Tuesday, February 22, 2011

'Reform Judaism like Radicalized Islam' - Why Beck got it so very wrong

Those who have read this blog before know that its not my usual mode to add my commentary to the wonderful world of political punditry.  While my congregants can probably guess what TV channels I mostly tune in to for my daily dose of news (ok, I'll confess - its usually BBC World because how else am I going to get a daily dose to try and preserve my ever-diminishing British accent!), I don't use (or rather, abuse) my pulpit in ways that make it a soapbox for my personal, political views.  That's not what a place of worship is for.
But.... when I listened to the excerpt from Glenn Beck's radio show posted on salon.com  that is rapidly being re-tweeted all over Twittersville as I type, I decided that this one was blog-worthy.  Why? Because the accusation that Rabbis can speak of nothing that politicians vote on without being accused of being 'political' and not truly 'religious' is such utter ridiculousness that it cannot be left to stand.

Now, the tweet making its away up the charts is eye-catching (that's why I used it in my blog heading today) but somewhat misleading.  If you listen to the full context of the quote from the radio show, Beck explicitly says that he is not making the likeness between Reform Judaism and Radicalized Islam on the basis of fundamentalist or violent behaviors.  Rather, he is saying that neither of them are expressions of Religious faith as much as they are politically motivated movements.

What Judaism and Islam both have in common as faith traditions is that their codes of law and practices were never confined to ritual practice and belief.  Both were conceived of, in their origins, as entire social systems.  Jewish law from the earliest centuries speak of the obligations of a community providing a particular minimum of teacher/student ratio in the classroom.  It speaks of the obligation of a communal pot to ensure that doctors are paid for their medical services even when an individual cannot themselves afford the medical care they need to keep them alive.  It speaks of ethical business practices, ethical ways of collecting charitable funds, and how to figure out ways of distributing those funds when the community's need is greater than the contents of the fund.

While, as American Jews, we live in a country where there is a constitutional separation of church and State, Judaism as a faith tradition was not originally conceived with such a separation as part of the cultural context in which it operated.  This means that when Jews talk about practicing Judaism, they might be talking about their Sabbath observance or their Passover Seder, but they might just as equally be talking about their social activism on behalf of the needy.

They might be talking about why they, as individuals, feel called to lobby their political representatives to preserve a woman's civil legal right to an abortion because those who wish to take away that right would actually be preventing Jews from dealing with these women's health issues in ways that are congruent with Jewish law.  Jewish law is absolutely explicit - if an unborn child threatens the health of a woman, the woman's well-being always takes precedence.  Reform Rabbis who advocate on this issue don't wish to prevent someone else acting on the basis of their faith in a different way; but they do object to a different religious understanding of this issue impinging on our rights as American citizens.

They might be talking about environmental policies because Jewish ethical teachings about environmental conservation go back to Genesis, and the rabbinic extension of Bal Taschit - do not waste - has modern day, practical applications that lead us to encourage our government to take steps to help our society better take care of our precious earth.

And so, yes, Reform Rabbis like myself are among those who will speak out on issues such as these because our Religious tradition has wisdom to share that guides our values and lives today.

For someone as deeply uninformed about most things as Beck to claim to know what Reform Judaism is and what it stands for, and on what basis Reform Jews engage with matters of social policy, is simply ridiculous.  But more than that; when he brings up the notion that people of faith have nothing to offer on any issue that is ever dealt with by the legislature and that doing so nullifies their claim to be 'religious', he is perpetuating a fallacy about the role of religiously-informed values that guide the lives of individuals.

Jewish Religious living and Jewish values that do not address what it means to live together as a community and as a nation, what it means to take care of each other, what it means to preserve civil freedoms, what it means to challenge those who whip up fear and hatred among neighbors, is no Judaism that I care to associate with.  If Judaism is reduced to the performance of ritual and the recitation of rites alone and is not also about how we live our lives as human beings, with each other, as best as we possibly can, then it is a Judaism without heart or soul.  That's not Reform or Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist or Renewal... that's just Judaism.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz


  1. Well-stated! The Abrahamic traditions are more than a set of rituals. They have taken faith, as seen through text, and developed behaviours that supports the values inherent within those texts. To say that our movement is not an expression of religious faith is simply ridiculous.

  2. Cantor Sharon KunitzFebruary 22, 2011 at 10:22 PM

    Beautifully stated Rachel. Yishar kocheich!

  3. Very well put!

    Beck belongs to the Mormon Church, which was behind California's Prop 8 to ban same sex marriage, and is more intertwined with the state politics of Utah than any other faith is with any government west of Vatican City. By that measure, Beck must think that Reform Judaism is like radical Islam is like the Church of the Latter Day Saints. And that makes as much sense as anything else Beck says.

  4. Well written...is it ok if I share your blog on my FB page?

    Student Rabbi Erin Boxt

  5. Thank you very much for writing this- you state your point very well.

  6. Thanks for the feedback and affirmations. Erin - certainly cross-post on Facebook or elsewhere. Much appreciated.

  7. Unfortunately, Beck has probably never heard of the concepts of Mitzvot or Tikun Olam, much less could he understand them. This is the very core of Jewish Living. You put it very eloquently. Thank you.
    Joel Newman

  8. "...he brings up the notion that people of faith have nothing to offer on any issue that is ever dealt with by the legislature and that doing so nullifies their claim to be 'religious', he is perpetuating a fallacy about the role of religiously-informed values that guide the lives of individuals."

    I think a part of this is political. (...Looking back on writing that, I'm laughing at myself.) It's actually a very strange position to be making, for an organization (Fox News) that so often pumps up it's rhetoric around "values" and so forth, but it works very well to reinforce the disguise that taking certain political positions are not violating the separation of church and state, but rather, just an expression of "core values" that "everybody should have." By extension, it works to delegitimize anyone who doesn't agree with these "core values," is clearly a minority (jewish, liberal, radical, socialist, athiest...) and basically just, "doing politics wrong."

    It's like the ultimate "Yer doin' it WRONG!" based solely on the question of whether you accept/share their positions or not.