Thursday, March 20, 2008

Why I Quit My Shul in Protest--and Obama Did Not, by Gidon D. Remba

The firestorm which has erupted over outrageous remarks by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor, evokes a time in my life when I too faced a moment of decision not unlike the one Obama's critics insist he failed.

Some five years ago, I and my family quit our synagogue in protest over the rabbi's deeply offensive sermons. Setting aside that I am not a candidate for public office, the differences between my situation and Obama's are instructive.

After settling down in the northern suburbs of Chicago, my wife and I left a synagogue soon after joining. At the baby naming ceremony for our then three-month old daughter, before hundreds of our guests, friends and family, the rabbi, in the days after the terrorist massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya, fulminated that Israel must now slaughter the Palestinians without mercy. Not the terrorists, but “the Palestinians.” This was followed by a paean to the superiority of Judaism over both Christianity and Islam, just the thing my non-Jewish friends who had never set foot before in a synagogue needed to hear about what it means to be a Jew: in short, militant vengeful wrath, racism which demonized an entire people, brooking no distinction between the innocent and the guilty, capped by a triumphalist conceit proving not the superiority of Judaism but the moral bankruptcy of one of its annointed representatives.

Several friends stormed out of our baby naming in disgust. I could hardly blame them. It was a profoundly disturbing moment, and we followed suit when for us the time was right.

We quit within months of joining; we had no history, no prior powerful or intimate personal or familial bond with our religious leader before the moment of moral outrage. And we had no countervailing experience of uplifting spirituality and moral inspiration challenging us to measure our revulsion against our love and our awe.

In an ideal world, I wish Barack Obama had never joined Rev. Wright’s church, or quit once he realized that his opinions were sometimes objectionable. But Obama’s account of the complex weave of the relationship between congregant and pastor reveals his situation to have been far more fraught than ours.

In the link that follows, I highlight the most poignant part of Obama’s speech on race which, I feel, brings to the fore the categorical difference between our personal situation and his. It is also the most inspiring portion of his speech. I urge you to read it here.

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