Archive for the ‘Interfaith Relations’ category

A National Holiday for Prayer

April 25, 2012

Just when you think that you are familiar with all of our national holidays, you find out about one that you never heard of before.  So it probably is for many of you when it comes to the National Day of Prayer.  That’s right – the United States of America actually has an official national holiday dedicated to prayer!  If falls on the first Thursday of May.

The history of this holiday is interesting.  It was officially designated by Congress as a national holiday in 1952, as a day when the American people are asked “to turn to God in prayer and meditation.”  Each year, the President signs a proclamation in which he reaffirms the purpose of this holiday.  However, its historical roots sink far deeper into the American tradition.  The first proclamation calling for a National Day of Prayer was issued by the Continental Congress, in which it declared July 20, 1775 to be “a day of publick humiliation, fasting, and prayer.”  Subsequent declarations for individual National Days of Prayer were issued by Presidents George Washington, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln.  But it was not until 1952 that it became an annual event.

In my community of the Quad Cities, which straddles the Mississippi River uniting Iowa and Illinois, for several years now, there has been a group which has sponsored an annual National Day of Prayer breakfast.  Not surprisingly, the organizers of this breakfast are exclusively Christian.  Therefore, the tone of this event also has been exclusively Christian.  A little over four years ago, Rev. Ron Quay, the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area, approached these organizers and proposed that they broaden the religious base of their event by inviting non-Christian faith groups to participate in it as well.  After some deliberation, their response to Rev. Quay’s request was that while non-Christians are always welcome to attend, the nature of their event will continue to remain exclusively Christian.

Upon receiving that response, Rev. Quay approached Rev. Roger Butts (then minister of the Unitarian Church) and me to consider joining with him in organizing an interfaith National Day of Prayer event.  And so we did.  For the last three years, Temple Emanuel has hosted an Interfaith National Day of Prayer luncheon which was primarily targeted toward community clergy.  We chose to do this as a luncheon because, while we wished to provide an interfaith alternative to the exclusively Christian event, we were not interested in competing with it.

This year, the sponsorship for this event has been taken up by our newly formed Interfaith Clergy Caucus.  Yet once again, Temple Emanuel will be the host institution.  However, this year we are instituting a significant change. Instead of restricting the event to clergy, we are opening it up to the general public.

In the beginning, why did Rev. Quay, Rev. Butts, and I feel that organizing such an event was so important?  Why have the members of the Interfaith Clergy Caucus decided that it was important to sponsor such an event?  It is because we believe that the National Day of Prayer does not belong to any one faith group exclusively.  It belongs to all people of faith who enjoy the blessings of living in this American democracy.  Indeed, it is a time for us of many faiths to come together to thank God or the Divine Powers, whatever our beliefs, in our many ways for the blessing we share in this land.  It is a time to celebrate the wonder and the beauty of the religious diversity of America.  That is what it was ALWAYS intended to be.  In fact both John Adams and Abraham Lincoln said as much in their particular proclamations for the day.  To quote Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation:

“Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer.  And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.”

All the people… at their several places of worship.”  This day was never meant to be the exclusive domain of one faith or another but is the possession of all people of all faiths.

While Americans today do not face as great a crisis as we did in 1863, still there is ample call for praying for our country; praying for justice, praying for equality, praying for peace, praying for prosperity.  Let us pray that no America need ever go homeless or hungry or jobless.  Let us pray that no American ever need suffer from discrimination, hatred and intolerance.  Let us pray that no American ever be denied health care or education.  Let us pray that the day will soon arrive when no longer will we need to sacrifice the lives of our sons and our daughters on the battlefields of this planet.

On May 3, 2012, let us as a nation composed of many people of varied faiths once again raise our voices in prayer as we rededicate ourselves to building a better tomorrow for all.

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Snow What?

January 27, 2012

Friday, January 20th was not a wonderful weather day here in the Quad Cities.  Indeed, it was actually quite miserable, with cold and snow falling all day into the early evening.  It most understandably was one of those days when, having arrived at home after a long day at work, for most people, going out again was probably one of the farthest things from their minds.  Here at Temple Emanuel, during the course of the day we wrestled with whether or not to cancel services.  However, since by mid afternoon, we only had about 2 inches of snow on the ground, we decided to hold them.  After all, Shabbat is Shabbat, and 2 inches does not a blizzard make.

One of the calls which we received during the day, asking whether or not we would be cancelling services was from the associate pastor of a local Presbyterian church whose Confirmation class had been scheduled to attend our worship that evening; a church which has been sending its Confirmation class to our synagogue for a “Jewish worship experience” for so many years I cannot begin to count them.  When I told her that services would be held as scheduled, she sounded quite pleased rather than disappointed.

That service was planned as a special one for our congregation.  Not only were we hosting these visitors and longtime friends of our congregation, but we also were hearing from those of our congregation who had the privilege and pleasure of attending the recent joint biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Women of Reform Judaism, as they shared with us their insights and reflections on that gathering.  On top of that, we were observing the first Yahrzeit of beloved modern Jewish music composer, Debbie Friedman, by including in the music of the service many of her settings for our prayers.

No sooner had the Cantor and I pulled into the parking lot than the students from the Presbyterian church started arriving in car-after-car-after-car.  While some of our congregants arrived later, when the service began, the Presbyterians were in a significant majority.  Though the numbers gap shortened as the evening progressed and a few more of our people arrived, I strongly suspect that had it not been for the special reports and music, we would have remained far outnumbered.  At the beginning of the service, I made a quip about how it seemed as though the Presbyterians were made of far hardier stock than the Jews, but we all know that it is more than that.

Our congregation serves as host to many different church groups in the course of any given year.  One thing that most of these groups hold in common is that they are in awe of what they experience here.  They are captivated by the very sound of the Hebrew prayers.  They find our melodies enchanting.  The text of our services really touches them.  They are both fascinated and moved by our Yahrzeit boards, our obser­vance of Yahrzeits, and especially when mourners share some reflections on the people they are remembering that Shabbat.  And when the ark is open, and they see the Torah scrolls they are wide-eyed in mystical wonder, and especially so when they are fortunate enough to attend on a Shabbat eve when we actually take the scrolls out of the ark, carry them around the sanctuary, and read from them.  For so many of these church members, attending our services constitutes a spiritual, or even mys­tical, experience.

This is truly one of the great ironies of American Jewish life; that Christians have a far greater appreciation of Jewish worship than do Jews.  They find so much more meaning in our worship than do our own people.  Nor is this odd imbalance limited to the worship experience.  I find it so whenever I speak or teach about Judaism to a non-Jewish audience.  The non-Jews flock to study Judaism while the Jews seem to flee from the opportunities to do so.  In speaking with the folks at our own Federation, they, too, acknowledge that while their public programs have met with great success, it is not so much the Jews who attend them but rather the non-Jews.  Indeed, for as long as I have been in our community, that has been the greatest complaint that I have heard about the massive crowds who year in and year out attend our Interfaith Yom HaShoah observances; “Where are the Jews?”

I have to tell you that our community is not alone in this Jewish malaise.  According to a study done by the Pew Forum, which is an organization devoted to studying all aspects of religious life in America, we Amer­ican Jews have a pretty pathetic showing when it comes to the appreciation of our religious oppor­tunities.  So, for example, while the national average for those who attend worship services weekly or more than weekly is 39%, out of 14 different faith groups, with Jehovah’s Witnesses ranking 1st at 82%, American Jews are tied with “Other Faiths” for 12th and 13th place – just above the “Unaffiliated,” with 16%.  According to that same survey, when it comes to how important people feel religion is in their lives, with the national average for those who feel that it is very or somewhat important being 84%, and with Historical Black Churches ranking number 1 with 98%, we Jews rank number 12, with 71%, just above “Other Faiths” and the “Unaffiliated.”

One cannot help but feel sad in the face of these statistics, and in the face of the reality that not only our synagogue but almost all American syna­gogues face on an ongoing basis.  Why is it that so many of those who are not Jewish have such a great appreciation for the rich and wonderful heritage which is our own, while we Jews look at it and yawn?  Perhaps it is the fault of the synagogues.  Perhaps it is the fault of the rabbis and the cantors.  Perhaps it is the fault of our religious schools.  Perhaps it is the fault of our obsessive desire to “fit it” with the rest of our society and not to be viewed as “different” or “alien” by our non-Jewish neighbors; to be with them, wherever they are, whenever they are there, doing whatever they are doing, and not to let our Judaism get in the way of that.  But more likely, it is all of these reasons, and even more.

There are those who say that competitiveness is a Jewish trait.  Maybe it is.  But if it is, then we as Jews cannot be satisfied being near the bottom of the list when it comes to religion; just one or two steps above those who openly profess that they do not care at all about religion.  So what are we going to do about it?  Whatever it is, we have to start doing it together.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 7

May 9, 2011

Back in December, when I wrote the last installment in this series of articles, little did I dream that it would be May before I would write the next.  For that, I apologize.  This has not been an easy winter for me.  I underwent major surgery and almost died from post surgical complications.  But now I definitely am on the mend and my return to writing for this series of articles is but one more testimony to my daily improving health.

As I stated at the end of my last article in this series, in this article I wish to turn my attention to the commitment the Reform movement has made to matters of Tikkun Olam or, as we used to call it, Social Action.

I remember as a child being told that Reform Judaism is Prophetic Judaism.  What is Prophetic Judaism?  When we call Reform Judaism Prophetic Judaism we mean that at its heart are the teachings of the biblical prophets, and that those teachings are primarily the teachings of social justice.  Like the biblical prophets, Reform Judaism holds that ritual observance is empty unless it is accompanied by deeds of loving kindness directed toward the less fortunate of society.  I remember, in my childhood congregation, how seriously we took Isaiah’s message of social justice when we read it as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur morning:  “Is such the fast that I have chosen?  The day for a man to afflict his soul?  Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?  Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I have chosen?  To loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?  Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou shalt bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?  When thou seest the naked, thou shalt cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?  Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy rear-guard.”

I also remember that prayer in Shabbat evening service number 3 of the old UNION PRAYER BOOK, which read, “How much we owe to the labors of our brothers!  Day by day they dig far away from the sun that we may be warm.”  When I asked my rabbi to explain what that meant, he told about how our movement supported the efforts of the coal miners in their struggle to earn a living wage and to require their employers to establish safety standards for their working conditions.

I also remember how, when I was in my Confirmation year, the principal of our religious school arranged for our class to attend a weekend retreat with students from an Afro-American church (we called them “Negroes” at that time), co-sponsored by the NAACP and the Nation Conference of Christians and Jews.  Attending a predominantly Jewish public school, this was my first serious encounter with African Americans as a group.  It was on that weekend that I first learned the songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Go Down, Moses.”  It was on that weekend that I first became committed to the Civil Rights Movement.

I remember that it was from the pulpit of the Reform synagogue of my teenage years that I first heard a message opposing the war in Viet Nam; a message lifting up the principle of peace.  I have no doubt that marked the birth of my involvement in the anti-war movement; a movement which would have a serious impact upon my college years, including my decision – much to my parents’ chagrin – to turn in my graduation gown and join others in boycotting our college graduation in protest to the war.

As time marched on, in Reform Judaism, the terms “Social Justice” and “Social Action” were replaced by the Hebrew expression, “Tikkun Olam” meaning “Repair of the World.”  Yet while whatever we called it may have changed, Reform Judaism’s commitment to the values of making our world a better place to live for all people has remained constant for over well over a century.  One need only look at the long list of social justice resolutions passed by both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis to witness how constant and how broad based was, and is, our commitment to the principle of Tikkun Olam.  Whenever injustice has reared its ugly head, either in our American society or in the world at large, our movement has not hesitated to stand up for what is right and decent.  More often than not, we have been among the first to do so.

Today, the Union for Reform Judaism can justifiably boast that it is the only Jewish congregational organization in North America that has established specific centers dedicated to the advancement of Tikkun Olam, both here in America – the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. – and in Israel – the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.  These two centers labor to keep all Reform Jews aware of the pressing social justice issues of our day and to engage us in the work of addressing those issues and righting those wrongs.

Indeed, I who am a person committed to the pursuit of Tikkun Olam, at times have to admit to feeling overwhelmed by all the issues which the Religious Action Center places before me and calls upon me to address.  There is just so much work to be done and our movement insists that we cannot ignore it.  If one were to go to the website of the Religious Action Center (http://rac.org/index.cfm?), they would find an extensive directory for “Key Topics” which would include issues concerning:  affirmative action, Africa, antisemitism & the Holocaust, arms control, bilingual education, bio-ethics, campaign finance reform, child soldiers, children’s issues, civil liberties, civil rights, conflict diamonds, crime & criminal justice, Darfur, death penalty, debt relief, disability rights, economic justice, education, election reform, environment, fair trade coffee, GLBT equality, global poverty, gun control, hate crimes, health care, HIV/Aids, housing and homelessness, human rights, human trafficking, hunger, immigration, intelligent design & creationism, interfaith affairs, Israel, judicial nominations, labor issues, living wage, mental health, privacy, race relations, religious liberty, religious persecution, reproductive rights, school prayer, school vouchers, separation of church & state, sexuality issues in public school, social security, socially responsible investment, stem cell research, substance abuse, torture, U.S. foreign policy, violence against women, welfare reform, women’s health, and world Jewry.  There is a list of equal length in regards to the work of the Israel Religious Action Center, with its focus being on Tikkun Olam issues particular to the State of Israel.

Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – we all agree that the father of modern Judaism was the great sage, Hillel the Elder, who lived in the first century B.C.E.  One of Hillel’s most famous sayings was:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?” (PIRKE AVOT 1:14)  Reform Judaism, through its commitment to Tikkun Olam, strives to live up to Hillel’s standards.  As Jews, we are for ourselves, striving to live our Jewish lives more fully.  But if we are only for ourselves, then we are nothing.  Therefore, through our pursuit of Tikkun Olam – by being for others as well – we bring meaning to our Jewish selves.  “If not now, when?”  Our answer is crystal clear.  Now, most assuredly now!  As Reform Jews, we can neither wait to repair the world nor can we expect others to do it for us.  In committing ourselves to the work of Tikkun Olam, we are not only fulfilling ourselves as Jews but are also partnering with God in the ongoing work of perfecting creation.

In part 8, I will reflect upon why it is important for synagogues to band together into an ideological family, and how the Union for Reform Judaism has enabled its member synagogue to maximize their pursuit of living a modern, liberal approach to their Judaism.

911 Remarks at a Mosque in the Shadow of Hate

September 13, 2010

With the controversy swirling around the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, our entire country has experienced a burgeoning of Islamophobia – hatred directed at all the followers of Islam.  In response to this sorry state of affairs, an interfaith gathering – called a Day of Unity and Healing – was held at the mosque in Moline, Illinois, on September 11th.  It was heartening to see that the room was packed, as was an overflow room.  It was estimated that there were about 400 in attendance.  I was one of those who was invited to offer some brief remarks.  I share them with you here.

First of all, I want to take this opportunity to say that as a Jew and as a rabbi, I am honored to have been invited to speak with you today, here in this mosque. It is no secret that there are serious issues which divide Muslims and Jews these days; issues which each side takes very much to heart. But as bitter as are the challenges which divide us, there is something that we must never forget. We are family. We are cousins. We are both children of Abraham; we Jews by way of Isaac; you Muslims by way of Ishmael. Ishmael and Isaac. They were half brothers. Ishmael was my uncle. Isaac was yours. So we are family, and families can argue. They can battle bitterly. But at the end of the day, family is family, and as such family members stand by each other, especially in times of need. You are my cousins, and I am here. There is no place else I could be. And I speak not only for myself, but for the membership of Temple Emanuel as well.

That being said, I want to express my heartfelt thanks to Pastor Terry Jones and to his followers, the members of the Dove World Outreach Center, in Gainesville, Florida. I know that might sound odd, but I am serious. We owe this man, and so many others like him, a profound debt of gratitude.

Why? Because they have forced the American people to confront the ugly face of vile and virulent hatred. They have forced us to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, “Is this who we are? Is this who we wish to be?” And the answer has been a resounding “NO!” These extremists do not speak for the vast majority of the American people and their message in no way reflects the ideals of freedom, inclusion, and respect upon which our nation was founded.

America is filled with people of good conscience; people who detest the toxic teachings of fanatics like Terry Jones. Yet we people of good conscience can often demonstrate ourselves to be quite a complacent crew. We poo-poo bigotry and prejudice, but we do so in the comfort of our homes and in our conversations with our friends, and all too often that is where it ends. Privately, we tell others how much we loath such hatred, but rarely do we take the next step and actually do something about it. And through our inaction, we permit this infection of the American soul to fester and spread. As Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish philosopher so wisely put it, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

But then every once in a while, a fellow like Pastor Jones comes around; someone who is so outlandish in their prejudice that they make it nearly impossible for those who are truly people of good conscience to keep our high ideals to ourselves. They impel us to stand up publicly for that which we believe. The are a wake up call, reminding us that if we truly believe in the dignity of all people – if we truly believe in respecting the diversity of all those who populate our planet – then we need to stand up and be counted. We need to make it clear to the world at large that there is no place for prejudice in our town, our state, our nation, or our world.

Back in 1790, President George Washington wrote the following words to Moses Sexias, the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. “For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” I am here today, along with all the other non-Muslims who are here today, to assure our Muslim brothers and sisters – my Muslim cousins – that we take very much to heart the words of President Washington – “To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Anyone who attacks your right to worship as you please, where you please – even it it is two blocks from Ground Zero – attacks everyone’s right to worship as well. That you pray to Allah, and I pray to Adonai, and our Christian brothers and sisters pray to, or through, Jesus, and that so many people of so many other faiths each pray in their own way is not a matter of right or wrong. It never has been. Rather, it is a testament to the gift of so many roads which lay before us as personal opportunities for all people to choose how they feel they can best connect with the divinity that is the foundation of the universe. It is at times like these that we are reminded that if we are to travel our own chosen paths to the divine, then we must defend, even with our lives, the rights of others to travel theirs.

Dear Muslim cousins, on this day of September 11th, we reverently remember those who fell victims to the toxins of hatred 9 years ago. We refuse to permit such toxins to poison our community today. In that spirit, please be assured that we stand by you, we stand with you, today and every day.

Our Cousin at the Foot of the Mountain

September 11, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Rosh Hashanah morning.

Every year, on Rosh Hashanah morning, I turn to the Torah portion, the story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, as a source of inspiration for my sermon. This year will be no different. However, before I enter into my remarks, I must tell you that the sermon you are about to hear is not the sermon I originally intended to share with you. That particular sermon will have to wait until next Rosh Hashanah.

In some ways, that is unfortunate because, though its text has not yet been committed to paper (or whatever you commit texts to when you type them into your computer), it was, is, and will be a very nice sermon; one of those thought provoking feel good sermons that people so much like to hear these days. But as I said, it will have to wait.

You may wonder why I felt the need to set that sermon aside. That is a fair enough question. The answer is that there are times when the world takes over and as a result the sermons that clergy plan to deliver are not the ones they wind up delivering. Rather, they find themselves needing to deliver the sermons that the world demands of them. Unfortunately, this is such a time.

With that being said, let me turn to our Torah portion.

Usually, when rabbis discuss this Torah portion, they almost always center their reflections upon Abraham and Isaac, and all that transpired between them in this powerful account. However, when we consider the totality of the story, we need to recognize that Abraham and Isaac were not the only characters present. There were others. The Hebrew text refers to these others as Abraham’s “na’arav” or “sh’nei na’a’rav,” which most translations, including the one in our prayer book, renders as “servants” or “two servants.” However, the typical Hebrew term for servant is not “na’ar” but “eved.” “Na’ar” usually means “youth.” Recognizing this irregularity in the text, the rabbis of the Midrash asked, “Who were these two special youths who accompanied Abraham and Isaac on their journey?” They generally agree upon the answer. One of them was Abraham’s servant, Eliezer; the person who, later in the text, Abraham would send to Aram Naharayim, the town in which Abraham’s brother, Nahor, lived, in order to acquire a bride for Isaac. The other was none other than Ishmael, Abraham’s oldest son, the son of the maid servant Hagar, Isaac’s half brother.

The presence of Ishmael in this seminal story of our people is highly significant. For even here, in the midst of a foundation story of the Jewish people – a story of one of the truly make-or-break moments in the history of our people and our faith; for if Abraham had carried through with his intended sacrifice, then this story would have marked the end of the Jewish people and of Judaism – even here we sense the presence of Ishmael. And who is Ishmael? As Isaac’s half brother, he is our uncle. But he is more than that. For as we Jews trace our lineage back to Isaac, the followers of Islam trace theirs back to Ishmael. With that in mind, we must never forget that the Muslims are our cousins. They are part of our family, and as such, they have been present with us throughout our history, even from our very beginnings. For even in this story, while Isaac the Jew is on top of Mount Moriah – what would become the Temple Mount – with Father Abraham, Ishmael the Muslim is standing at the foot of the mountain, awaiting the outcome. He accompanied us on our journey there, and he will accompany us on our journey back to Beer Sheva.

So the Muslims are our cousins; they are our family. In the light of contemporary history, that is a difficult concept for many to grasp. For we have spent the last 70 years or so contending with them. So much blood has been shed. Jewish blood by Arabs. Arab blood by Jews. Still they are our cousins. How can we reconcile the two? Well, as many of us know, sometimes the most strident conflicts occur within families. Family feuds can be the most bitter and devastating of controversies. Yet even so, in the end, family is family. And while within a family we can engage in the most vicious warfare imaginable, still there is something almost instinctive within us which demands that we set aside our differences and stand by our family members when others endanger them.

I remember an incident from my childhood which testifies to this phenomenon. My sister, of blessed memory, was six years older than I. As children we always fought, and she would never pass up even the slightest opportunity to beat me up. However, one day, standing at the school bus stop, one of the older boys started beating me up. Immediately, she stepped in and started beating him up. “Wait a minute!” he protested. “Why are you hitting me? After all, you beat up Henry all the time.” To this she replied, “He’s my brother, so I can beat him up, but don’t you dare lay a hand upon him!”

So it is, or should be, within the family of Abraham. It is one thing for us to contend with our cousins, the Muslims. It is quite another to stand silently by while others persecute and abuse them. And sad to say, that is exactly what is happening today – not in some far off land but rather here, on our very shores.

What I am referring to is the controversy which has whirled around the proposal to build an Islamic community center two blocks away from Ground Zero, in New York. The debate over this proposed mosque has stirred up some of the ugliest aspects of American culture today. As a result, we have witnessed a burgeoning of virulent hatred and prejudice. As a result, we Jews, as people of conscience, nevertheless cousins to the Muslims, have been handed the challenge of whether we will join in this hate fest, or silently stand by, and by our silence give tacit approval to it, or stand up and stand with our cousins, even though our dispute with them over the future of the Middle East continues to be bitter and bloody.

Personally, I have struggled with this issue. When the question of the mosque first arose, I have to admit that I myself wondered, “Why do they have to build it there? Isn’t that more than a bit insensitive considering the fact that the tragedy of September 11th was perpetrated by Muslims who claimed to be acting in the name of their faith?” I also have to admit that I wondered about where the funds were coming from. It would be one thing if they were being raised from among the American Muslim community, but something else if they were coming out of the Arab world. Yet even as I entertained these questions, my main concern still centered on the principle of freedom of religion. Still, this is America and in this country people of all faiths are supposed to be free to worship according to their faiths wherever they choose to worship; even if they are Muslims who wish to worship at or near Ground Zero.

As I was grappling with my mixed feelings over this issue, one day at lunch I was approached by Rev. Ron Quay of Churches United, who wanted us to get together to discuss whether or not the Quad Cities faith community ought to take a stand in support of the mosque.

When we did hold our meeting, we ultimately decided not to act immediately but rather to wait and see. What were we waiting for? First of all, we feared that by jumping into this controversy, we would actually be causing more harm than good. At that time, all the negativity was centered on the mosque in New York. There had been no expressions of anti-Muslim hostility here in the Quad Cities. So we feared that if we spoke out, we would actually provoke such hostility. We did not want to give this hostility more legs, especially more local legs than it already had. Secondly, we felt that it would be inappropriate for us to step forward without a request to do so coming from our local Muslim community. If they wanted our help and our support, all they needed to do was ask for it. For us to impose it upon them might indeed do them more harm than good.

But as fate would have it, the anger and the prejudice surrounding the proposed New York mosque would not remain in New York. Like the virulent social cancer hate is, it began to metastasize, spreading its toxins across our country. Feeding off the New York controversy, the purveyors of Islamophobia starting peddling their poisonous pellets of prejudice wherever they could.

The New York Times published a feature article about an evangelical pastor in Florida who was organizing a public book burning of the Koran scheduled for September 11th. I know that there are those who are very unhappy with me when I make Holocaust analogies, but how could I, as a Jew, not shiver at the parallel between this man’s intentions and the Nazis’ burning of Jewish sacred books and books by Jewish authors?

In the Washington Post, I read about how the Islamic community of Mufreesboro, Tennessee – a community which lived in peace and harmony with its neighbors for over thirty years – had met with strong opposition when they proposed building their own mosque in their own town. Nor was this opposition made up exclusively of those who spoke out at county board meetings. It also included hundreds who gathered for a large noisy protest rally in the town square and political candidates who made their opposition to this mosque a center piece of their campaigns. Painfully, an article published in the Post one week later, reported that among those who opposed this mosque there were those who had escalated their protests to include acts of violence such as an act of arson at the construction site, along with reports of gunfire there as well.

Rev. Quay and I conferred. We had worried about giving Islamophobia legs. Well, as report after report of anti-Islamic hatred came in, it was becoming abundantly obviously that this hatred was growing legs of its own. It was likewise becoming obvious that sooner or later – sooner rather than later – we would have to take a stand in opposition to it. For as this issue has evolved, it is no longer an issue of whether or not the site of the New York mosque is appropriate. It has become crystal clear that the fundamental issue here is one of protecting religious freedom; one of taking a strong stand against prejudice and bigotry.

Still, on a local level, there were some pieces that were missing for us. First of all, there was the fact that this hatred of Muslims had yet to touch our community. And of course there was the fact that our local Islamic community had yet to express a desire for any public action in this regard.

Well, that too, was soon to end. It ended for me one morning while on the treadmill during a respiratory therapy session. The TV was on in the therapy room, as we patients were watching the Today Show on KWQC as we exercised. And then there it was on the screen before us, being broadcast by our local TV station. It was the most horrible of commercials. I suspect that at least some of you have seen it. It started off with the claim that whenever the Muslims conquered a place, they celebrated their victory by building there a mosque. Images of Jerusalem, Spain, and now Ground Zero. It equated the building of a mosque at Ground Zero with the building of a Japanese temple at Pearl Harbor. It then went on to castigate Congressman Bruce Braley for supporting the building of this mosque and it encouraged our local citizens to call Congressman Braley to express their opposition and discontent. Now this Islamophobia had local legs. This hatred had come to roost in the Quad Cities. The picture was complete. Our community would not be spared the taint of this hatred. The strident voices who strive to provoke fear in the hearts of the American people by invoking that fearful term, “jihad” were now here recruiting our friends and neighbors to join them in their own holy war against anyone who follows the faith of Mohammed.

So Rev. Quay and I contacted the local Islamic community to let them know that if they wanted to take public action in response to such prejudice, we were willing to stand by them and with them, and we would encourage the other members of the Quad Cities faith community to do so as well.

They have taken us up on our offer. So, on Saturday evening, September 11th, starting at 5:00 p.m., the Moline Mosque will be hosting an interfaith gathering; a Day of Unity and Healing. The program will only last an hour but if people of conscience – and I hope that includes everyone in this room and everyone in our Jewish community – if people of conscience come out and support it, the impact of such a gathering on the Quad Cities will have enduring value. It will affirm the living essence of those important words which President George Washington wrote back in 1790 to Moses Seixas, the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Our Muslim cousins residing here in the Quad Cities are good citizens. We most certainly disagree with them strongly about the situation in the Middle East, but still, they are good citizens; as good as we are. We, a people who have suffered centuries of persecution, only to find a haven here in a free America, may very well be the best equipped in our land to appreciate their current situation; to appreciate what it is like to be the target of hatred. If we do not stand up for them now, then we demean the memories of all those Jews of generations past who fell victim to the power of bigotry.

I not only invite you to stand with me on the evening of September 11th, in the mosque in Moline. I implore you. It is the debt we owe to our forebears. It is the debt we owe to our children. It is also a family thing. They are our cousins and they need our support. As Ishmael stood by Isaac. So must we now stand by them.

The Egg as a Symbol of Hope and Hate

April 4, 2010

I love symbols.  They possess the power to concretize concepts.  They can make the abstract far more tangible.

Yet I find great irony in how there are times when the same symbol can take on different, and even divergent meanings.  In the past week, much to my chagrin, I experienced an example of this phenomenon.

The symbol in question is the egg.  During our local Pesach/Passover celebrations I have made a point of explaining to my congregants both the symbolism of the egg on the Seder plate and its ideological connection to the far better known egg symbol of this time of year – the Easter Egg – as well as to its symbolism within the ancient pagan Spring festival.  For in all of these holidays, the egg symbolizes the beginning of life; both birth and rebirth.  For the pagans, they were celebrating the rebirth of nature after the death of winter.  The Christians celebrate the the rebirth – resurrection – of Jesus after his death on the cross.  While we Jews celebrate the rebirth of the Jewish people after the death of slavery in Egypt.  For all three belief systems, the egg is a symbol of hope, potential, and significant new beginnings.

Yet last night I also experienced the egg as a very different symbol.

If you have been reading my blog of late then you know that I have been engaged in a local controversy over whether or not a governmental agency – in this case the city government of Davenport – should be declaring religious holidays as “official” holidays; whether by doing so, the government is in violation of the First Amendment.  The controversy, as you probably have read, arose when our local Civil Rights Commission recommended to our city government that they change the name of the paid holiday on their calendar from “Good Friday” to “Spring Holiday,” and the city administrator complied.  The city received an immediate and harsh reaction from several city employees.  As a result, the city administration buckled under the pressure, abandoned the principle of governmental agencies needing to remain religiously neutral, and changed the name back to “Good Friday.”  And the debate over the issue has been raging ever since.  To those who know me, it should be no surprise that I have been one of the vocal proponents of promoting communal respect for religious diversity and maintaining a high wall of church-state separation.

This brings us back to the egg.  Last night, I took my teenage daughter and her best friend to a late night movie.  Her friend had driven to our house and had parked in front of it.  When we returned home, we found that her car and our driveway had been “egged”.  I checked around the rest of our block and found no evidence of any other home being “egged.”  From that I deduced that this “egging” was not just some youthful prank pulled on our neighborhood but was a directed attack on my home.  I further assume that it was probably in response to my public statements about the Good Friday vs. Spring Holiday controversy.

There is a certain irony, considering the symbolism of the Easter Egg, that there would be those who would turn that egg around and use it as a symbol of anger and hatred against someone of another faith, simply because that person does not share their faith and does not wish to have it imposed upon them.  It would seem that such people have missed the point of the very Easter they believe they are defending.  I am confident that most of those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus do not believe that he rose from the dead so as to encourage others to egg the homes of those who choose to adhere to a different faith.  It would seem to me that the perpetrators of this act of vandalism have not celebrated a Happy Easter but rather a Hateful one!

When It Comes to the Passion Story, Not All Passion is Good

April 2, 2010

As I stated in my last posting on this blog, there has arisen in my community quite a furor over whether or not it is constitutional acceptable for a city government to call a paid holiday for its employees by a religious name or a secular one.  The holiday in question is Good Friday, and the contested alternative name is the religiously neutral one of Spring Holiday.

Today, in our local newspaper, the Quad City Times, an editorial was published which was supportive of keeping our city government religiously neutral.  That is the good news.  Unfortunately, the author of the editorial chose to introduce his text by drawing the following comparison with the traditional gospel version of the Passion Story – the account of the execution of Jesus.

“Somber Christian church services today mark Good Friday, commemorating a day in 33 A.D. when government leaders in Jerusalem caved in to public pressure and executed a religious leader. In Christian churches across the Quad-Cities today, lectors will read the portion of the passion play when Pilate, a governor, then Herod, king, tried to convince the mob otherwise. But the people wouldn’t listen. “Crucify him!” the people said, according to the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Mark.

So the government leaders complied with the will of the people.”

This account was so disturbing to me that I posted the following comment on their web site and now wish to share it with my blog readers:

I do applaud the stand taken in this editorial calling for us to reconsider how governmental bodies should treat religious holidays.  Thank you!

However, I do wish to correct some historically inaccurate statements made in its introductory section.  The story of the execution of Jesus as presented here is the story as it is presented in Christian scripture, particularly the Gospel of John.  Of all the four gospels, John was written later and is clearly the most antisemitic.
The story as presented was intended to generate hatred for the Jews who, at the time, were competing heavily with the Christians for the conversion of the pagans, particularly the Romans.  They were bitter blood rivals.  Especially considering the desire of Christianity at the time to appeal to the Roman population and someday perhaps even become the official faith of the Roman empire, there was a great need to re-frame the story so as to take responsibility for Jesus’ death off of the Romans.  Transferring the responsibility to the Jews serve a double purpose for the Christians since it not only took the responsibility of “deicide” off of the Romans but it also served as a serious blow to the Christians’ Jewish competitors.  Indeed, when John has the Jewish crowd shouting to Pilate “Let his blood be upon our heads and the heads of our children,” that statement was intended to justify Christian prejudice and persecution of all Jews throughout the ages, and not just those who were contemporary with Jesus.  It takes but a short review of the history of that period to see that the Jews of the time were open to embracing any person who offered them any form of hope.  They had no reason whatsoever to denounce him and call for his execution.

As Paul Harvey, of blessed memory, used to say, “And now for the rest of the story!”  Most credible scholars today recognize that the traditional Christian account of the execution of Jesus is terribly historically flawed.  First of all, the Roman empire was a hard and ruthless ruler of its occupied provinces.  Their governors – called Procurators – ruled with iron fists, imposing Roman rule and collecting heavy taxes.  Roman rulers never were the type that would bow to the pressure of their non-Roman subject people.  This was especially true in the province of Judea.  The Judeans had been involved in anti-Roman revolutionary activities since the rebellion of Judah of Galilee in 6 B.C.E.  In fact, Galilee, where Jesus lived, was a continual hotbed of revolution.  Josephus, in his history to the period identifies these revolutionaries as on of the four sects prevalent among the Jewish people and calls them the Fourth Philosophy.  They are also known as Zealots.  Fundamental to their belief was that the Jewish people owed no allegiance to an earthly ruler but only to the Heavenly Ruler.  These Zealots conducted continual guerrilla warfare against Roman caravans in the Galilee.  The Romans called the brigands and robbers.  In the urban centers, especially Jerusalem, there was another group of revolutionaries called the Sicarii, which means “Dagger Men” in Greek (the common language of the Roman empire).  These revolutionaries were terrorists.  They would go into crowds, especially markets, with daggers under their cloaks.  They would then approach Romans or Jewish collaborators with the Romans and stab them to death and then disappear back into the crowd.  In was because of this environment that the Roman empire decided that Judea needs to be ruled with a special rigor.  Therefore they sent their worst, most corrupt soldiers there, both as punishment to these soldiers and to the Judeans.  As for their Procurators, they sent their hardest, greediest men.  A Procurator of a province received a percentage of the taxes.  The more the people were taxed, the richer the Procurator became.  In Judea, it was standard that a Procurator would rule for three to six years and amass such a fortune that they could retire to Rome and live the rest of their lives in luxury.  Enter Pontius Pilate.  Unlike the gospel descriptions of him, Pilate was anything but a gentle soul whose heart would go out to someone like Jesus.  In fact, Pilate was the ONLY Procurator in the history of Roman rule in Judea who was recalled to Rome for use of excessive violence.  He probably still holds the world’s record for number of crucifixions.  He was so harsh that the Roman senate determined that he was doing more to provoke revolution rather than suppress it.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem to observe the Passover pilgrimage festival, as far as Pilate was concerned, he had all the markings of a revolutionary or a potential revolutionary.  He came from the rebellious province of Galilee.  He was developing a significant following.  He numbered among his closest advisers (apostles) one man who was a known Zealot – Simon the Zealot – and another who might have been a member of the Sicarii – Judas Iscariot.  The name “Iscariot” is neither Hebrew nor Greek.  Monsignor S.G.F. Brandon, in his work JESUS AND THE ZEALOTS, proposes that the name is actually a combination of both languages and originally was “Ish” (which in Hebrew means “man”) “Sicarii”.  In other words, a member of the Sicarii.  Therefore, seeing Jesus as a threat, it was Pilate who had him arrested and executed.  It also should be noted that when Jesus was crucified, the two other men crucified along with him were, according to the gospels, thieves.  Crucifixion was even for a Roman like Pilate too extreme a penalty for theft.  However, if you recall, this was the term the Romans used for Zealots, revolutionaries.  It would therefore appear that Pilate viewed Jesus in the same light as he did these two rebels.
I share all this with you because it is important to understand that the Passion story, as portrayed in the beginning of this editorial is not only historically inaccurate but has stood at the very foundation of Christian based antisemitism for almost 2,000 years.  The belief that Jews were the ones directly and primarily responsible for Jesus’ death – the sin of “deicide” – the murder of God – has fueled a hatred that has resulted in the barbarous murder of literally millions of Jews throughout the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, and is still virulently alive today in the doctrines of so many of the hate groups.  When we tell this story as so presented in the editorial, whether intending to or not, we are fueling the fires of what many consider humanity’s longest hatred.