Keep the faith

April 06, 1997|By Sara Engram

ONCE AGAIN the world witnessed the dangers of errant religious authority, as Marshall Herff Applewhite persuaded a band of followers that a higher level of being was preferable to this earthly vale of tears.

But while the mass suicide of cult members is disturbing, the effects of the event are about as far removed from most Americans' lives as the spaceship that Heaven's Gate members believed was waiting for them once they shed their earthly containers.

Not so with some less dramatic but more difficult questions of religious law and authority.

In New York the other day, a group of conservative rabbis took it upon themselves to declare that any practice of Judaism other than Orthodoxy is ''not Judaism at all, but another religion.'' With that pronouncement, they put Reform and Conservative Judaism -- which includes the majority of American Jews -- outside the fold.

That move has been denounced by two other Orthodox groups, but the rift may get even wider. In Israel, Orthodox rabbis are trying to strengthen an already tight hold over the power to determine who qualifies as a Jew.

A parliamentary vote this past week gave preliminary approval to legislation that would enshrine in law the control over conversion to Judaism traditionally given to Orthodox rabbis. Conversions performed in Israel by Conservative or Reform rabbis are not regarded as legitimate.

Meanwhile, some Christian groups are grappling with their own efforts to mark proper boundaries. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has enough votes to approve an amendment to church law requiring its ministers and officers ''to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church,'' including the requirement to live ''either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.''

The provision is aimed at preventing the church from ordaining practicing homosexuals as ministers. But it casts a wider net, since it covers the sins of would-be ministers as well as those lay people who volunteer to serve on boards of the church. Although the amendment singles out sexual practices, its reference to scripture and the confessional standards of the church suggests to some people that it could also be interpreted to exclude those who are guilty of other sins as well.

Miraculous survival

So here we have Judaism, a much-persecuted religion whose very survival through the ages seems miraculous, tied in knots over the question of who qualifies to be a Jew.

Meanwhile, Presbyterians have extended a thorny debate about the proper qualifications for those ordained to preach from the pulpit into a question of who is good enough to serve on boards. Churches that depend on the devotion that inspires countless hours of volunteer time can now threaten to throw stones at any workers who don't fully measure up.

Few congregations will. Witch hunts aren't much fun, and they carry a high price.

But the threat is there, and any homosexuals who had hoped to be ministers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have gotten a clear response to their long campaign for acceptance.

In some churches, including some in Baltimore, the problem has little to do with the minister, but a lot to do with the willingness and ability of members to participate in congregational activities. In some churches, the lay boards include people who qualify as ''practicing homosexuals.'' Their presence helps fill the pews, their efforts help keep church programs running smoothly, their contributions help pay the bills.

Despite the new law, it is doubtful that the members of these churches will turn against their neighbors.

And there's not much chance that Reform and Conservative Jews will stop considering their religion to be Judaism, regardless of what some Orthodox rabbis say.

Unbending boundaries might work in tennis or football. But in discerning how the laws of faith best apply to the often-muddled realities of life, ruling other people out of line can be much trickier work.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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