As war intensifies, rabbis still struggle with positions

NEW YORK — As U.S. forces pushed toward Baghdad, 350 Conservative rabbis were embroiled in a fierce Iraq conflict of their own.

Opinions varied so widely and discussions lasted so long at last week's Rabbinical Assembly annual conference in Los Angeles that the participating rabbis put off an equally controversial debate on homosexuality.

At the last minute, the group sent a final position paper on Iraq to its executive committee so the rabbis could deal with other resolutions before adjourning April 3.

When the executive committee finally issued a resolution, it sent several messages.

The rabbis supported the allied coalition's aims to "remove the threats posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," expressed "maximum concern" for civilians, lauded U.S. troops and underlined that Judaism holds peace as a "supreme value" but also allows defensive wars.

"The American Jewish community as a whole had been ambivalent" going into this war, said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the assembly, "and that gets reflected" in such official positions.

For months, rabbis of all denominations have been sermonizing across the board on Iraq, finding Jewish reasons to rally behind the anti-war movement or wholeheartedly support the Bush administration.

As the war unfolds, other liberal movements remain similarly conflicted.

The Reform movement's rabbinical union, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, met in Washington D.C., last week and could agree only on a resolution that prayed for the safety of U.S. troops and acknowledged that its ranks were "of varied opinion" about the war.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's synagogue arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, puts the mood this way: "Ambivalence is the reality from what I can see. It's true in the rabbinate, its true in the leadership, its true in the grassroots. Reform Jews are exceedingly divided and unsure."

The Reform rabbinical group's immediate past president, Rabbi Martin Weiner of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, delivered a sermon to the annual conference outlining his support for the war.

Titled "Munich, Vietnam and Saddam," Weiner described his journey from opposition to the Vietnam war to support for toppling the Iraqi dictator.

His support stems from the belief not only that it's necessary to challenge evil, but that the removal of Saddam could push a democratic wave across the Middle East.

The smaller Reconstructionist movement is also deeply divided on the issue.

That movement's three main bodies — the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College — issued a joint statement March 21 that referred to a "range of opinion and emotion at this moment."

Judy Wortman, president of the federation, the Reconstructionist synagogue arm, said a few of its 103 member-congregations had engaged in anti-war efforts before the war and most members seemed opposed to war at their annual gathering in Montreal in November.

Rabbi Shai Gluskin, the group's director of education, said he "supports the troops, but don't feel this is a just war."

An anti-war resolution is currently circulating among RRA members, Wortman said, including a call to join other clergy groups against the war.

The Conservative debate crystallized one week into the war, when Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, seemed to backtrack in a New York Times article.

Months earlier, Schorsch had said he feared the Iraq war campaign was a political "sideshow" that would lead to a war that "is not a turkey shoot." And on Purim, the eve of the war, he warned of a "dark" period.

Once the U.S.-led invasion began, Schorsch asked the seminary's public relations team to retract critical comments he had made. He told The Times he did this because "I did not think that I should go on a crusade" while the battle raged.

Other Conservative colleagues defended his actions.

"I don't think that was a retraction," Meyers said. "It's often very difficult for public figures to be thoughtful about a subject without being cast as retreating."