Watching the rabbis work

I just got off the phone with Shira Dicker, who does public relations for the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents all the Conservative rabbis out there.

She had just left a day-long meeting of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which is trying to frame a new Conservative understanding of homosexuality.

The meeting, which will break a few minutes from now (it’s 5:45 p.m.), sounded like one for the books. It will continue tomorrow at Park Avenue Synagogue in NYC, when the committee expects to vote on five separate position papers.

“It has been completely fascinating,” Dicker told me. “Just the range of citations, everyone from Paul Tillich to Abraham Joshua Heschel.”

“Some rabbis talked about their meetings with members of their own communities, with their own families, about struggling with different sides of the issues.”

She said that the rabbis dealt directly with very difficult issues, like whether you can ask a lesbian couple to follow Jewish rules for abstaining from sex through their menstrual cycle.

And they talked about whether the movement can ask male couples to abstain from anal sex (as one position paper reportedly suggests).

“Can you ask people to refrain?” Dicker said. “Is it compassionate? Can it work? Does it make the behavior deviant?”

Dicker said that each of the rabbis has been careful to connect their arguments to an intepretation of Halacha — Jewish law. The Conservative movement strives to stay true to Jewish law and tradition, while grudgingly adapting to the times.

“Everyone is very careful that their arguments be seen as coming out of Halacha. That’s been a unanimous feature. No one is saying, ‘Let’s forget about this old thing.’ ”

Rabbi Joel Meyers of White Plains, head of the Rabbinical Assembly, opened the meeting by reading a poem written by an Hasidic woman.

“It was like an impressionistic dream,” Dicker said. “It set the tone, a serious, respectful and almost poetic tone.”

Two Westchester rabbis on the committee are authors of position papers. One is Gordon Tucker, the esteemed leader of Temple Israel Center of White Plains.

The other is Rabbi David Fine of Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale, who is in his early 30s and is a co-author with his father, Rabbi Robert Fine, the former spiritual leader of Bet Torah in Mount Kisco.

Also in attendence at the meeting, as an observer, is the much admired Rabbi Melvin Sirner of Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle.

Dicker said the rabbis are concerned about how their decisions will affect the future of Conservative Judaism.

“There is this underlying feeling, concern and sadness, about the future of the movement,” she said. “You have a wide range of generations here. I was surprised to hear some of the older members, the real lions of the movement, expressing wonder at how society has changed so much in their lifetimes.”

Jews, Presbyterians press ahead

Presbyterian Church (USA) and the major American Jewish groups have gotten to know each other a lot better the past couple years.

And they’re still talking.

They started talking quiet seriously in 2004 after PCUSA voted to consider divesting from companies that support violence in Israel. The move was widely seen as a protest against Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and Jewish groups reacted with something like shock and awe.

Both Jewish groups and Presbyterians who opposed the divestment strategy urged Presbyterians to take another look at the Middle East situtation and the best ways to address it.

This past summer, delegates to PCUSA’s General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to reframe their goals, supporting investments in “peaceful pursuits” in the Middle East rather than targeting Israel for possible divestment.

PCUSA leaders insisted that nothing had really changed because the denomination would continue to make divestment decisions based on who supports peace and who does not.

But Jewish leaders seemed quite satisfied.

Interestingly, Presbyterian and Jewish leaders have not stopped talking. They met last week at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville and issued a “statement”: that says, basically, that they have not stopped talking.

The two sides promised an “ongoing national consultation,” bringining in local congregations. And they pledged to work together on issues of mutual concern, like Darfur.

But the major issue of the day, of course, was the Middle East.

The statement said this:

“Together, we affirm that peace for Israel and the Palestinians should be built on the foundations of security, justice, and the establishment of two viable states. Our specific approaches to peace differ, but we believe that we can, and must, be strong advocates together—and together with other Christian and Muslim colleagues—for a renewed peace process.

We fully intend to work together for peace in the Middle East with other Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders. Together, we affirm the statement of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Middle East Peace, which will be issued as one part of renewed efforts for peace as the new Congress convenes at the end of this year.

Moreover, because we think economic development and peacemaking in Israel and the Palestinian Territories are crucial to the success of the peace process, we will be assessing a variety of Israeli and Palestinian organizations and projects that can then be recommended with confidence to our congregations for their involvement and support.

From these small steps, we pray that God will lead us to other creative joint efforts, and help us build a road to mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace for a region and a world desperately in need of it.”

Do only dummies have large families?

I didn’t get to the NYT Sunday Magazine on Nov. 19 because it was my son’s birthday and we had a housefull of kids.

But I heard several references to that issue’s Q&A with Katharine Jefferts Schori, the new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. I heard that she said something provocative about having children, so I dug out the magazine yesterday.

Here’s the part that caught people’s attention:

Q: How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?
A: About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

Q: Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?
A: No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

Wow, what a telling statement on how liberal, mainline Christians see the world differently from other Christians.

It’s not that evangelicals and Roman Catholics necessarily want to have large families. Catholics, of course, are not supposed to use artificial birth control, even though many, if not most, do so in the U.S (what happened to all those large Irish Catholic families?). And evangelicals are all over the map on family size.

But it’s hard to imagine Catholics, evangelicals or even moderate Protestants saying that having babies is a bad thing. Schori may not have meant it this way — and I realize that the magazine’s Q&As are sharply edited — but it sounds like she’s saying that only uneducated people have large families.

I’m sure that many mainline Protestants and Reform Jews, not to mention secular New Yorkers, know what she means (there’s plenty of poverty and hunger in the world, lots of kids waiting to be adopted, and on and on).

But I don’t think she made her point very well.

This letter in the Times from Rabbi Eli Soiefer of Monsey probably captures what a lot of people are saying:

“Poor John Kerry was booted into the political doghouse and became the butt of late-night TV comedians for his “botched joke.â€? Who will demand an apology from Bishop Schori for implying that couples who choose to raise larger families are not well educated? Isn’t it possible to “pay attention to the stewardship of the earthâ€? by being fruitful, multiplying and filling the earth with beautiful souls who hold within them the possibilities we have not been able to realize?”

By the way, low birth rates are not the only reason that Episcopal membership has been plummeting for decades. But that’s a subject for another day.

Practicing religion with blueprints

When a religious institution wants to renovate or expand its property, does such a move constitute the practice of religion?

In most cases it does, according to a controversial federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (Yes, it’s a mouthful. The law lumps together land-use rules with unrelated rules that concern the religious rights of prison inmates.)

Basically, the law says that municipalities cannot use planning and zones codes to restrict how religious groups alter their property — unless they have a really, really good reason for doing so. The rationale for the law is that decisions on land-use are a form of religious expression, necessary for religious practice, and subject to religious discrimination.

Incidentally, the law was signed in 2000 by President Clinton, who was pretty kind to certain religious causes. He also signed the welfare reform bill, which included the mostly forgotten “charitable choice” rules for making federal dollars more accessible to religious social service agencies. This was the first step toward President Bush’s much-better known “faith-based initiative.”

Anyway, the jury is still out on whether the Religious Land Use Act is constitutional. Municipal lawyers say that that it gives an unfair advantage to religious groups, which the Constitution does not allow. Proponents of the law say it helps guarantee religious freedom, thereby supporting the Constitution.

There have been numerous court cases involving the law, and one involves the Westchester Day School, an Orthodox Jewish day school in Mamaroneck. The case involves the Village of Mamaroneck zoning board rejecting the school’s plans to construct a new building on its property. The board was concerned about traffic and noise.

Lawyers for the two sides appeared Friday before the Second Circuit Courts of Appeals, as my colleague Candice Ferrette “reported.”:

Joel Haimes, a lawyer for the school, said that the expansion was needed for the school to educate students in the Jewish religion — in other words, for the free practice of religion.

But Kevin Plunkett, a lawyer for the village, said that the law gives Mamaroneck Day School an unfair advantage over non-religious schools that are subject to planning and zoning laws.

These arguments will likely be repeated in courtrooms across the country until the U.S.Supreme Court decides, once and for all, if the Religious Land Use Act supports the Constitution or violates it. The Supreme Court has held up the “institutionalized persons” part of the law, which makes it difficult for a state or locality to limit an inmate’s religious freedom.

ADL supports oath on Quran

Now the “Anti-Defamation League”: is going after conservative pundit Dennis Prager for his column saying that Keith Ellison, the first elected Muslim congressman, should not take his oath next month on a Quran.

I blogged Friday about whether Prager’s “column”:,_not_keith_ellison,_decides_what_book_a_congressman_takes_his_oath_on had started a controversy, as several media reports said, when he seemed to be attracting little support.

In a statement, the ADL says that Prager’s argument is intolerant, misinformed and un-American:

“Prager presents intolerant, ugly views.  His comparison of Ellison’s desire to “choose his favorite bookâ€? to that of the right of a racist elected to public office to use Hitler’s Mein Kampf is outrageous.   If Prager were merely a blogger and radio talk-show host trying to be relevant and provocative, these views might not merit a response.  But as a newly-appointed member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, Prager and his views must be held to a higher standard.”

New members of the House are actually sworn in together, without the use of any holy books. Some choose to take individual oaths later on with the Bible.

Speaking of Prager’s appointment to the Holocaust Museum council, the “Council on American-Islamic Relations”: this morning called for Prager to be removed from the board because of his column about Ellison, a Democrat who will represent a Minnesota district.

Good reviews for Mary and Joseph

“The Nativity Story”:!8614&keyword=%28nativity%29&match_type opened Friday, with only a fraction of the publicity that accompanied the opening of “The Passion.”

No Mel Gibson. No concerns about how the Jews would be portrayed. No shocking violence. It all added up to a quiet premiere. From what I’ve seen, the film has also been pretty well received by critics.

“The Chicago Tribune”:,0,3049504.story?coll=mmx-movies_top_heds says “The moviemakers haven’t embossed ‘Nativity Story’ with greeting card imagery or sentimentalized, overdramatized or stuffed it with contemporary political parallels. Instead, they’ve told the story with a measured seriousness but also with an often fiery, youthful quality.”

“The Philly Inquirer”: says “The result is a vital, human-scaled drama that gets into the heads and souls of ordinary people who come to realize they are figures of destiny.”

“The San Francisco Chronicle”: says “Joseph (Oscar Isaac) is the film’s most impressive creation. In the Bible, he’s almost a complete blank, a nice guy who is upstaged by God, the ultimate case of a fellow getting cut into on the dance floor and making the best of it. But here he’s a tough guy with a strong, moral nature — protective, feisty and capable, a real hero.”

Not bad, right, coming from the secular media?

I’ll try to see it, but my movie going time is pretty limited these days. I have to confess that I went to the movies this past weekend to see something called  “Edmund.” It’s based on an early David Mamet screenplay and stars William B. Macy, who was the reason that my wife and sister-in-law wanted to see it.

It may have been the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It’s the story of a deeply unhappy man (he seems to be mentally ill, actually) who walks out on his wife and into a night of soul-searching and violence. The whole thing is laughable, despite an all-star cast. I kept expecting Macy to wink at the screen, like it couldn’t possibly be serious.

The greatest story ever told, Edmund is not. 

Does one critic make a controversy?

For a while there, I thought that Keith Ellison, who will become the first Muslim in the House of Representatives next month, had really created a stir.

A headline in today’s USA TODAY says “Newly elected Muslim lawmaker under fire.”:

It seems that Ellison wants to take his oath of office on the Quran on Jan. 4 instead of the Bible.

A headline today in Ellison’s hometown paper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, puts it this way: “Oath on Qur’an: Provocation or act of faith?”:

Off the top, I couldn’t figure out what the controversy was about. No one has to take a religious oath. Two former presidents, Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover, affirmed the oath but did not swear it on a Bible.

Then I read the articles and a few others. It turns out that there is no controversy. Only one commentator, the conservative radio star Dennis Prager, has made an issue of Ellison’s choice. He wrote in an on-line “column”:,_not_keith_ellison,_decides_what_book_a_congressman_takes_his_oath_on that Ellison is undermining American culture by placing his hand on a Quran:

“Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress.”

As best I can tell, Prager has received little support, from conservatives or anyone else. Does one critic make a controversy? Is Ellison really under fire?

Did Benedict flip-flop?

Did the pope change his position on whether Turkey should be invited into the European Union?

John Allen, the seemingly omniscient journalist on all things Catholic (yes, that’s the name of his column for National Catholic Reporter), tackles the question in his “column”: today.

Back when he was Cardinal John Ratzinger, the future pope said he was opposed to Turkey being let in. But during his papal trip to Turkey this week, he was reported to have endorsed Turkey’s admission. What gives?

Allen writes:

“First of all, one has to distinguish between the corporate position of the Holy See and the personal position of Joseph Ratzinger. In fact, there has been no real change at all in the former. Vatican diplomats have always said that they are officially neutral on the question of Turkey’s admission, but that if Turkey is to join the EU, it should be required to meet European standards of human rights, the so-called ‘Copenhagen criteria,’ especially with regard to religious freedom.

“As far as Ratzinger personally is concerned, (The Catholic League’s Bill) Donohue has a point that he has not ‘flip-flopped,’ because that would suggest a 180-degree reversal from firm opposition to clear support. That’s not the situation. Instead, he’s moved from opposition to something like a ‘yellow light,’ meaning that he’s open to Turkey’s candidacy in principle, but with conditions, especially what the Vatican calls ‘reciprocity,’ meaning guarantees of religious liberty.

“His earlier opposition is not in doubt.”

Allen is so good at getting to the heart of the matter in a clear, analytical and measured way. It says a lot about him that he has become so well-known and respected by Catholics of all stripes, despite working for a left-leaning newspaper that is considered an enemy of sorts by many orthodox Catholics. (NCR is a fine newspaper, by the way, by journalistic standards.).