What Catholics Can Learn from Progressive Judaism

October 15, 2012 at 10:50 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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(This post is a review of Whose Torah? A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism by Rebecca T. Alpert,a professor in the Religion Department at Temple University. The book was published by the New Press in 2008.  You can get a copy on Amazon for $3.45!!)

I used to worry that the emergence of new Catholic worship groups—small faith communities, Roman Catholic WomenPriest congregations, independent Catholic churches—would undercut the unity of the church. I thought that without the Vatican, we would become like Protestants, dividing into two churches, then four, then eight, ad infinitum.

Lately, though, I realize that a greater obstacle to the unity of Catholicism is the Vatican and many of its bishops, busy as they are excommunicating, vilifying, or firing those who disagree with them. I also wonder if Catholicism isn’t, in many respects, more like Judaism than Protestantism, with deep ethnic, cultural, and ritual traditions connecting us across a range of differences.

I read Rebecca Alpert’s Whose Torah? with this question in mind. Alpert is a Reconstructionist rabbi who teaches in the Religion Department at Temple University, though you may know her better as a commentator on the PBS documentary, Jews and Baseball.

Whose Torah? explores the ways in which progressive Jews address a range of contemporary justice issues, with chapters on sexuality, gender, race, war and peace, poverty, the environment, and a concluding one: “Where Do We Go From Here?” But Alpert lays the foundation of the discussion in an introduction in which she acknowledges up-front (and with some humor) the disagreements about who, in fact, is a Jew–“who belongs in the Jewish tent to begin with,” as she puts it (4). Increasingly, there are similar disagreements about who’s a “real Catholic”; maybe we need to acknowledge our differences as Alpert does.

Alpert’s designation of a specific Torah text, “Justice, justice pursue” (Deut. 16:20) as the answer to how to live a good Jewish life could seem to contradict this acknowledgment of difference. But Alpert shows the many ways that text can be interpreted: historical, linguistic, legal, Midrashic (in stories), personal. Her argument that progressive Jews’ actions and convictions qualify as one of the meanings of the text will be a source of encouragement to those of us struggling to have our commitments and actions recognized as part of the Catholic tradition “If we want the answer to ‘Who does the Torah belong to?’ to be ‘It belongs to us,’” she writes, “then we must make our lives the text…” (16).

Alpert’s emphasis on diversity resonates throughout Whose Torah?  In the chapters on sexuality and gender, even as she acknowledges Jewish differences over questions like gay marriage, and marriage itself, she notes that Reconstructionist Jews pioneered the development and legitimation of gay commitment ceremonies. I was also moved to learn of Judaism’s historic stress on the effects of pregnancy on the mother in the decision to have an abortion, and of the much-needed Jewish understanding of abortion as neither murder nor ethically insignificant

Catholic readers may be tempted to skip the chapter on race, assuming that Jews, unlike Catholics, belong to only one ethnic group. But here too Alpert documents the extraordinary differences between Jewish ethnic groups all over the world. She likewise admits that though some Jews fought for civil rights, others did in fact own slaves or engage in racism, an ambiguity that marks American Catholic history as well. Chapters on economic and environmental justice also explore the striking diversity of Jewish social organization and action.

The part of Whose Torah? that gave me, as a Catholic reader, the most to think about, though, was Alpert’s chapter on war and peace. I learned, for example, that American Jews became increasingly invested in Hanukkah not only as an antidote to  Christmas, but also to provide themselves with a Jewish celebration of militarism after Israel became a nation. I was also moved by Alpert’s narrative of her own conversion to advocating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and the heroic efforts of various Jewish and Israel peace groups in this regard.

But what struck me most forcibly about the chapter is how the problem of Israel is virtually the only peace issue it addresses. A reader might justifiably conclude that in 2008 there were no other wars or threats of war in the world. So Catholicism is not the only religion to be fixated on one issue. For the Jews, it’s the state of Israel; for us, it’s abortion and sex. Indeed, the name of one of the first groups to call into question Israeli militarism and hatred of Arabs was Breirachoice in Hebrew. Breira started a conversation many Jews considered forbidden, and successor Jewish peace groups have extended it. Similarly, progressive Catholics will continue to work for sexual equality in the church. But we must also attend carefully to a wide range of other justice issues, as Rebecca Alpert does in Whose Torah?

(This review appeared initially in the June-October 2012 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.)

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