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The New York Sun


Leaving the House

April 01, 2008

By Howard Husock

The most prominent black elected official in a key primary state, the mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, has joined the chorus of those asserting that Barack Obama should have left the congregation of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. “I could not sit and tolerate that kind of language, and especially over a long period of time,” he told ABC News. Mr. Nutter, a Clinton supporter, had an obvious political motive, but that does not make his statement wrong. If religion is significant in one’s life, there can come a time where one must leave their congregation.

My own personal experience teaches me that leaving a congregation is not easy. If resigning from a congregation were obvious or easy for anyone, it should have been for me. My temple’s brand of religion seemed, increasingly since the time our family joined it, to have become defined almost wholly in political terms. Discussion of the Torah portion seemed to recede and the social gospel — social issues squeezing out religious issues — became more like the gospel. In seeking guidance from religion as to determine the right way to live, the answer was clear: one should be a liberal Democrat. I was not.

And yet, it took some five years from the time I first drafted a letter of resignation until the time I finally mailed one. Leaving is complex, in part, because the decision to join was not simple. My family and I (like Senator Obama, I suppose) were new to town and decided to join a religious congregation — the sort of family compromise which is not casually undone.

I grew up going to an Orthodox synagogue. My wife attended a Reformed congregation so non-traditional that it held services on Sunday and her brothers had not been bar mitzvahed. So it was important to find a temple that we could both participate in, meaning not too much Hebrew for her. We settled on a major Reformed congregation, which we were both attracted to because of its intellectual dimension. The Rabbi of the Reformed synagogue at the time was reflective and cerebral, and the environment — a congregation of professionals — was comfortable.

This would be the congregation where our three sons would be bar mitzvahed, with long years of Hebrew school and long months of Torah tutoring. On the occasions when they returned and visited as college students or, later, young adults, they would feel at home and be greeted by name by the Rabbi and the Cantor, who had personally taught them (as the Rev. Wright had baptized Mr. Obama’s daughters).

For a Yom Kippur sermon by a new, junior rabbi, I’d managed to convince my eldest son — not much given to such things — to attend. One looks on the Day of Atonement, especially, for discussion of sin and its forms, for introspection about how one’s own behavior compares to the religion’s standards. Instead, we were lectured about a current union organizing campaign — one seeking higher wages for office building maintenance crews. The rabbi’s Yom Kippur cry: Justice for Janitors.

An exchange of letters followed between my temple and me but it was clear that neither an economic critique nor a political one of the sermon would get through. Judaism was a religion of social justice, it was made clear to me — and, thus, confronting a financially comfortable congregation with the plight of janitors was, of course, speaking truth to power — and, in the process, thoroughly alienating my son, the economics major and one-time Ayn Rand fan.

When the family, and family members, became a threat to an institution whose meaning was bound up in family, the time had come to go. One cannot help but wonder whether Barack Obama worries about his daughters hearing outlandish sermons about the government causing, not curing, AIDS, about its selling, not stopping, crack cocaine — and if he did not, why not.

A number of answers come to mind — the political utility of a major congregation or, worse, a willingness to countenance any and all protest as worthy. None of them speak well for the likely Democratic presidential candidate.

Original Source:



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