News Analysis: Jewish community is curiously silent on the Promise Keepers

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WASHINGTON — Almost everybody had an opinion — usually a passionate one — about last Saturday's Promise Keepers rally in the nation's capital, which attracted more than a half-million men for a religious revival stressing commitment to marriage and family, as well as to an aggressive brand of Christianity.

Everybody had an opinion, that is, except the Jewish organizations, which watched the proceedings in unsettled silence.

Even the opening of the event — a self-described Messianic Jew blowing a shofar, a crude attempt by the Christian group to be "inclusive" — did not provoke the usual outpouring of indignant press releases.

But just beneath the surface, the mass rally stirred a general unease and ambivalence.

"Much of what they say is long overdue," said a leading Orthodox activist. "How can you complain about the principles of fidelity and family responsibility? But because they have framed these issues in such a narrow way, there's a sense of anxiety about where this movement could go and a reluctance to embrace even the positive elements of what they say."

Even more, it's what they don't say that alarms many Jews, several observers agreed. But it's difficult to attack mere implications without sounding paranoid and intolerant: a primary reason for the Jewish community's striking silence on the Promise Keepers phenomenon.

Jewish concerns about the Promise Keepers focus on several areas:

Jews have always been distrustful of Christian revivalism; Saturday's rally was one of the biggest revival meetings ever.

Many Jews would welcome a restoration of religious belief and observance among all faiths. But Christian revivalism has certain connotations. It implies a kind of mass phenomenon, a cascading, emotional reaction that can easily spin out of control. Moreover, revivals are based heavily on claims of personal revelation, a key element in the Promise Keepers theology.

Nobody is claiming that Bill McCartney, the Promise Keepers founder, is a demagogue, but that kind of surging social dynamic is rife with potential for demagoguery.

The Promise Keepers received tremendous national attention by defining a serious national problem — the decay of the American family — in exclusively sectarian terms.

Speakers at the rally didn't suggest that other religions create their own versions of the organization because they seem to believe genuine family stability is impossible outside their very specific Christian framework.

"I applaud them for stressing values that we Jews share," said Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "They are not just articulating these values, but trying to find ways to people to live them, which is good. But when they claim these are exclusively Christian values, it crosses a line."

Jews are wary of the Promise Keepers movement's strong political undertones.

Even though Saturday's rally was a strictly religious event, the fact that it took place in the shadow of the Capitol, preceded by congressional meetings and receptions, suggested a political motive.

So did the involvement of top Christian right groups, including the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council, organizations that have attempted to put their sectarian stamp on national politics and policy.

Those groups, Jewish leaders privately fear, may be able to exploit a surging Promise Keepers movement for their own political ends.

At the same time, the theme of racial reconciliation that has become central to the Promise Keepers platform confuses Jews.

The theme resonates with a Jewish community that sees the racial divide as a pressing national social emergency, but the resonance is dampened by distrust of the messenger.

Jews support equal rights for women and reject the blatant gay-bashing of many Promise Keepers admirers.

The Promise Keepers have not made gay rights their focus. But many of their leaders, including McCartney himself, have been involved in anti-gay rights activities.

Many Jewish women do not identify with the program of the National Organization for Women — but they identify even less with the Promise Keepers' insistence that families can function properly only when men assert their biblically mandated role as leaders in the home.

"For most Jews, equality is a core social and political belief," said an official with a major Jewish group. "When the Promise Keepers suggest that what families need is more male control, they're going to lose most of the Jewish community right off the bat."