Serving Humanity and Its Challenges

On October 20, 2013, Congregation Sinai hosted an Abrahamic Religions Trialogue, hosting members of Lincoln Glen Church, the Baitul Basir Mosque, Abrahamic Alliance International, and SiVIC in a conversation entitled “Serving Humanity and Its Challenges.”  These were my opening remarks:


Welcome.  I want to thank my colleagues: Imam Mubasher Ahmad, and Pastor Larry Albright, for sitting on this trialogue panel with myself, and Reverend Andy Killie from SiVIC for serving as our moderator.  Also, thank you Rod Cardoza, from Abrahamic Alliance International, for helping to bring us together.

I think it is always important to remind ourselves of something whenever we are dealing with a tradition that is based upon an ancient Sacred Scripture.  And I think that applies to all three of us up here.  Whenever we apply ancient words to contemporary life, we make choices about which words we want to emphasize, and which words we want to de-emphasize, reinterpret, or even ignore,

I’ll speak from my own tradition.  The Hebrew Bible is filled with horrifying passages that command holy war, genocide, hatred of women, and so on.  It is also filled with passages that appeal to the best of human behavior, that inspire us to work for justice for all people, and to live lives filled with compassion.  The true moral question for a person who claims to live by Sacred Scripture is which passages he or she chooses to live by, and which ones he or she ignores.

As Jews, we don’t just pick up the Torah and read it to find the Truth.  We are inheritors of three thousand years of tradition of interpreting how to live by these sacred words.  Our ancestors struggled to apply the Torah’s principles in their times.  They passed on their conclusions to the next generation, which received their parents’ wisdom, struggled, and passed down their own conclusions again, and again, and again, until that rich accumulated tradition has reached us in the twenty-first century.  As Jews, we have inherited a particular way of understanding our Holy text that is not at all literal.  If you want to know what Jews do and believe, you cannot simply open the Torah to find out.

That said, Judaism has a long history of concern for the other, going back to our formation as a people.  This is one of our central narratives:

  1. We began as slaves in Egypt.
  2. God brought us out from slavery to freedom.
  3. And never let us forget it.

The Torah instructs us to care for and not mistreat the widow, orphan and stranger 36 times, far more than any other law.  Who are these people, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger?  They are the most marginal members of society, with the least power.  They are the ones that the Torah is most concerned about.  It emphasizes the reason why we should care for them – because you were “strangers in a strange land.”  You know what it is like to have been a stranger, to have had little to zero control over your own lives.  Therefore, you must protect the rights of the least powerful among you.  The Torah, and subsequent Jewish tradition, does not let us forget our humble origins.

This is a lesson that the biblical prophets return to over and over.  On Yom Kippur, when we spend all day long fasting and praying for atonement, we read a passage from Isaiah in which the Prophet berates the people for ignoring the plight of the poor, even while they are fasting and performing all of the rituals correctly.  Ritual is meaningless if it does not inspire us to serve others.

There are so many passages in the Bible that I could point to that emphasize social justice.  Passages that instruct ancient Israelites to have a single set of laws for citizens and strangers alike. Instructions to build communities that are governed justly, with the rich and the poor treated equally.  Requirements for employers to treat their employees properly.  Obligations for feeding and clothing the poor.  I can’t go into all of those details this evening.

But I do want to mention one post-biblical teaching that speaks greatly to the Jewish people’s engagement with the rest of the world.  The Talmud teaches that the righteous of all the nations have a share in the world to come.  Judaism has never sought the conversion of all humanity.  As long as a person is following the ethical principles of his/her religion, that person will “go to heaven.”  Judaism celebrates goodness wherever it is found.

So practically speaking, where has this led?

I’ll speak just to the American experience of the past two centuries, during which time Jews have been at the forefront of many social justice causes.  Jews were among the leaders of the labor movement at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the movement fighting for women’s right to vote.  Jews were heavily active in the civil rights movement.  Today, you’ll find Jews involved in just about any cause that is working towards improving our world: protecting the environment, fighting human trafficking, improving health in the developing world, combatting illiteracy, and so on.

Of course, it is not totally one-sided.  There have always been disagreements within the Jewish community.  While some were working to end segregation in the south, there were others at the time who did not want to rock the boat, and wanted the system to continue.  Some activists saw themselves as getting away from a Jewish tradition that they had experienced as insular, and narrowly focused.

But attitudes have continued to shift.  Today, most American Jews see a close connection between Jewish values and practices and the need to serve humanity.  In 2001, a study explored the attitudes of American Jews towards involvement in social justice causes.  It found that around ninety percent of American Jews agreed to the following statements:

• “Jews have a responsibility to work on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and minority groups”

• “Jews have a responsibility to work on behalf of Jews who are needy or oppressed”

• “When Jewish organizations engage in social justice work, it makes me feel proud to be a Jew.”

• “Jews’ involvement in social justice causes is one good way to strengthen ties with other groups in society.”

But of course, there are challenges.

The Talmudic argument that Mike presented earlier captures it well.  Rabbi Akiva says that the foundational principle of the entire Torah is “Love your neighbor like yourself.”  Sounds great.

But who, exactly, is your neighbor?  This is not a clear-cut issue.

Jews have answered this question differently, at different times in history.  The answer changed as the result of both internal and external pressures.

As a people that has lived as a minority for most of the past 2,000 years, it has been a constant challenge to figure out how closely to engage with the outside world

To preserve Jewish ways of life, it is necessary to separate ourselves to some degree, to be inward-focused.  Especially during times of persecution, we have done exactly that.  Who is “your neighbor?”  Your fellow Jew.

At other times, “your neighbor” has been understood to refer to all human beings.  Jews could never ignore the other living next to us.

That is the strength of Ben Azzai’s preferred verse.  “This is the book of the generations of Adam.”  All human beings are descended from the first, primordial human being, who was created, male and female, in the image of God.  All human beings, regardless of their religion, skin color, ethnicity, or gender, are fundamentally equal, and contain a Divine spark.  To harm another person is to harm God.  Likewise, we honor God by honoring others.

Finding the right balance between inward and outward focus is a struggle.  Today in America, there are some Jews who would separate themselves from the wider culture as much as possible.  Certainly, the values of charity and compassion are strong, but the focus is entirely inward, within the community.

On the other hand, Jews have made it, perhaps “too well” in America.  We have become so assimilated that our ties to Jewish tradition have weakened.  We see this in  increasingly low affiliation rates among American Jews.  The ratio of Jewish charity that goes to Jewish causes compared to non-Jewish causes has decreased dramatically in recent decades.  When the ties between Jews have weakened to such a degree, it becomes very difficult to preserve Jewish practices, and to root our service to humanity in Jewish values.

As Conservative Jews, we seek to find that balance.  We focus inward, on our religious community, building connections between each other, supporting and encouraging each other to embrace Jewish ways of living.  And if we do it well, we inspire ourselves to take action in the wider world, and serve humanity – as Jews.

The Talmud, nearly two thousand years ago, lists a number of basic, community building obligations that Jews are obligated to perform on behalf of both Jews and non-Jews.  Activities like feeding the poor, visiting the sick, honoring and burying the dead.  The reason it gives?  mipnei darkhei shalom, because of the ways of peace.

I love this teaching, because it emphasizes that peace in the world will depend on our willingness to support human beings who are different than us.  And support them face to face, and during our times of greatest need.

May our communities’ coming together tonight bring us one step closer to a world of peace.

Becoming That Kind of Person – Vayera 5774

Parshat Vayera begins with Abraham sitting in his tent, during the hottest part of the day.  Last week’s parshah ended with Abraham performing a brit milah on all of the male members of the household, including himself.

The midrash connects them together, explaining that it is the third day after Abraham circumcised himself, at 100 years of age.  This is when the pain of the recovery is most intense.

So there he is, sitting in his tent.  It’s hot.  He’s in pain.  He looks up, and he see three distant figures approaching.

So what does he do?  Remember, this is the Middle East.

He does not reach for his shotgun.  He does not turn the other way, and pretend he didn’t see them.  He does not send one of his able-bodied servants to go find out who they are.

No, he rushes out to greet them.  He bows to the ground, and insists that they come in to rest.

“You must be tired, come in for a while.  Relax in the shade.  Wash your feet.  Have something to eat and drink.”

The three men agree, and Abraham starts rushing about, instructing household to to prepare food and drink for them.  He slaughters a calf himself.  While they are eating, Abraham stands before them, waiting on them like a servant.

Abraham’s behavior is remarkable.  While there is a code of hospitality in the Middle East,  Abraham goes above and beyond it.  It is not only that Abraham and Sarah had an “open-door” policy, welcoming visitors to their home.  They practiced radical hospitality.

This is not normal behavior.  Most of us, if we were recuperating from surgery, would not want to throw a dinner party and invite all our friends, not to mention strangers.  The kind of person who practices radical hospitality is the kind of person who has that quality down to his core.  Abraham is that kind of guy.

How does a person get like that?

Well, there is the rare person, like Abraham, who is simply born with that kind of generous spirit  But for most of us, it takes education from an early age.

Perhaps that explains the blessing that comes at the end of Abraham’s encounter with the three men, who turn out to have been angels.

“I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.”  (Genesis 18:19)

Character is built through education.  Part of God’s blessing to Abraham is a charge to instructs his children so that they become “that kind of person.”

What does it mean to be children of Abraham?  To serve.  To recognize that our obligations to others go beyond the narrow circles of our families and friends.  It extends to people we don’t know.  It may even extend to people who hold different values than us.

Two of the angels leave Abraham’s presence, and Abraham is left talking with God.  God reveals the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two depraved cities whose wickedness has provoked God’s anger.

Abraham boldly responds to God’s revelation with a challenge.  “Ha-shofet kol ha-aretz lo ya-aseh mishpat?  Shall the judge of all the earth not perform justice?”  This begins Abraham’s pleading with God to save the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah on account of the merit of 50, then 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally just 10 righteous people living among them.  Abraham is making this argument on behalf of people who do not share his values, people who probably deserve the punishment that God is about to mete out against them.

Indeed, Abraham has lived up to the blessing that God has just bestowed upon him.

As Jews, we look to Abraham as our Patriarch.  God’s covenant with him, and Abraham’s behavior, model for us the kind of role we are asked to have in the world.  And the message is that our compassion towards others, our concern for justice, must not be limited to our own.  It is clear from both of these stories that compassion must extend to people outside the circles of our families and friends.  Our pursuit of justice must reach those who do not necessarily share the same values and beliefs as us.

As Abraham’s descendants, we are asked to instruct our collective children about was is just and right.  The goal is to turn them into the kind of people who would rush out of their homes to take care of someone whom they did not know, or stand up to shout for compassion and justice on behalf of others.

That kind of training happens when we surround the next generation by a community that expresses those values through action on a regular basis.

The Torah subtly demonstrates how this kind of moral education can be successful.  One chapter later, the scene shifts to the city of Sodom.  Abraham’s nephew Lot happens to live there.  Lot’s father had died young, and so he grew up in Abraham and Sarah’s household, where he was raised by his Aunt and Uncle.  He must have learned something by their example.

When two of the three angels that had visited Abraham continue their travel, they go to Sodom.  This is how the Torah describes what happens when they get there:

“The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening, as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them and, bowing low with his face to the ground, he said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night, and bathe your feet; then you may be on your way early.'”  (Genesis 19:1-2)

It seems that Lot learned a lot growing up in his aunt and uncle’s home.  He has become the kind of person who practices radical hospitality.  God’s blessing of Abraham was well-placed.  May we live up to it.