At Evangelical School, Reform Rabbi Presses Tolerance for Gay Marriage

The band praised Jesus, the pastor prayed for the unsaved and the rabbi preached understanding for gay unions. In what Jerry Falwell said was a first in the 32 years of his Liberty University, a rabbi helped the controversial televangelist deliver the weekly convocation Wednesday in the packed campus stadium.

But not just any rabbi: Eric Yoffie, leader of the Union of Reform Judaism, who sharply criticized the religious right in an address last November to the Reform movement’s biennial convention.

Falwell’s invitation was a signal of reconciliation after some difficult times between evangelicals and Jews, all sides conceded.

“To communicate our concerns to their flock is positive,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who like Yoffie has led recent Jewish criticism of the evangelical right. “By going there, he did not give a hechsher,” or stamp of approval, “to Falwell’s views; he gave expression to Falwell’s reaching out.”

Yoffie’s appearance was a salve after a spate of differences over Christian proselytizing of Jews; evangelical enthusiasm for the Hollywood mega-hit “The Passion of the Christ,” a film many Jews regarded as anti-Semitic; and Pat Robertson’s recent suggestion that God struck down Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in retribution for last summer’s Gaza Strip withdrawal.

Yoffie began by emphasizing common ground on issues such as Israel and defending persecuted religious minorities overseas. He earned warm applause when he praised evangelicals for their resolute opposition to what he called “the moral crisis in America.”

But he was equally resolute in laying out Reform’s fundaments, including church-state separation, a woman’s right to be the ultimate arbiter in an abortion and legal protection for gay couples.

“Gay Americans pose no threat to their friends, neighbors or co-workers, and when two people make a lifelong commitment to each other, we believe it is wrong to deny them the legal guarantees that protect them and their children and benefit the broader society,” Yoffie said to shocked murmurs, scattered hisses and boos.

Falwell chastised his students, telling them he had never been booed in a synagogue. Aside from that, the reception for Yoffie was warm.

Falwell said Yoffie’s tone was as important as his message.

“He came across in a loving, respectful way,” Falwell told JTA after the convocation.

Students said they were happy to hear differing views, and hoped to find common ground on other issues.

“This is an opportunity to respect and recognize as legitimate different viewpoints,” said Jenni Thurman, a sophomore majoring in journalism.

Contacts with evangelicals are not unknown in the Jewish community; the Orthodox have maintained such ties for years.

“For a long time the Orthodox community has found opportunities to work on common goals with faith communities across the spectrum,” said Nathan Diament, director of public affairs at the Orthodox Union’s Washington office. “We work on an array of issues, and also have our disagreements with evangelicals — and with Reform Jews, for that matter.”

Yoffie’s appearance was a novelty for students at Liberty’s bucolic campus in central Virginia’s rolling hills, where sports trophies are emblazoned with the slogan “Champions for Christ!”

The convocation began with an amplified hymn, students gently rocking and squeezing their eyes shut, some of them clutching black bibles in one hand and cell phones in the other.

The whole affair was run with the discipline that comes of years of televangelism: A teleprompter counted down each speaker’s time — Yoffie got eight minutes and Falwell 25 — and singers, fiddlers and guitarists moved on and off the platform on cue.

Yoffie said he hoped Wednesday’s appearance was the start of a relationship.

“I would hope as we move forward there will be follow-up and there will be coalition building,” he said.

Falwell, who said the idea to invite Yoffie came during an interview with journalist Zev Chafets, was noncommittal about a follow-up.

He qualified future relations with those with whom he disagreed: “We can differ on many things not essential to the freedoms in our country.”

Did those “essential” things include the continued denial of legal protections for gay couples? Falwell was evasive.

“We do not believe in gay marriage or polygamy or any other family form than a man marrying a woman singly,” he replied.

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