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God Squad: Things religion gets wrong can be righted

The word of God has come to us,

The word of God has come to us, but the word of God becomes clearer over time, writes Rabbi Marc Gellman. Credit: David Watmough/Dreamstime

I spend most of my time defending religions and the religious among us. I am happy to do this because I believe religion gets a bad rap in certain circles. Yet, in a culture of selfishness, religion teaches generosity. In a culture of loneliness, religion teaches community, and in a culture of cynicism, religion teaches hope. However, the great religions of the world are mostly thousands of years old, and it is naive to imagine that over such a long time no beliefs were misguided and no religious practices were wrong. Some mistakes have been corrected. Some are still begging for reform. The word of God has come to us, but the word of God becomes clearer over time.

Let me begin with my own faith, Judaism. I was ordained as a rabbi from Hebrew Union College, the seminary of Reform Judaism. It ordained the first Reform rabbis in America in 1883, but it was not until 1972 (the year I was ordained) that they ordained Sally Priesand, a woman, as a rabbi, and that is too long to wait. It is still impossible for a woman to become an Orthodox rabbi.

Although a couple of black men were ordained as priests in the very earliest years of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in general, the Mormons did not admit blacks as lay priests and barred black men and women from the ordinances of its temples. In 1978, church president Spencer W. Kimball declared they had received a revelation that the time had come to end these restrictions. After this revelation, people of African descent could hold priesthood offices and could be granted temple admittance. The LDS Church made a massive theological transformation and now has a vibrant outreach program in Africa and in black communities in America; but 1978 is too long to wait.

In 1965, the Catholic Church under Pope Paul VI, but under the moral impetus begun by Cardinal Bea and Pope John XXIII, issued an encyclical at the Second Vatican Council titled Nostra Aetate. This declaration of faith made it clear that no Jewish people bore any guilt for the death of Jesus and that any anti-Jewish teachings or sentiments were against the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. This historic work helped to reverse generations of Christian anti-Semitism, but 1965 is too long to wait.

I recently wrote a column on Hinduism in celebration of its fall holiday of Diwali. In dialogue with a reader named R, he expressed his opinions about the varna. The varna are castes, and Hinduism still has a caste system comprising four classes: Brahmins (scholars and yajna priests), Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), Vaishyas (farmers, merchants and artisans); and Shudras (workmen/service providers). Below the four varna is a group of "untouchables," called Dalit, who comprise almost 15 percent of India (200 million people). You cannot change your caste and you must accept the discrimination caused by it. R said this about his Hindu faith:

"Although the Indian constitution specifies that 'the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth' and special laws, such as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1976, have been enacted to give meaning to the constitutional provisions, the phenomenon of untouchability persists in contemporary India, and many Hindus continue to define the meaning of Hindu identity over and against those who are deemed impure and, for this reason, marginalized. The sharp distinctions between self and other, the boundaries of the pure and impure are still drawn sharply in Indian villages, where the character of the human and economic relationships are still governed by the hierarchies of caste and where reports of violence against persons of lower castes are common. Although the conditions of life in Indian cities are quite different from those in rural areas, cities are not free from the travails of caste and untouchability. In urban areas, discrimination expresses itself in more subtle forms and in limited job choices that push untouchables into menial tasks. Hindus must acknowledge the inhumanity, injustice, and oppression of the caste system and the fact that the system has been widely legitimized by the tradition and its practitioners. Regardless of its origins in antiquity, the challenge today is to respond to a hierarchical ordering of humans that ascribes unequal value based on identities imposed at birth. I'll end with a quote from Anantanand Rambachan: 'Caste inflicts suffering on millions of our fellow humans, and the Advaita tradition insists that we see this suffering as our own. Hindus must respond to caste as an urgent problem, as fundamentally incompatible with Hinduism's most profound teachings and necessitating a unanimous and unequivocal repudiation.' "

May we have the courage to hear God's words every new day.

SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.

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