Sunday, October 26, 2014
Can Liberal Judaism and liberal Christianity open up a new dialogue on peace between Israel and Palestinians?
Can Liberal Judaism and liberal Christianity open up a new dialogue on peace between Israel and Palestinians?
Delivered at the Chapel without Walls worship Service
As I watch the national movements of liberal Christianity vote in favor of resolutions targeting Israel and advocating Boycott Divest and Sanctions against the Jewish people, I along with many ask; “What happened?” Our friends with whom we have we shared our values to pursue a more just society in America have now turned against us and betrayed all those years that we worked together for the common good.” Many Jews in America are awakening to the impact of Presbyterian, Methodists and United Church of Christ proclamations, resolutions and sermons from the pulpit which invoke Christian theological doctrines of prophetic faith that lead them to identify with the suffering of the Palestinians in the West Bank. That mounting energy has begun to turn the decades old solidarity between liberal Christians and Jews on its head.
What is the dilemma for Jews in light of the increasing political activism against Israel from liberal Christian denominations? How are Jews understanding the changing landscape of liberal Christianity in terms of its leadership and the support that leadership gives to causes that enact policies to punish Israel? Is there still ground for ecumenical cooperation and resolution for this growing estrangement between liberal Jews and Christians?
This past summer’s decision by the Presbyterian movement at its convention in Detroit sounded a wakeup call for Jews when they passed a resolution to Boycott and Divest and Sanction Israel by protesting against American companies who do business with Israel in the West Bank territories. Rabbis, Jewish community leaders and a growing base of the Jewish community were deeply hurt and disappointed by this resolution. It is by no means the only example of liberal denominations of Christianity voting to punish Israel for the settlements but this time the Presbyterian vote caught the attention of the Jewish community.
What we learned was that there is a deep gulf between clergy and lay leaders in this BDS movement and the mainstream Jewish community. We learned that Christian clergy who are involved in these issues have expressed deep hostility towards Israel and the idea of Zionism because of the West Bank settlements. We recognized that we had ignored the facts that many of these clergy have been involved in outreach to Palestinian Christians in this area and have developed a deepened sense of empathy and solidarity with Palestinians in refugee camps. We also learned that we had taken for granted our cherished colleagues and friends support for Israel while we were working with them on domestic causes which we shared the same commitments. Now Jews are rethinking those relationships and questioning what they see from their lens as actions tantamount to anti-Semitism from the liberal branches of Christianity.
I have spoken to colleagues from the UCC, Methodists and Presbyterian denominations and they all disavow that accusation but at the same time they tell me we are the ones who do not listen and do not see the injustices Israel has created and fostered by having those settlements which they view as illegal and by the administration of the territories where Arabs live. This has become a launching pad for the more leftists elements of these religious bodies to accuse Israel of being an Apartheid State like the old South African regime. All of these remarks and ideas are an anathema to Israel and to most Jews. Jews hear those kinds of accusations as attacks upon not only Israel but upon them as well. In many cases I see that we are speaking past each other and that each side is entrenched in their own ideologies.
As I see it now Jews feel caught in a bind between the mainstream Christian denominations who they feel betrayed by and the more conservative branches of Christendom in America who avidly support Israel but who also carry a very different political agenda that often runs contrary to liberal Judaism’s social justice orientation in America. The Jewish religious leadership asks, ‘How can we possibly work together with our cherished friends and colleagues on domestic issues when they put their efforts to resolutions that we feel are blatantly anti-Israel?
I believe that Jews feel not only betrayed but misunderstood and that still after all these decades liberal Christians do not get our connection and ultimately not just our commitment to Israel but also our fear that criticizing Israel, especially through the vicious BDS movement, leads to anti-Semitism and threatens the future of Israel and world Jewry. Jews, it is fair to say, are not absolutely united in the different ways we all speak about how to make peace with the Palestinians. What we feel is that despite Israel’s immense and powerful military infrastructure, it is still vulnerable to Arab terrorism and especially Iranian nuclear technology. Seven million people living in a region with over a hundred million Arabs. Those demographics are the lens that Jews must wear and we wonder why Christians choose not to see that aspect of our concern? The wars that rage on in the Middle East contribute to the wariness that Jews and Israelis harbor about how to make an enduring peace. The fact that Palestinians, many of whom are resistant to peace, resent Israelis and Jews’ right to be in the land contributes to the ongoing stalemate as well.
Furthermore what Christians forget is that Israel does an amazing job with its 500,000 Arab citizens by granting them full citizenship. There is an Arab jurist on the Israeli Supreme Court. Israel protects holy sites for all religions. There are some groups like the Druze community who actually enlist in the military for Israel. Are there Arab Israeli citizens who complain that they have second class status? Yes, just as there are ethnic and racial groups in America who are angry and accuse white America of racial discrimination. For a country that is 66 years old it has accomplished a great deal in these areas and it has much more work to do just like America must do with its minorities. I wonder why liberal Christians refuse to see this side of the story and only focus on one narrative of this ongoing dispute.
Jews also question why Christians, liberal Christians in particular, refuse to raise their voices to other Christian denominations in the Middle East who suffer at the hands of Arab terrorism? Why aren’t more Christians angry about and passing resolutions when the entire Christian population of large cities in Iraq like Mosul and other cities are exiled by ISIS and forced to convert to Islam if they want to live? Why aren’t Christians pointing their concern for justice against Christians who ally themselves with the Syrian President Assad? Why does it appear that their efforts and attention seem to focus exclusively on Israel? From our vantage point there seems to be a double standard and a huge disconnect between what liberal Christians say about prophetic justice and how it is applied.
We ourselves struggle with our own values as American Jews who whole heartedly support Israel and embrace the concept of Zionism with policies that individual Jews may disagree with the government of Israel. Jews have a hard time offering that critique for fear others will use it as a justification for their own deeper agendas to discredit Israel on the world stage. Of course there is a feeling that Israelis and Jews have around the world that supports Israel to the extent that we are sometimes blinded to the harsh realities of what justice means and that it must apply to Palestinians in the West Bank as well.
Jews are seeing the outbreak of anti-Semitism around the world particularly in Europe that frightens us. Today Israel is the scapegoat and with the second generation of Arabs in Europe it only heightens the concern that Jews are no longer safe not just in Israel but in Europe and ultimately the fear is that could be in America sooner than later.
We need more dialogue today than ever before. We need to bring together Jews and liberal Christians to discuss these issues rather than passing resolutions which only create more fear, enmity and alienation between long time friends. We share common Scriptures and we should use them to open up more dialogue to see to it that we do not have a parting of the ways but a pathway towards greater cooperation and understanding. I would personally like to see my Christian colleagues join me in visiting Israel and talking to all sides in this conflict and not just one sided vitriolic diatribes against one side or the other. What is tragic is that liberal Christians have missed the opportunity to be a bridge for peace and instead have taken a partisan position. I do not see it bringing the parties closer together.
I never, on the other hand, lose hope and despite the concerns I have presented this morning I am counting on the idea that leaders will take a step back and reassess the importance of keeping the communication going and working through these issues. If we can talk and even visit Israel together there is a chance we can make a difference. That would signal greater hope that peoples of faith could do more to advance the peace in this part of the world and prove how religions can make a difference towards making our world a better and safer place.
Saturday, October 11, 2014
Thursday, October 9, 2014
I have inserted the link from my most recent newspaper article on the High Holy Days. All the best and enjoy.
I have inserted the link from my most recent newspaper article on the High Holy Days. All the best and enjoy.
Yom Kippur Morning
It feels like we are living in a chaotic world nowadays, does it not? The Middle East is engulfed in war; Ukraine is barely holding back the onslaught of the Russians who want to reestablish their old iron curtain; while Iran poses the greatest threat in the Middle East to Israel. We watch the gamesmanship of negotiations as Iran postures with the U.S. to arrive at a deal for peace by November 24. Religiously speaking, we see in the Middle East the Shia-Sunni divide metastasize into even more hatred. And finally, the United States is engaged now in a war against ISIS. In a recent speech at a security conference in Israel on 9.11, Prime Minister Netanyahu characterized radical Islam’s view of itself as becoming the master faith of all religions, drawing upon the historic quotation from Hitler who described the Aryans as the Master Race.
Obviously world peace is not something we will achieve today. We can shrai “gevalt” but it will not make a bit of difference. Achieving world peace may very well be beyond our scope of influence,but, I am reminded of a statement of a sage who said, “Before there is world peace I must begin with an inner peace. For only when a person makes peace in him or herself are they able to make peace in the world.” What was that teaching about? What was his underlying message? Judaism teaches us that our mitzvah is to pursue peace as well as justice. Especially on Yom Kippur there is a role for us to play in balancing between inner peace and world peace.
Judaism has always cherished seeking peace, even to the point where in one Midrash the sages say that the Torah itself misrepresents the truth between Joseph and his brothers in order to preserve peace between them after Jacob their father dies.
When Jacob died, the midrash teaches that the brothers were afraid that Joseph would now wreak vengeance upon them for the cruel act of selling him into slavery years ago. That is why they said to him, “Before his death, your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly” (Genesis 50:16).
However, nowhere in Scripture, according to the midrashic text do we find that our Patriarch Jacob had actually given such an instruction! The upshot is that the Torah sometimes stretches the truth by using fictitious words for the sake of peace” (Deuteronomy Rabbah Shoftim 15).
Apparently there are many pathways to achieving peaceful relations with those who are estranged from us, let alone finding a measure of peace within ourselves. How can we do this?
There are two ways that we can pursue peace where it will make a difference in our lives. Start with peace inside us. Second, make peace with someone whom we have been at odds with recently. Of course we cannot ignore the cause of world peace while exclusively pursuing peace in our own inner recesses. Yet, Judaism teaches us to embrace all these pathways to a better world. The best starting for peace starts inside us and extends to the entire world.
Peace is not about only maintaining quiet in a conflict between two individuals or two nations. Peace is a state of mind and a state of being. Peace means affirming shared values and working for a common good. Peace inside our souls refers to a deep sense of awareness and contemplation that our life’s meaning and purpose is good. Inner peace can include harmony and connectivity within us, our loved ones and with God.
Remember that famous statement from Rabbi Zusia who when asked by his students what he was thinking about now that he had reached his last moments of life? He answered, “I do not fear when people say why you weren’t like this one or that one? What I fear most is when someone asks; “why you weren’t more like Zusia?” Finding inner peace is often a lifetime struggle. Maybe the hardest question on inner peace revolves around whether we lived up to our own potential? Are we true to ourselves and to others whom we interact with in the world?
I have met individuals at peace within themselves. Sometimes they were great teachers and other times they were simple people who could look over the valley of their life experience and recall traumatic events but still find the spiritual high ground. Being at peace does not mean that life was perfect or that it all went well. It just means that some people learn how to cope with their life issues in a way that transcends challenging times and painful moments and ultimately find an inner strength to transform those moments to wisdom. This is one reason why I love this holy day of Yom Kippur, because it affords us the opportunity to take a break and survey the big picture of our lives. Peace is a challenge to us to work for on Yom Kippur. Taking hold of our issues, facing them and generating hope is one pathway towards embracing shalom in our lives.
One of the hardest things for humans to do is make peace with someone whom we have hurt or are distant from. This is the one day, ordained by God, where we are commanded to make peace with others. It is the day when God is cajoling us to go ahead and reach out to someone and say, “I’m sorry.” God is coaxing the other to say, “I forgive you.” We all know the feeling of being humbled and submitting ourselves to the judgment of another person. We know how awkward it can feel to forgive someone out of convenience or to just get it out of the way and not truly mean it. The same applies for fake apologies as well.
Still our mitzvah today is to change not only our lives but someone else’s life for the better. So I am challenging us this morning to be committed this year to healing one relationship in which we have unfinished business. Take a risk and put your pride on the line for a greater achievement. The Talmud says that turning an enemy into a friend is one of the highest mitzvoth we can accomplish. Even the Siddur says oseh shalom bein adam l’havero: namely that, a person should make peace between one person and another. Even if we cannot make peace with another and ourselves, maybe we can find an opportunity to make peace between two other individuals. Whatever we can do to encourage our neighbor to reconcile with a friend or relative and or even an adversary is making a difference in the world.
A rabbi told his students that God helps us to make peace since God was able to make the heavens at the dawn of creation by making peace between the two extremes of fire and water. So if God could make peace between these two extremes, then surely God can bring people together in peace.
Later on that rabbi visited a town and discovered the residents were involved in a huge communal quarrel. He came into the town on the 9th of Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. One of the leaders asked the rabbi to arbitrate the dispute that was growing and dividing the entire community. Others said, “He will not do so since it is a fast day on the 9th of Av and we will be in schul.” The rabbi heard that comment and exclaimed, “No day is better than this one, for it was because of an idle quarrel and baseless hatred amongst the Jewish community that Jerusalem the city of God was destroyed.”
Do we give up too easily towards working for peace in the community? Is it fair to say that the older we get, the more we become focused on our own issues and let go of the world’s problems? What is it about aging that lures us into retreat from the challenges in our world? Clearly not everyone does that but how often do we hear someone say; ‘leave the world’s problems to the next generation to deal with.’ Yet is there not still time to impact events in small ways that help others find their own shalom?
Peacemaking is an arduous task. It takes hard work and patience, whether we are talking about inner peace or world peace. But what comes first is looking inside and checking our own attitude about the life we live and those who are near to us. What is the most important quality for peace making? Rabbi Pinhas used to say, “I am always afraid to be more clever than devout.” And then he added: “I should rather be devout than clever, but rather than both devout and clever, I should like to be good.”
That is the important ingredient to peacemaking whether it is between us and someone else or if we are helping others make peace. God wants us to be good at heart and not play the chess game of life, out-strategizing our friends or adversaries.
Rabbi Baurch of Huza often went to the marketplace at Lapet. One day the prophet Elijah appeared to him there: and Rabbi Baruch asked of him; “is there anyone amongst all these people who will have a share in the World to Come?”
Elijah answered, “There is none.”
Later, two men came to the marketplace and Elijah said to Rabbi Baruch; “Those two will have a share in the World to Come.”
Rabbi Baruch asked the newcomers; “What is your occupation?”
They replied; “We are clowns. When we see a person who is sad, we cheer her or him up. When we see two people quarreling, we try to make peace between them”(B. Ta’anith 22a).
Remember if we look at peace making in terms of winning and losing then we have lost sight of the inner peace and the outer one. The sages say “Seek Peace and Pursue It, “and that must be our life’s goal, on this day and every day.
Yom Kippur Evening 2014
Why is it that people are so quick to judge their neighbors but unwilling to focus the same moral lens upon themselves? When a public personality or an elected official makes a poor judgment or an unpopular decision, how fast do the media lead the charge to eviscerate that individual and, as is often the case, how often do we the public jump on the bandwagon and feed off the media spectacle that follows?
Now let’s think closer to home about how tolerant we are with our neighbors and friends about the errors we believe they commit in their relationship with us. Think about the person who we feel snubbed us at a party. How about the person who raised their voice to us and hurt our feelings? How about the time when a friend did not come through when we needed their help?
We have expectations about how others are supposed to act, and when they fail our standard don’t we end up putting ourselves in the position of judge and jury? Our responses range from anger or disappointment to ignoring, shunning and ultimately scorning them. Typically the drama that percolates inside us leads us to sharing our anger with anyone who will listen. How often do we see this trajectory of emotions?
Yet when it comes to our own lives, how fast are we to hold up ourselves to the same bar that we set up for others? Are we just as critical of our own actions as we are when we focus our righteous indignation towards others we feel have failed us? I would like to focus on these questions in terms of judging ourselves with equal rigor as we judge those around us. I do not believe it is a sin to judge others because it is human nature to be judgmental. But is it sinful behavior when we create a double standard for ourselves by judging others and not applying those standards to our own behavior?
I believe that the answer is yes, in three ways. Do we not by being exclusively judgmental of others lead to the sins of gossip and slanderous speech? Second, do we not damage our own reputation when others listen to us denigrate or criticize our neighbor? Third, would we not be better and wiser if we focused more on practicing forgiveness instead obsessing over how disappointed we are or how we can get revenge against the alleged offender? Judaism teaches us that holding up someone’s reputation and dignity is one of the most important things we can do to keep peace. Gossip, slander and bearing a grudge move us farther away from the best in ourselves.
The Hebrew word for gossip is rachilut. We will read the Torah and its admonition against gossip tomorrow afternoon from the book of Leviticus. Lo Telech k’rachil bamecha,” “Do not go about as a gossip amongst your people.” The root of this verb rachil to gossip means to peddle. In actuality, one who gossips is likened to a person who traffics in the commodity of information. Candidly isn’t this the one sin that all of us know is wrong and, yet, the same sin which most commit without regard to the consequences? This is so serious a sin that the Talmud tells a story of a student in the academy who held a secret for 22 years and then revealed it to his classmates. Upon hearing this revealed secret his teachers banished him immediately from the House of Study for the sinful behavior of gossip (Sanhedrin 31a).
Not only does our tradition declare gossip and slander as sins but also even listening to gossip and slander is a sin. The sages teach that when one is gossiping or slandering a person we are to interrupt the person and refuse to listen. Is it not one thing to judge a person we dislike or disrespect and keep our opinions to ourselves and quite another thing to go out and tell all how we feel , that is, how what so and so did hurt us or how it was shameful behavior so that everyone should know how bad a person they are? News media outlets exploit every opportunity to spread information sometimes completely unrelated to the problem a person is having. What happens when the media report is incorrect? How does one reestablish their reputation if it turns out the reported information was wrong? Similarly what is the difference between that kind of insidious news reporting and us talking about and embellishing or exaggerating what someone allegedly said at a party or in a committee meeting? The answer is not much! Do such people who peddle information fall under the admonition of Isaiah who said, “The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned their pathways into crooked roads; no one who walks along them will no peace”(59:8).
The problem with gossip and slander is that the person committing it feels empowered by the attention that they receive. So, a person calls all their friends and tells them what happened, repeats and embellishes the story five to ten times, and never stops to think that what they are saying damages their own credibility as much as the reputation of the person they are talking about. The truth is that people are inherently judgmental about others. It becomes a problem when playing out a grudge means validating ourselves in a conflict situation that leads to gossiping and or slandering that person. This is the underlying meaning of the verse in Leviticus, “You shall not wrong him”(25:17).
I am sure we are all equally cognizant of how important maintaining a good name or reputation is in life. Jewish sources abound with teachings and maxims to reinforce the moral imperative to preserve one’s name and reputation by the way we treat others. Rabbi Simeon said, “There are three crowns; the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood and the crown of royalty. But the crown of a good name surpasses them all” (Pirke Avot 4:13). Rabbi Eliezer said, “Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own” (Pirke Avot 2:10).” Finally a sage Ben Azzai exclaimed, “Never say since I have been humiliated, let my neighbor who I am angry at be humiliated; since I have been cursed or abused by others then let my neighbor be cursed. For as Rabbi Tanhuma said, “If you act this way, realize who it is you are willing to have humiliated? - “the one whom God has created in his own image” (Genesis Rabbi 24:7).
When we judge others who deserve our condemnation and criticism, Judaism delivers a message of restraint. We only diminish our own standing when we go out on the attack against others. I am focusing on the spirit of these teachings in reference to our own social crowds and circles of community that we live in and interact with every day. If we feel wronged by someone does that give us the liberty to go out and destroy them? Of course we have the right to defend ourselves and clarify the truth. At the same time our right to protect our own honor or reputation means that we should strive to restrain or carefully focus our efforts to demonstrate the truth lest we succumb to the same transgression we are trying to combat.
One instance years ago comes to mind when a disgruntled congregant spoke to me about how upset he was to hear how another had spoken about him with exaggerated stories about the cause of a failed marriage. I suggested that he go and sit down with the individual and clarify the situation and express his hurt feelings for the false accusations. It only took a few days when another person sought my counsel after having heard this person telling others how the person who had originally hurt his feelings was involved in shady business deals. This is exactly how quickly the victim becomes the perpetrator and the matter escalates while many others are dragged in and the hurt feelings multiply. Who wins here? The reputation of the offended party is diminished as well as the first person who started it all in the first place. No one wins and many are hurt.
Whatever happened to the mandate to take the moral high ground? What happened to the value of forgiveness? Why is it that we are so quick to judge and so slow to forgive and make peace? When do, for example, adult children learn how to get beyond their anger at their parents for something they did thirty years ago? When will parents forgive their children for longstanding hurts? Let’s face the facts that we are not always going to get an apology just because we think we are owed it. When are we going to stop punishing everyone who does not meet our expectations or our standards? Are we so perfect and so blameless in all things that we cannot find it within ourselves to let old grudges go which in the long run do not really matter anyway?
There is an old Yiddish word, forbissen, which literally refers to a dog who refuses to let go of a bone. In other words, when we hold on to a grudge or hold on tenaciously to anger against another person with fierceness like a dog who will not let go of their bone, we diminish our own humanity, not to mention our own reputation and appear intransigent and stubborn to the point of being self destructive. My best advice is to stop for a moment and take a step back before we go on the war path. Think about the anger as well as the solution to the hurt before going out to degrade the offending party. Before going to others and spreading the story think about how we can resolve it before things get out of hand. Finally, consider how we will appear to others before we slander this person in public. Are we so much better than the other when we attack in an unforgiving way?
Should we not judge ourselves before we go out in public judging others? Yom Kippur is the one holy day when we ask God to judge and ultimately to forgive us. But this is also the day when we are supposed to apologize for hurting others. If the Torah teaches that everyone is created in the image of God, then let’s be careful before we hurl accusations against others. Feeling hurt by others does not automatically give us the license to repeat the same behavior towards them. For when we give in to our emotions we risk escalating a situation into an even bigger drama and involve others unfairly in our own problems. We end up spreading the hurt for all to cope with and that does not represent the spirit of Jewish teachings.
In fact the Talmud warns us that God sees through the deception that people often create in their minds and before friends to use the victim role to humiliate the accused party. The fine imposed upon one who wounds another person is based upon two factors, “the first is the reputation of the offending party. The second is the well being of the offended party” (Baba Metzia 58b).The upshot is that defending ourselves by cutting down someone who offended or hurt our feelings is not simply judging others but it is also shaming them even if what we say is the truth. Judging the hurt against us by slamming or shaming that person only leads to further hurt. Our tradition says, “One who shames another is likened to a person who draws blood from the other.” That act is tantamount to murder.
Remember, we just finished saying during the Kol Nidrei that we forgive all sins committed against us from this Yom Kippur to the next year. If we betray our own words and rush to judge someone who wronged us, haven’t we really contradicted ourselves before God?
The point is, to stop the attacks and to preserve everyone’s dignity and reputation which will create more respectful and reverent human beings to each other and with God. Ecclesiastes said, “A good name is better than precious oil” (7:1). “How far does the oil’s fragrance go -From the bedroom to the dining room? But a good name goes from one end of the world to the other” (Exodus Rabbah). Treat your friend’s imperfections with the care you would have others treat your own. With that in mind we might have a more humane world.
Rosh Hashana Day
This year when I read the story of the Binding of Isaac I am drawn to the moment when Abraham is standing over his son Isaac bound by rope onto a wooden altar holding the knife in his hand and is about to stab or, god forbid, decapitate his beloved son. Still I am incredulous at the thought that any man would commit such an act especially out of duty to God. After all these years of interpreting this story, I still cannot fathom the depth of faith it took for Abraham to summon up inside himself the courage to slay his son.
At the same time what is bothering me is an optic of the videos of the two American journalists and the one British aid worker who were, in fact, decapitated by the crazed and cruel representative of ISIL. I can’t get out of my mind that knife used to end their lives before the entire world. It was a despicable act beyond words to capture the depth of revulsion that I hope most of the world felt when they either watched the video or heard about it
I do not want us to think that I see them as equal with the binding of Isaac story. What I am looking at, however, is the emotion and the moral conviction to a belief system and not necessarily a religion that inspires a person to do things entirely contrary to the basic norms of society. Does it not make us question whether human beings are basically good at heart? Does it also not cause us to think about the dangers of religion and validate what atheists are saying, namely that religion is the cause of more suffering than any other form of belief?
The High Holy Days are all about questioning humankind’s merit. Are human beings in general programmed to fail morally and spiritually? Are we worth God’s time and anguish when we think about what we do to ourselves, to others and to this world? The Psalmist said, “What is man that you are mindful of him and the son of man that you take note of him.” Yet no matter what we do we find out that there are times when humans are capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty, as there are others who demonstrate saintly behavior.
Main Points: Judaism teaches us even though God may have had doubts and faced as much pressure to create as to not create humankind, God went with his gut intuition to create us anyway. Despite our being structured to fail morally and spiritually, God saw that the potential for good outweighed our inclination to do wrong. Second, the success of terrorism does not teach that God gave up on man, rather, it was humankind who gave up on themselves. Finally, God created repentance to give us all a second chance to make a positive difference in the world today. My experience has taught me that people can change for the better. Most terrorists, however, will not change for the better and hardened criminals are the same. Yet, there are moments when someone sees the light and makes a turn for the better. Too often I hear people always blaming others for their problems and rarely looking into themselves. This is the tension for practicing Judaism and living life. We need God and the strength to have a second chance to make a positive difference in the world. The frustration is that most people, let alone terrorists or hardened criminals) do not want to do it.
Yes in Judaism there are stories which make it clear that at the dawn of creation the jury was out about whether or not human beings should be created. The sages of Judaism knew full well that human beings were a mixed blessing back then as they are today. In fact in the Midrash one sage Rabbi Simon told a story that just as God was about to create the first human being, the ministering angels on high were completely divided; some were supportive and others totally opposed to God creating human beings.
One of the angels called Love said, “Let him be created, because he will perform deeds of loving kindness.”
Truth said, “Let him not be created, because he will be full of lies.”
Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will act in righteousness.”
Peace said, “Let him not be created, because he will be full of strife.”
What did God do?
He took Truth and cast her down to earth. All the ministering angels challenged God by saying, “How could you do this? Truth is your seal. How could you put her to shame? Let Truth ascend again from the earth!”
At that point Rabbi Huna the Elder of Sepphoris, added: while the ministering angels were still arguing about it, God said to them, Stop this jabbering. Man has already been made!” I love this story because God essentially knew just how flawed we are and despite that ignored the best advice of his ministering angels and pushed truth aside and created human beings.
Some would say that human beings are simply structured to fail by our very nature which is to do things that are nasty and sometimes downright evil. Yet God appears to be able to [overlook] that side of our character. Was it because God saw the potential goodness of human beings and that we are good at heart despite our darker side? God made the decision and the world has had to live with the volatility and blessings of humankind every day since creation.
God teaches us through the Torah how to behave and makes promises when we follow the commandments. Then, inexplicably bad things happen to us and we end up protesting to God who we accuse of abandoning us. Who failed whom? We need to be able to yell at God even when what is happening to us is not God’s fault. There is just nowhere else to go with [our] anger. But let’s think about it. Aren’t there times when God is unfairly accused of having abandoned human beings when human beings, in fact, have abandoned each other? That is why God stayed the hand of Abraham because the unspoken message was; “ I will not abandon you and ask you to do anything contrary to my laws that sanctify life. Yes I want to see your loyalty but faith is about testing oneself as well as me.” God and Abraham passed the test. In real life, admittedly, it is not usually that clear.
I believe that there are too many people who call themselves religious and, yet, who abandon Godlike behavior in the name of God. The fanatics and thugs who belong to ISIL and decapitate American journalists, a British aid worker, butcher Iraqi prisoners of war and innocent civilians to inspire fear in their new conquest have abandoned their religion and God. We ourselves are not immune to those charges, for some in Israel have taken the lives of innocents. The assassination of Yitzchak Rabin by a religious Jew in Tel Aviv or the recent murder of a Muslim teenager outside of Jerusalem are examples of people on our side who abandon their faith and the teachings of Judaism. Thankfully they are few and far between as compared to the heinous myriads of terrorists in the Middle East.
In our country when we have seen extremist Christian sects who claim to be holding the mantle of their faith burn churches and synagogues and federal office buildings leading to the deaths of innocents then they too have abandoned their faith and humankind too. Frankly it is these kinds of people not only of these faiths who not only tarnish themselves and their respective religions but also lead many to the belief that religion is not something we need anymore and reject all faith systems altogether. This is not God abandoning humanity but it is humanity abandoning God. This is where fundamentalism fails God and the beauty of the religious systems that have served humanity well over the centuries.
Repentance is a tricky thing. Saying I am sorry and meaning it can be two different things and worlds apart from each other. For a person to really understand how they have harmed another and demonstrate a commitment to not repeat the action which hurt another requires great strength. Repentance is the ultimate opportunity to give humanity a second chance and the individuals who commit transgressions an opportunity to right the wrongs.
The Rabbis said that Great is repentance which preceded the creation of the world. (yalkut shimoni) Obviously God knew this so that he would create humankind despite the protests of the ministering angels. There is a wonderful story in the Talmud about the wife Beruriah of Rabbi Meir. In their neighborhood there were a group of thugs who were causing distress and annoying him daily so that he started to pray for them to die. Beruriah said to him, “why would God listen to your prayer?” Remember what the psalmist said, “Let the sinners be consumed and let the wicked be no more.” (Psalms 104:35). The word sinners should be read as sins. In other words “my dear husband please pray for them and beseech mercy for them that they may turn from their ways so that that their sins will be gone and they will not be wicked anymore.” Rabbi Meir listened to his wife and prayed for the hooligans to stop their wicked behavior and they eventually turned in penitence.
Will the slayers of the Journalists in Iraq ever repent? Should we pray that they do? When we read and watch stories on cable news of men, especially professional athletes, beating their wives without any regard to human decency should we pray for these men to change their ways? Will there be someone praying for the fanatics across the world that enslave young girls in human trafficking rings that they change their ways? Would these prayers be empty or foolhardy? Is this the price humanity must pay for the blessing of all the saintly and wonderful people who inhabit this planet? My view is that if we take the moral high ground then no prayer is empty or worthless if it is a prayer for someone to repent whether it happens or not. Yet, I confess I cannot pray for those of such an evil character but I will pray that someone they know who is close to them will pray for them. That I would do. Yes I will pray for the innocent mothers and fathers, spouses and children, brothers and sisters of these criminals that they will pray and do what they can to move their loved ones from evil to goodness.
I believe that Abraham struggled in his heart praying to God for himself and Isaac for direction to be faithful to God even though he could not fathom this divine command to bring Isaac up for a burnt offering. He didn’t want to do it and had faith that somehow, even at the last minute, God would find a way out of this situation. The story is still no less harrowing but commentaries abound about how Abraham reeled from the thought of sacrificing his beloved son.
Obviously we know that ISIL fanatics who would bring a knife and sacrifice Americans on their altar of death and give homage to a theology of murder have no problem in their conscience with performing heinous acts. This is the difference between the context of the act when it is fueled with hatred, arrogance and delusion versus when in Abraham’s case the potential slaughter of his son Isaac was a torture in the heart and soul of Abraham.
We are not terrorists or Patriarchs like Abraham or Sarah. Repentance is the basis of why we are here on these days and it is part of the pathway of alleviating the unsettled feelings that many of us live with year after year when the slate of our spiritual books continues to carry deficits of the spirit from year to year. Is it true that part of being human means that we are inherently structured to fail? Even if the answer is yes, God gave us the ability to change and to make ourselves better and wiser when we really examine and struggle within and then on the outside with those around us. Only then can we [rise] up to the standards that God set when he created us and love said, “Let him be created because he will perform deeds of loving-kindness,” and that love will override his flaws, even with the heavy price humanity pays for God’s choices.