April 24, 2016 Passover Freedom: Just What is IT?

By Art McDonald

A few weeks back there was a town meeting of about 150 participants in Newton organized by the mayor, an African-American, to facilitate a discussion about oppression and hate and discrimination. It seems that there were incidences in some Newton schools of anti-Semitic slurs written on walls. Upon investigating, the Mayor was also told about anti-racist incidences and homophobic occurrences. It was clearly time to talk and listen; to address bias and hate up front. As you may have read or seen in the news, the meeting didn’t go so well. Seems that some members of the Jewish community, members of a group which calls itself Americans for Peace and Tolerance, thought it should have been only about anti-Semitism and demanded time to address only that. When an African-American woman stood up to address an incident of racism in the schools, she was heckled and interrupted by the group. The group’s leader, Charles Jacobs, has also made the news for his remarks on Islam and has led pickets at the Boston Islamic mosque at Roxbury Crossing. Needless to say, it was a very contentious gathering only a few weeks before the great Jewish celebration of Passover, a commemoration of the flight of the ancient Hebrews to freedom under the guidance of Moses and God.

Last Saturday a Rabbi from a Conservative synagogue in Newton spoke to this event, on the one hand apologizing to the community for the disruptive behavior of members of the Jewish community, but also raising up the actions and positive interventions of several Jewish students of Newton High School. One of the students said: “It does not diminish me as a Jew to say anti-Semitism is not the only issue”; another Jewish student spoke up to suggest that “…when we say one type of hate speech is worse than another, we build walls in our community.” The Rabbi, who said in his sermon, “I like giving happy sermons…but I can’t today, I have to talk about what happened at the meeting.” And there WAS some good news, he went on, students rescued the day because they were able to see their own pain as well as that of others!

All of this came to mind for me as we gather this morning to celebrate with our Jewish sisters and brothers the great biblical event of Exodus when the ancient Hebrew people were led out of slavery into the Promised Land. Passover is about Freedom, Liberation and if we had any doubts about the importance of continuing to celebrate this ancient story, the events in Newton remind why it is still important, i.e., we haven’t yet reached the Promised Land, neither Jews nor Gentiles, Women or Blacks, gays or straights, poor or well-off. And as the wise young students from Newton suggested, we need to break down walls that separate us, build bridges that allow us to feel another’s pain as well as our own, address all oppressions wherever we experience them. I like to think that today, as we celebrate Passover, we are all Jews.

So what is this freedom, this liberation that we celebrate today, this notion that sociologist Orlando Patterson suggests as the “supreme value in the western world?” What is it that we seek? Do we feel free or liberated?

A great 20th century Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, once wrote: “Freedom is the liberation of the self-centered ego. It comes about in moments of transcending the self as an act of spiritual ecstasy … freedom is a challenge and a burden against which humans often rebel since it is full of contradiction and continually under attack … Humans true fulfillment cannot be reached by the isolated individual, and his true good depends on communion with, and participation in, that which transcends … freedom is an act of engagement, of the self to the spirit, a spiritual event.”

A spiritual event! Not just a social political event, i.e., freedom from slavery, from discrimination and bias, from crushing poverty, as crucial as those are, but something deeper, something that allows us to see what those students in Newton saw and, even more powerfully possibly, felt, i.e., the pain of others, thus transcending the self (Heschel). In response to some Jews who were in touch with their own pain, and only their own pain, these young Jews identified with their gay and black friends because their hearts were open and their sense of community went beyond their own individual and narrowed selves and families. They somehow transcended themselves, their ethnic and cultural roots, their very identities, and felt the pain of others, for Rabbi Heschel and the Newton Rabbi , a profoundly spiritual event, an expression that we are all one, one people, one community, and when one of us suffers, we all suffer.

So I’m trying to build a case that there are levels of freedom, of liberation. One of my theological mentors, a Peruvian, suggested in a book entitled THE THEOLOGY of LIBERATION, published in 1972, that there is socio-political liberation, psychological liberation, and spiritual liberation, all very crucial for human wholeness but that the foundation of ultimate liberation and freedom is spiritual. And what is spirituality? One definition I’ve always loved from a female African theologian says simply: “the energy by which one lives and which links one’s worldview to one’s style of life.” (Mercy Amba Oduyoye) – the spirit gives life and we must take our best selves, our values and live them out. So, we can be relatively free or liberated socially and politically, as one might say we are in this country, certainly we have freedoms of speech and movement, but are we spiritually liberated? Are we more profoundly free? That is our challenge as religious people, people of faith, UUs and Jews. Can we feel another’s pain? Can we dialogue and listen to another’s story and beliefs? Are we open to change or locked into rigid thinking and believing? Can we let the community help shape who we are and hold us all accountable?

For years I’ve been thinking we, as a community of spiritual seekers, at our best on a journey of discovery all the while working in the community to better ourselves and the world, should have a church retreat. Well, looks like it’s finally happening on the weekend of May 20-22, at the sisters of Notre Dame in Ipswich. A wonderful group of seekers gathered to plan this event and decided that on the Friday evening we should have a panel of people from various perspectives share their belief systems and lead us in dialogue. In true UU fashion we’ll hear from some of the traditions that we draw as resources: Buddhism, Christianity and scientific humanism. After listening to brief presentations, we’ll all have opportunities to share and inquire. Then on Saturday we’ll do exercises on building our own theologies, individually, and focus on how we put those theologies, those values, those ultimate concerns into action as a community. And I, for one, see this as a deeply spiritual task. I hope lots of us can join us even for part of the weekend.

Year ago in Pittsburgh a friend of mine, who was a tireless activist in the black community fighting against poverty and racism, shared a wonderful story with me. She related that she was often asked to speak in black churches about how to organize in the community and one day an older black woman said to her after one such event, “Gail, it was wonderful to hear you speak today and give us thoughts as to how to work in the community; you are such a spiritual person.” Gail called me in a bit of a panic, troubled by what the woman said and she asked me: “Art, how could that woman think I was spiritual, how is this possible, I’m an atheist?!” So this little white guy with an Afro went on to explain to this African-American woman that in the spirituality of the black church anyone who is working for peace and justice in the community must be spiritual; justice work and spirituality go hand in hand; only a deeply spiritual person, atheist or not, could be motivated by such passion. I was never sure if Gail got that explanation but it didn’t prevent her from continuing her great community work.

As Andrew mentioned last week in his energizing and inspiring call to action around affordable housing, even church going people have their doubts about the presence of God in their lives as he shared that touching anecdote about his daughter saying in church she wasn’t always sure about God. “Neither am I all the time, “replied Andrew, despite his membership in a local Episcopalian church. Yet he has no doubts about the importance of brining affordable housing to every community he can. No wavering there!

The Newton Rabbi expressed sadness and embarrassment as a Rabbi, a Jew and a human being in his sermon reflecting upon the actions of some of his Jewish brethren at the community meeting. He called the Mayor and the school superintendent to apologize and to remind them that such behavior was inconsistent with Jewish values. He also was trying to contact the African American woman who was heckled and interrupted by the group. “When a person or a community has a really bad moment, when we are not faithful to our own highest ideals, it is important not to ignore what happened, but to learn from what happened.” And like the two Jewish teens who spoke up about addressing all forms of bias, not just anti-Semitism, the Rabbi said: “We all need to bring two eyes to see the pain of somebody else. That is a core Jewish value.” And that, I would say, is the spiritual dimension of Freedom and liberation, the dimension I raise up today as we celebrate together the Jewish Passover, the liberation of the ancient Hebrews in their relationship with God and God’s appointed, stuttering prophet, the great Moses. A liberation we must continual celebrate over and over until we all reach the Promised Land together. Shalom havayreem!