prompted criticisms, but at the very least it takes us in the right direction away from what we now have.

More after the jump.
An educated guess: If IRV was in place last November nationwide, the new crop of House members would have likely consisted of a healthy mix of independents and Republicans, along with incumbent Democrats who survived re-election because voters ranked them as their next preference. Maybe neither party would have the majority.

The infusion of a large number of independents in Congress would be the best move for America. The democratic process would be enlivened. Independents would inherently act on the basis of policy and the needs of their constituents. They will not be beholden to either major political party to any appreciable degree, even though they would form alliances with either party depending on the issue at hand.

A system allowing for expansion of candidates would also render conflicts over redistricting somewhat irrelevant. Every 10 years, each major party maneuvers to benefit their chances of winning the most congressional seats. What difference would redistricting make if a level playing field was created for independents?

There are good people with fine intentions in both parties, but they will always factor in the wider political needs of their parties. They need their parties for financial and organizational support in future elections, and they will consider how there votes will affect the political fortunes of other party members.

As it stands, it is nearly impossible to comprehend why the Republican Party exists now except to perpetuate their place in government. They back policies that are harmful to the poor and middle class, and only the greediest among the rich need their help. Democrats make a good-faith effort to serve the public, but they still tailor their positions to shore up re-election chances for the president and for senators and representatives from swing areas.

Democratic leaders would call this moving to the center, others would call it blatant pandering.

Two independents now serving in the Senate usually vote with the Democrats. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-acknowledged socialist, evolved as a highly respected mayor of Burlington, part of the largest metropolitan area in Vermont, and he subsequently served in the House before running for the Senate in 2006.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman represented Connecticut for three terms before losing the Democratic primary in 2006. He ran as an independent and beat the Democratic nominee in the general election.

The emergence of viable independent candidates is possible in communities with relatively small constituencies such as congressional districts and in small states for Senate and governor posts. It does not seem practical for an independent to get elected president or senator in a large state.

The latter thought may appear to be unrealistic, but it is certainly not impossible. After all, this is America.

Senate Stands Up for Women’s Health

—  Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism


We commend the Senate for standing up for women’s health and rejecting a bill that would have denied all federal funds to Planned Parenthood, a vital health care service provider. Each year, Planned Parenthood’s network of more than 800 clinics nationwide provides nearly one million cervical cancer screenings, 830,000 breast exams, affordable birth control for nearly 2.5 million patients, and nearly four million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV testing. Revoking Planned Parenthood’s federal funding would have disastrous consequences for all of these services and would not change a fact that has endured for decades: that no federal funds, received by Planned Parenthood or any other organization, can be used for abortion services.

The Senate’s action was especially heartening given that the same bill passed the House of Representatives earlier in the day. We have repeatedly condemned such attempts in the House to undermine women’s access to critical health care services, including abortion. These attempts violate the U.S. Constitution and core principles of Jewish tradition, which affirms society’s obligations to ensure access to health care and the rights of women to make moral decisions about their own bodies and their own reproductive health. Women are commanded to care for their health and well-being above all else, and society is commanded to provide health care for its most vulnerable residents. These dual obligations compel us to advocate for broad access to affordable reproductive health care and support Planned Parenthood in its efforts to reach millions of under-served men and women.

We call on the House to stop its relentless attacks on reproductive choice and women’s health, beginning with an end to the campaign to de-fund Planned Parenthood.

Statement from Planned Parenthood follows the jump.
— Dayle Steinberg, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania

Yesterday, the US Senate listened to millions of American women and voted, 58-42, to reject H. Con. Res. 36, an extreme proposal to bar Planned Parenthood from providing preventive health service, including birth control, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and STI (including HIV) testing to patients who are covered by Medicaid and other federal programs.

Planned Parenthood applauds the members of Congress who stood up for women’s health and voted against this proposal.

This vote is a major victory for women’s health and the millions of women who go to Planned Parenthood for health care.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country made their voices heard in support of Planned Parenthood and opposed this radical proposal by calling Congress, writing and e-mailing their elected officials, and attending rallies. The grassroots support for Planned Parenthood was extensive.

This extreme proposal was rightly rejected by Democrats and Republicans. In addition, members of Congress who support abortion rights, as well as those who oppose abortion rights, voted against this proposal, which would have denied women family planning and would have resulted in an increase in unintended pregnancy.

Even though the House Republican leadership insisted on forcing an up or down vote in the House and Senate on this extreme proposal yesterday, all their political maneuvering accomplished was to show that the House leadership is willing to sacrifice women’s health to advance a narrow ideological agenda.

While we are outraged that the House voted to pass H. Con. Res. 36 by a vote of 241-185, the outcome of that vote was not a surprise.

Any member of Congress who voted for this extreme proposal just cast a vote against women’s access to lifesaving cancer screenings and birth control.

More than 90 percent of the health care Planned Parenthood provides – and 100 percent of the care it provides through federal programs – is preventive. We do not want one woman to be diagnosed with advanced cancer that our health centers could have detected early through screening, and we’re appalled that a fringe element of Congress would continue to put its narrow political agenda ahead of women’s health and safety.

Thankfully, the Senate has made clear this extreme proposal is unacceptable and rejected it.

Glenn Beck apologizes (sorta) but I’m not impressed

— Kol Ra’ash Gadol

After the ADL gets pissy with him Glenn Beck apologizes (sorta) for his rude comparison of Reform Jews to Islamic extremists but I have to say – I’m not impressed.

First of all, let’s just set aside for a moment the ridiculousness of mentioning Islamic extremists in every other breath – really, I have to say (I never thought I’d defend Beck in any way whatsoever) that really, his comments weren’t about Reform Jews being terrorists. While his comments were completely inane, his point was that Reform Jews are primarily a political organization rather than a religious one. How many ways this is a stupid comment leaves me gasping, but it’s not what most people seem to have taken it as — i.e. a claim that Reform Jews are terrorists.

However, the level of stupidity remains pretty high:

  1. Reform Judaism is not a political organization.
  2. Not just for the Reform.
  3. And Islam?

More after the jump.
1. Reform Judaism is not a political organization.

The now-taken-down Jonathan Marks piece (for which an apology was issued, but not by Marks) seems to have gotten what Beck was saying (without actually saying anything worthwhile). The claim he makes is that because Reform Jews tend to take certain kinds of political positions, that must mean that Reform Judaism isn’t a religion. Now, there are lots of things that I disagree with the Reform movement about. Religiously speaking, nearly everything, in fact. Having grown up Reform, though, and coming from a still-Reform family, I can surely say that knowledgeable Reform Jews are practicing a religion, not a political platform.

What’s really wrong here though is the premises that underlie Beck’s claim: Christians have a particular view of what it means to be a religion —  it isn’t necessarily one that matches up well with Judaism. Because Christianity is the dominant (i.e. more populous) religion in the USA, it is that view of religion which most people understand. But it’s not the only one. That view of religion claims that it is belief which is the central driving force behind spirituality. Let me be clear: I am not claiming that Christians think that one should not do what they call “works” — what I am saying is that “works” are derived from belief for Christians. For Jews, on the other hand, spirituality is derived from praxis – behaving a particular way.

Just in case anyone missed it, what Beck did was criticize Reform Judaism for being more like traditional Judaism – grounding its spirituality in behavior, That makes Marks’ piece particularly ironic. While I don’t think that what has come to be called “Tikkun Olam” (I won’t get into the difficulties of using that term here) is anywhere near enough for Jewish practice (I don’t have to, I’m not a Reform Jew), for Reform Jews, where it is in fact the mitzvot bein adam l’chavero (between one person and another) which are considered obligatory, their engagement in making sure that other human beings are treated with justice is, in fact, exactly what they ought to be doing. For Marks to say that it’s somehow a lack only shows his profound lack of understanding of both Reform Judaism and Judaism in general. In fact, to serve human beings through observance of mitzvot between one human and another are — if really engaged in as a regular practice- profoundly spiritual acts for Jews. For Reform Jews (by the way Mr. Marks “Reform” not “reformed” —  just because you don’t agree with them doesn’t mean you have to stoop to writing their name incorrectly), to engage in work to make sure that working people get a just wage (for example) is what lays the grounding for them to be able to say the Shema and be, as the rabbinic understanding is, an “eid” — a witness —  for God.

2. Not just for the Reform

While it’s ironic enough to have to break down why it’s part of a spiritual practice for Reform Jews to help their fellow humans and increase justice in the world, let’s not lose sight of the fact that these are obligatory for all, not just Reform, Jews. For Jews who are aligned with more traditional interpretations of Jewish law – in which halacha (Jewish law) is obligatory – it’s important to remember that Judaism for halachic Jews ( for whatever part of the spectrum they’re in) obliges us to also make no distinction between mitzvot bein adam l’makom and mitzvot bein adam l’chavero – obligations between one human and another and obligations between a human and God- those Jews who consider themselves traditional, halachic, Orthodox, Conservative, Mizrachi, Sephardi, Masorti, Hareidi or whatever are not doing what they are supposed to if they don’t act for the benefit of their fellow human beings. Simply keeping shabbat and kashrut isn’t even vaguely near enough. It may not technically be a violation of kashrut to allow workers at the slaughterhouse to be underpaid, but there’s a huge body of literature that very carefully lays out the mutual obligations (read: mitzvot — commandments or obligations) between an employee and employer, and, — I want to make sure this is very clear —  the obligation for Jews who see another Jew violating Jewish law — Jews are required to take action against Jews who violate the rights of workers because those laws are quite carefully spelt out in the Jewish legal works from the Talmud on.

So what’s the obligation if a non-Jew violates the rights of another non-Jew?

Well, you might get some people arguing that there isn’t one, but I think that’s a very difficult argument to make. Aside from the specific strictures that are laid out for Jews interacting with one another, there are plenty of general strictures that require an observant Jew to go beyond the minimum in assuring justice for others, for treating non-Jews with respect and dignity, and for working towards making the general society that we live in as Jews a just society – even the Noahide laws (laws that God commanded to non-Jews, there are seven of them) specify that no one can live in a society that doesn’t have a just legal system.

3. And Islam?

Well, I’m not an expert, so if anyone who is Muslim is reading this and I get it wrong, please forgive me. But from what I’ve learned from Muslims, Islam is very similar to traditional Judaism in that it is behavior focused. The goal is submission to God’s desire, which is accomplished through the five pillars. But the five pillars, as in Judaism, are just the beginning of how one expresses one’s devotion to God – there are all kinds of details, like one’s diet, and so on. but let’s also be clear about this: Islamic extremism is not a religion. As a matter of fact, there is a good amount of evidence that Islamic extremism may clothe itself in the language of religion, but the masterminds behind it tend not to be so very religious, but come from secular, often western-educated backgrounds. Like most extremism, Islamic extremism is not about submission to God, but about developing and maintaining earthly power and control over others – and that doesn’t make Islamic extremism significantly different from Christian, Jewish, Sikh or Hindu (name your favorite extremism) fanatics, who are not actually working to perfect themselves and their society, but to maintain control over others – women, people of other colors or races or nationalities, or who look, behave or believe differently – or for that matter, people of “your own group” whom you can manipulate into being ugly to others for no good reason.

In that sense, it isn’t Reform Judaism which is most like extremist Islam, but Beck and Marks, you may be familiar with a group that is very much like it. In fact, I believe I’ve heard of a group at this very minute working hard to deprive a large group of Americans of the ability to negotiate a fair wage for themselves. Say, that wouldn’t be one of yours, would it?

Reprinted courtesy of Jewschool.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Didn’t Reform

Reactions to Senate’s failure to end Republican filibuster to legislation to reform United States military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

— Rabbi David Saperstein

Senators have failed to support the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces who have dedicated their professional lives to the defense of our nation.  Refusing to repeal the misguided “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy rejects the views and entreaties of Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen.  It also ignores the views of the overwhelming majority of service members whose opinions were solicited in the Pentagon’s extensive study of the impact of repeal and who said such action would not negatively impact unit cohesion.

The military’s code of honor is tarnished when service members are required to lie about their identity.  And as people of faith, we are pained by this affront to the dignity of those in uniform, each of whom, gay or straight, embodies the spark of the Divine presence in every person, and each of whom should be a source of pride for all Americans.

No doubt the courts, which have already shown a willingness to challenge this policy, will soon overturn it in recognition that we cannot in good conscience continue to ask the members of our Armed Forces to fight on behalf of a country that refuses to recognize their basic dignity and rights.

Even as we are deeply disappointed by today’s Senate vote, we know that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy’s days are numbered. We look forward to the future when this policy will be a mere memory of a sad and discredited chapter in our nation’s history.


Open Letter to Senator McCain from four Arizona Rabbis

Dear Senator McCain:

We, along with a delegation of retired military flag and general officers and retired military chaplains, recently requested a meeting with you in Washington DC to discuss the future of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. After multiple follow-up calls and an extended period without hearing any response, we were informed by your Chief of Staff, Mark Buse, that your office was “not able to accommodate [our] request as the Senator’s schedule is full.” Mr. Buse did, however, note in an email (attached) that he would ensure that you personally saw any information we wished to convey.

More after the jump.
To that end, and on behalf of our synagogues and congregants, and the Reform Jewish Movement of which we are a part, we write to express our great disappointment in your unwillingness to meet with us.

Even more so, we are deeply disappointed by your opposition to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” We believe that the policy is antithetical to the values of justice and compassion on which our nation was founded. We note, as well, the recent support for repeal expressed by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the overwhelming majority of military service men and women.

You have heard the testimony from military leaders and other such experts making clear that while there will be an initial period of transition, repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will not have an adverse effect on the Armed Forces (in fact, legislative repeal is preferred to that through judicial action). Just as the arguments against President Truman’s decision to racially integrate the armed forces proved to be false, so will be those made against repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Our military today remains the finest force known in history; it is stronger because its members reflect the faces of the people it defends.

As a Movement, we spent significant time exploring the biblical texts and teachings that eventually helped guide us to welcoming gay and lesbian clergy and members as full participants in our congregations. Let us assure you that as spiritual leaders from the largest Jewish denomination in North America, we are firm in our belief that repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the right and moral action.

Allowing gay and lesbian service members to continue to contribute to our nation’s security while living their lives according to the standards of honor so prized by the military reflects our understanding that every man and woman is created in the image of God. The spark of the divine is present in equal abundance in gay and lesbian men and women, as it is in those who are heterosexual.
We feel strongly enough about the importance of this issue that we sought the opportunity to visit with you in Washington at your convenience and these are the sentiments we would have preferred to express to you in person. We regret that you did not feel that such a conversation would have been worthwhile.

We respect your service to our nation throughout your military and congressional career. But we respectfully disagree with your defense of a policy that forces men and women who, like you, wish to serve, to do so while hiding their identity. This is a policy that is long overdue for repeal and we urge you to allow such repeal to proceed with all due haste.

Sincerely,

  •  Rabbi Charles Herring, Temple Kol Ami, Scottsdale, Arizona
  • Rabbi John Linder, Temple Solel, Paradise Valley, Arizona
  • Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
    Congregation Or Chadash, Tuscon, Arizona
  • Rabbi Andrew Straus, Temple Emanuel, Tempe, Arizona

Open Letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

Dear Secretary Gates,

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis, we write to express our support for repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. We find disappointing the position espoused that ministering to gays and lesbians would violate religious freedom. We strongly believe that such a repeal need not compromise religious freedom within our armed services, but instead will lead to a stronger, more fair and effective military.

While respecting the complexity and seriousness of the issue, the White House and many current and retired military leaders have recognized the urgency of repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and General Colin Powell, among others, have expressed their view that the policy should be abandoned.  These views reflect the fact that since its inception, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has forced gay and lesbian service members to live their lives in secret, always at risk of losing their ability to serve our country. Almost 14,000 soldiers and sailors have been expelled under the policy. It has been estimated by the GAO that the cost of replacing these service members exceeds $200 million, with a follow up study by an expert commission placing the figure even higher, at $363 million.  Particularly in a time of war and recession, these are human and financial resources we cannot afford to squander.

More after the jump.
We know, however, that some in the religious community have expressed support for maintaining “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  We strongly hold the opposite view.  Communities of faith across the country believe in the importance of ensuring the rights of gay and lesbian Americans and repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” As Reform Jews, we are guided by the understanding that all human beings are created b’tselem Elohim, in the Divine image. Regardless of context, discrimination against any person is inconsistent with this fundamental belief, for the stamp of the Divine is present in each and every one of us. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a crucial step toward creating a more just and compassionate military. We must no longer allow prejudice to deprive our nation of the skills and commitment of talented and patriotic men and women.

More than two-dozen countries allow homosexuals to serve openly in their militaries without negative impact on unit cohesion or efficiency. In fact, as you know, among NATO countries, only the United States and Turkey continue to have such bans. In Iraq and Afghanistan, American troops serve side by side with openly gay allied service members. In addition, 75 percent of Americans, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, believe gays and lesbians should have the right to serve openly.

The time has come to repeal this harmful law. We urge you to do so expeditiously and with the interests of justice held paramount.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Steven A. Fox          
Chief Executive, Central Conference of American Rabbis    

Rabbi Eric Yoffie
President, Union for Reform Judaism