By Art McDonald
Joke about Ministers/Rabbi and Preaching
Among other things, the story points out that these religious figures each has a different tradition and rituals and ways of expressing their beliefs, and of course, a desire to convert the bear to their side. Nevertheless, it’s a reminder to us all that we bring to this congregation and our relationships lots of difference in our religious roots, if we even have such roots, ways of expressing what we believe, notions about God or not God, difference also in ethnic and cultural backgrounds and customs, and in an election year we must be reminded we have differences in ideology, politics and priorities regarding what we most value and the implications of those differing values. At our best, we acclaim these differences and, as Unitarian Universalists, raise up these distinctions and try to honor them; that’s part of what it means to be a pluralistic religious movement, i.e., difference can be a good thing. And also what it means to be a functioning Democracy.
Because we value difference, we, hopefully with great respect, celebrate many traditions – today we celebrate the end of the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement – Scott blew the Shofar, signifying alertness, alarm, stirring the soul, beckoning God/Yahweh. Jews have been praying and fasting for 10 days, looking at their lives over this past year, and, as this morning’s reading suggests, committing to change, to doing better going forward. It’s an act of humility; a time for honesty and new beginnings.
Most of us grew up in what has been referred to, problematically for Jews, and perhaps many others, as the Judeo-Christian culture, a tradition, we are told, that has shaped key values in this country. Despite this, I venture to say most of us no very little about Judaism (maybe not so much about Christianity either!). And many of us grew up having lost sight of the fact that Jesus was Jewish, that he never started a new religion called Christianity, and that he was executed by the Roman government as a trouble-making, potentially revolutionary Jew, who was perceived as stirring up mostly Jewish peasants. In fact his followers stayed in the synagogue for decades after his death before finally forming a distinct religious movement.
As is the case with most all religious traditions, Judaism, especially in more recent decades, has gone through lots of change, i.e., there is lots of pluralism within Judaism. Most recently, in the 19th century, there were splits within Judaism, first a Reform group broke off from the Orthodox, then some formed a Conservative branch breaking from the Reformed, setting up a kind of middle path between Orthodox and Reformed. Most recently, somewhere around 1920, through the influence of a great Jewish thinker, Mordecai Kaplan, a new branch of Judaism called Reconstructionist emerged. They split from the Conservative expression. Our friend Rabbi Judy is a Reconstructionist.
The Reconstructionists re-thought lots of Judaism for the modern age and one interesting, traditional notion they rejected was that of Jews as chosen people, specifically chosen by God to fulfill God’s historic plan, the idea being, God/Yahweh, the one God, called Moses up the mountain (Sinai) and said to him: you have seen all I have done for you and my people, if you keep the covenant and follow my will and plan, “…then out of all the people you will become my special possession, you Israelites.” Then God gave Moses the 10 commandments. Thus, God’s chosen people. Some have seen this as making Judaism and its God, Yahweh, as the one true faith. Others have seen this less as a privilege and more as a burden, i.e., to be God’s spokespeople, prophets, saddled with the unpleasant task of reminding the rest of us how we have wandered from God’s will. That is a burden and it led to great suffering. Just read the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, their lives were very hard; some tried to hide from God. And, over the centuries, as we so painfully know, Jews have suffered horrifically at the hands of so many ruling powers, and, in some cases, anti-Semitism lives on, regrettably. I don’t know how many practicing Jews actually have some notion of chosen people currently, though I suspect its only prominent in ultra-Orthodox circles, such as in the state of Israel. But I’m not sure.
As for the traditional notion of chosen people, the Reconstructionist Jews were troubled that the idea might lead to a sense of superiority and hierarchy, placing one group over another. They further argue that within Judaism it has led to a certain hierarchy, most especially to the detriment of women, who can feel as second-class citizens in more traditional expressions of Judaism. For Reconstructionist Jews, Jews are distinct ethnically and religiously, with different customs and traditions than other peoples, but they are not a chosen people. For Reconstructionists, the call from God is to work with all people of goodwill to make the community and the world more just and peaceful; be ethical, demonstrate humanity at its best. That’s where God will be found, suggest the Reconstructionist Jews, not so much on Mt. Sinai, but in the human journey. For the humanist-leaning Reconstructionist Jew, God is found in history, in the struggle for a just peace.
In some ways, the historic notion of being chosen, which is a product of traditional, Orthodox Judaism, is not exactly unique to Judaism. Within Christianity clear teachings emerged early on that the Jews were indeed chosen, but they blew it when not accepting the man-God Jesus, thus making Christianity now the one, true faith, with the Christian God or Trinity the only true God holding the fullness of truth (supercessionism). Then along comes the Islamic faith and the “final Prophet” Mohammed with their teaching of having the final and true revelation, and though Muslims incorporate Jews and Christians as fellow people of the book, there is still a sense we have the fullness of truth. Even UUs are not immune from the notion that maybe ours is the superior way, more enlightened, more advanced, especially the Unitarian side. Remember the great preacher, Starr King, fellowshipped in both denominations in the early years who, in commenting on the theological notion of Universal Salvation, once said: “Universalists think that God is too good to damn them forever, Unitarians think they are too good to be damned forever.” And, more recently, one UU bumper-sticker read: “Unitarian Universalism, the Uncommon Denomination.” Maybe a bit subtle, but to many of us very elitist, implying we are not only different, but more enlightened and superior. I once mentioned this to the person who helped come up with these words and the conversation didn’t go so well. Thankfully, that particular bumper-sticker has been retired.
But this notion of superiority, and even of being chosen, is not confined to the sphere of religion. Nations, too, are prone to imagining themselves superior, privileged, thus called to dominate others. It can even have a religious overtone. In modern times and for centuries any number of European countries expressed a view of superiority which justified the domination and pillaging of peoples in Asia, Africa and Latin America. I believe, with many others, that the chaos and devastation now going on in the Middle East cannot be understood without revisiting this historic European imperialism. The worst example in the modern age of an ideology of superiority has been, of course, the Aryan beliefs of the Nazi movement. But here in the United States we have our own problematic history of viewing our nation as chosen, early on with religious and messianic overtones. In the 1630s the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, spoke of the “City on a Hill” with a special vocation as God’s NEW chosen people to be a beacon of freedom for all (unless, of course, you were indigenous, or Black or a woman – or even Irish, I might add.) This sense of being called led to Manifest Destiny and what many have referred to as American Exceptionalism. Because we are exceptional, and always act with the best motivations, and that everyone would want to emulate us, we feel justified in spreading our vision across the globe. And it has gotten us in to trouble, over and over again, whether we talk of Korea or Vietnam or Iraq or Libya or now Syria, to name a few. Our friend who was in this pulpit a few months ago, retired Colonel and university professor, Andrew Bacevich, has written about this problem of American exceptionalism brilliantly (THE LIMITS OF POWER). So have many others, including Brown University professor, Stephen Kinzer, who in an article last week in the Sunday Globe refers to this ideology as American “primacy.” It is dangerous and ill-begotten, he argues. And it has led to great anger and resentment towards us, thus putting our soldiers and our citizenry in constant harm’s way. As Kinzer writes, primacy or exceptionalism is the notion that “we know better what the world needs than the world itself knows.” We are politically, culturally and morally superior, thus the world needs to listen to us and follow our lead. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were key 20th century advocates of such a view, adopted by so many of our leaders.
If you have doubts about this just listen carefully to so many of our politicians in an election year. At some point in time they all articulate the view that America is first, best, greatest and the “leader of the free world.” As one English commentator has written in a book entitled: “The Myth of American Exceptionalism,” (Godfrey Hodgson, Oxford University) the notion is both exaggerated and dangerous. Truth is, we are a wonderful country with many great attributes and values, and a country with serious warts and deficiencies and injustices. We do some things much better than most countries and some things much worse than many countries. We have much to teach and share with others and much to listen to and learn from others.
Personally I love that our country, despite consistent backlash, is diverse, a country of so many nationalities and ethnicities and cultures. This really comes out in the Olympics. Of that I am so proud. On the other hand, I am totally ashamed at the rate in which we incarcerate people; over 2 million currently. We are #1 in the world at incarceration and when we do incarcerate we house people often in horrendous conditions. A close friend who is waging a courageous battle against solitary confinement just won a legal case in Pennsylvania for a man who has been in solitary for 37 years and when he hugged my friend at the resolution of the case he said that’s the first person he has touched in 37 years. We torture people, folks, I don’t know what else to call that.
Thankfully there is a national movement of prison reform that is beginning to make major changes in the prison system. But it will take decades (and maybe never) for us to have a system that will match any number of other countries, in Western Europe and beyond. Locally, and proudly, our church is part of ECCO, which is working with others on prison reform. Thursday night 5 of us from First UU Essex attended a Sheriff’s forum for the 4 candidates for Essex County Sheriff, whose primary responsibility is to manage the county jail system. All candidates acknowledged the need for major improvements in the way we respond to transgressions of the law. So many who go to jail could be and should be dealt with in other ways because of mental health or drug and alcohol issues. And each candidate is asking the religious community to partner with him or her in giving community input to the necessary changes. It was an exciting process to be part of and an appropriate role for us to be players in. Human lives are at stake. Leading up to the election several of us will be door knocking in Gloucester to engage people in this sheriff’s election and prison reform. Why not join us?
Our Reconstructionist sisters and brothers ( with an especial shout out to Rabbi Judy), in their rejection of the notion of Jews as a chosen people, and with their beliefs in ethical action for the betterment of humanity, and their respect for and raising up of difference and plurality, are a model and a gift to us all. And we are so blessed to be celebrating their historic faith as something all UUs can learn from and be inspired by. We UUs are kindred spirits in raising up and honoring difference in our midst, acknowledging that while we may have some truth, many others can teach us other truths or more expanded truths. We are not more enlightened; we are one among many. We celebrate with our Jewish sisters and brothers the turning that the New Year represents and the admission that we have, at times, fallen short, “missed the mark,” as Rabbi Judy likes to say, and with them committing to doing better, as UUs and as citizens of this great country. And as citizens in this important election year, may we help alter any notion that we as a nation are exceptional or superior to others, thus electing people and focusing ourselves on bettering our own country and overcoming any injustices that we encounter. That’s the message of the Jewish High Holy Days and the commitment Jews make at this time of year. Let us join them in that endeavor.
And as far as circumcision goes, I’m not sure whether Reconstructionists strictly follow traditional Judaism or whether they leave that up to individual Jews. Like Reform Jews, I think the latter. I tried to call Rabbi Judy yesterday unsuccessfully. Whether they do or not, I doubt the Rabbi in the story was a Reconstructionist. I’m sure a Reconstructionist would have declined the offer of the two Christian minsters in their quest to convert a bear.