Late in 2016, Dr. Andrea Weiss of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City embarked on a project that sought to highlight values from different religions as central to American life.
Over 100 scholars and teachers of diverse faith groups joined her in the American Values/Religious Voices campaign (www.valuesandvoices.com). For each of the first 100 days of the new presidential administration, a letter from one of the contributors was sent to the President, Vice-President, and other national officials.
When I spoke with Dr. Weiss in late January, she said that one of her greatest hopes was to listen to and learn from her colleagues. The authors of these letters revealed how their religions prize values that are widely taught and emphasized in our society.
I led a community discussion in Las Cruces in early February on the letters. As we read the letters, we listed their central principles, which, at that session, included justice, mercy, humility, self-control, support of the vulnerable, compromise, diversity, a focus on the common good, creating common ground, seeing the whole as greater than its parts, responsibility, religious freedom, respect for all people, forgiveness, charity and building bridges.
The “building bridges” reference came Jean-Pierre Ruiz, Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. John’s University in New York City. He noted that a sermon at a 2017 presidential inauguration service had quoted a passage from the book of Nehemiah about rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah 2:18 notes that the people “committed themselves to the common good” and together rebuilt their city.
Professor Ruiz explained that, for the people of Jerusalem, building a wall was not about division. It was about creating a physical and communal infrastructure. It was about building bridges towards one another, and about putting a gate in the city wall though which visitors would be welcome to enter.
The values that we share offer us a moral infrastructure that can enable us to act in concert with each other for the common good. We learn through our High Holy Day prayers that goodness begins inside each of us.
A reading in Mishkan Hanefesh: Machzor for Days of Awe (Central Conference of American Rabbis) clarifies how we can significantly enhance the “common good”: “Throughout the year, regard yourself as equally balanced between merit and sin. With one act, you can tip the balance for yourself, and for the world. Every good deed makes a difference. And so it is written, ‘A righteous person is the foundation of the world’ – for one who does good tips the balance of the scales and can save the world.”
May we each tip the balance towards good, for ourselves and for all of humanity, in 5778.