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The leader of the largest branch of American Judaism blasted conservative religious activists in a speech Saturday, calling them "zealots" who claim a "monopoly on God" while promoting anti-gay policies akin to Adolf Hitler's.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the liberal Union for Reform Judaism, said "religious right" leaders believe "unless you attend my church, accept my God and study my sacred text you cannot be a moral person."
"What could be more bigoted than to claim that you have a monopoly on God?" Yoffie told a friendly audience of about 5,000 in his keynote address during the movement's national assembly in Houston, which runs through Sunday.
Yoffie used particularly strong language to condemn conservative attitudes toward homosexuals. He said he understood that traditionalists have concluded gay marriage violates Scripture, but he said that did not justify denying legal protections to same-sex partners and their children.
"We cannot forget that when Hitler came to power in 1933 one of the first things that he did was ban gay organizations," Yoffie said. "Yes, we can disagree about gay marriage. But there is no excuse for hateful rhetoric that fuels the hellfires of anti-gay bigotry."
The Union for Reform Judaism represents about 900 synagogues in North America with an estimated membership of 1.5 million people. Of the three major streams of US Judaism - Orthodox and Conservative are the others - it is the only one that sanctions gay ordination and supports civil marriage for same-gender couples.
Yoffie's lengthy speech first addressed several other issues, and his criticism of conservative religious activists came in the middle. The audience was largely sedate until Yoffie reached that topic and responded with repeated, enthusiastic applause.
Yoffie did not mention evangelical Christians directly in his speech, using the term "religious right" instead. In a separate interview, he said the phrase encompassed conservative activists of all faiths, including within the Jewish community.
Yoffie said the activists have little understanding of the liberal religious community, which he insisted also grounds its beliefs in biblical teaching. "We study religious texts day and night, but we have no direct lines to heaven and we aren't always sure that we know God's will," he said. "We bring a measure of humility to our religious belief."
Yoffie said liberals and conservatives share some concerns, such as the potential damage to children from violent or highly sexual TV shows and other popular media. But he said, overall, conservatives too narrowly define family values, making a "frozen embryo in a fertility clinic" more important than a child, and ignoring poverty and other social ills.
"When they cloak themselves in religion and forget mercy, it strikes us as blasphemy," Yoffie said, urging a renewal of religious tolerance in the United States. "We need beware the zealots who want to make their religion the religion of everyone else."
One attendee, Judy Weinman of Troy, New York, said she thought Yoffie was "right on target."
"He reminded us of where we have things in common and where we're different," she said.
Yoffie also urged lawmakers to model themselves on presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who famously told a Houston clergy group on the campaign trail in 1960 that a president should not make policy based on his religion.
On other topics, Yoffie asked Reform synagogues to do more to hold onto members, who often leave after their children go to college. He also said the Reform movement, which is among the most accepting of non-Jewish spouses, should make a greater effort to invite the spouses to convert to Judaism.