Between clergy and congregant

The relationship between Obama and his pastor is more complex than the cable squawkers would ever admit.

Obama pastor 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama pastor 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Nothing I am going to write about Barack Obama and his controversial pastor - check that, former pastor - will help you better understand the issue than what Obama himself has to say on the subject. So I urge you to read the speech he gave in Philadelphia on Tuesday which was excerpted in the Post on Wednesday. Many Jews are going to focus on his brief remarks on Israel. He called the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's views on the subject "profoundly distorted" because they see "the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." That paragraph will undoubtedly be singled out in the dueling emails exchanged by many Jews over the next few months. But in some ways I am even more intrigued by what the Obama-Wright affair has to say about relationships with our clergy. To what degree are any of us responsible for or implicated in whatever is said from the pulpit and beyond? Obama addresses directly the question that's been nagging at pro-Israel Democrats: why he associated himself with Wright in the first place. If all he knew of Wright "were the snippets that have run in an endless loop on television," says Obama, he too might never have joined the church. But Obama insists that the angry and sometimes shocking excerpts do not reflect the Wright he knows. That pastor "is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor." Obama quotes from his description of the church in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father. Because he is a superb writer, he conjures up the ecstatic attraction of any faith community, a place that becomes "a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world." And as he did in a meeting earlier this month with Jewish leaders in Cleveland, he likens Wright to a member of his family, warts and all. MY OWN experience tells me that the relationship between congregant and controversial clergy is more complex than the cable squawkers will acknowledge. For a few years before we moved to New Jersey, my family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue. Its rabbi is a national figure whom you would be as likely to find at a demonstration as on the bima. Before joining the shul, I mostly knew him as a right-wing firebrand, often on the side of the angels, but just as often making statements that - especially in that overwrought time that preceded the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin - would make my blood boil. But say this about the rabbi: He built an amazing community. Shabbat services were rollicking, jam-packed affairs; holiday celebrations were vibrant; his insistence on hospitality spilled over into an endless round of invitations to Friday night dinners and Saturday afternoon lunches. The typical synagogue event was not a dinner-dance or bagel breakfast, but a bus ride to a United Nations protest or a model Seder for developmentally disabled adults. By sheer force of his vision, his synagogue became a magnet not only for the area's Orthodox but for families like mine who would normally have been more comfortable in a Conservative or Reform congregation. THE RABBI'S rhetoric in shul was never as divisive as Wright's (which is why I won't mention his name here), but I'd sometimes hear him quoted in the media. That's where he'd say the kinds of things that made me worry whether my membership in his synagogue signaled that I condoned them. In the end, I measured him as a man whose political passions were of a piece with his passion to build Jewish community. The rabbi was someone who, as Obama says of Wright, "contains within him the contradictions - good and bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years." This doesn't forgive Wright his overheated rhetoric on race or support for Louis Farrakhan, but it helps me understand why Obama would be a part of his church in spite of that. And if you think that sounds apologetic, then consistency suggests that you begin to apply new scrutiny not only to rabbis, but to the non-Jewish clergy we consider friends and to the friends who consider them their clergy. You can start with the evangelical ministers, like John Hagee, who move us with their commitment to Israel but insult Catholics, Mormons, homosexuals, and secular folk with their (literally) unforgiving theologies. For years, the pro-Israel strategy has been to separate the evangelicals' Zionism from the darker, intolerant implications of their eschatological vision. In light of the Wright controversy, can we still do so? Or you might consider the case of Rabbi Hershel Schachter, dean at Yeshiva University's rabbinical school, who entertained some American yeshiva students in Israel by suggesting they should "shoot the rosh hamemshala" (prime minister of Israel) if the Israeli government were to "give away" Jerusalem. Confronted with the YouTube clip of the incident, Schachter apologized, saying the statements were "uttered spontaneously, off the cuff, and were not meant seriously." (Shachter makes news like this every so often, once drawing an analogy between "monkeys and parrots" and women reading aloud from a marriage contract. Perhaps you had to be there.) Shachter is not running for president, but last time I checked he's still got his job at YU and was recently appointed as one of three American rabbis who will oversee America's Orthodox conversion process. If we're going to ramp up our outrage over angry political rhetoric from the pulpit, are we going to direct it at the rabbis who take a "problematic" Jewish text - say, the Purim Megilla, whose celebratory climax is the death of an untold number of the Jews' enemies - and use it to suggest Israel isn't being tough enough on its enemies? Would these rabbis pass the YouTube test? There's a precedent for this kind of scrutiny and action: In 1995, the Anti-Defamation League's national director, Abraham Foxman, quit his Teaneck shul of 20 years because, as he told The New York Times, its rabbi "spews hate and vitriol toward the elected leaders of Israel." Among some other choice statements, the rabbi had compared Rabin's government to a Judenrat, the Jewish councils forced to carry out the Nazis' ghetto policies. (The rabbi's still in place, by the way.) Foxman's act of conscience stands out because few can remember a similar act by a Jewish leader. You might argue that critics of Schachter or of angry right-wing rabbis don't understand the internal language of Jewish life and the subtlety of speech that draws on the Torah. Indeed, in his own speech, Obama paraphrased the saying, often attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., that "the 11 o'clock hour on Sunday is the most segregated hour in American life." Some exploit the ignorance that results, forgiving their clergy's excesses by saying outsiders don't understand the "coded" nature of their speech. And others ignore the differences, and presume to know exactly what can be found in another's heart and faith. So take your moral stands, tolerant or severe - just make sure you're setting a standard that you and your leaders can meet. The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.