Antisemitism Within Today’s Unitarian Universalist Association

I joined a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in Seattle almost ten years ago because of its welcoming of viewpoint diversity and freedom of belief, and its slogan of “We don’t have to think alike to love alike.” The congregation remains liberal and welcoming. However, a non-UU friend recently asked me if I ever experienced antisemitism, and I said, “Only in national UU spaces.”

Rigid small-mindedness, such as what’s coming from the current national UUA and seminaries, is a key source of bigotry. Whether in the left or right, binary “us versus them” thinking and caste systems always result in bigotry and injustice. Social philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote, “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.”

While this essay focuses on a Jewish perspective and experience, it could come from within any demographic. I could have as easily written a chapter about how dogmatisms and illiberalism are oppressive of the disabled and neuroatypical. I’ve heard concerns about the current UUA from women, lesbians, gay, and racial and ethnic minority UUs, along with white males.

This essay has two parts, each that was published earlier in different forms.

The first, titled “How Critical Race Theory Can Be Antisemitic,” discusses how a dogmatic, illiberal application of critical race theory (CRT) as the only lens to view society is antisemitic.

Read: How Critical Race Theory Can Be Antisemitic

The second, titled “How Intolerance, Censorship, and Dogmatism Make Unitarian Universalism Increasingly Unwelcoming to Jews,” explains how Judaism and Jewish culture are about questioning, diversity of views, dissent, and debate—all things traditionally associated with UU—and how any space that is dogmatic and illiberal will be unwelcoming to most Jews.

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

“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.

Jewish belief 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. Most would catalog me as agnostic.

It all 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 is the genesis of today’s Reform, Progressive, Liberal and secular 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.

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The importance of debate, questioning, and dissent in Judaism

Judaism is about the 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.” One of the key Jewish theologians and philosophers of the twentieth century, Abraham Joshua Hershel, wrote, “Dissent is indigenous to Judaism.” Catholics and fundamentalist Christians often find Judaism disconcerting because Jews are not taught to intellectually submit to a fundamentalist orthodoxy, the Torah, or God.

Rabbis teach the laity, including children, that questioning is the path to deeper understanding. A tradition of Passover is that the children get to ask the adults questions and the adults have to answer sincerely. Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary Ismar Schorsch writes, “The Seder both celebrates and circumscribes the right to question. Our children are invited to participate to the hilt by showering us with whatever questions might be on their minds. Judaism does not take refuge in dogmatism.”

I’ve half-joked to my UU friends that “Judaism is more UU than UU.”

However, I have witnessed UU at the national, organizational and seminary levels moving away from religious liberalism. I have seen trends toward top-down orthodoxy, groupthink, and expectations of ideological and political conformity. I have seen shaming and shunning of people who express different viewpoints that fall well within the parameters of UU’s Principles.

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 the 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.”

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Jewish criticism of extreme left social justice ideologies

There has been much Jewish concern over the neo-racist ideology, radical political positions, and stifling of debate in many quarters as advocated by the UUA. These include from prominent Jewish thinkers such as Pamela Paresky, Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, KC Johnson, Brandy Shufutinsky, Eliot Cohen, and Jerry Coyne, and the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values. 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.

Jews, including within Reform and Progressive Judaism and within UU, have a wide diversity of views, and some Jews agree with the UUA dogma. I am not suggesting otherwise. 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 most Jews disagreeing with UUA-style dogma and intolerance, a UUA and ministers that expect adherence to one narrow ideology or political stance, or that say that “only Jews who agree with our dogma are truly welcome and listened to,” make UU inhospitable to many Jews.

Another Jewish friend who recently quit UU told me that he was scared to speak his views in UU forums due to the atmosphere of intolerance to different views. My mother, who introduced me to my UU congregation, quit her UU congregation and UU due to her dismay at the dogmatism, censorship and illiberalism in the UUA.

Last year I 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 Jewish views that fall well within the parameters of UU’s Principles. When I relayed what she said to a longtime minister, he replied, “She should re-read UU’s principles.”

When I posted both essays here in a UU forum, a UUA-aligned minister said that these essays were “racist dog whistles” and “alt-right.” These are standard ad hominem attacks these days shut down any dissent by UUs. He also compared me and these essays to Alex Jones. Another minister told others to ignore what I wrote because I was “white.” This was ironic, as the minister was white. Yet another UUA-aligned true believer responded only by asking what I thought about “Palestinian babies in cages.” I had given no opinion about Israel and am not Israeli.  

I was shocked by their complete ignorance and closed-mindedness, but even more that it came from young UU ministers. They came across as indoctrinated political zealots, and I did not understand how such small-minded people were qualified to be UU ministers. They likely held themselves up as social justice activists.

I then remembered that I had seen similar ad hominem attacks by new ministers and national leaders on others who dared dissent. For dogmatists who believe their narrow view is the only truth, anyone with a different viewpoint is the enemy. 

This essay 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. I know that this bigotry I experienced was born out of ignorance and people indoctrinated to see things only in binary ways. In a self-righteous movement that categorizes the expression of any divergent thought as “harmful,” “racist,” and “oppression” and dissenters as the enemy, their small-minded ire would have been applied to anyone who dissented. 

I had published a different version of this essay elsewhere, and a comment in the comment section was: “How Intolerance, Censorship, and Dogmatism Make Unitarian Universalism Increasingly Unwelcoming to Jews . . . and All Thinking People.”