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Robert Heller on the Iraq Resolution

Remarks of Robert M. Heller, Chair, Union for Reform Judaism Board of Trustees Executive Committee Meeting
March 12, 2007

I want to add a word with respect the Iraq discussion. I am proud that we had this conversation. I know it was painful for some of you and all of us heard the voices of those congregational leaders who said they would lose members and donors if we spoke out again on this issue. Let me add some context.

It is the conceit of every generation that it is wiser than those who came before and more experienced than those who follow. But the historians remind us that the past has its lessons and we are wise to learn them. We are far from the first generation of leaders to confront the very issues and arguments that we heard or read in connection with this resolution.

The Passover seder is a good model here. The Haggadah offers us a conversation across the ages and enables us to hear those voices today. Let's listen to some voices from those earlier Union discussions. In the 1920s and 30s the Union repeatedly supported the rights of labor over the opposition – and despite the threats – of some congregants and leaders who were successful business people. Here is one voice, Roscoe Nelson (Portland, OR) from the 1929 Biennial in San Francisco:

"Too often I have heard it said 'when I go to synagogue, I go for spiritual inspiration. I hear enough elsewhere about the coal strikes, the housing problems, the juvenile delinquency and the rest of such Bolshevik cant.' Let me say to my good friends who reason thus that no rabbi ever announced a holier or more truly Jewish topic than the one embraced in the broad category of Jewish social justice."

In the 1950s, Union President Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, of blessed memory, pointed out that the notion of cabining and confining Judaism to the four walls of the synagogue and not speaking out on the issues of the day was a relatively new phenomenon. "Be it ever so humble, no phase of daily experience was beyond the purview of the synagogue's direct influence. Nor was this influence limited to rites and rituals, diet and dishes."

As he put it in 1957, the Union must speak to the great issues of the day. Rabbi Eisendrath urged us to demand that America "sustain and strengthen the UN, enact the Genocide Convention" and lead the world in "risky" but "imperative reduction in world-threatening armaments." For "if these are not the tasks of the synagogue, if this is not the be all and end all of our religion, then of what does our faith and our purpose as ministers of the Most High consist?"

Despite the controversy, the Union spoke out on those issues and on the issue of civil rights. Indeed, in 1959 at its Biennial in Miami, then a segregated city, and on into the 1960s, the Union passed civil rights resolutions over the objection of those who said it would lead to loss of members and perhaps even withdrawal of their congregations from the Union.

As one southern rabbi, who was a supporter of civil rights, but who feared for his congregation put it: most members of his congregation were anti-Negro and wanted to withdraw from the UAHC. He urged the Union not to be so quick to condemn Dixie and inflame the situation. Nevertheless, the Union spoke out.

At the 1961 Union Biennial, then Secretary of Labor, Arthur Goldberg, a member of a Union congregation, urged the Union to have its voice heard on the issues of the day. "[R]eligion must recognize its obligations as well as its rights to preach and practice moral values, or religion will fail in its mission." (Emphasis added.)

In 1962, summing up some eight decades of the Union's history of speaking out on the tough issues of the day – with its views on many of them having ultimately prevailed – one Union board member who was also a member of the Commission on Social Action said:

"It is heartening to read the resolutions of decades gone by adopted by our Union or by the [Central Conference of American Rabbis] and to realize that our fellow Jews spoke out cogently, directly, conscientiously upon problems of great ethical and moral import and saw their principles prevail within their own lifetimes. I only point out that the history of our own religious institutions serves to demonstrate the wisdom of the attitude expressed by President Kennedy when he said [in a letter to Rabbi Eisendrath] '…that religious freedom within a [democratic] society creates an explicit responsibility, that religion must bear, to illuminate and fortify the moral purposes of society.'"

In the interest of full disclosure, that speech was given by my father, Philip Heller, of blessed memory.

The Union did continue to fulfill its responsibility to illuminate and fortify the moral purposes of society as it addressed civil rights, voting rights, the Vietnam War and other contentious issues.

In short, where there is substantial agreement – and there has never been unanimity – as to what our texts and tradition demand of us, we have spoken out. It is an important part of what we do as Reform Jews, not because we are liberals or democrats or republicans or conservatives, but because we are Jews whose Jewish values extend outside the synagogue doors to the workplace, the marketplace, the school yards, the public square and beyond. Whether the issue was the rights of the working person early in the 20th Century, segregation and nuclear disarmament in the 1950s, Civil Rights and Vietnam in the 1960s, history has vindicated what we did and we continue to take pride in having been an effective religious voice even though the issues were controversial and divisive in the sense that a vocal, often powerful minority opposed our action and in some cases threatened to leave. Yes, we must guard against oppressive majorities and must listen to other voices just as the Talmud respects minority points of view. But we also must have the moral courage to stand up to those who would thwart the majority with demands or threats. Above all, we need people of goodwill on all sides who are willing to enter the debate and who are prepared to accept the result if their view does not prevail.

I do not know whether history will celebrate what we did in Houston at the 2005 Biennial and today with respect to the war in Iraq. I do know that this Executive Committee acted in the best tradition of Reform Judaism and in keeping with the mission and history of the Union virtually since its inception.

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