Six years of Williams College feminist haggadot
Passover, matzah, dialectics.

Rabbi Dennis Ross on Progressive Faith

"We are here this morning because, through our collective efforts, we are agents in bringing our fragile world ever closer to the promise of redemption," Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, director of Concerned Clergy for Choice, told the audience. "As clergy from an array of denominations, we say yes to the call before us. Please join me in prayer: We praise you, God, ruler of time and space, for challenging us to bring healing and comfort to your world."

"Amen," the audience responded.

That was reported by Neela Banerjee of the New York Times, in The Abortion-Rights Side Invokes God, Too, her recent article about Plannet Parenthood's Interfaith Prayer Breakfast. It pleased me both because I have a longstanding interest in progressive religious faith (for obvious reasons) and because I know Rabbi Ross. These days he heads Concerned Clergy for Choice, but he used to be the rabbi at Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield, and on Wednesday he gave a talk at Williams College entitled Progressive Faith in the Current Political Climate: Finding the Right Words.

What follows is a partial transcript of his talk. Some is drect quotation; some is paraphrase. (Should be fairly obvious which is which.) He talks pretty quickly so I wasn't able to get everything down; if anything is unclear, it's probably because I wasn't able to transcribe the whole thing!


He began by citing Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's argument that Katrina was God's retribution against America for supporting the Gaza withdrawal. (And other Jewish right-wing notions, e.g. that one shouldn't pray for Ariel Sharon because his stroke was punishment for the disengagement.) "These angry rabbis don't intend to make a scene of themselves, and they dismiss people like me who condemn their backwards theology." So what are they getting at, he asked?

Right-wing religious figures, and right-wing political figures, are "messaging," Rabbi Ross said. "When religious leaders pontificate about the sin that made the winds spin, they are keeping the faithful informed. They exploit life's hardships to justify their bad theology."

There's nothing inherently wrong with messaging. But it behooves us to understand the way different messages operate and to decode the thinking behind them. Rabbi Ross' perspectives -- his "messages" -- are influenced both by the writings of George Lakoff (who spoke at Williams last fall) and the writings of Martin Buber (whose philosphy informs and permeates Rabbi Ross' book God in our Relationships.) The talk he would present to us, he explained, would deal in broad generalities. "My goal tonight is to establish a basis for a mainstream religious message for the current political climate."

First, he defined two ways of understanding the world, which he called "red" and "blue." He admitted that this is overly-binaristic thinking, but considers it a useful paradigm for talking about two different sets of priorities and two ways of expressing them.

"Red" -- exemplified by the religious right and by President Bush -- messages "a clear truth, offering a lucid and simple demarcation of right and wrong." Their messages include things like: premarital sex (or gay sex) is evil, abortion is murder, stay the course in Iraq. Red takes its reading of the Bible rigidly, literally, and seriously. In the story of the Akedah, Red might argue that Abraham was following orders; his unswerving loyalty gives them comfort.

"Blue," in turn, stresses the repsonsibility to think things through; to question, to arrive at a considered decision. Blue is likelier to maintain that Abraham struggled as he weighed his options and reached his conclusion. In the blue paradigm, each person is the expert as s/he maintains his/her own reality. Red tends to tar blue as a bunch of anything-goes relativists; blue needs to assert that there is nothing wrong with heartfelt examination, tolerance of dissenting voices, and changing one's mind. The red message first requires clarity; blue has a truth that is open to discussion.

The red message requires accountability. "Give away Gaza, anger God, and you get smitten. Schools that don't perform get punished by being left behind. Women get punished for their pregnancies and are obligated to carry them to term. And as for immigrants that sneak into our country...? Make them work, then send them back. And remember that the ultimate accountability awaits us in heaven. It is as though there were a sixth Book of Moses, the Book of Accountability."

And yet if we look closer at the Bible, a literal reading yields interpretations too strict even for the red folks. In the blue reading of Scripture, there's always a "yes but." To blue folks, the Bible isn't a "clear" book; it's poetry, it's metaphor. And, Rabbi Ross argued, the rabbinic tradition within Judaism privileges the blue way of thinking.

For instance, take the example of what the Bible says we are to do with a disobedient youth who is a glutton or a drunkard -- stone him to death. "Needless to say, Jewish people don't do this today." Arguably, we never did. The Talmudic rabbis made it effectively impossible to bring a conviction under this law. First, they excluded half the population by saying it applies to a "ben," not a "bat" -- a son, not a daughter. Then they ruled out "yeled" and "na'ar," different ages of youths and kids, such that the law is only applicable to someone who is within 6-months of his bar mitzvah. Then they defined gluttony and drunkenness in a very specific way, and said there had to be two witnesses to the transgression, and then said only the second transgression was punishable by death! "They restricted the application of this law because they wanted to prevent conviction. They had a deep and abiding respect for the law, and an abhorrence of cold-blooded retribution."

The rabbis were interested in ensuring that mercy balanced judgement, and they can be a model for us. "A religious person like me can stress respect for the law and reasonable measures of enforcement. Justice and mercy go hand-in-hand. Accountability and compassion are two sides of the same coin. And most critically, blue has to steer the public discussion away from punishment and back toward some compassion."

"Red seeks purity...and seeks to impose its vision on every portion of society." Blue believes "that no social system is perfect. Someone will always break the rules. Someone will always evade punishment. One welfare cheat doesn't mean that the entire system is broken."

Red relies on a strong God-as-father authority figure. "Dad rules the military just like he rules the home." Non-traditional families don't fit the red paradigm. In the red version of worship, God is the King of Kings, and only men can be red religious leaders."But the God of blue has no gender. Blue has been ordaining women for years, and more recently, openly gay and lesbian clergy. Blue even uses feminine terms for God, like Shekhinah!"

The whole world is red's slippery slope. "They belive kids need clear rules, and the threat of punishment."

"In contrast, blue believes kids need positive, enduring relationships with responsible elders. Kids need to be excited about learning, taught to be curious about our world. To be able to trust schoolteachers, and take pride in their successes. Kids need to know what elders expect from the young, and that there are consequences when they break the rules. Kids need to know which adults they can trust in a time of need."

"More recently, religious progressives like me have been wondering how reactionary messages came to have such sway in the media," Rabbi Ross said. "Red is seeing greater economic success; is funding and targeting effectively. Blue has gotten complacent and allowed itself to be marginalized."

Rabbi Ross talked about two problems he perceives in the moderate (or progressive -- he admitted that he personally questions which term is most apt, so he used them both in his talk) religious world. "Religious moderates like me got into trouble when we elevated moral agency as our primary value of faith. I and other religious leaders affirmed a truth that allowed us to be exploited and marginalized by our detractors...I still believe in moral agency, but I no longer present it as the centerpiece of my faith." The other problem is an overfocus, in the last few decades on a personal search for spirituality and meaning. "Blue embarked on a personal search for meaning, while red set out to capture the White House."

He spoke about the shift marked by the 1970 publication of The First Jewish Catalogue -- an exciting exploration of far-ranging topics designed to help us live and experience Jewish life in a creative, personal way. "It gave us permission to fashion Jewish infuse ancient rituals with contemporary and personal meaning. Instead of dictating practice, it facilitated." Above all, note its central metaphor: "Judaism is a catalogue. The Jewish catalogue allowed for casual browsing, and allowed me to select from an array of Jewish possibilities." It privileged the process of taking traditional practices and making them personally meaningful.

This was a decidedly new development. For most of its history, there was one proper way to do things within Judaism -- that outlined in the Shulkhan Arukh. By contrast, as the 20th century closed, progressive Jews emphasized personal spiritual development. We held great seders not because God ordered it or because some rabbi told us to, but because we found meaning in it! We made our rituals more inclusive of our diverse communities. We worked for social justice because we found it meaningful.

"We focused inward. And now we are waking to a crisis in our larger host community, in the American public sector. Suddenly people in high places are trumpeting moral values that are alien to us. They want to foist their religion on the public, thwarting scientific and medical research, impairing our evolving religious definitions of marriage, bringing our nation to war."

Like folks who are red, folks who are blue "worry about the wellbeing of families, about the overcommercialization of holy days, the prevalence of violence and sex in the media. We want our children to have sound education and health care, and we are concerned about keeping our communities safe. But we continue to believe and affirm that America will not move ahead by embracing the value system of an extremist minority system as the law of the land. Will we just sit down and let Red take over and impose rules grounded in an angry God?" Or will we see the world as did our rabbis, with understanding of human shortcomings?

The answer comes down to how we envision the perfect world. "I suspect that any person of faith dreams of a street of perfection running through a neighborhood of perpetual bliss, in a land of plenty and a world of peace." But our American dream is punctured again and again by realities of homelessness, hunger, and war. "Despite our accomplishments we're nowhere near to ending hunger, heartache, disease, or the dirty soil and polluted waters of our nation or our planet."

What can tradition offer in response to these challenges? "Biblical humanism," a derivative of Martin Buber's philosophy. "Our Bible practically opens with a foretaste of utopia" -- Shabbat. After six days of labor, we do as God did, and cease work for a day, we and our entire households, including those who work for us and even the beasts that serve us. "We meditate on God's labor, and on ours; how we work, and still can refresh ourselves." And we recall the Exodus from Egypt and flight to freedom in the freedom we savor one day of each week.

But the Bible doesn't stop there; it moves us from one day in seven, to one year in seven. "Every seventh year the land lies fallow...We don't plant, and we don't harvest. The hungry and poor, the widow and orphan come to the field to gather what grows there on its own. Indentured servants go free." And then there's the Yovel, the Jubilee, in the 50th year: all land returns to its original owner. This is the Biblical utopian vision, the Torah's dream of a perfect society. "The rich and poor are spared the drudgery of work. Indentured servants go free. Nature regenerates the land. What you own comes back to you. All in a cycle of social, economic, political, ecological harmony in the ultimate theological order. Like God, we are spared the worry and exertion of order. Like God, we see every human being as equal and free."

It's a utopian vision; the only part of it that ever really came to pass was the weekly component, Shabbat. But our utopian visions are important; they tell us something about what matters to us. Each of us holds a utopian vision -- the question is, what kind?

"One where we are equal? Or one that focuses on rewards for the faithful, and on punishments for those who stray?" Biblical humanism offers the instruction to "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt," a verse repeated three dozen times in the Torah. It says to protect the stranger, not to punish or neglect. This has to resonate for us in a world where so many are only one paycheck, or killer hurricane, away from homelessness. The central value of the Bible is to care for people, not to impose rules on them."

"When the wind spins it's not our place to ladle out blame, but to feed the children of God left hungry and homeless. This injunction is the most essential Jewish, and also Christian and Muslim, teaching. And we need to take our utopian vision, and let it fuel us as the dialogue begins."

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