Posted tagged ‘Conservative Christians’

Evangelizing Jews to Judaism

June 18, 2012

A few years back, I invested myself into reading all 12 volumes of the LEFT BEHIND series; that best selling series of novels built around the beliefs of certain evangelical Christians concerning the future period of time between the “Rapture” – when all truly believing Christians will be physically taken up to heaven – and the Second Coming of Jesus.  I read these books because I felt it important to get inside the minds of the evangelicals.  I felt that we Jews need to know what these people believe, and particularly what they believe about us, especially considering how significantly their influence on American society has increased, not to mention the number of copies of each of those books which were sold, and therefore the large number of people who resonate the the theology expressed in those books.

One of the things that is abundantly clear from these books is their burning passion to evangelize Jews to Christianity.  Indeed, while these books described their desire to bring everyone to their beliefs, when it comes to the Jews, their hunger for our conversion is nothing short of obsessive.

It is in this light that one of the great ironies of our time is that it some of our most ardent allies when it comes to Israel are evangelical Christians .  It is this irony which has ignited many debates in the Jewish world over whether we should embrace these evangelicals as our friends when it comes to Israel – under the rubric of “a friend in need…” or distance ourselves from their support of Israel, in light of their apocalyptic designs for Israel and for us.

For centuries upon centuries, we Jews have been greatly distressed by the attempts of Christians to bring us to Christianity.  Throughout that time, various Christian groups have employed many strategies to “save our souls for Jesus.”  Indeed, throughout most of that time, they turned the political power of their societies against us in pursuit of this goal, attempting to convert us through coercion , persecution, expulsion, and even execution.  Therefore, when put in a historical perspective, the attempts of contemporary American evangelicals to bring Jews to Jesus are pretty innocuous.  Yet their efforts continue to concern us.

I propose that the efforts of these evangelicals constitute little, if any, threat to the American Jewish community.  It is not that the evangelicals are not sincere in their aspirations.  They are most certainly sincere.  Nor is that they are not energetically invested in their efforts, for once again, they are most certainly energetic in their pursuit of our souls.  Rather, they pose little threat to us because of the nature of the American Jewish community itself.

For the evangelicals to be successful in their conversionary tactics, their Jewish targets must possess some basic desire for a religious expression in their lives.  American Jews need first to be concerned about the well being of their souls before they can start to worry about in what manner can their souls be saved.

Sad to say, the overwhelming majority of my co-religionists do not possess such desires or concerns.  The nature and the well being of their souls is probably one of the last things about which they are worried.  They truly consider themselves Jews, but for them, being Jewish is more of a tribal thing than a spiritual one.  They are Jews, but for all intents and purposes, they are a-religious.  Indeed, even the nature of their tribal affiliation can be vague and tenuous, as is evidenced by their lack of involvement, support, commitment, and knowledge of such tribal organizations and issues as the Jewish Federation and the State of Israel.  They are Jews, but the nature of the thread that binds them to their Jewishness is thin and frail, and when it comes to spiritual matters, it is practically non-existent.

Case in point:  For the last several years I have joined with my evangelical neighbors in their “Night to Honor Israel” programs.  I figure that if I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my Roman Catholic neighbors in attempts to address the blights of war, poverty and homelessness, in spite of our significant differences over such issues as women’s reproductive rights, then I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my evangelical neighbors in our support of the State of Israel, in spite of our differences over several sensitive social issues such as same-sex marriage.  From these “Night to Honor Israel” experiences I have garnered three interesting insights:  1) That there are evangelicals and then there are evangelicals.  There are those evangelicals whose faith compels them to save the souls of the Jews by bringing them to Jesus, and then there are those evangelicals whose faith instructs them that of all the people on the face of the earth, the only ones that do NOT need to be brought to Jesus are the Jewish people, for the Jews are the people of Jesus and most beloved in the eyes of God.  2) That the commitment of these evangelicals for the survival and well being of Israel is indeed profound; more profound than that of far too many American Jews, and 3) That when at these events, as we all talk about our commitment to Israel, while the evangelical speakers address their commitment to Israel in religious terms, often quoting the Hebrew Scriptures not just for illustrative purposes but rather as absolute proof texts, the Jewish speakers invariably frame their remarks in terms of Jewish history and Jewish peoplehood and rarely, if ever, mention God and scripture.   For these Evangelicals there is an eternal and indestructible relationship between the State of Israel and God.  Ironically, for the Jewish speakers there seems to be little if any connection between Israel and God.  Spirituality does not seem to play much of a role in this matter, or in any matter, for so many of our Jews.

So the evangelical Christians can try as they may to bring Jews to Jesus but they are plowing and sowing their seeds in infertile soil.  In presenting their case to such Jews, they might as well be speaking in tongues for these folks possess little, if any, spiritual vocabulary and perhaps even less of a sense of spiritual connectedness.

But this is not necessarily all bad news.  While we need not worry about our co-religionists being evangelized to Christianity, we should be seriously considering how we, as a RELIGIOUS community, can more effectively evangelize our fellow Jews to Judaism.  After all, while the threads that bind them to Judaism are thin and frail, they still exist.  There is something within them that helps them to see their Jewish identity as something important enough not to let go of it.  Right now, it may not be important enough to play an on-going role in their lives; it may be something buried deep within the background of their consciousness, but still something is there.  It has not disappeared all together.

This is where the synagogue comes in.  For the synagogue is the Jewish RELIGIOUS institution.  Though one of the roles of a synagogue is a communal one, that of being a “Beit Keneset,” a House of Jewish Assembly, we are NOT just a Jewish community center.  We are NOT just some sort of Jewish ethnic society.  We are far more than that.  We are a “Beit Tefilah,” a House of Jewish Worship, and a “Beit Sefer,” a House of Jewish Study.  Our primary mission is a spiritual one.  It is to promote Jewish spirituality; to empower and enable our members to connect with God in very Jewish ways.  To that end, our secondary mission is an educational one.  It is to provide opportunities for Jewish learning so that our people can have access to the tools necessary to accomplish our primary mission.  As far as Jewish communal activities are concerned, they are but our tertiary mission.  The Jewish community WE build is suppose to be built around our shared spiritual values.  It is the function of Jewish Federations to build a Jewish community around our shared ethnic values.  In the synagogue, we are supposed to be coming together as a community to enhance our worship and study experiences; to find ourselves drawing closer to God in a both a personal and communal way through prayer, study, and the performance of mitzvot, both ritual and ethical.  Back when I was growing up, the organization, Religion in American Life, used to run TV ads stating, “The Family the Prays Together Stays Together.”  It is in that way that a synagogue is one big family.  We need to pray together if we are to stay together.

Therefore, the mission of every synagogue is and should be to evangelize Jews to Judaism; to build upon the tenuous connection that most Jews have to their Judaism; to strengthen and enrich those bonds in powerful spiritual ways.  It is our responsibility to enable our people to evolve Jewishly; to take them from identifying themselves as Jews by birth to a place where they will identify themselves as Jewish by choice; to help them to come to appreciate that being Jewish is meant to be more than a mere accident – something we are stuck with – but rather it can be something that positively impacts upon our lives on a daily basis.

The other day I was looking through a book entitled THE ROSH HASHANAH AND YOM KIPPUR SURVIVAL KIT.  It is one of a growing genre of books aimed at Jews who get little or nothing out of their Judaism.  Such books operate under the assumption that Jews think doing things Jewish is a waste.  In fact, a few years ago, the Wednesday morning book group in my synagogue studied such a book whose title says it all.  That title: “HOW TO GET MORE OUT OF BEING JEWISH EVEN IF:  A. You are not sure you believe in God, B. You think going to synagogue is a waste of time, C. You think keeping kosher is stupid, D. You hated Hebrew school, or E. All of the above!”  There is no question about who is the target audience for that book!

Anyway, I was looking through this book about making the High Holy Days more meaningful, especially for those Jews who are basically clueless as to what Judaism is all about, and I came upon the author’s analysis of Jewish education.  He stated that Jewish education should be answering the questions, “What,” “How,” and “Why”.  What aspect of Jewish practices are you studying?  How should you observe them?  And why should you observe them?  He then went on to say that traditionally, synagogues and religious schools have focused their efforts on addressing the “What” and the “How” but have failed to adequately address the “Why”.  For example, they teach that on Pesach you hold a Seder.  That is the “What.”  They then go on to teach that when you hold a Seder, you are expected to do A, B, & C.  That is the “How.”  Where they fall down is that they fail to adequately teach, “Why do you hold a Seder?  Why do you eat matzah, charoset, and bitter herbs?  Why do you have a cup for Elijah?”  You get the idea.  There is a failure in teaching the deeper meanings behind the actions.  That, by the way, is why I have always loved being a Reform Jew, for historically, Reform Judaism has instituted many changes in Jewish life in order to pay more attention to the Why.  For example, when I attend traditional Jewish worship services, they being all or primarily in Hebrew, even though my Hebrew skills are of such a level that I can understand the meaning of the prayers being offered, still I walk away feeling empty because I cannot help but think of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the worshipers in those sanctuaries have no more of a grasp on the meaning of those prayers than if those prayers were being offered in Klingon or Martian.  They may love the sound of the Hebrew and the feel of the Hebrew, and even the thrill of being able to “decode” the Hebrew characters of the text, but that is simply the “What” and the “How.”  The “Why” is nowhere to be found in such worship experiences.  Since prayer is speaking to God, how sad it is that they do not even know what it is they are saying!  Reform Judaism on the other hand felt it imperative to introduce praying in the vernacular as well as in Hebrew so that our worshipers can know what they are saying when they are speaking to God.  Our traditional prayers have meaning – deep meaning – and understanding what we are praying – what we are saying to God – that is the all important “Why”.

I share all of this with you because I agree and I disagree with this author.  I agree with his claim that by our better understanding of the meanings of behind religious practices those actions will start to come to life for us; that in order for our rituals to have any vibrancy in our lives, we need to understand their deeper meanings.  It is in such understanding that our rituals possess their great power.  However, where I disagree with the author is in his claim that all of our synagogues and our schools have failed to teach those meanings.  With this, I disagree strongly.  For there are many synagogues and schools in which they are being taught.  We do teach them, and we will continue to teach them.  The problem is not that we do not teach these things but rather that we can teach them till the cows come home, yet all our efforts will be to limited purposes if the vast majority of our people continue to refuse to avail themselves of such education.

This is the real challenge which we face in evangelizing Jews to Judaism.  It is the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”  Offering classes and programs is not the problem for us.  We can do that.  They can take many shapes and forms.  We are flexible if flexibility truly helps us to meet this need.  But how do we get our people to drink the water from the well of Jewish knowledge?  How do we awaken in them the desire, nevertheless the hunger, to learn more about our faith and our heritage?  They exercise and watch what they eat to safeguard the health of their bodies.  How can we awaken within them the realization that they need to safeguard their spiritual health as well?

I teach a B’nei Mitzvah Family Class.  In anticipation of their special day, every Bar or Bat Mitzvah student and his or her parents are required to attend this 8 session course.  While most groups going through this class are a mix of those who are  synagogue regulars and those who are not, the majority generally are not.  You do not see them at services.  You do not see them in adult education classes.  If you see them at all, it is more likely at social functions.  During these classes, we explore the meanings behind Bar & Bat Mitzvah and related topics such as “What is a mitzvah?” and “What are meanings of the rituals found in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service?”  Invariably, most of these people find themselves deeply engaged in these sessions.  For these brief moments they come to see their Judaism in ways they have not seen it before, and they find it very meaningful.  The challenge facing our synagogues is how do we build upon this?  How do we engage such people in further Jewish study when there is no gun being held to their head – “Take this class if you want your child to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service”?  How do we engage others in such meaningful study?

This is where we need to turn to our synagogue “regulars.”  We do not need to sell them on the power of Jewish worship or on the power of Jewish study.  That truly is preaching to the choir.  For they have already discovered these things.  They come to Shabbat, not because of any requirement but rather because it fulfills them in very special ways.  They attend adult education classes, not because of any requirement, but because the knowledge and the insights they receive from those classes enriches their lives.  They fully know from whence I am speaking.  They know that it is the power of Jewish worship and study which fuels their sense of engagement in this Jewish community.  Indeed, it fuels their sense of engagement in the greater human community.

That makes them our best representatives to the the Jewish people at large.  Rabbis such as myself could deliver this message to our fellow Jews who do not seem to know what these people know – We could deliver it day after day; we could deliver it standing on our heads – and most would react by thinking, “The rabbi is just blowing smoke.  What do you expect a rabbi to say?”  But if they could hear it from their fellow Jews; if these inspired Jews were the ones who went to their fellow Jews and said to them, “Come join me at Shabbat services.  Come with me to this class or that class” and these inspired Jews told them why they find Shabbat services so meaningful; what it is they find so compelling about Jewish learning, then perhaps – just perhaps – what these inspired Jews have to say about these passions of theirs will start to ignite similar passions in their apathetic fellow Jews.

The American Jewish community needs some serious evangelism of its Jews to Judaism.  While we rabbis and cantors can offer to this efforts our knowledge and our expertise, there are no greater evangelicals – no people better suited for this task – than inspired lay people; Jews who love Shabbat; Jews who are thrilled by Jewish study; Jews who revel in their life in the Jewish community.  Jews who understand that their involvement in such Jewish activities does contribute significantly to making them both better Jews and better human beings.  This is their time.  They are the key to the Jewish future.

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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.

Good Friday? Perhaps Not!

April 1, 2010

Here is an article I just submitted for our congregational newsletter concerning a Church-State Separation controversy that is occurring in our community.

By now, we should all be aware of the flap going on in the Davenport city government over the attempt to change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday.  My God!  It has even made the national news!  Before I get to the heart of the issue for us as Jews I might as well get the glib response out of the way.  There are those who have said, “Well, for me, every Friday is a good Friday!”  Yuck, yuck!  Actually, for me, every Friday would be a good Friday if only many more of the members of our congregation could find their way to the Temple for Shabbat services!

Now to the serious business at hand.  There are those who moan that all of this is just making a mountain out of a mole hill.  While on the surface it would appear that way, if we, as Jews, start to consider it more carefully, we should discover that perhaps it never was a mole hill but alwaya an ugly mountain.  Why an ugly mountain?  Let us consider the facts.

We need to start off with the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Thomas Jefferson would later refer to this principle as Separation of Church and State – so for all those wisenheime­rs who petulantly declare that Separation of Church and State is not in the Constitution, they need to be re­minded that while the actual words “Separation of Church and State” are not in the Constitution, the prin­ciple is most certainly to be found there.  Indeed, I find it of special significance that the framers of the Constitution thought this to be such an significant principle for the American democracy that they not only placed it in the Bill of Rights, but they placed it at the very beginning of that document.  If the constitutional text is not clear enough, let me restate it more directly.  All government agencies must remain religiously neutral.  They are forbidden from promoting any one faith over all others and they are likewise forbidden from interfering with anyone’s ability to freely practice their faith.  It is imper­ative to understand this when looking at the current situation, for since it involves the Davenport city government, that gov­ernmental agency is constitutionally bound to abide by the parameters of the First Amend­ment.

Now let us look at the recommendation which was offered to the Davenport city government by the Civil Rights Commission.  They simply recommended that the city change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday.  They NEVER recommended doing away with the holiday, but only that it be renamed.  They made this recommendation because when a governmental agency makes a religious holiday an official holiday, it runs the risk of being charged with violating the First Amendment.  By simply renaming the holiday with a neutral name, it avoids that violation while at the same time continues to permit those who observe this Christian holiday to do so without penalty.  Nothing changes but the name, and people can do as they choose with the day.

Now here is where this who brouhaha should become of serious concern for us as Jews.  That the name change should evoke such a vitriolic response from so many people that the city government decided to change it back should serve us non-Christians as a profound warning signal.  After all, what are these people so angry about?  They still have their holiday?  No one is stopping them from going to church.  All that is changed is a name on a governmental calendar.  But that seems to be enough to outrage them.  Why?  Because they are fundamentally opposed to the principle of religious neutrality for our govern­ment.  In fact, they do not view the government as “our” government but rather as “their” government, and we who do not share their faith are but tolerated guests in “their” land.  We can speak of diversity, but they will re-label it as “politically correctness”, which has somehow come to be synonymous with “hog­wash” (Personally, I have always marveled at how some people can consider the term “politically correct” as a pejorative.  I have often wondered whether or not they are saying that they aspire that our country be “politically incorrect).  My dear friends, you must awaken to the realization that when people like this explode over matters of inclusiveness and diversity, what they are telling us is nothing less than that they do not see us – Jews and people of other minority faiths – as being full Americans, in any way equal to them.  Such outbursts are aimed directly at us, even though only one Jew sits on the Dav­enport Civil Rights Commission, which presented the original recommendation.  For us, this is not a mole hill.  This is a mountain; a mountain of religious prejudice.

As you probably know, I am a strict Church-State separationist.  I believe that government and religious observances and professions of faith should be kept completely apart.  That is why for all these years I have waged combat against religious music in the public schools.  That is why I have always been op­posed to the placement of any religious symbols – including Jewish symbols – on governmental property, whether they be the Ten Commandments or a creche or a Hanukkah menorah.

As a strict separationist, I would far prefer that a governmental agency such as the Davenport city govern­ment simply not recognize Good Friday as a holiday, just as they do not recognize Yom Kippur.  Yet I appreciate that in order to do that, they would have to take away from their employees the oppor­tunity to practice this aspect of their faith, and I am certainly not one who wishes to see anyone discouraged from practicing their faith.  To me, that would go against the second part of the First Amendment which assures all Americans the freedom to practice their faith unimpeded by the government.

As I have considered this situation, I am reminded that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity”.  So it is with our current “crisis”.  Enfolded in it is the “danger” of a burgeoning religious prejudice and conflict.  But also enfolded in it is an “oppor­tunity” for our governmental agencies to rethink how they approach the question of religious holiday in general, remaining far truer to the text and spirit of the First Amendment.  I have a proposal, though I doubt anyone will take it seriously.  I propose that governmental agencies should wipe all religious holidays off of their calendar, including Christmas and Easter.  In their stead, they should offer all their employees the opportunity to take three religious holidays of their choosing during the year.  At some point in time, they would need to file their request for these holidays.  As with the Davenport police contract, if the city is unable to give them off on any of those days, then they should receive time-and-a-half overtime for their work on them.  In this way, Christians can take off for Christian holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday; Jews can take off for Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach; while Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai, etc. can choose their own holidays.  If someone does not profess a faith, or their religion does not have three holidays, then they still can access three additional days off of their choosing.  In this way, the government can remain religiously neutral, not showing preferential treatment to one faith over another yet also not interfering with their employees’ right to freely exercise their faiths.

I pray that when all the smoke clears, we will find that the city of Davenport and the people of the Quad Cities will have grown wiser and more caring of each other as a result of grappling with this sensitive issue.

Hints of a Post-Partisan Universe

February 11, 2010

Partisanism (if that is indeed a word) has become the bane of contemporary American life.  More and more it seems that people are taking sides, one against the other.  If one side says that something is white, the other side immediately claims it is actually black.  And so it goes on and on and on.  More than people are concerned about the issues we must confront, we tend to be more concerned about our maintaining ongoing conflicts with the “other side.”

Of course on the contemporary scene, one need look no further than our own government to witness the devastating effects of such partisan thinking and behavior.  In Congress, practically every issue is addressed according to party lines.  If the Democrats want to do X, the Republicans are lined up to  diametrically oppose X, and uniformly support Y; which, of course the Democrats unanimously reject out of hand.  Rare is the politician who thinks for him or her self.  They all toe the party line.  None of them really judge the matters in front of them purely on their merit, in light of their personal opinion of what would best serve the American people.  Is it no wonder that in spite of the fact that for all too many years, the American people have been clamoring for such significant changes as health care reform and election finance reform, yet in spite of the expressed will of the people, absolutely nothing has been accomplished, nor probably will be accomplished given to current state of affairs.  To watch the State of the Union address on TV – any State of the Union address during these past many years – is to witness a physical manifestation of such partisanship.  Regardless of whatever party the current President happens to belong, you can watch as the members of his party applaud those key moments in his speech while the members of the opposition party sit with their hands folded across their chest; that is unless their party leaders give them the signal that it is permissible at some points to applaud.  For it matters not what the President says.  It only matters to which political party the President belongs.  It is all very sad, and infantile, and it cannot help but leave all cognizant and concerned Americans with a profound sense of hopelessness.  Ultimately, no matter who the President happens to be, the State of the Union remains clearly the same:  deadlocked and immobilized.

What is true for the realm of American politics unfortuately is just as true in the realm of American religion.  Here, too, we have drawn our battlelines.  Yet these battlelines are not necessarily determined by what would seem to be the obvious; the major divisions of faith – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.  Rather, our battlelines have been drawn according to whether one identifies as a religious conservative or as a religious liberal; as a fundamentalist or as a progressive.  Once those lines have been drawn, we tend to be as dismissive of the other, as the Democrats are of the Republicans and visa versa.  If the religious conservatives stand on one side of an issue, you can be sure that the religious liberals stand on the other.  One’s black is the other’s white, and neither will even consider the possibility of the existence of shades of gray.  And just like the political parties, very few among us feel any urgent desire to talk to the “others” in hopes of finding some resolution to our differences and perhaps even some common ground.

As a rabbi who has found value in connecting with Christian conservatives when it comes to addressing issues involving Israel, I have experienced this partisanship up close and personal, with much of its ugliness.  Through our local Jewish Federation, I have worked hand-in-hand with an organization of Christian conservatives named CUFI – Christians United For Israel.  This group is populated by many of the very same people with whom I have crossed swords on a number of social issues, such as women’s reproductive choice, separation of church and state, and same-sex marriage.  Yet when it comes to Israel, we share a common view of the importance of the continued existence of that nation and the protection of her right to exist, as well as her citizens’ rights to live without the threat of terrorism.

Yet my work with CUFI has not been without its speed bumps.  Right off the bat, I had to endure the challenges put to me by my mainstream Protestant friends; my dearest and closest allies on so many social issues.  “How can you, in all good conscience, work with those people?” they would ask.  Even more painfully, the very fact the these conservative Christians support Israel has driven so many of these liberal friends to stand against her.  If the “Religious Right” claims that the actions of Israel are justified, then the “Religious Left” feels a near sacred duty to denounce Israel’s actions as grossly unjust.  The circumstances are of no concern to them.  As Mark Twain once put it, “My mind is made up.  Don’t confuse me with the facts!”  All that seems to matter is that it is inconceivable for them as liberals to share any common ground with the conservatives.

That is not to say that the CUFI conservatives do not also demonstrate such blind partisanship, for they most certainly can, and sometimes do.  I have found myself criticized for having offered prayers at CUFI “Night to Honor Israel” events in which I have stated that God loves all people, regardless of what faiths they profess, or that God exists in a special and unique relationship with each and every religion.  To some of these folks, God can only have a special relationship with Christians, and especially those who profess their brand of Christianity, with God having provided the Jewish people with a singular exemption to policy.  I have had to challenge some CUFI speakers for speaking derrogatorially of the Roman Catholic Church, and especially the Pope.  Just last year, there were a number of conservative pastors and congregations which withdrew from the “Night to Honor Israel” event because of my having officiated at a same-sex marriage, regardless of the fact that the “Night to Honor Israel” is completely separate and distinct from all the other issues which may divide us.

The bottom line is that on the landscape of the American religious scene, there is more than enough partisanism to go around.

However, within the last few weeks, we have been afforded a small glimpse of the possibility of a post-partisan world, at least within the universe of American religious groups.

Soon after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the Quad Cities Progressive Clergy group held one of its regular monthly meetings.  At that meeting, we discussed the possibility of putting together some unified faith community program of support for the earthquake’s victims.  Since each of our national and international faith umbrella organizations had set up their own programs of response, we agreed that whatever we did, we should be encouraging congregations to support their own denominational relief efforts.  In the end, we decided that our best course of action was to pool not dollars but figures; to compile and make public a record of all those congregations that have been active in promoting Haitian relief, and how much money had been collected through the various faith communities in this cause.  In so doing, our goal was to place before the public a message of how universally caring faith communities are, and how significant an impact they can have in making this world a better place for all people.  What we wanted to show our fellow Quad Citians was an image of the world of religion at its best, rather than at its bickering worst.

As I write this, the congregational responses are still coming in.  As of now, we have some 30 congregations and faith organizations which have reported to us, with the funds raised totally over $116,000.00.

As I review the list of participating congregations, I cannot help but feel a certain uplift in reading the names of conservatives congregations right there beside liberal ones.  Names that would never appear next to each other on so many other lists, stand side by side on this list; on the list of those whose hearts have gone out to the people of Haiti; on the list of those who wish to do something to ease the plight of their suffering fellow human beings.

I read that list and I am filled with hope; hope that someday we may actually achieve a post partisan world.  I read that list and I see in it a remarkable testimony to the fact that no matter how sharp we choose to draw the lines which divide us, there are still those things – those very important things – which unite us; those significant values which we share in common.  As much as we, in our blinding partisan perspectives, resist facing that truth, it is there and it is undeniable.  Perhaps someday – and I pray that someday will come soon – we will open our eyes, and more importantly our hearts, to acknowledge such truth.  Having acknowledged it, we might even summon up the courage to act upon it by reaching out to each other in hopes of building a relationship based upon the foundations of that which we share rather than fueling our animosity with that which keeps us apart.

My mother of blessed memory was fond of saying, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”  Whether it has been in the realm of American politics or the realm of American religion, we have yet to learn that lesson.  But perhaps one day…