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July 22, 2015 12:48 pm

Is Reform Jewish Group in the Pocket of the Democratic Party?

avatar by Jonathan Greenberg

Email a copy of "Is Reform Jewish Group in the Pocket of the Democratic Party?" to a friend
Barack Obama. Photo: Screenshot.

Barack Obama. Photo: Screenshot.

This week, I made the mistake of reading a tweet from the RAC. Honestly, I don’t know why I continue to follow the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. I disagree with their politics, their theological and philosophical approach to Judaism, and especially their combination of the two.

The tweet in question led me to a blog post by a young RAC staffer calling on the US Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons. As with most publications from the RAC, this one contained an appeal to Jewish tradition as a justification for a contemporary political opinion:

“As Reform Jews,” the blogger writes, “we are committed to upholding the commandment, ‘You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind’ (Leviticus 19:14).”

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It is true that Jewish law and observance is broadly applicable to every aspect of human life and, as such, Judaism can claim something to say about pretty much any issue. But…come on.

For a movement that has among its intellectual forebears the 19th century critical and scientific investigation of Judaism and Jewish text called Wissenschaft des Judentums and great, knowledgeable leaders such as Abraham Geiger, Samuel Holdheim, and David Einhorn, this is a polemical, rhetorical, and intellectual embarrassment of the first order. It is lazy, formulaic, derivative, and bland. It is hyper-liberal, but not in a creative, interesting, or literate way.

It is, in short, Jewishly unserious. According to the logic of the post, the United States must (and, yes, this is really a direct quote from the UN document) “encourage all organs of the media to portray persons with disabilities in a manner consistent with the” Convention because…God says not to trip blind people? Too bad we don’t have thousands of years’ worth of commentary and other explanatory text on every word in the Torah to beef up your reasoning. Oh, wait! We do! Now if only much of it was accessible in English. Oh, wait! It is!

So either the RAC employs people (and, more importantly, publishes their opinions) who lack the appropriate Jewish depth to lecture the rest of us on what Judaism does and does not say, or the political position comes first and, only subsequently, the concern with how to justify it from a Jewish perspective (or both. See below. I’m betting both).

Now, I don’t mean to pile on the well-meaning kid who wrote that blog post. I wrote some stuff when I was 22 years old that I wouldn’t want out there.

Unfortunately, that’s what the RAC has to offer: blog post after blog post – Action Alert after Action Alert – with precious little serious Jewish content. In fact, the same citation of Leviticus used to advocate for the UN Convention on disability rights is used in an Action Alert opposing cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance.

How’s a good Jew to know that God wants full funding for the National Housing Trust Fund? Why, it says in Isaiah 58:7 “Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.” Actually, the Hebrew that the RAC translates as “homeless poor” is ani’yim m’rudim – the cast-out poor – but, iffy translation notwithstanding, it’s still weak tea. Incidentally, that’s the same verse they use to call for reauthorization of Child Nutrition and Women Infants and Children funding. In fact, just imagine how much funding for leftist government programs can be justified using this citation. Or, if you don’t feel like imagining, go to the RAC’s website and start counting.

God wants you to ask your Members of Congress to support $500 million in appropriations for the Green Climate Fund. How do I know? Because somewhere in “Biblical commentary” (see for yourself. That’s the citation given. Incidentally, it’s from Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13 which is Midrash, not commentary) it says, “Do not destroy my world, for if you do, there will be nobody after you to make it right again.” That’s a compelling quote – which is probably why they dropped the context of humanity mucking up our brief stay in Eden. Incidentally, we also learn that the Green Climate Fund is supported by Deuteronomy 15 (no verse given), which teaches us that, ““if there is a needy person among you…you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient.” That’s Deuteronomy 15:7-8. And I don’t see how that’s relevant to the Green Climate Fund – unless the “needy person” here is the Fund and “lend” means “appropriate taxpayer money.” And here’s the part they’ve ellipsed out:

…from among your brother inside your gates in your land that HaShem your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother…

Jewish tradition opposes offshore drilling. How do I know? Because Genesis 2:15 tells us that God put man in the Garden of Eden l’avdah u’l’shomrah – to work it and protect it. Could “working” the land mean responsible drilling for natural resources that man might find useful? Uh, I’ll refer you back to “Biblical commentary.”

I could go on, but it’s not like these are difficult to find. Click on virtually any Action Alert or blog post on the RAC’s website and this is the best they can distill from thousands of years of conscientious and painstaking struggle with what God expects of us.

Now, if unimpressive Jewish content were the RAC’s only crime against the intelligence of its constituents, dayenu. But it also assumes the theological position that God’s commandments as described in Torah are given not to the individual Jew or even the Jewish community but, rather, are to be imposed on society at large by the government. So our secular country should adopt a particular law because your reading of the Bible suggests that doing so would suit your religiously learned or mandated values? Hmmm, where have I heard that before?

It has long been joked that the Reform movement – the movement that raised, educated, and ordained me – is the Democratic National Committee with holidays. Here’s the thing: that’s not funny. There’s nothing funny about an organization that purports to base its positions on Jewish values being unable to demonstrate even a basic facility with the texts from which those values are derived. It’s not funny when anyone – and conservatives are plenty guilty of this, too – relies on a reading of sacred text so suffused with political bias that a reasonable observer finds it difficult to distinguish which informs which. And it’s not funny when anyone – again, this includes conservatives – wants to impose their religious agenda on the American people by government dictate.
The leadership of the Reform movement, including the congregational rabbis that send their high school students to Washington for the RAC’s L’taken seminars, should demand greater Jewish rigor from the RAC or should have the courage to admit that the RAC has become a partisan organization and Jewish kids deserve exposure to other ways of politically contextualizing their Judaism. The motto of the Israeli Reform movement is “there is more than one way to be Jewish.” Is that only true in Israel?

The Reform movement claims to believe in informed choice. Perhaps it’s time it acted accordingly.

Jonathan Greenberg is an ordained Reform Rabbi and the senior vice president of the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought. An expert in Middle East policy and former staffer at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, you can follow him @JGreenbergSez. This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal. 

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