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Rosh HaShanah: Religion is Good for the World

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Rosh HaShanah Morning: Thursday, September 25, 2014

For many years it’s been clear to me how useful a background in marketing and public relations would be as a contemporary American rabbi. Initially I was thinking about PR for the Temple and its activities, but more recently I’ve been thinking that religion itself needs a good public relations campaign.

When the BBC commissions university researchers to determine what percentage of the world’s wars would be classified as religious wars, what’s significant is not just the percentage- only 10%,  but that the question was asked. For those who are interested, it was the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University and they examined 73 major wars since ancient times, (finding 60% had no religious component, and 30% only a modest religious component).

Unfortunately, the pictures we see on the screen today give a different perspective with religion starring as the source of so many of the world’s problems. I think that’s what’s motivates people to ask me: How can you be religious – don’t you care about how much suffering religion causes.

It’s probably easier for those who are a little older to think of all the positive contributions religion has made. Religion got good press for example during World War II. Think of the story of the four chaplains of the ship the Dorchester, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic and Jew. These men joined together to give their up their life preservers in order to save the lives of other soldiers as their ship went down.  Those who came of age in the 1960’s and 70’s remember the photos of religious leaders of many faiths standing together leading the civil rights and peace movements. This isn’t the case for those who came of age later. There aren’t a lot of positive pictures of religion today. Personally I fear what the results of a poll among the under 35 year olds would be on the question of whether the world would be better off without religion.

Violence and hatred associated with religion are a big part of the problem. We often point fingers at Muslim Extremists and Christian Fundamentalists, but even religions that are considered more peace loving, like Buddhism, have been perpetrators of violence, as in Buddhist anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka. In addition to causing deaths and injuries, and leaving many as homeless refugees, religion is associated with ignorance and being anti-science and anti-culture. People think about extremism’s role in the destruction of world cultural treasures as in the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddha’s in Afghanistan, and to resistance to science, as in the killing of health workers fighting polio in Pakistan.

Lest you think I am just pointing fingers at others, we have had our own Jewish extremists, Baruch Goldstein, an American export to Israel, Yigal Amir who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yizchak Rabin and then this summer the shocking murder of a 16 year old Arab boy, Muhammed Ibn Khadeir whose aunt and uncle live up the street from our Temple. When the head of the Israeli Reform movement spoke to American rabbis just before the High Holidays, he identified religious racism as the greatest challenge to Israeli society today.

How then are we to rescue religion, to preserve its important capacity to contribute to individual lives and to society as a whole, and to keep it from being perverted by ethnic and political conflict.

This morning’s Torah reading, the Binding of Isaac, seems to leave us open to the accusation that religion is fanaticism. Interpreted as this story often is to teach that obedience to God must trump ethical considerations, it seems to open the door to killing for the sake of our faith.

As I introduced the story of the Binding of Isaac this morning, I pointed out that this story has been understood in many ways over the centuries.  While seeing this as a story about faith is the dominant Christian interpretation, there is more variety in Jewish understandings. The high point of our story is Isaac’s survival. It’s the moment when God calls out a second time, telling Abraham to hold back the knife and not wound his son. Ironically, this key moment seems to fade from sight as many see the binding of Isaac as a prefiguration of martyrdom.

In our present circumstances focusing on God’s rejection of human sacrifice is an important antidote to those who want to use religion to promote violence and hatred.  In this way people can see another side to religion, restoring religion’s reputation and making it available again for those seeking peace, inspiration and guidance.

For the rabbis of the Talmud, religion’s reputation was God’s reputation and we are God’s pr team. Our behavior can enhance other people’s perception of the Torah and thus of God who gave it, or diminish it. Our Shabbat prayer book, MIshkan Tefillah, points this out in a commentary on the V’ahavatah taken from the Talmud.

Abaye said: If you yourself study and help others to do so, if your business activities are decent and trustworthy, what will people say.” Have you seen the behavior of one who studies Torah? How beautiful. What a fine person”. Thus Isaiah taught, “You are My servant Israel. I will be glorified through you.”

The glorification of God through ethical behavior is called Kiddush Hasehm, the sanctification of God’s name. It is one of the most significant concepts in Judaism. When Amos criticizes the people for abusing the poor, he casts this sin as a failure to uphold God’s holiness. Failing to uphold the Holiness of God is the sin for which Moses and Aaron are forbidden to enter the Promised Land. It is what makes stealing from someone who isn’t Jewish, a worse sin than stealing from one’s fellow Jew, as it reflects on people’s perception of what Judaism teaches.

In the dark days of the Roman persecutions and again during the Crusades, this term, Kiddush Hashem was reinterpreted as martyrdom, but its original meaning stressed that it was our behavior, our actions, especially in everyday life, which brought honor, respect and glory to God or their opposite.  This is our mitzvah, our opportunity to add to the holiness of the world.

In order to bring honor back to piety, liberal religionists of all faiths need to reclaim the name of religion. By proponents of liberal religion, I do not mean politically liberal, but liberal in allowing for pluralism, for there being more than one path up the mountain. And to do that we Liberal Jews, Liberal Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists need to become much more serious about our religion. As long as we think and act as if those other guys are the real thing and we are religion lite- we will never wrest religion from those who pervert it and we will continue to allow the desecration of God’s name.

When atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens attack religion, they chose its most fundamentalist expressions and dismiss liberal religion as inconsequential. But many people, who do not consider themselves religious, even avowed atheists like Sam Harris in his most recent book, are looking for some of the things that religion offers. They are seeking, as many of us are, feelings of transcendence; feelings of peace that come when our thoughts are silenced and we are at one with the world. Many people are looking for enduring values that can guide them in the complexities of work and family and living with other people, for ways of dealing with loss and pain that are based on the wisdom of centuries and not on passing fads. With all our new aps, watches and glasses, the human challenges of our lives remain. The good that is possible through religion is real and precious.

Let us dedicate ourselves this year to Kiddush HaShem, to sanctifying God’s name through our behavior, and to wresting the term religion from those who have perverted its meaning. Let us be Reform Jews who are serious about our religion, who value its universalism, its tradition of involvement in the needs of the community, and its openness to truth wherever it is found.

What is the face of religion?

Why must it be the angry face of a zealot hurling hatred?  The face of religion is the kind visit, the gift of food, to someone who is ill. The face of religion is millions of people around the world doing amazing charitable work for those outside their immediate circle motivated by their religious faith.

Why must the face of religion be the haters from Westboro Church? The face of religion is our open Succah welcoming our GLBTQ members, families and friends. The face of religion is the face of the parents bereaved by acts of violence who dedicate their lives to promoting understanding and preventing violence.

What is the face of religion?

The face of religion is your face, when you are motivated by your highest truths and aspirations.

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