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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—At the opening plenary of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) biennial, Rabbi Eric Yoffie asked for the help of nearly 6,000 attendees “in one particular area.”
Of the speakers to follow him in Washington, DC, from Dec. 14-18, Yoffie said: “None of these individuals is without controversy, they each have their supporters and their critics in the broader community, in the synagogue world, and in this room.”
“I hope and trust that we can all agree on this—each and every speaker is a guest in our home,” the outgoing URJ president continued. “We should try to treat our speakers and our other guests as we would [treat] guests in our own living room.”
Yoffie likely wasn’t worried about the crowd treating Friday’s keynote speaker and the convention’s main attraction, President Barack Obama, with respect. Rather, his request was more fitting for House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Bill Kristol, Weekly Standard editor and Fox News commentator.
Cantor and Kristol, with their conservative political orientations, break the mold as far as presenters go for the historically left-leaning Reform movement. Yoffie said at a Dec. 14 press session that there “absolutely was an effort” to include “all views” at the biennial.
“We looked at kind of a spectrum of points of view, we invited people from across that spectrum, and generally speaking, I think it has been welcome in the [Reform] movement,” Yoffie told reporters.
“I think people understand that we are a big tent movement,” he said.
Conservatives speak out, guard against assumptions
Biennial participant Bob Rich, of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Md., said that contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of people within the Reform movement “who are very concerned about aspects of the left-wing that really are inconsistent with the Jewish values that we espouse together, and I think we need to talk about these things and we need to be tolerant of each other.”
Rich was among the attendees at a biennial session titled, “A Conversation Among Politically Conservative Reform Jews.” The session—which drew about 75 people (including Kristol)—was closed to reporters, but Jadwiga Brown of North County Reform Temple-Ner Tamid in Glen Cove, NY, described the feeling in the room in an interview afterward.
“It was an open discussion, people discussing their views, some of them liberal [but] mostly conservative people who feel they don’t have a voice in their own community, including the rabbinical viewpoint,” Brown said. “So this gave us an opportunity to say how we felt.”
Steve Mindlin of Temple Israel of Tallahassee, Fla., said that some at the session expressed concerns about “being the minority within their own temples and not really being able to discuss the conservative view of the problems in our country.”
Mindlin said attendees also discussed the need “for there to be some opportunity, within the Reform Jewish community, to have people of different political backgrounds … to be able to have civil and frank discussions among each other, as opposed to doing a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ with conservatives, where they need to hide.”
Brown, who identified herself as fiscally conservative but supportive of a number of liberal issues, said she thinks members of the Reform movement should “reach across the aisle like Congress does and be able to work together.” Mindlin addressed what he called a misconception in the community that many believe being concerned about social action—what the movement calls “tikkun olam,” translated as repairing the world—is a liberal value. Rather, social action can be “something that all Jews should be able to find ways to agree upon,” Mindlin said.
Rich said that his synagogue in Maryland has “had speakers from diverse perspectives come in,” and said the community should be careful not to assume “that all Reform Jews believe in high taxation and expansion of social welfare programs.”
“You could make the argument that these things are not consistent with Jewish values, although a lot of people will say, ‘Oh, how dare[?] you say that!’” Rich said.
Cantor preaches, but not to the choir
In his remarks the morning of Dec. 15, Rep. Eric Cantor—speaking to a ballroom that was about half full—thanked the Reform movement multiple times for its commitment to tikkun olam and offered a “special salute” to the Religious Action Center (RAC), the movement’s (left-leaning) political arm that celebrated its 50th anniversary at the biennial.
“When I look at gatherings like this, this is the reason why our people were able to survive over the thousands of years,” Cantor said. “There’s no question that the URJ has become part of the moral fabric of our country and our community.”
Cantor said Israel “fights the same war” that America does against the spread of radicalism and hatred and provides a “more hospitable Middle East for U.S. interests,” but also “cherishes the values we do.” He noted Israel’s earthquake and tsunami relief efforts in Haiti and Japan, respectively, as examples of the country’s commitment to “save lives and help repair the world”—another reference to tikkun olam.
But today, he said, the 2,000-year-old dream of the State of Israel “is in jeopardy” due to the isolation of Israel at the United Nations, the specter of a nuclear Iran, and the Arab Spring’s placement of the radical Muslim Brotherhood in a powerful position. Cantor also called out the recent remarks of U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, who said Muslim hatred for Jews stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be construed as anti-Semitism.
“I say to you, any justification of any form of anti-Semitism must not be tolerated or condoned,” Cantor said, adding that “now is the time to send a signal to Washington that it is not okay to vilify Israel, and it is not okay to demonize Jews.”
“In order for us to win this great struggle, all leaders in Washington must have the courage not to see the world how we wish it to be, but as it truly is,” he said.
The Palestinian “culture of resentment and hatred” is “the root of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” and the Palestinians must prove they are deserving of a state before getting one, Cantor said.
On the range of Israel-related political issues, Cantor called for a bipartisan attitude.
“We must not let our political differences get in the way of recognizing that there is just one lone and consistent voice for freedom and equality in the Middle East,” he said.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the RAC, also called for bipartisanship in his introduction of Cantor. He explained that the RAC works from “both sides of the [political] aisle” to an extent that “may surprise some.”
“We will always seek to find common ground across political and ideological lines,” he said. Saperstein also noted that in Jewish tradition, “minority opinions are recorded on every page of the Talmud alongside majority opinions.”
Saperstein v. Kristol
Saperstein debated Kristol, chairman of the Emergency Committee for Israel, in a biennial forum titled “Liberalism, Conservatism: Which Better Furthers Jewish Values and Jewish Interests?” He admitted that it’s “no secret to our [Reform] movement, that the consensus views of our movement correspond with a generally liberal or progressive view of many of the public policy issues that America faces, that Israel faces.”
Saperstein said the halakhic view of social issues such as abortion and gay rights “clearly accords more closely to where conservative views are.” However, while halakha is binding upon Jews and Jewish society, he said it isn’t binding within the specific marketplace of Jewish tradition in America.
“We can probe the tradition to find moral wisdom in it, but in order to make it relevant in America we have to make it available in moral forms … that match up with human reason,” he said.
The Jewish view of the government in Talmudic times was a liberal one, Saperstein said, “of, for and by the people.” He cited community money funds, clothing funds, and the fact that tzedakah was enforced by the beit din as examples that supported the RAC’s commitment to “economic justice” in America.
Jews will “never be safe or secure” until they help solve the country’s “endemic problems” using legislative avenues, Saperstein said. You can’t worry about the environment without worrying about energy policy, worry about Israel without worrying about U.S. military policy, or worry about anti-Semitism without worrying about public education policy in America, he said.
Kristol said the question of whether to embrace liberal or conservative values is a matter of “what is practical” and what works, and in his opinion, the conservative policies of last 30-40 years have been more successful than liberal ones. In India and China, people have been saved from poverty not through social action, but by the implementation of free-market economies, he said.
In the U.S., Kristol said, having a poor population that is dependent on welfare is specifically what keeps it in poverty. The solution, he said, is to decrease the size of government and to create jobs. Increased government spending leads to unsustainable debt, further hurting America’s poor, Kristol said.
Kristol said it “would be nice” if Obama and liberal Jews spoke out more against statements like the recent one made in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman, who wrote that Congress is “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Kristol also said he would like to see Obama “reaffirm” his commitment to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons.