In this week’s portion, Behaalotecha, we read the words “vayihi binsoah ha-aron” sung during the Torah service. “When the Ark set out, Moses would say: ‘Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!’” Long ago the Reform movement, and the Reform prayerbook we now use, excised these words from its liturgy, arguing that these sentiments were not befitting a prayer.
They believed that religion should only promote peace and not use the language of war. I wonder about this decision. While I steadfastly believe in the importance of peace, I also believe a religion’s most important teachings are the lessons of right and wrong. Judaism seeks to draw a line between good and evil. And so in our tradition’s view peace can only be achieved when justice is advanced. Peace may be furthered by sacrificing grudges and burying anger, but it is never about giving up on justice. It is not about sacrificing right and wrong. And this sense of justice entails calling some, friends and others, enemies. Sometimes we worry so much about sounding like our enemies that we stop using words that contain important moral lessons.
The essence of Memorial Day is about this very concept. Its meaning is not of course found in the picnics, barbeques, carnivals and sales we enjoy. For generations, American soldiers, some Jewish, many Christian and even a few Muslim, have given their lives to preserve the idea that religions can co-exist and even nurture each other in this great country. Each of us can teach what is most important in our respective traditions. We can shout loudly for all to hear what we most love about our faiths. Here we believe that all benefit from this shouting and teaching.
My enemies are not those who do not revere Torah. My enemies are instead those who can only be religious by excluding other religions. I knew, for example, that the Taliban were our enemies before 9-11. It was the moment I read they had destroyed two sixth century Buddhist statues, in March 2001. Any leader who could only be faithful to his own religion by obliterating objects revered by another is my enemy. I struggle as well to find many adherents of Islam’s claim to be a religion of tolerance when non-Muslims are barred from entering its holiest of cities, Mecca.
Which is why, although I admit misgivings, I applaud New York City’s approval of the proposed building of a mosque near Manhattan’s ground zero. I agree with Bret Stephens who wrote in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal that the money might be better spent by the construction of an interfaith center in Saudia Arabia. Nonetheless what makes America great is its tolerance of all religions and the fact that this freedom of religion is enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. This is the very thing that our soldiers died fighting for. And we should remember our fallen soldiers on this Memorial Day.
This belief in religious pluralism is part of what I am; it is part of who we are. There are those who do not believe as we do. There are those in the world who can only be who they are by destroying others or smashing their holy shrines. I stand against those who stand against tolerance and pluralism. They are my enemies. Peace will not come by shying away from naming our enemies. Peace will only come by maintaining a clear sense of right and wrong. This means knowing who is an enemy and who is a friend.
Justice is our obligation, peace our most heartfelt prayer. And so I conclude with a prayer for peace, with words from an earlier Reform prayerbook, published in 1940: “Grant us peace, Thy most precious gift, O Thou eternal source of peace, and enable Israel to be its messenger unto the peoples of the earth. Bless our country that it may ever be a stronghold of peace, and its advocate in the council of nations…”