Reform Judaism

RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

There is much to recommend in the Religion News Service commentary that ran the other day with this headline: “What is killing the American synagogue?” This is one of those think pieces that points to hard news angles, for those with eyes to see them.

The author, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, backs up that blunt headline with lots of practice observations about cultural trends that are affecting all kinds of liberal, old-line religious groups in America, these days. He admits that there are times when cultural trends are signs of serious issues of philosophy and, I would add, theology.

So what are reporters to think then they hear that another synagogue/temple is being torn down? First of all, that RNS headline really needed to include the word “Reform” or “liberal” in front of the word synagogue. Read on, to see if my judgement is accurate.

Here is some ultra-personal material from the rabbi, right near the top:

I am a product of Long Island Judaism. I spent my childhood at Temple Beth Elohim in Old Bethpage, alav ha-shalom. It closed several years ago.

I spent my teen years at Suburban Temple in Wantagh, NY. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a booming, thriving synagogue of about 800 families. We had one hundred kids in the youth group. We were at the synagogue three nights a week.

So, too, Temple Emanu-El in neighboring East Meadow. It, too, had throngs of teenagers. I attended my first youth group dances there.

Then, in the late 1980s, I came home to become a rabbi at a synagogue on the South Shore of Long Island.

During those years, I confronted the two Bs of the apocalypse: Boca and Boynton. People were moving to Florida.

Beth Moses. People were dying, and “moving” to that cemetery in Farmingdale.

The question I would ask, as someone who has followed the liberal Jewish demographic apocalypse since the stunning Denver Jewish community intermarriage studies of the 1980s, whether Salkin needed to add a third “B,” as in “babies (or lack thereof).”

To be specific, the article didn’t address to major issues that keep showing up in studies of the Jewish future in America and in the Western world — birth rates and intermarriage.

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Looking at this story internationally, what’s the status of modern church doctrines on gays?

Looking at this story internationally, what’s the status of modern church doctrines on gays?

THE QUESTION: 

Looked at internationally, what’s the status of churches’ policies on the same-sex issue in the wake of the United Methodists’ important decision on this February 26?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

You may have read that in late February the 12.6-million-member United Methodist Church held a special General Conference in St. Louis, seeking to settle its painful conflict over the gay-and-lesbian issue and avert a split. The delegates decided by 53 percent to support and strengthen the denomination’s longstanding ban against same-sex marriages and clergy living in such relationships.

Though U.S. bishops, officials, and academics had advocated leeway on gays, the vote was not a shock. A 2015 poll by the denomination found 54 percent of U.S. pastors and 54 percent of lay leaders (though only 41 percent of lay members over-all)  favored keeping the traditional policy. Another poll of U.S. members, released just before the St. Louis conference, showed 44 percent identify as conservative or traditional in belief, 28 percent as moderate or centrist, and only 20 percent as progressive or liberal.

Moreover, United Methodism is a multinational denomination whose U.S. component has declined and now claims only 55 percent of the global membership. The congregations in Africa and Asia are growing, and that buttresses the traditionalist side. Unlike the Methodists, most “mainline” Protestant groups in North America and western Europe that recently liberalized on the same-sex issue had no foreigners casting ballots.

International bonds have always been central in Christianity. Currently, conservative and evangelical Protestants in North America, including a faction within liberalizing “mainline” groups, are united in sexual traditionalism with most of the Protestant and indigenous churches in Africa, Asia, the Mideast, eastern Europe and Latin America. Add in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and the vast majority of the world’s Christians belong to churches that have always opposed gay and lesbian relationships.

This broad Christian consensus results from thousands of years of scriptures, interpretations, and traditions. This is the context for the West’s serious clash of conscience — between believers in that heritage versus religious and secular gay-rights advocates — that confronts government, politicians, educators, judges, journalists, and ordinary citizens.

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An issue lurking in some news stories: In Old Testament, was God guilty of 'genocide'?

An issue lurking in some news stories: In Old Testament, was God guilty of 'genocide'?

The Religion Guy poses this complex historical question himself instead of the customary answer to an item posted via “Send Your Questions In” -- new submissions very much welcomed.

There’s been important debate on this issue recently, and a new book proposes sweeping reinterpretation of the Old Testament depiction of Israel’s “Conquest” of the Holy Land under Joshua. More on that below.

Richard Dawkins, a fervent foe of religion, indicts the biblical God for inciting “genocide” in the Bible’s conquest passages and verses like Deuteronomy 20:16-18 that direct believers to wipe out neighboring populations. Many U.S. Jews and Christians frankly admit this material is troubling.

Let’s begin with three standard Jewish commentaries on those Deuteronomy verses.

“Pentateuch & Haftorahs,” a classic Orthodox compilation by J.H. Hertz, Britain’s longtime chief rabbi, observes that Joshua informed Canaanites before the invasion so they could flee bloodshed, offered peace to all, and only waged combat if they insisted on it. (That was relatively humane for violent times 3,000 years ago.)

The quest for a homeland, the commentary observes, is part of all human history including most European nations. Israel added to that the “ethical justification” of countering Canaan’s “depravity,” for instance human sacrifice. Moreover, “the whole moral and spiritual future of mankind was involved.”

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Temple Mount wrap up: Where religion, nationalism and politics keep colliding

Temple Mount wrap up: Where religion, nationalism and politics keep colliding

The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict over control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif appears over. It ended well short of its worst possible outcome, but without any finality — again.

By “worst possible outcome,” I mean a terribly bloody escalation. By “without any finality,” I mean that sooner or later the situation will again heat up because the core of the conflict -- which side has the final word on physical control of the site -- remains unsettled.

But that’s how both sides want it for now -- save for each camp’s most radical elements who would relish an explosive fight to the finish. That’s because neither side's leadership Is capable of making the tough political compromises necessary to really defuse the situation.

So this slow-boiling tribal war over land continues. (Need to catch up with recent events?  If so, read this piece from The Economist, written part way through the episode.)

Religion reporters: Jews this week observed the solemn commemoration of Tisha B’Av, which marks the destructions of the First and Second Jewish temples (plus other Jewish tragedies across history) that stood on the Old City esplanade from which the site takes it Jewish name.

While the commemoration ran from Monday evening to Tuesday evening, it's not too late to tie Tisha B’Av (literally, the ninth day of the Hebrew calendar’s month of Av)  to the current state of affairs. You might want to refer to this handy Religion News Service “‘Splainer."

I'm not qualified to speak definitively about just how the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif dispute breaks down along religious, nationalistic and political lines among ordinary Palestinians and other Muslims that support them -- as opposed to the statements of Palestinian leaders who always stress religious claims in rallying global Muslim support.

Suffice it to say that traditional Islam, far more than do contemporary Christianity or rabbinic Judaism (rabbinic, meaning post-Temple), makes little differentiation between the religious and political realms, and that for many Muslims living under undemocratic governments religion is the only outlet for political expression on any level.

However, I do know enough about the Jewish side to suggest that reporters consider the following.

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A religiously intriguing lawyer joins Trump defense team as a key adversary exits  

A religiously intriguing lawyer joins Trump defense team as a key adversary exits  

The addition of controversial attorney Jay Sekulow to President Donald Trump’s defense team is a wide-open invitation for journalistic personality stories. By all accounts, Sekulow, 61, is among America’s most zealous -- and effective -- religious litigators. He also hosts a daily radio show and has become an omnipresent Trump advocate on other media. 

Early coverage on his appointment left unexplored territory on the religion aspects of the sort noted by The Forward, the venerable liberal Jewish newspaper whose print and online editions reach a broad readership. Then The Washington Post published a June 27 jaw-dropper on Sekulowian finances.

More on money in a moment. If The Forward’s treatment seemed harsh, that’s certainly predictable. Sekulow has been in the middle of many social issues that are considered “conservative” while the paper has traditionally embraced socialists and liberal Democrats.

Moreover, Sekulow was raised in Reform Judaism, but became a “Messianic Jew” (that is, an evangelical Protestant of Jewish ethnicity) during college years at Mercer University, where he later earned his law degree. After work as a trial attorney for the IRS and a business lawyer in Atlanta, in 1990 he became chief counsel for the new American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson.  

Like Trump’s top lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, Sekulow is no expert in the Washington, D.C., quicksand the President finds himself in. But he’s battle-hardened, having argued 12 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in his religion specialization. Early on, Sekulow grasped that federal judges are less than ardent supporters of religious freedom claims and switched to a civil liberties strategy exploiting other Bill of Rights guarantees, winning for instance a 1987 Supreme Court OK for airport pamphlet distribution by Jews for Jesus.

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Western Wall battle: Viewing Jewish culture wars from a balcony in Israel's Galilee region

Western Wall battle: Viewing Jewish culture wars from a balcony in Israel's Galilee region

The view from my hillside guest house in the northern Israeli village of Amirim -- where I'm writing this post -- takes in the lake known in Hebrew as the Kinneret and in English as the Sea of Galilee. The lake-side city of Tiberias is also visible, as is the militarily strategic high plateau called the Golan Heights.

Errant shells from fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan regularly land across the tense border in Israel, as they have during my stay here. But they’re too far away, perhaps 20 or so miles, to be of immediate concern.

Likewise, the regular threats made by the Iranian-aligned, Lebanese Hezbollah militia to eradicate Israel in a barrage of rockets. Lebanon is just a dozen or so miles due north, but that border is mostly quiet for the moment. So why be concerned now?

What is of immediate concern, however, is the recent flare up over the Israeli government’s decision to rescind an agreement allowing non-Orthodox religious Jews to share prayer space at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.

The nod to Orthodox political pressure enraged the organized non-Orthodox Jewish establishment. From cries of boycott Israeli leaders to claims that Israel gave U.S. Jews “the finger,” liberal journalistic pundits and organizational leaders alike seemingly competed to express the depth of their outrage and disgust.

(A second decision negating a provision that made conversion to Judaism somewhat easier within Israel was also made, though it's attracted much less attention outside of Israel, where conversion requirements are generally less stringent than they are in Israel.)

Consider all this the Jewish world’s internal culture war -- a struggle between strict adherence to traditional religious practice versus broadening the practice to accommodate contemporary sensibilities.

Ironically, the brouhaha is of little concern to the average Israeli Jew, the majority of whom are by no means strictly Orthodox, if not outright secular (though culturally staunchly Jewish).

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How come Judaism is broken into several different branches?

How come Judaism is broken into several different branches?

MADDIE’S QUESTION:

What caused Judaism to break into branches? Are the branches even seen as a division? Does theology differ among them?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The questioner has “a Christian background" and, thus, is familiar with a religion made up of separate groups. 

Christianity has long been divided into four main families, the so-called “Oriental Orthodox,” the Eastern Orthodox, Catholicism and Protestantism. A fifth family of new, independent churches in the developing world developed in the 20th Century. 

Islam, too, suffered the big breach between Sunni and Shia believers in the first century that continues to be troublesome, and sometimes lethal, today.

By contrast, for much of its history Judaism was essentially one united faith, though naturally it encompassed various movements, tendencies, cultures and local variations.

That began to change with the modern emancipation and assimilation of Jews in Western Europe. A liberal form of the faith developed, especially in Germany, and flourished among 19th Century German immigrants in the United States. Worship was simplified, Hebrew was downplayed in favor of worship in common  languages with Protestant-style sermons, and age-old observances were eliminated or made matters of personal choice.

The resulting liberal branch or denomination eventually known as Reform Judaism centered on three North American institutions, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) that 34 synagogues formed in 1873, Hebrew Union College to train rabbis (1875), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1890).

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Did NPR shortchange the religious left during its Obergefell coverage? Uh, yes

Did NPR shortchange the religious left during its Obergefell coverage? Uh, yes

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with a reader, someone with a long history of reading my "On Religion" syndicated column (my column has run in The Knoxville News Sentinel for 26-plus years) and now this blog.

To be blunt, this person (Catholic, by the way) was a bit upset about my recent column that went out on the wires with this suggested headline: "Triumphant day for the Episcopal Church establishment." In particular, this reader was upset that -- in lengthy quotations -- I let the openly gay, noncelibate retired Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire essentially do a victory dance celebrating (a) the 5-4 Obergefell decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court backed same-sex marriage and (b) the Episcopal Church's decision to proceed with same-sex marriage rites in its churches.

Why did I do this in my column? I responded: Because that was the essence of the story. Robinson and the Episcopal left won and, for readers to understand that victory, they needed to know what that meant to one of the symbolic figures in that long and painful drama.

I bring this up because several readers have asked your GetReligionistas what we thought of the recent commentary at National Public Radio on a related issue, one that ran under this headline, "Ombudsman Mailbag: On Staffing, Missing Information, And Religious Viewpoints." Settling up the crucial discussion, Elizabeth Jensen wrote:

I've heard from some Christians who feel NPR's coverage of the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage left the impression that all Christians oppose it. There's quite a bit of social media chatter on this, as well.

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Two Jews, three opinions: Doctrine and the Netanyahu speech firestorm

Two Jews, three opinions: Doctrine and the Netanyahu speech firestorm

Is there a more desirable photo op for an Israeli politician (excluding Israel's Arab and some of its left-wing Jewish parliamentarians) than one taken at HaKotel, which is the short-hand Hebrew term for Jerusalem's Western Wall?

Oh, never mind; silly question. And ditto for visiting dignitaries who also flock to the mostly Herodian-era stone blocks, the exposed portion of which stands 62-feet high. The resulting image screams identification with Israel's binary raison d'être -- secular contemporary Zionism and traditional religious piety.

Which is why Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu was there the Saturday night prior to his highly charged Washington address to Congress, when he implored President Barack Obama not to sign a deal with Iran that would allow the Islamic republic to retain its suspected nuclear weapon capabilities. The visit dominated the American news cycle for the better part of a week, a virtual eon in this time of 24/7 deadlines.

Yes, it was political theater of the highest order. But it was something more, because anything to do with Israel automatically takes on a religious tone. You know, Jews versus Muslims, the knee-jerk equating of all things Israeli with religious Judaism, the entire Holy Land gestalt.

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