Rosh Hashanah Sermon from Rabbi Sandmel

In his famous 1966 essay “No Religion is an Island,” [Union Theological Seminary
Quarterly Review 21:2,1 (January 1966) Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
Our era marks the end of complacency, the end of evasion, the end of selfreliance.
Jews and Christians share the perils and the fears; we stand on the brink
of the abyss together. Interdependence of political and economic conditions all
over the world is a basic fact of our situation. Disorder in a small obscure country
in any part of the world evokes anxiety in people all over the world. Parochialism
has become untenable. …
Horizons are wider, dangers are greater. No religion is an island. We are all
involved with one another. Spiritual betrayal on the part of one of us affects the
faith of all of us. Views adopted in one community have an impact on other
communities. Today religious isolationism is a myth.
Heschel was writing in the mid-60’s, just twenty years after the Holocaust, Hiroshima
and Nagasaki. It was the midst of the Cold War and its threat of nuclear annihilation, the
Viet Nam War, and the Civil Rights movement. In 1966, all of Israel’s neighbors were
bent on its destruction and its fate was an open question. Today we face a dizzying array
of old and new challenges: genocide, chemical and nuclear war, and environmental
degradation are ever-present concerns. Religion is the central factor in many conflicts
around the world, armed conflicts in the Middle East and political and social conflicts in
the United States (to cite but two examples). We are infinitely more interconnected that
we were 50 years ago.
Heschel believed that religion not only had the potential to be a significant force for
positive change, he saw it as sacred obligation, what we Jews would call mitzvah. But in
his day, and certainly in ours, no one religion can take on the world’s problems alone.
Only through interreligious dialog and collaboration can religion play a constructive role.
Heschel wrote:
What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another in the terrible
predicament of here and now by the courage to believe that the word of the Lord
endures for ever as well as here and now; to cooperate in trying to bring about a
resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks
in our souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the
words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the Living God.
Were he writing today, Heschel would have addressed Islam as well and Christianity, and
probably would have chosen vocabulary that would have been inclusive of other religious
traditions as well. Nonetheless, his words are as powerful and relevant now as they were
almost 50 years ago, and they have special resonance on Rosh Hashanah.
Though all our Jewish holidays have themes that are both particularistic and
universalistic, on Rosh Hashanah the balance is more toward the universal. Rosh
Hashanah commemorates, according to one rabbinic interpretation, the day on which
humanity was created. The themes of universal judgment and the fate of the entire world
run through the traditional liturgy. Therefore, it is fitting this evening, to think about how
we as Jews, individually and communally, interact with the rest of our world, with our
Gentile neighbors. Though relations with other communities are important as well, my
focus this evening will be on our relations with Christians and Muslims, with whom we
share the most in terms of literature, religious concepts, and even religious vocabulary
and with whom, precisely because of what we share, we also have the most complex and
troubled history.
Addressing this history and acknowledging it is essential to interreligious dialog. The
Sassover rebbe reported overhearing a discussion between two men at an inn who had
been drinking. One said to the other, do you love me. The second one said, of course I
love you, you’re my best friend. The first one replied, do you know what hurts me? His
“best friend” replied, No. To which he said: how can you say you love me if don’t know
what hurts me and pains my heart?” If Jews, Christians, and Muslims are to engage in
meaningful dialog, we must come to understand what causes the other pain and establish
a new way of relating to one another. This challenges us to put aside our own
assumptions about the “other” and to allow “the other” to define and explain themselves.
In the past 70 years, the Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations have done
just that. The recognition of the inexorable link between Christian anti-Judaism and the
Shoa, not to mention the participation by so many Christians in carrying out Hitler’s final
solution, led many Christians to reexamine Christian attitudes to Jews and Judaism.
Through a combination of formal Jewish-Christian dialog between religious leaders and
scholars, historical research and theological exploration, these churches have
significantly changed their teaching from the derogatory (what has often been called “the
teaching of contempt”) to the respectful. In 1965, as part of the Second Vatican Council,
the Roman Catholic Church promulgated a document called Nostra Aetate (In our time)
about relations with other religious communities. (Heschel was consulting with church
leaders during the Council.) In chapter 4, which deals with the Jews, the document states
that Jews and Christians share a common spiritual patrimony (in the history of Israel and
the “Old Testament”), that God’s promises to Israel endure, that Jews should not be
blamed for the death of Jesus. It specifically “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of
anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” As one colleague puts
it, in significant parts of the Christian world, we Jews went from “other” to “brother.”
At the same time, it should not surprise us that anti-Semitism is still found even among
Christians whose churches have officially rejected it. Anti-Judaism is so deeply
embedded in Christianity that we cannot expect it to disappear over night. There are two
billion Christians, many of whom live in parts of the world where there are no Jews – the
learning process, the consciousness raising that is required to change centuries old
attitudes is still a primary focus of Jewish-Christian dialog.
One area in which Christian anti-Judaism is still common is the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. Organizations within the Christian community are among the strongest
supporters and most bitter opponents of Israel. We Jews sometimes forget that some
Palestinians are Christian and they suffer along with all Palestinian as result of the
conflict. However, especially among Christian detractors of Israel (including the
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), the use of classical Christian anti-Jewish
theology and rhetoric is much too common. When Christians speak of Israel crucifying
the Palestinians like the Jews did to Jesus, or refer the Occupation as the “original sin” of
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, real dialog about a complex situation – not to mention
joint efforts to promote peace – become impossible. While there are forums in which
Jews and Christians are exploring together different understandings of land and covenant
as a way to promote a more informed and nuanced discussion of this crucial issue, there
is much work to be done to combat this dangerous resurgence of anti-Semitism.
In June, as a representative of the Reform movement, I participated in an international
delegation that met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. In his remarks, the pope said: “A
Christian cannot be an anti-Semite.” As I have pointed out elsewhere, some Jews might
respond to this comment with skepticism or disbelief but I do not think the pope was
speaking descriptively. Rather, his comment was aspirational and theological. At one
and the same time, he acknowledged that anti-Semitism has not disappeared from
Christianity, but he stated clearly that is it incompatible with true Christian faith. In is
heartening that the Pope and other Christian leaders speak againt anit-Semitism
unambiguously.
The relationship between Judaism and Islam is quite different than that with Christianity.
The virulent anti-Judaism that developed in Christianity in the Middle Ages was not
matched in Islam. In the Christian imagination, Jews came to represent the antithesis of
the good and the holy; they were Christ-killers, in league with the Devil. In comparison,
Jews play a much less significant role in the Qur’an and in the traditions about the
Prophet Muhammad. Though Islam does views Judaism as deficient, Jews are,
nonetheless, respected as monotheists who possess a true revelation of God, the Torah.
For this reason and others, during the Middle Ages, Jews often fared comparatively better
under Islamic rule than under Christian rule and there is a long history of Jewish-Muslim
coexistence.
Jews and Muslims in America have some common experiences and concerns: we both
view ourselves as a minority that wants to participate in American culture and society
while, at the same time, maintaining our distinctive traditions, culture and community.
The Jewish community is older and more established; we know first hand some of the
struggles Muslims face – we identify as immigrants or the children of immigrants, we too
have a strange calendar, special food, religious clothing, and a unique religious language.
I have Muslim colleagues who consider the Jewish community to have been successful in
America and view its various institutions and communal strategies worthy of study and
translation into the evolving American Islamic milieu. Some examples are our schools,
camps, seminaries and other educational institutions, anti-defamation work, legislative
advocacy, and communal services.
But if the conversation with Christians about Israel can be difficult, how much the more
so is it the case with Muslims, especially Palestinian and other Arab Muslims. After
centuries of coexistence, there has been a significant rise in anti-Semitism in the Muslim
world in reaction to the emergence of Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel.
Over 800,000 Jews were forced out of Arab countries between 1948 and 1970. Anti-
Semitic imagery borrowed wholesale from medieval Christianity and Nazi propaganda
now appears in Arab media. Events in the Middle East – or merely the raising of the
topic – have scuttled more than a few attempts at Jewish-Muslim dialog in Chicago and
other communities. The passions run deep and the narratives of who is the victim and
who the oppressor are incredibly difficult to untangle. Despite this, Jews and Muslims
both in this country and in Israel (where there is a very active interfaith community) are
learning to speak with one another even about difficult topics, just as Jews and Christians
have developed way to talk about the most painful issues in our history. Last year I co-led
the Abraham’s Children trip to Israel and Palestine. We visited sites holy to all three
traditions and met with religious leaders and activists. We were confronted with harsh
realities, challenging points of views, and also inspiring and hopeful examples of
peacemaking and bridge building. I invite you come with us this January to experience
this kind of dialog first hand.
Since the establishment of the state of Israel, Jews for the first time in two millennia
wield political power in a sovereign state, with all that entails. In Israel, Jews are the
majority, with minority Muslim, Christian and other smaller religious communities in
their midst. In addition, Israel and its army control the lives, to a greater or lessor extent,
of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. We do not yet know what the implications of
this return to sovereignty will mean for Jewish self-understanding, or for our relations
with Christians and Muslims. The Israeli Palestinian conflict is primarily a political one,
and the current negotiations will, I pray, lead to peace between two sovereign states. But
the ultimate success of any such political resolution will depend on the willingness of
religious leaders from all three communities to support it actively and to convince their
followers to do so as well. Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee,
perhaps the leading practitioner of Jewish interreligious dialogue in the world, points to
the iconic picture of Rabin and Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn with Bill
Clinton looking on. He wonders how different might things have turned out if Israeli and
Palestinian rabbis, priests, and qadis had not only been in that picture, but had
campaigned in their home communities and together to insure that the peace would
survive.
Coming to terms with a difficult history and learning how to talk about contentious issues
is essential to dialogue between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. As we come to
understand “others” as they understand themselves, it is possible to overcome historical
animosity and fear. At its best, however, interreligious dialog is much more than that.
Engaging with people from traditions different than our own can lead us to a deeper
understanding and appreciation of our own tradition, thus strengthening and enhancing
our identity as Jews. When we speak with those from another tradition, we are forced to
express things that are givens or assumed when we talk to other Jews. But there are
things about Judaism we can best learn in dialog with Gentiles. Krista Tippett, whose
wonderful interview program “On Being” used be heard on WBEZ but can be podcast,
was once asked, after interviewing the Dalai Lama, “Do you feel you get converted by
talking to these amazing religious leaders.” She responded, “The truth is, I don’t. When
profound encounter happens, it has paradoxical effects. At one and the same time, you
are able to appreciate and even to learn from this other person and their tradition. But the
other thing that always happens – and I’ve honestly never heard of a story that it hasn’t
happened in – is that you become more richly planted where you are.” (Christianity
Today, “The Public Listener” July-August 2013, 39).
Ultimately, as Heschel understood, interreligious dialogue is about harnessing the power
of religious communities to be agents of change, of tikkun olam, the repair of our world.
On the local and the personal level, as well as on the national and international level,
working together on common problems that affect our community is one of the most
powerful forms of interreligious dialog. A special bond is formed when people from
different traditions, acting on their shared values, cooperate on a project that makes a
difference. Additionally, when we reach across religious boundaries to improve our
community and work for justice, we demonstrate that religion can be a potent force for
good in the world. This is an important message in the face of the abuses of religion that
are reported daily in the headlines.
This congregation has a proud history of interfaith involvement. To give but a couple of
recent examples from this congregation’s long history of leadership in this area, in terms
of social justice, we have collaborated with other religious institutions through our work
with United Power and our Eco-chavurah will include interreligious action as part of its
work to green our synagogue. Regarding learning and dialog, alast year our Aaron M.
Petuchowski Fund for Excellence Jewish Education sponsored the visit of two Jewish
scholars, one an expert in Christianity, the other of Islam. At each event, not only did we
learn from the Jewish scholars, but also from Muslim and Christian scholars. My
colleague, Rabbi Conover, team taught two Sunday morning adult classes with Muslim
scholars. Interreligious action and dialog will continue to be a priority for our
congregation.
On the national level, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, whose director
Rabbi David Saperstein is speaking here is April, regularly partners with a range of other
religious organizations as it pursues our movement’s social justice agenda on Capitol
Hill. And our movement, along with other international organizations, works around the
world promoting dialogue and religious freedom.
An equally valuable dialog, however, takes place not between institutions or religious
leaders but rather in the informal, daily, seemingly inconsequential, interactions with
friends, colleagues at work or school, Gentile family members; anyone who is not Jewish,
but who knows that we are. Robert Putman, leader of researchers of the book American
Grace, which has recently been reissued and updated, points to the rise of marriage
between members of different religious groups in the United States as a factor in reducing
religious prejudice. It is well established that prejudice breaks down the more that we
develop personal relationship with the “other;” this is especially true when that “other” is
a relative with a name and a face. Every interaction we as Jews have with others is an
opportunity for interreligious relations, even if religion is never mentioned, and certainly when it becomes explicit. Meaningful dialog occurs when we take the time to answer our
Gentile neighbor’s questions about Jewish practice and belief, when we express pride in
our heritage and joy in our observances, when we share our Shabbat table and seder
rituals, or welcome guests to our synagogue for the naming of our children and when they
are called to the Torah as b’nai mitzvah. Even sharing our traditional foods builds bridges
of understanding (I’m thinking kugel, not gefulte fish).
No religion is an island, taught Heschel. Religious isolationism is a myth. The challenge
to us as Jews and as religious people is what we can do to make religion a constructive,
rather than destructive, force in the world. Through our engagement in interreligious
dialog and action, we who know all to well the dangers of religious hatred can promote
the welfare of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. By reaching out to other religious
communities and working together, we can fulfill our obligation to pursue justice and
peace not just for ourselves but also for the entire world. We can be a light to the nations.
As Heschel understood and as becomes clearer every day, this is not a choice, it is a
necessity dictated by the reality of the world in which we live. It is also a divine
imperative, a mitzvah.