BALTIMORE, Nov. 16 — Rabbi Alexander Schindler looked around the world and what did he see? Religious zealotry. Terrorism. Anti-Semitism. It’s a frightening sight, but Rabbi Schindler, the immediate past president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Reform Judaism’s central body, pressed for a positive response to today’s toxic trends.
Last Sunday. Rabbi Schindler concluded his weekend as lecturer at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Morris Lieberman Lecture Series by talking about the “Reform Jewish Response to Religious Extremism” in Israel and the United States.
But on Wednesday, the The Reform movement’s champion of progressive politics on behalf of women, gays and others in Jewish religious life, died at the age of 75. No more details were known at presstime. He served as president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations from 1973 to 1996. In that time he was known for his pressing for Jewish knowledge, supporting the controversial patrilineal descent decision and working to include intermarried couples in Jewish life.
With Jews constituting only 2 percent of the U.S. population, a minuscule figure that is expected to decline even more in the future, “We need allies to survive,” said Rabbi Schindler. Even more, though, he continued, Jews need “to be part of the civilizing and humanizing force of the universe.”
A native of Germany who came to the United States at age 12, he earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for bravery in action as a ski-trooper during World War II. He graduated from the College of the City of New York and received his ordination from Hebrew Union College.
At the time of his death, Rabbi Schindler served as president of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and vice president of the World Jewish Congress.
Jews are “beleaguered by zealots,” Rabbi Schindler declared here this week. Those zealots wear different religious hats, he added, from Islamic fundamentalists and the Christian right to, unfortunately, Jewish extremists.
“The fissures in our [Jewish] community are widening,” he said of the latter. “Increasingly, we are divided into warring factions that construct their own demons … according to their differing interpretations of the Divine Name.”
Rabbi Schindler decried Reform Jewish extremists who “demonize” all Orthodox Jews as potential assassins capable of murdering an Israeli prime minister. He was equally appalled by Haredim , fervently Orthodox Jews, who read all other Jews out of the religion and who are capable of interrupting a worship service liberal Jewish men and women were holding in Jerusalem on Shavuot.
As if this sinat chinam , baseless hatred, isn’t bad enough, an even more dangerous implication for Israel lurked, he said. “Jewish religious extremists don’t target only liberal or secular Jews.
Nowadays, their primary goal is to undermine the peace process,” and they can use violence to do so, said Rabbi Schindler. He finds them a “mirror copy” of Muslim zealots, who are also intend on destroying the peace process.
Jewish religious extremists operate from a post-Holocaust world view in which all non-Jews are anti-Semites, either actively or covertly, he said. For those who believe this way, the answer is separation from the rest of the world.
Reform Judaism rejects this view because, he added, Jews have friends everywhere, and separation from the rest of the world is neither feasible nor desirable.
However, Israel is not the only home for religious fanaticism, he continued, as exmples could be found in America where Christian right activists justify the killing of doctors who perform abortion.
While not all of the clergy of the Christian right justify the use of violence, their words cast everything into apocalyptic terms of good vs. evil, the forces of light vs. the forces of darkness, God vs. Satan, he explained.
For example, he continued, people who favor equality for women are labeled “anti-family.” People who want equal rights for homosexuals are called “perverts.” People who oppose school prayer are denounced as “anti-Christ.”
Rabbi Schindler quoted the words of other leaders — the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, among them — to the same effect.
Even worse, the comments feed an underground current of anti-Semitism — if not to actively encourage it themselves, he said.
The Reform Jewish response to religious extremism is to “believe that to be a Jew is to be a goad to the conscience of humankind,” he said. “To be a Jew, as God told Abraham thousands of years ago, is to be part of a great and enduring people, but also to be a blessing to all humankind.”