Last week a group of temple leaders and myself traveled to Washington, DC to attend the Reform Movement’s conference on Social Justice, a hallmark of reform Judaism. The conference, sponsored by the Religious Action Center, highlighted the enormous effort that Reform Judaism invests in advocacy for liberal political and humanitarian issues. The main reason for our trip was to accept the coveted Irving Fain award for excellence in social justice programming. Our congregation’s efforts at organizing an interfaith coalition to address feeding the hungry and housing for the homeless caught the attention of the committee and earned us well deserved recognition. I was so happy for our congregant leaders who stood up on the stage and received the citation and recognition before over 300 people, including the leaders of the movement. Our congregation is now on the map. It is a great feeling.
We heard from political leaders such as Senator Carl Levin, Representatives Nancy Peolosi, and Rosa DeLaura. We also heard from a nun from New Orleans. She was the nun who wrote the book Dead Man Walking portraying her reaching out to a death row inmate and the relationship they developed before his execution. Remember the movie from this book that stared Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn?
The central theme of the sister’s ministry is opposing the death penalty. She gave an honorable and down to earth argument against the death penalty. One of the aspects of her speech that resonated for me was the idea of community. She talked about the community we all come from and that part of the strength of religion is how well it provides a sense of community to people who are seeking to belong somewhere.
My purpose is not to argue about the death penalty. It is, instead, to recognize that we are all looking for community. Today we can find it on the internet as well as face to face. Both have their drawbacks and even their dangers as we all know from so many stories. Yet, let’s not get sidetracked with those kinds of stories. The truth of the matter is that we are social beings and we need community to ground us and to feel a sense of belongingness to the world around us.
Think about it that the underlying theme of the Torah is all about building a sacred community. From the instance that we see Adam and Even expelled out of the Garden of Eden, the failed generation of Noah and then the beginnings of Abraham and Sarah trying to establish a new age of monotheism, we see that the individual is lost unless they are connected to a patriarch or to a people like in Exodus. Leviticus is all about community. It may be dry reading and tedious but don’t forget that it is all about building a spiritual infrastructure to enable the people to provide a communal expression of their relationship to God.
Today we are searching for the right faith and the old rules do not necessarily apply. People are living all over the country. They do not have roots like many of us had when we were growing up. We are living in a stew of different faith traditions that swirl around us. Again it is the choice we make. Is it the people who define what we believe or is it the doctrine we chose and then find the people who subscribe to it that determine what we will do?
When I see beautiful buildings and sanctuaries, I ask myself ‘Does the beauty of the building mirror the spirit that pervades the hearts and spirits of those who worship there? The sister was trying to tell us that even in a prison which is a horrible habitation for human beings (I have visited them and taught inside a medium security prison in Illinois) there is a spark of humanity amongst people who have done bad things to others in their lives. I suppose one could say by analogy that the beauty of a house of worship does not automatically mean that the people inside it reflect that same spirit either.
It is an imperfect world and religion contributes to many of the problems we have today. But when religion is on target the leaders and adherents understand that building a strong and welcoming community that opens up the potential of people to find faith and to learn their scriptures and to connect with God and then practice the good things that bind us all together then is religion at its best.
Religion is also at its best when it recognizes that alleviating the suffering of others is also part of the mission. That could be in a prison or for a hungry child or a poverty stricken family looking for a job. It is all part of Judaism and Christianity’s mission as well as Islam. If we could focus as a religious community on those values we might see a lot more unity in this country.