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Lessons from Unlikely Places

My inspiration for this High Holiday sermon derives from the fact that my congregation is celebrating Rosh Hashanah services in a church. Rather than bemoan this occasion I choose instead to ask, “What does this teach us?”

Let’s talk about the Catholic Church. I don’t know what would have made me think about that. All kidding aside, what can we learn from where we are sitting on this day? Let’s ask, what are we supposed to learn from others and from those unlike ourselves? For answers to those questions I wish to journey back some 50 years.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. Nostra Aetate, is the Catholic Church’s document, issued during the Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII that opened the Catholic Church to other religions. It was officially called the Declaration on the Relation of the Catholic Church to Non-Christian Religions. It was promulgated on October 26, 1965. In many ways that document changed our world. In fact it led us to this very moment and to this very day. It made it natural and expected that a rabbi would call a priest a friend. By the way Reverend Smith sends his regards and offers a heartfelt shanah tovah. He could not join us this year. He is away at a conference.

Here is the story of how we arrived at today. It is not a well-known tale. Most think it was all about the Pope and his courageous leadership. It actually begins years earlier with the story of a Jewish scholar named Jules Isaac. Jules Isaac lived in France during World War II. His entire family was murdered by the Nazis. He was saved by Christian friends. He spent the war years in hiding researching the origins of antisemitism. Here is what he claimed: if not for Christianity’s 2,000 years of teaching hatred of Jews and Judaism, what he termed the teaching of contempt, the Nazi onslaught would never have discovered the fertile ground to murder millions of our people. He published several books, the first of which was called Jesus and Israel, and another entitled The Teaching of Contempt: The Christian Roots of Antisemitism. His works became required reading for anyone studying the history of antisemtism. These books might have remained on the library shelves of universities, to be studied by young religious studies majors, if not for Pope John XXIII.

When bishop in Istanbul during World War II John XXIII used the powers of his office to rescue Jews. In fact he is credited with saving thousands of Jews. Soon after becoming Pope, John XXIII instructed Catholic Churches to remove one of the most antisemitic passages from the Good Friday liturgy in which Jews were called perfidious and unbelieving. Throughout the ages antisemitic mobs attacked Jews on Good Friday, the day when Christians marked the crucifixion of Jesus. They accused Jews of killing Jesus. John XXIII sought to remove these incendiary passages from Catholic prayers.

Jules Isaac took note of these changes. After John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, Isaac clamored for a meeting with the Pope. Eventually it was arranged and the two men met. It was only after this meeting that the council started dealing with the question of its relationship with Jews and Judaism. In fact it was because of this meeting. The Pope’s personal secretary wrote the following about the meeting between Isaac and John XXIII:
I remember quite well that the Pope was quite shaken by that encounter and talked to me about it at length. It is true that up to that day, John XXIII had not even thought that the Council should concern itself with the Jewish question and antisemitism. But, from that day on, he was deeply preoccupied with that thought. The Church had to refute the accusation that it had backed away and defended only baptized Jews (as Isaac seemed to have insinuated); and proclaim once and for all that Christians do not have a right to interpret as a condemnation [of Jews and Judaism] the words of the Gospel of Matthew: “His blood be upon us and our children.”
That’s when it all changed. A Jewish man, a scholar, who lost everything in the Shoah, met with the most powerful Christian leader, and said in effect: “It is because of what you have been teaching.” And the most remarkable thing of all is that the Pope heard the criticism and took it to heart and then said, “What am I going to do about it?” Five years later the Church issued its groundbreaking statement. This document claimed that discrimination in general and antisemitism in particular are incompatible with Christian teachings. He mandated that Catholic leaders engage in interfaith dialogue.

50 years later, here we are—a day in which Jews find themselves praying in a Catholic Church and Cardinal Dolan writes an op-ed extolling the virtues of the High Holidays. We are bound together by far more than divides us. We accept it as normal, and part and parcel of the American landscape that there is nothing unusual or out of the ordinary for a rabbi to call a priest and say, “Hey Kevin do you think my congregation can pray in your church again on Rosh Hashanah?” “Sure Steve no problem. What’s the date?” “The first of Tishrei.” “Very funny.” “October 3rd.” “Ok, Steve, Rosh Hashanah is now on the church’s calendar.” Call me a dreamer. Criticize me for holding fast to American ideals. There is a direct line between that meeting 55 years ago and today.

Dialogue, the meeting of others unlike ourselves, the friendships with those who hold opinions and beliefs different than our own, is in fact what makes America great. We are meant to open our doors to others. We are meant to invite their ideas into our hearts. You might think that the greatest lesson of our story is found in the person of Jules Isaac. Here is an example of some real Jewish chutzpah. Isaac loses his family. He loses everything he loves. He focuses on his studies. He becomes obsessed with the question of why. How could this happen in “civilized” Germany? Or you might think that the heroes are those friends who, at the risk to their own lives, sheltered him nonetheless, and thereby enabled him to teach the world how hatred can be transformed into murder. But I actually think the real hero is the pope. He could have kept the door closed. He could have never invited Isaac in. He could have remained in his palace and walled out the world. Instead he opened the door. And not only did he open the door to the other, to someone who believes and thinks differently, but also to someone who criticized him, who questioned everything he held dear. The Pope is the pope after all. He could have dismissed him with the wave of the hand, with “Well, that was interesting. He is one angry man. On to the next item on today’s agenda.”

Father Tom Stransky, a Catholic historian, writes: “I tend to demythologize events, but I am convinced that the Isaac visit was the critical first step.” I know Reverend Smith is not the pope and I am no Jules Isaac, but still we learn, never to underestimate the power of a meeting. Never underestimate what can be learned when sitting across the table from someone. Never underestimate what can be gained by opening the door to others. Greatness is not synonymous with like-mindedness. Greatness is not compatible with sameness. Greatness is all about an openness to difference, a turning towards others. I reject as a betrayal of all that is good and noble and right about this country the antipathy leveled against those who believe different than ourselves, those whose religion or culture is unlike our own. I reject as antithetical to the Jewish spirit the dismissal of immigrants—the lifeblood of this nation’s creative spirit. I reject the disdain thrown most especially towards our Muslim brothers and sisters. Our Jewish tradition demands that we love the stranger. V’ahavta lo camocha. (Leviticus 19:34) Why? Because we know what it feels like, because as the Torah proclaims, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. This is why at my family’s recent Passover seder we opened our door to Christian and Moslem friends. This is the lesson I learned from a pope. I want to remain forever open to learning from others.

This is why I will forever remain committed to the Jewish-Muslim dialogue I recently began. I have opened my door and my heart to learn from others. I have learned from my newfound friends. I have listened intently to their criticism of Saudi Arabia and its fanatical Wahhabi teachings. I have allowed them to point me in the direction of countless Muslim leaders’ criticisms of terrorism, most especially those acts perpetrated in their faith’s name. Fanaticism grows and metastasizes within the Muslim world in particular, and within faith in general. I cannot just sit on the sidelines and allow my friends to stand alone, to struggle against it while I just throw critique in their direction. We must partner with those who are working to root this out. We must stand with them, against those who contort religion and faith for evil ends. That was the message of Jules Isaac’s life. And that most especially was the message of the pope opening his door to Isaac.

I have become sensitive to my friends’ fears as well as my own. They have pointed out how quickly the media labels murders committed by Moslems as terrorism and avoids the term when Christians commit mass shootings. Of course we sometimes disagree. They think the label terrorist should be used less frequently. I think it should be broadened. I have argued that any act committed in the name of some twisted ideology should be labeled as terror, whether committed by Moslem, Christian or Jew. Dylan Roof is just as much a terrorist as Omar Mateen. May both of their names be blotted out. May their victims’ names be remembered for good.

We should as well listen more attentively to efforts at rooting out terror. Let me quote from a statement issued by hundreds of Muslim scholars following the Orlando massacre. “We unequivocally say that such an act of hate-fueled violence has no place in any faith, including Islam. As people of faith, we believe that all human beings have the right to safety and security and that each and every human life is sacred.” This statement should not be ignored. It must not be relegated to a footnote. You can of course read the many hate-filled, antisemitic statements issued by Moslems in the Arab world and you might mistakenly think this is how most Moslems believe. Or you can recall that the majority of Moslems don’t even live in the Middle East.

And so I proclaim, better to focus on the positive statements, most especially those coming from Moslems living here in America. They want the same thing that my grandparents wanted: to be accepted and welcomed in their adopted country, to be allowed to see the American dream fulfilled for themselves, their children and grandchildren. I welcome them with open arms. Knowing many of you well, I imagine that by now there are some who are saying, “What about the college campus! Rabbi, what about the antisemitism at our universities! He is so na├»ve! He is such a dreamer!” Yup you’re right. I choose idealism. I choose dreams. I am going to live by our ideals, by our values. I will not quit. I will not veer. I promise to remain open to others. My faith is found in the possibilities and promise of meeting. I believe it to be the cure. My commitment to dialogue remains unshakeable.

My teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman argues in his recent book Putting God Second that the God intoxication of Judaism, Christianity and Islam might actually be the problem our traditions share. Putting God first, as monotheism does, subverts ethics. God can inspire us to do good, but in our obsession with God we can sometimes, and perhaps too often, crowd out the good. Being a rabbi he of course puts Judaism under the microscope. There are plenty of texts in our holy Torah that denigrate non-Jews, that cast aside our ethical concern for those different than ourselves. There is truth in his argument. And so I wish to partner with those who are obsessed with the good. This year I wish to throw the door open to those who elevate the ethical, who wish to learn from others, who see not in the face of the stranger a poison but instead a promise. There are so many with whom to sit down and to meet and to learn from.

Yes, there are limits to dialogue. There are people with whom there is no discussion. There are people who wish to do us harm. Some are Moslems. Others are Christians. Some are even my fellow Jews. Others are even Americans. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, colors and religions. They share one thing in common. They leave no room for the other in their ideology. Their way is the only way. All others are called idolaters; all others are labeled heathens. Everyone else’s words and teachings are called blasphemy. Beware of attaching any one religion to their ideology. Beware of attaching any one race to their thinking. That is what I am going to recall while sitting here and enjoying the generosity of our Catholic neighbors. There are limits. There are places to which we should not go, destinations to which we should not journey. But I am going to continue to believe, to teach and to model that they are few and far between in this great country.

This year we lost a giant among our people. We buried Elie Wiesel, the man whose voice emerged from the Holocaust and what he called the Kingdom of Night, the man who became our people’s spokesperson and our conscience. He reminded us again and again that neutrality only serves the oppressor, that silence emboldens the tormentor. I recall one instance from his life that still leaves an imprint and offers lessons for today. It was the spring of 1985, a year prior to Wiesel earning the Nobel Peace Prize. President Ronald Reagan had decided to award Wiesel with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award our government can grant to a civilian. A week prior to this event the White House announced that the President would lay a wreath at the Bitburg cemetery on his upcoming visit to Germany. Chancellor Helmut Kohl had requested this visit.

Soon it was revealed that not only were German soldiers buried at Bitburg but also 47 members of the SS. The Jewish community was in an uproar. Rabbis railed against the president. Religious leaders and many politicians joined together and argued against Reagan’s visit. Reagan refused to go back on his word to Kohl. Wiesel considered not accepting the award. In the end he decided to go to the White House. White House staffers were nervous what the Holocaust survivor might say. Would he offer public criticism of the president? A visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was added to the itinerary. In the end Wiesel accepted the award from the president. And then he said: “If it's possible at all, I implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” It was a remarkable moment. Like the prophet Nathan shouting at King David, Atah ha-ish—you are that man, Wiesel spoke truth to power. (II Samuel 12:7)

And yet the most remarkable thing about the event I discovered years later. Prior to the ceremony Reagan and Wiesel met privately for almost 30 minutes. In fact their meeting delayed the start of the ceremony. Wiesel later revealed that he told the president he would publicly criticize him. History and truth required him to do no less, he argued. Reagan apparently said that he understood. And again President Reagan could have altered the ceremony. He perhaps could have even prevented Wiesel from speaking. He was the president after all. He did not. Instead he showered the Holocaust survivor with accolades and praise and stood there when Wiesel said, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place.” The president opened the door to rebuke.

The Talmud reports that the debates between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai were at times vociferous. They were ugly and contentious. And yet our tradition reminds us that both are the words of the living God, that we are a people defined by machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven. These arguments, these criticisms are how truth is revealed. Still you have to know what to do, so Jewish law follows Hillel’s rulings and almost never Shammai’s. And in the most revealing of Talmudic passages, the rabbis ask why does halachah, the law, follow Hillel and not Shammai. The answer, as some of us discovered last night, is because Hillel and his disciples taught not only their own opinions but the opinions of Shammai as well. Moreover they taught Shammai’s opinions first. (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b) Imagine that. They did not just share their own ideas and their opinions; they first taught the ideas and opinions of their bitter rival.

Elie Wiesel concluded his rebuke of the president with these words:
Mr. President, I know and I understand, we all do, that you seek reconciliation. So do I. So do we. And I, too, wish to attain true reconciliation with the German people. I do not believe in collective guilt, nor in collective responsibility; only the killers were guilty. Their sons and daughters are not. And I believe, Mr. President, that we can and we must work together with them and with all people. And we must work to bring peace and understanding to a tormented world that, as you know, is still awaiting redemption.
Sadly our world remains tormented and still awaiting redemption. And I still continue to dream of healing. Let Wiesel’s words serve as a reminder that reconciliation and openness are possible. It begins with the opening of a door. It begins with allowing for rebuke. All this I could very learn from my tradition, but on this occasion, in this church, on this Rosh Hashanah, I choose instead to learn such lessons from a pope and a president. I choose to take lessons from the place where I sit. The president could have slammed the door on Wiesel. The pope could have refused entry to Jules Isaac. Hillel could have said Jewish law follows me, who cares about Shammai and his opinions.

Maybe the lesson we require this year is in fact to be found right here in this very place.

History can turn on the opening of a door. And that is the hope on which I am going to build the coming year.


Frank H Gilner said…