How Intolerance, Censorship and Dogmatism Make Unitarian Universalism Increasingly Unwelcoming to Jews

by

Dr. Maskil David Cycleback

(David Cycleback is an internationally known scholar in cognitive science, philosophy and artifacts studies, and the author of eleven peer-reviewed university textbooks including Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems, Understanding Human Minds and Their Limits, and Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence (link). Ordained in interfaith and a practicing Jew, he teaches courses in philosophy and neuroscience of religion at an interfaith seminary and rabbinical school. He attends both a synagogue and a UU congregation).

“Debate is a sacred Jewish sacrament.”– Rabbi David Wolpe

“When I came home from school my mother would never ask me, ‘What did you learn today?’ Only, ‘Did you ask a good question?'” — Physics Nobel Prize-winner Isidor Rabi

Judaism is a traditional part of Unitarian Universalism. Judaism is unitarian, and UU lists Jewish teachings as one of its sources. Michael Servetus hoped that, in its contrast to the prevailing Trinitarianism, Unitarianism would attract Jews and Muslims.

As expressed in my previous two essays (here and here), the UUA’s and other national UU organizations’ trend towards illiberalism, dogmatism and censorship is oppressive of all groups (races, ethnicities, genders, disabled, etc.) and their diversity of views and perspectives. A common thread through my writings is the championing of liberal religion and, as Irshad Manji puts it, ‘honest diversity.’

This essay focuses on how the increasing intolerance, political radicalism and expectations of ideological and political conformity in national UU and that is being filtered down to the congregational level makes Unitarian Universalism increasingly unwelcoming to many Jews.

Jewish theology is about the interdependent web of life, stewardship and repair of the earth, living ethically, and being concerned about life on earth rather than some speculative afterlife. It is about personal spiritual paths and personal definitions of God, not to mention the inclusion of Jews who are secular, atheist and agnostic. Sounds an awful lot like UU doesn’t it? A Jewish friend said, “In theory, UUism is very much in the spirit of Judaism: ministers as teachers not priests, congregational polity, and all that.”

I’m a Maskil, a Jewish title given to me by an interfaith Rabbi and Hebrew for “scholar.” Historically, the maskilim were followers of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment. The Haskalah promoted rationalism, liberalism, freedom of thought and inquiry, and the promotion of secular education, art and sciences in Jewish culture and schools. It was the origin of today’s Reform, Progressive and Liberal Judaism. Again, it may remind some of UU. You can imagine what I, and many UUs, think when the radical ideologues in the UUA and UUMA demean logic, liberalism, the Enlightenment and freedom of thought and inquiry.

Further reading on the Haskalah and the Jewish Enlightenment: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-haskalah

The Importance of Debate, Questioning and Dissent in Judaism

Judaism is about diversity of viewpoints, debate, questioning and dissent. Debate has been an essential part of Judaism since its formation and this is reflected throughout the Torah. Israel is Hebrew for “Wrestling (debating/arguing) with God.” Moses, Jacob and Abraham argued with God, with Moses winning the debate and changing God’s mind! The Hebrew Bible says “God loves it when you argue with him”(Exodus 33: 19). One of the key Jewish theologians and philosophers of the twentieth century, Abraham Joshua Hershel, wrote, “Dissent is indigenous to Judaism.”

The Oral Torah is the multitude of different interpretations over the centuries of the written Torah, and is a living document. A page from the Talmud has the original Torah text in the center surrounded by competing rabbinical commentaries and interpretations. This demonstrates how debate and dissent aren’t just arguing, but essential parts of learning, knowledge, dialogue and intellectual and spiritual growth.

Writes Micah Halpern, “For two thousand years Jewish discussion, debate and dialogue have been manifest through the Jewish book. Traditional Jewish debate takes place not just in open forums, but on the written page. The subject matter of the debates, often spanning centuries, even millennia, converge on the written page. The reader of Jewish texts does not simply read words printed on a page, the reader is an active player on the page and with the page. The reader is a vocal participant in the conversation.”

It should go without saying that a dogmatic UUA and ministers that suppress debate and heterodoxy make UU inhospitable to many Jews and Jewish culture.

A Jewish friend resigned from his UU congregation last year due to dogmatism and groupthink. I said, “Being Jewish means asking questions and debating, different viewpoints. Not allowing questioning or debating would make Unitarian Universalism inhospitable to Jews.” He replied: “And– dare I say it?– antisemitic.”

The following are links to further reading on the importance of debate, questioning and dissent in Judaism:

“Conversation & Debate” (My Jewish Learning)

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/conversation-debate/

“Debate is Sacred Jewish Sacrament”

https://forward.com/opinion/450747/debate-is-a-jewish-sacrament/

“Dissent is Not a Dirty Word” (The Jewish Theological Seminary)

https://www.jtsa.edu/dissent-is-not-a-dirty-word

“The Right to Question” (The Jewish Theological Seminary)

https://www.jtsa.edu/the-right-to-question

 

Jewish Criticism of Radical Left Social Justice Ideologies

There has been much Jewish criticism and concern over the neo racist ideology and radical identity politics in many quarters and as advocated by the UUA. The following links are expressions of concern and criticism. I recommend UUs read, watch and consider them. Agree or disagree with them, they are Jewish voices that should be heard in UU. I can assure you that there are Jews in UU congregations who agree with many of these views.

Video: “Anti-Racism and Anti-Semitism Collide: Glenn Loury in Conversation with Bari Weiss”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zu9PdD9W-W8

Video: “New Paradigms in Black-Jewish Relations (The Jewish Institute for Liberal Values)”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoMx 0Sz b7M

“Jews Are Not White” by Rabbi Michael Lerner

https://www.villagevoice.com/2019/07/25/the-white-issue-jews-are-not-white/

“Is a Far Lefts Anti-Racism Model Antisemitic?”

https://cycleback.wordpress.com/2020/03/01/are-a-far-lefts-anti-racism-theory-and-definition-of-racism-antisemetic/

Jews, including within Reform and Progressive Judaism and within UU, have a diversity of views, and some Jews agree with the UUA dogma. I am not suggesting otherwise. Though a small minority, there are Jews who are anti-Zionist. I have a Jewish professor friend who supports critical race theory, and we enjoy debating these issues with each other. The issue is that with the diversity of views and the majority of Jews disagreeing with UUA-style dogma and intolerance, a UUA that expects adherence to one ideology or political stance, or that says that “only Jews who agree with our dogma are truly welcome and listened to” makes UU inhospitable to many Jews.

A Jewish UU friend, who privately criticizes the “white supremacy culture” rhetoric and agrees that there is much antisemitism in today’s far Left, told me that he is scared to speak his views in UU forums due to the atmosphere of intolerance to different views.

I recently had a newly ordained true believer minister tell me she felt that I did not belong in UU for having and expressing what are perfectly mainstream Reform Jewish views that fall well within the parameters of the 7 Principles. When I relayed what she said to a longtime minister, he replied, “She should re-read the 7 principles.”

This essay, of course, isn’t just about Jews and Jews in UU, but about how general UUA trends of intolerance, dogma and censorship are oppressive of all groups, minority and majority.

My mother, a longtime women’s rights activist who was instrumental in getting Title IX laws passed in Wisconsin in the 1980s, quit her UU congregation and UU as a whole last year. She explained, “UU is no longer UU. It has become like other religions. I don’t like how the UUA tries to control what are supposed to be independent congregations, and I don’t go for dogma. UU has also become mean.”

In her New York Times column ‘Do Progressives Have a Free Speech Problem?’, Michelle Goldberg writes, “Writing in the 1990s, at a time when feminists like Catharine MacKinnon sought to curtail free speech in the name of equality, the great left-libertarian Ellen Willis described how progressive movements sow the seeds of their own destruction when they become censorious. It’s impossible, Willis wrote, ‘to censor the speech of the dominant without stifling debate among all social groups and reinforcing orthodoxy within left movements. Under such conditions a movement can neither integrate new ideas nor build support based on genuine transformations of consciousness rather than guilt or fear of ostracism.’”

Goldberg ends the column with “Cowing people is not the same as converting them.”

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Matthew T
Matthew T
29 days ago

The new dogma, including CRT, is rooted in Marxism. Marxism does not allow divergent or competitive thinking. Anything contrary to the approved narrative is just further evidence that the dissenter needs education and is just supporting “white supremacy” further. Dialectical thinking is in direct opposition to the liberal tradition, and Marxists will tolerate no reproach. We must debate, question, and use the author’s tools of inquiry to expose the group think of Marxist dogma that invaded our religious tradition.

Rev. Millie Phillips
Rev. Millie Phillips
29 days ago
Reply to  Matthew T

I must take issue with the comment above by Matthew T and to a lesser extent, with the author’s equation of identity-based politics with socialist radicalism. (BTW, there are a lot of anti-Zionist Jews and they tired of being told anti-Zionism is anti-semitic.) I have spent my entire adult life in Marxist organizations, which, perhaps not surprisingly, have always attracted a lot of Jews who have significantly influenced its culture. We have our own internal debates and degrees of tolerance for dissenting views that span a very wide range, probably just as wide a range as in any other coherent… Read more »

Matthew T
Matthew T
29 days ago

The best racial justice is to have no “races.” There are no races in Brazil or France or most countries. The entire movement for racial justice, racial consciousness, racial whatever is just a tool to further a divisive agenda to keep the racially aware voting a desired way. There’s more to life than a person’s skin color. Much like zealots will use the human foundation of purity to ostracize and set apart those who are polluted by others, the social justice movement seeks to create unrealistic fairness as the absolute moral foundation for any society. The reality is that a… Read more »

Scott Mainwaring
Scott Mainwaring
16 days ago
Reply to  Matthew T

It is true that as a social construct different cultures regard races and racism differently than we do in the US. But to claim that there is no racism as we would understand it in “Brazil, France, or most counties” because “races don’t exist” there strikes me as absurd from the standpoint of cultural anthropology. This is true whether one’s theory of racism highlights interpersonal relations (as it is often reduced in the understandings of older generations) or structural power relations (as in critical race theory or caste theory). One need only look at how power is distributed in societies… Read more »

Scott Mainwaring
Scott Mainwaring
16 days ago

Thank you, Rev. Phillips, I found your analysis very helpful. I do wonder what you see as the the key differences are between the approach the Poor People’s Campaign is taking vs. that of the UUA, as I suspect many in the UUA would see these as much more alike than different.

gord latter
gord latter
29 days ago

How Intolerance, Censorship and Dogmatism Make Unitarian Universalism Increasingly Unwelcoming to Jews.. and all thinking People.

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