Sunday, March 30, 2008

On Scouting and Outing

The Jewish Week, March, 2001

I’ve been sitting on this matter for weeks, hoping it would go away by itself. Alas it hasn’t, so now I feel that I have no choice but to come clean, to bring my little secret out of the proverbial closet.

Yes, it’s true.

My congregation recently hosted a Scout Shabbat.

A year ago, this would not have been such news, certainly nothing to hang my head over. Synagogues have been setting aside Shabbat services to honor scouts and scouting for decades. Not only does it offer us the chance to endorse those ideas of scouting that are perfectly compatible with our Jewish values, such as honesty, loyalty and faith, but it also enables Jewish children to know that their congregation is proud of all their achievements. When we began discussing the idea of hosting a Scout Shabbat many months ago, we set the date with these noble goals in mind.

Then life got complicated. Last summer, the Boy Scouts of America won a Supreme Court decision, by a 5-4 margin (sound familiar?), affirming their right to maintain a policy of discrimination against gay scoutmasters, and, at least indirectly, gay scouts as well. It is not a policy I can endorse.

If I were a scoutmaster who was actively proselytizing my beliefs in the hopes of converting my group to Judaism, the Boy Scouts of America would have every right to fire me. But that does not mean that they have a right to set a policy that no rabbi or self-proclaiming Jew may be hired, that only "closet" Jews need apply. Even if they have the legal right to discriminate in this manner, I feel that I have a moral obligation to oppose it.

Admittedly, the question of sexual orientation and religious values is not a simple matter. Conservative Judaism is struggling with this issue in regard to ordaining gay/lesbian rabbis and hiring out-of-closet staff in the synagogue. My congregation is at odds with many in my movement in that we do not discriminate based on sexual orientation in our hiring policies or in selecting board members. I also advocate the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, although I can understand the concerns of those who do not.

The issue here for me, however, is not whether the Torah is endorsing a particular sexual orientation; it is a question of simple discrimination. Yes, there are times when boundaries must be drawn -- the Pope should not be accepted to rabbinical school, for example, without first converting, nor should I be admitted to the College of Cardinals. But this is not one of those times. Jews, of all people, understand the pain of prejudice, and the combined afflictions of AIDS and violent gay-bashing are wake-up calls that all of us must hear. Further, while I do not subscribe to the notion that everything stemming from the religious right is evil, this is a case where Christian fundamentalists are trying to impose their own perception of God's will on the boy scouts and on the rest of us. Therefore, I support the resolution issued in January by the leadership of the Reform movement, calling upon local scouting chapters to publicly amend their charters to affirm non-discrimination.

I have no illusions here that even a mighty cry of Jewish protest will change this policy. It won't. Scouting, like the American flag -- and like God, for that matter -- should belong to all of us, not merely the religious right. But the B.S.A. is right now a captive of Ashcroftism, and we aren't going to change that. Nonetheless, like the lone prophet outside of Sodom, we protest not so much to change the policy as to ensure that this policy doesn't change us.

So, given all this, why didn't I cancel Scout Shabbat? Three reasons:
1) I still wish to support the positive ideals of scouting, as practiced in large part by local Jewish scouting chapters and by other groups whose policies are not in conflict with my beliefs, such as 4-H Clubs, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Campfire Girls and Boys.
2) I have the deepest sympathy and respect for those who have given their lives for scouting, who are now caught in the middle of this fracas. I can only begin to imagine their disillusionment, both at scouting, for isolating them as Jews, and their congregations, who, overnight, now appear to be condemning all that they have held sacred.
3) The kids. They are what this is all about. I am proud of them and want to show them that. They don't need to get caught in the middle of this dispute. Of course I always wish to teach them of the dangers of discrimination, but that can be done at other times. If there is shame involved, that shame should not be inflicted on them -- only our deepest pride.

So a Stealth Scout Shabbat was held, sans the oath and other B.S.A. rituals, minus all manner of publicity, and with the Reform Movement resolution available in the back for perusal after the service.

Essentially, I found a solution that pleased few and likely enraged many. It was my small way of trying to teach my congregants a simple lesson: As Jews, and especially as Conservative Jews, we should aim to reject knee-jerk responses, eschew extremist answers and forge a path of synthesis where such a path is possible. It's never easy, it's occasionally impossible, but it’s also what lends my movement its authenticity and creative energy. Some might call my congregation’s version of Scout Shabbat a cop-out. I see it as an example of Conservative Judaism at its very best.

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