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There’s a Rabbi at the Church, and Some Wonder if That’s Kosher

February 20, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

This past Christmas, Rabbi Howard Berman found himself going where perhaps no rabbi has gone before: leading a processional to “Come All Ye Faithful” at a Boston-area Christmas service.

Berman led the processional at the Arlington Street Church not as a guest, but as part of his role as associate clergy at the Boston Unitarian Universalist Church.

While Unitarian Universalists count Jews among their laity and clergy, Berman is believed to be the only rabbi — Reform or otherwise — whose pulpit is a church.

It’s a job he’s had since this past fall. Five months ago, he led congregants through the Jewish holiday cycle of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot during weekly Sunday worship services. Then, when Christmas season rolled around, Berman found himself — for the first time in his 30-year rabbinic career — with a second busy season.

Talking about his “first Christmas” to his congregants at the Arlington Street Church in a recent Sunday sermon, Berman said, “I had a vivid image of my grandparents rising up out of their graves and having a heart attack.”

He said that while he embraces the liberal and pluralistic philosophy of the Unitarian Universalist movement, there are limits to his openness, and he simply could not utter some words expressing “Christological theology.”

But both he and the church’s senior minister, the Rev. Kim K. Crawford Harvie, were quick to point out that the service’s explicit Christian content — which included reading from the Book of Luke and several Christmas carols — is the exception to the norm.

According to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Web site, the movement does not affirm Jesus as the messiah, choosing to instead view him as a “supreme leader and teacher of humankind.”

The movement itself is not associate with any particular creed, so there are a variety of beliefs among individual Unitarian Universalists.

Crawford Harvie says Jesus rarely is mentioned at the Arlington Street Church.

A Chanukah candlelighting ceremony also took place in the service, preceded by Hebrew blessings sung by the reverend and the rabbi. It was followed by an English rendition of “Rock of Ages” sung by the Gay Men’s Chorus.

“This is in no way a Christian congregation,” Berman said.

But while Berman may be correct in describing the congregation as “non-Christian,” some Jews would see his role as problematic at best, or tantamount to heresy at worst.

“Even the notion of appearing to engage in worship of another religion is problematic in terms of Judaism,” said Jon Levenson, a Jewish studies professor at Harvard Divinity School. “My understanding of Jewish law is that it forbids participation in other forms of worship. That seems to be what his job is.”

Unitarian Universalism, a pluralistic religious movement with roots in 16th-century Puritan New England, sees itself as rooted in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, along with a smattering of other faiths.

“Judaism and Christianity are two historic co-equal pillars of Unitarian Universalism,” Berman said.

The movement also welcomes worshipers with a variety of religious beliefs.

The Unitarian Universalist hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition,” reflects this belief. It features a section of Jewish and Christian teachings along with “Wisdom from the World’s Religions.”

But while Unitarian Universalist congregations boast a large Jewish presence among their clergy and their congregants, Berman is the first ordained rabbi to serve as a clergyman.

Until now, the Jewish clergy in the Unitarian Universalist movement have not been rabbis, but Unitarian Universalist ministers of Jewish descent.

The Rev. Elizabeth Lerner, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Silver Spring, Md., and president of the Unitarian Universalist for Jewish Awareness is one such example. She was raised in the Unitarian Universalist movement by a Jewish father and a Christian mother.

Unitarian Universalist ministers study at divinity schools and then are ordained by individual churches, consistent with a practice common in Christian denominations

Berman said Unitarian Universalism and Reform Judaism share plenty of common ground.

“Both are variations on a theme of American liberal religion,” he said, noting that when he was a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary, he would occasionally attend services at the local Unitarian Universalist church, which he said was “basically Reform Judaism without the Hebrew.”

Berman said there is a very strong Jewish network within Unitarian Universalist movement. He estimates about 10 percent of Unitarian Universalist’s roughly 215,000 members are Jewish — with even higher percentages in major metropolitan areas with large Jewish populations.

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC, said he disagrees with the Unitarian Universalists’ combining of religions.

He said the presence of so many Jews within the Unitarian Universalist movement “only reflects that we have to be more positive in our outreach.”

He said, “We need to teach Judaism in an exciting and engaging way for persons living in an open society.”

Ellenson said he does not see Berman’s position as indicative of a trend among Reform rabbis.

“This seems to be an idiosyncratic act on the part of one individual,” he said.

Berman’s colleague in nearby Wellesley, Mass., Rabbi David Wilfond, said, “It pisses me off. I think it’s weird. A rabbi — in a church? This looks wrong.”

“But on second thought,” he added, “if this brings Jews closer to Judaism, then I suppose it is a good thing. But I worry nonetheless that this encourages assimilation and the homogenization of Judaism’s unique message.”

Berman, a native of Fair Lawn, N.J. — a place he describes as an idyllic, almost-mythic postwar religious community made up of equal parts Catholic, Protestant, Jewish — said he grew up chanting his Haftarah portion for his Catholic friends and listening to their catechism.

He knew he wanted to be a rabbi from the time he was 5.

Berman enrolled at HUC in Cincinnati upon graduating high school, and he has pursued a career devoted to interfaith dialogue and religious pluralism.

Before taking the post at the Arlington Street Church, he was as senior rabbi at Chicago’s Sinai Temple.

Unitarian Universalism for Jewish Awareness’ Web site says the group promotes the “Jewish dimension” of the religion and offers resources to Unitarian Universalists who have come to the movement from Judaism, particularly those who are intermarried.

Lerner said many of the Jewish partners of these couples were “deeply wounded” by their perceived rejection by the organized Jewish community.

Edmund Case, the publisher of, a Web site and outreach organization that encourages interfaith families to “make Jewish choices,” agrees.

“Many of these families in Unitarian Universalist churches could have been Jewish families raising their children exclusively as Jews,” Case said, had they felt welcome by the organized Jewish community.

Ellenson, too, would rather see such families finding a spiritual home within the Jewish community.

“We have to create a Judaism that will allow these people whose commitment Judaism is attenuated to experience the richness of Jewish ritual and the vitality of Jewish communal life,” he said. “This is the challenge that is before us.”

But Berman, as he stood high upon the pulpit at the Arlington Street Church recently, sees a different challenge.

On that chilly, snowy Sunday morning, as the stained-glass Tiffany windows were lit not by the sun but by the electric chandeliers that hung from the cathedral’s ceiling, he brought Jewish messages to his diverse congregation.

“I see it people being freed to encounter Judaism and draw from it and be inspired by it,” he said, describing Jewish involvement in Unitarian Universalism. “I see that as a very wonderful thing.”

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