These last two weeks of news, especially news somewhat related to the Jewish community, have featured examples of separation and coming together, dissonance and harmony. Let me show you what I mean.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett recently visited one of the Conservative Jewish movement’s Solomon Schechter day schools in the United States. He was immediately criticized by Israeli Chief Rabbi David Lau, who asserted, “To speak deliberately with a specific community and to recognize it and its path, when this path distances Jews from the path of the Jewish people, this is forbidden. If Minister Bennett would have asked my opinion before the visit, I would have said to him explicitly, ‘You cannot go somewhere where the education distances Jews from tradition, from the past, and from the future of the Jewish people.” Naftali Bennett responded that he was proud to join in community with members of all branches of Judaism around the world.
There was one more important response to Chief rabbi Lau. Amichai Lau-Lavie is known for his great work in creating and sustaining Storahtelling, a program that effectively dramatizes Torah readings for congregations to make them come alive during worship. Lau-Lavie will be ordained as a conversative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in May. He is also a first cousin of Chief Rabbi David Lau. Expressing extreme disappointment in his high-placed relative, Lau-Lavie declared in a widely-published open letter: “To Rabbi Lau, my respected cousin: We came together not too long ago at my father’s grave, where we paid joint tribute to the heritage of our forefathers. But let’s bear respect not only for our beautiful past. Here and now, let’s look together toward the future — in which there is great animosity and many foes, but also a great thirst for spirituality and religion and in which there can also be great peace emerging out of mutual support and the discovery of courageous ways to work toward the continuity of our tradition – in all its many faces.”
The Vatican made a landmark statement this past week about how Catholics should approach members of the Jewish community. The headlines noted that the Catholic Church will not officially pursue efforts to convert Jews. Individual Catholics are still called upon to bear witness to their faith to all people. The document recommended to Catholics to speak about their own faith to Jews in a “humble and sensitive manner,” particularly in light of the Holocaust. What was clear from the Catholic Church’s statement is that the Jewish covenant with God is still intact, in force, and valid, and that we, as Jews have a path to salvation all our own.
That statement from the Vatican was not good enough for Jews for Jesus. David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, claimed that any group that calls itself Christian must fulfill the Great Commission of the New Testament to convert all humankind to a belief in Jesus as the one true Savior of Humanity. Brickner stated last Friday that his organization finds the Vatican’s position “…egregious, especially coming from an institution which seeks to represent a significant number of Christians in the world.” This turn of events seems to confirm that Jews for Jesus is a group that must be defined as essentially Christian. The aspects of their practice that one could call “outward Jewish trappings” are intended to bring more Jews to the Jews for Jesus mode of belief and practice. This organizations declared good intentions in its missionary work lost a great deal of luster when Brickner claimed that the Vatican was “pandering to Jewish leaders” with its recent statement.
Finally, I was intrigued at the responses from both ends of the political spectrum at the inclusion of Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Synagogue in St. Louis at the White House Hanukkah celebration on December 9. She offered an invocation at the event, speaking from her heart about issues near and dear to her and her approach to Judaism in action, including curbing violence in our communities (including gun violence), justice for Palestinians and security for Israelis and peace for the two sides together, and maintaining calm in our communities at home. Rabbi Talve, one of my rabbinic school classmates, served as a faith leader in peaceful demonstrations in Ferugson, Missouri, which attempted to foster reconciliation and progress in relations between local citizens and law enforcement officials. After Rabbi Talve’s high-profile appearance at the White House, and even before, she was roundly criticized by left-wing organizations for her persistent support for Israel while, at the same time, working with the Black Lives Matter movement. Left-wing groups see her as a walking contradiction, with some activists openly decrying her with the hastag “Real Terrorist.” From the right, one commentator, Daniel Greenfield, wrote that “Rabbi Talve’s behavior at the White House was deeply insulting to the religious Jewish community and made it clear that the White House was determined to hijack even a Chanukah party to promote an anti-Jewish agenda.” Rabbi Talve made her remarks in the presence of President (and Mrs.) Obama and Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, who both spoke right before her invocation. What she said had been preceded by similar sentiments voiced by President Rivlin, as he expressed a hope for peace in the Middle East. He made this statement to the crowd gathered that night: “Today, we see around the world terrible crimes, and danger to humanity which cause a lack of respect, a lack of freedom of faith, and a lack of freedom of religion. Each night of Hanukkah, we add a new light to the menorah. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, one of the best friends of Martin Luther King, wrote in his book, Insecurity of Freedom, that people usually follow the path of regression. They begin high and fall down. But instead, we should be like the Hanukkah candles and follow the path of progression. He said that the people will have the strength to ascend if leaders…continue to rise….I would like to light this candle, this little flame, with a prayer and hope that one day, religious, cultural and moral liberty will be enjoyed without question by each and every person in the world.”
All of these messages that reflect consideration for others uneasily coexist next to declarations that seem to widen divisions between people based on politics, race and ideology. This persistent conflict called to mind for me the scene in this week’s Torah reading. Joseph, second-in-command in Egypt, knew that his brothers had come during the famine to provide food for their family. He concocted an elaborate scheme to see if his brothers would bring down his younger full-brother Benjamin, whom he knew was the apple of his father’s eye that he would not want to leave home. Once Benjamin did come, and Joseph had his courtiers frame Benjamin as a thief, Joseph had created the ultimate test: would his brothers abandon Benjamin as they once had done to Joseph? With this threat to their well-being, the brothers spoke with remorse about what they had done to Joseph, not knowing they were standing right before the aggrieved party who heard and understood every word they said. Joseph realized that his brothers had changed, as had he. He revealed himself to his family and made reconciliation possible for one major reason. It was Joseph who finally could interpret his own dreams. He had arrived at the moment when his family was bowing down to him, but not because he was superior. After Joseph told his brothers that he really was their long-lost sibling, he assured them that he knew that it was God who had sent him ahead to Egypt to save their lives. There was no higher calling than that for this now-great leader of Egypt who had come from such humble beginnings.
I don’t expect full agreement from those who are sitting in front of me or will read this online regarding the examples I have shared tonight of how we find ways to build bridges in some cases towards one another, and, sadly, some construct tall, impenetrable barriers in other situations. At the very least, we need to listen to one another just in case someone with whom we disagree may have a point. Even more, we need to ask ourselves if what we are saying and doing follows a higher purpose well noted in Judaism, and included in Rabbi Talve’s remarks at the White House – that we are called upon by our heritage to see the face of God in the faces of all people. That principle drives much of what I do, including reaching out to Muslim colleagues in my local interfaith work who have had people in local public places harangue and verbally accost them because of their outward appearance. These individuals with whom I have worked locally, and the vast, vast majority of Muslims worldwide, have no alliance whatsoever with those very few who have perpetrated horrible acts of terror and violence which they, for themselves, associate with their view of Islam. We know that we, as Jews, don’t like being stereotyped, because that approach leads to generalized hatred. We should do all we can not to take that approach of stereotyping and generalizing with people of other faiths and backgrounds.
The song that gave this talk its title in the Temple’s Adelante newsletter was just entering onto the charts 50 years ago this week. “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend” should be a watchword for all of our relationships. We can work it out – all of it – if we see the higher purpose of our existence on earth. As our prayerbook states, “O may all, created in Your image, become one in spirit, and one in friendship, forever united, God, in your service.” And further: “May our deeds exceed our speech, and may we never lift up our hand but to conquer fear and doubt and despair…light up the universe, our God, with the joy of wholeness, of freedom, and of peace.” We can work it out, and build bridges, and foster hope throughout the world, if we rise above conflict and see the higher purposes revolving around us, just like Joseph was finally able to do. May we find a way to that vision. And let us say amen.