Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Learning and sharing together helps the spiritual life of America

Yesterday we received at the temple a group of about 25 people from a local senior independent living facility. They were a conglomeration of Christians: Catholics, Episcopalians, Southern Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans. If I am not mistaken there were a few atheists in the group as well. While sitting in the pews of our sanctuary, I gave them a brief explanation of all the ritual objects including the Eternal Light, The Menorah, the Memorial plaques, and the inscription on our Jerusalem stone bimah (platform). The one ritual object, however, that stood out above all the rest was the Torah. When I opened the ark, I could see the awe in their eyes. They had never seen a Torah up close.
They all arose from the pews and stood around me at the Torah reading table as I undressed the Torah and opened it up. Their eyes widened and the look of amazement reminded me of the same enthusiasm and wonder that our young people show when we read Torah on Shabbat. They asked excellent questions, for example, about the history of Bible translations and requested that I chant Torah which I gladly did for them.
We then walked over near the entrance to the sanctuary where in a carved out alcove in the Jerusalem stone wall there was a Torah encased in Plexiglas. I explained the history of this special Torah coming from Prague, Czechoslovakia. The Nazis accumulated almost 2000 Torahs from communities they ravaged with the intention of establishing a museum after the War to remind the world that they destroyed the Jewish people. After the war those Torahs were then sent to a synagogue in London and sent out on permanent loan to Jewish communities throughout the world. Beth Yam received this Torah in 1984.  The guests stared at it remembering full well the war years. That was a solemn moment in the tour.
Christians want to learn more about Judaism. They see more today than ever before in their history the roots they share with Judaism.  They come with an open mind and a positive and accepting spirit to learning about Judaism’s customs and rituals.
Synagogue need to do more to welcome church groups and other religions into our facilities. And we should not be shy about visiting their institutions as well. America needs to celebrate its religious pluralism and diversity.  It is in the national interest to get beyond the suspicions and fears.  Of course there will always be people in all the faith traditions who avoid interfaith sharing. Sadly too many people see this kind of activity as a waste of time. They do not trust any faith outside their own. But that is not the way we should live in this nation. There is an underlying cynicism in our country which acts like a virus and infects the body politic. We must do what we can to build bridges, create partnerships and foster dialogue even when issues come up where we do disagree.  Only by doing this do we have a chance of turning things around in our country. Of course the economy and jobs are what we are all focused upon these days. We have an opportunity to support each other and change the climate to one of hope and optimism. Is this not what God wants of us? Is this not what we need to do to counter the demographic shift away from religious affiliation that appears to be a growing trend? Is this not the time when all religions in our land  should strive to restore the trust and confidence in many Americans and people around the world who have given up on religion in order to  prove that our faith traditions can make a difference for good in their lives?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In Israel a rabbi, imam and priest pray together for rain.

Who would have ever thought that, according to the report in the Jerusalem Post (November 14, 2010), clergy from Judaism, Islam and Christianity would gather together and in one place at the same time pray together for rain to descend upon the land?
That is exactly what happened. Apparently Israel is experiencing a dry spell. The rainy season normally begins by the middle of October. Rain and water in general is always a valuable resource in the Middle East and plays a critical although oftentimes a behind the scenes role in commerce and the politics of the region.
But this time in what appears to be a mysterious phenomenon that a Rabbi, Imam and Christian Greek Orthodox priest joined together at a spring called Eiyn Heniya in the Valley of the Ghosts that is between Jerusalem and the Bethlehem Hills for a session of prayer to God to send the rain upon the land.
According to the article Orthodox Rabbi Menachem Froman spoke about how both Islam and Judaism have beliefs that God will send rain if the people are good. So this gesture of interreligious unity was a small but important way of appealing to God to cause the rain to replenish the earth. The Rev. Issa Elias Musleh also expressed the sentiment that he was there to beseech God for mercy upon humankind and bring the rains forth.  The Mufti of Bethlehem, Sheikh Abdel Najib, also expressed hopes for peace between the religions and that by praying together reaffirmed Islam’s intention to bring peace to the region and choose peace over war.
In Judaism from the end of the harvest festival of Sukkot until the late spring we pray for rain three times a day. In the prayer we ask God to “meshev ha ruach umorid hagashem –Cause the wind to blow and make the rain descend.” In the Talmud it is written, the day the rain falls is as significant as the day heaven and earth were created.” (Taanit 8b) Rabbinic legislation in times of drought called for a communal fast to appeal to God to bring down the rain. Our ancestors as well as our contemporaries in Israel take the prayers for rain seriously. By the year 2020, population estimates approximate that there will be 8.4 million people living in Israel. The rain is, therefore, even more critical to sustain such a growing population.
But I really want to focus on this small moment of hope that three clergy could agree to meet together in front of the media and suspend the rivalries and antagonisms that afflict this holy and sacred land. The fact that they transcended the bitterness and cynicism and, instead, focused on a common problem shows that beyond the rhetoric we read about in the media that there are forces who are communicating and searching for ways to work together. This is one of those moments that should hold out a little bit of hope for us that peace is within the grasp of the parties in this conflict.
We should watch and learn from their example.  I wish more of our clergy in my community would join together in actions of praying together to demonstrate how religions can cooperate with each other and set an example to their followers for how we here in America can find common ground on issues that impact us all.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Is America a Christian Nation?

Is America a Christian Nation?
We are living in a time when many Americans believe America is a Christian nation and it is incumbent upon Americans to preserve it that way. We will soon start to welcome the winter solstice which means that Christmas is coming. The debates will commence about putting up the crèche or the even the Menorah on public property.
But what is really problematic is the ever-present fear of the diversity of peoples who are not Christian and entering into America. The problem I see is not that America is a fervently religious nation. That is one of the great strengths of our nation.  I come from Maryland which calls itself “The Free State,” because it was the first state to allow Catholics to worship freely. Religious tolerance in Maryland is an indicator that we have a long history of struggle to make America accessible to all religious groups.
The real challenge is whether progressive minded people and charismatic Christians and even Fundamentalists can speak to each other furthering mutual understanding? Sure we are going to disagree on social issues. Yet, is it not incumbent upon us to open up channels of communications? Living in the south as I do and even if Hilton Head is an island of northern culture, I see that there is good will and peaceful relations. The problem I think about is whether there are peaceful relations because there are no relations or dialogue?
I do not believe we should live cautiously or in fear of the Christian world. Wherever we live in America this is the one country where religious pluralism is embedded in the soil of the culture. My biggest fear is that religious groups take down the stones of the wall separating church and state one block at a time.
The fact that the Oklahoma State house enacted an anti Sharia law is an example of how the fear of what people do not even know anything about can create hysteria. If you asked citizens, for example, in Oklahoma to define the word Sharia or give an example of this law could they do so? Probably not.
The old lesson about preaching hatred and intolerance is part and parcel of fostering a culture of ignorance. The less people know about another religion the better the chances are they will hate that religion. This is the reason why people of faith who see the dangers of religious intolerance need to get out in front and why every American should be turning a deaf ear to religious triumphalism no matter where it comes from in the society at large.
America is a nation where the majority of citizens are from one of many branches of Christianity. That does not make America a Christian nation. The Constitution is a Godless constitution even if God may have inspired the founding fathers to create the Constitution. But in this constitution God took a neutral position on the subject of religion. That is the way it should stay.