(Editor’s note: Due to technical issues, the version of this story posted here on Wednesday was garbled.)
The message Rabbi Steve Gutow delivered separately to both the Jewish community, and the Lutheran church, was essentially the same: shared goals of social justice can best be achieved through civility of discourse, and mutual respect.
Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, was in Pittsburgh last week to address members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and its constituents, as well as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which was convening its 2013 Churchwide Assembly from August 12-17 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Gutow, a Reconstructionist rabbi, was only the second Jewish leader to ever address the ELCA, the largest Lutheran church in America.
“When we embrace, as we do, interfaith relations, we know we will not always agree exactly but we will do our best — whether the issues be poverty in America and the world, climate change, war and peace in the Middle East or elsewhere, genocides, immigration reform, gun violence — we will be faced with conversations that we need to handle in the months and years ahead,” Gutow told the crowd of 2,000 attendees of the ELCA Assembly, according to a press release.
Gutow is well practiced in handling the tough conversations, even among the myriad Jewish organizations of different political leanings and religious denominations that fall under the umbrella of the JCPA; he has learned the value of the art of compromise for the greater good.
Take the conundrum with which he was faced just this past March:
At its two-day annual policy plenum in Washington, D.C., the JCPA was debating a draft of a resolution that, in effect, supported gay marriage.
The vast majority of the JCPA’s 14 national member agencies, as well as the 125 local community relations councils were in favor of the resolution. The Orthodox Union, however, remained opposed on the ground that the resolution ran counter to the Torah’s prohibition of homosexuality.
If the proposed resolution remained on the agenda, the OU would be in the position of either exercising its veto power — each group representing a religious denomination is permitted a veto when it construes a resolution to be counter to its religious doctrine — or withdrawing its membership from the JCPA.
That’s when, in the spirit of openness and respect, some private conversations behind the scenes began, Gutow told the Chronicle.
“[The OU] said, ‘We feel very uncomfortable with this resolution, and we would like you to pull it,’” Gutow recalled. “They had never used their veto power before. They don’t agree with our stand on abortion, and not all do on our stand on a two-state solution, but they have not used their veto. But they felt they wouldn’t be comfortable in this organization if this resolution passed.”
So, the JCPA’s resolution committee did what it needed to do to move forward as a united Jewish social action group.
“Instead of forcing [the OU] to leave or to veto, we pulled the resolution,” Gutow said. “We had a heartfelt conversation, and we unanimously voted to not bring that resolution up.”
This incident was an example of listening to one another, and speaking to one another in a civil manner, as a way to effectively advance the momentum for positive social change, according to Gutow.
“We have to learn how to talk to each other in a way that shows I respect you, and you respect me,” he said.
Likewise, his speech to the Lutherans would emphasize “our common pursuit of justice that comes from our shared Bible — what God wants us to do,” he told the Chronicle prior to his ELCA address. “We can differ all we want, but we have to look at each other as whole people who differ; if we don’t do that, we won’t be doing what God wants us to do, which is to repair the world, to make the world a better place.”
To that end, Gutow makes it a point to reach out to those who may differ from him on some issues, but with whom he shares the greater goal of tikkun olam.
“Part of civility is going to lunch, getting to know someone,” said Gutow, who in fact regularly makes personal connections with leaders of other organizations invested in social action.
In pursuing positive social change along with cohorts of other faiths, Jews need to be willing to work toward causes important to others if they expect others to support issues important to Jews, according to Gutow.
“If we want people to support issues that are important to us, we need to be there for them on their issues,” he said. “If we don’t do the work on immigration reform, stopping gun violence, and poverty, we will have a hard time in getting the support of our allies for [particularly] Jewish causes.”
And issues such as poverty and immigration reform, while important to members of other communities, should be important to Jews as well, he said.
“The other social issues are part of the moral fabric of who we are,” he said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)