Monday, November 22, 2010

Interfaith Thanksgiving speech

Interfaith Thanksgiving Speech

It is so wonderful that all of us are here to join together at this annual interfaith prayer service. Bringing together so many diverse elements of the Niles Township religious community. It’s fantastic that people who normally don’t pray together, meet together to share a commonality as Americans and give thanks for all the blessings of our lives and of being in this great country. We in Skokie live in a community with dozens of diverse cultures, religions, languages. We come together this one night a year to express faith and hope in mutual tolerance and respect.
There are two very recent books by American scholars of religion which have valuable meaasages for us to ponder. First a book byStephen Prothero a specialist in erican religions at Boston U called God is Not one, the 8 rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter: he wrote about the eight major religions of the world, and the basic thesis of the book is that there is no unifying principle among them. There are very distinct differences in theologies, doctrines, beliefs and practices. Is this true? Is there nothing we have in common spiritually? So why have this service at all? So what is it that brings us together? Point one.

There’s an old joke about a Jewish University that wanted to have some kind of nationally competitive sport and they decided that since they didn’t have a great athletic program, the quickest way to national prominence would be a rowing team. So they bought a boat, they had tryouts, they hired a coach and the president of the university said that he wanted the team to compete against Harvard and Oxford in two weeks. And the coach was incredulous and he said, “They’ve been rowing for hundreds of years and are the best in the world. There’s no way we can compete.” The president said, “I want you to do it.” So he arranges a match, they get in the water, they start rowing and by the end of the race Harvard and Oxford were out of site, so far ahead. So the coach went to the president and said, “I told you it was going to be a failure”, and the president said, “Well did you learn anything?” The coach said, “Yes. I noticed that in their boats they were all rowing in the same direction and they had one person shouting instructions and everyone else listening. A very different situation from our boat.” Well, the question is, as Prof Prothero points out , if there is not one voice shouting directions that we listen to,
can we all row in the same direction?

Maybe it’s true that there are so many different doctrines and beliefs and practices among religions, but is there something that we all share?

There one teaching or one phrase that stands out as the essential idea that the universe wants us to ponder. It is as if the force of the universe broadcast a single soundbite, a slogan that can fit on a bumper sticker- That is why we selected the theme today; love thy neighbor as thy self. Because as you can see from the reading that we did, all across the earth, from east to west and north to south, over the span of a couple thousand years of recorded human history, sacred texts of many different religions teach the same basic principle. A variation of the words from Leviticus, love thy neighbor as thy self. Or, another way to manifest it is that what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, all the rest is commentary go and study. This idea seems like a bumper sticker broadcast by the eternal force of the universe to every culture. Can you imagine a world in which people really loved their neighbor as their self? I know people often respond and say, “Well that’s easy to say, but you don’t know my neighbor.” But if we really conduct ourselves in such a way that what we hated personally we didn’t do to anyone else and that we loved others as we loved ourselves, so much about what we dream about a better world, a world in which there is no war and there is peace and tranquility, in which a wolf can really lie down with a lamb in a metaphorical sense, in which anyone can sit under their own fig tree and no one can make them afraid, as the prophets of old said, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. And so as we gather in this one room today, in this one moment in history, let us each try to take these words to heart. To love our neighbor as our self. And to practice and act on it this coming year.

The Hebrew bible, a text precious to Western civilization, begins at the beginning with the creation and the story of one Adam. Whether or not you take that story literally, some do and some don’t, one of the teachings of that idea is that if there is only one person to start with, even if it is a myth and I don’t believe it’s a myth, it’s to teach us that we all have the same father so no one can say I’m better than you. As reflected in the following poem by Abraham, Joshua Heschel

We are companions of all who revere God.
We rejoice when the divine name is praised.

No religion is an island;
we share the kinship of humanity,
the capacity for compassion

God’s spirit rests upon all, Jew or Gentile,
man or woman, in consonance with their deeds.

The creation of one Adam promotes peace.
No one can claim: My ancestry is nobler than yours.

We are diverse in our devotion and commitment.
We must unite in working now for the sovereignty of God.

God is near to all who call upon Him in truth.
There can be disagreement without disrespect.

Let mutual concern replace remnants of mutual contempt,
as we share the precarious position of being human.

The hand of God is extended to all who seek Him.
Let our deeds reflect that we share the image of God.

Let those who revere the Eternal speak to one another,
leading everyone to acknowledge the splendor of God.

-adapted from Abraham Joshua Heschel

Book number 2 is by Robert D. Putnam, one of those Harvard University professors respected for his scholarly research and celebrated for the masterful way he connects it to the narrative of modern life. When he wrote that Americans were “bowling alone” — and therefore no longer building up “social capital,” the trust, informal networks and energetic communities necessary for a healthy, engaged democracy — his indictment of civic life in a book with that catchy title drew the attention of White House policymakers and influenced a generation of political scientists.
His New book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” Crunching decades of data, Putnam and co-author David E. Campbell went searching for the roots of interfaith tolerance and found that even though religious practice in America trends toward polarization, it is tempered by an acceptance based on familiarity. Knowing someone of another faith — and increasingly, Americans do — makes us more tolerant of those who hold that faith.
These trends include fluidity, as roughly one-third of Americans have switched religions at some point in their lives; intermarriage, as up to half of all American marriages are between people of different faiths; polarization, as Americans are concentrating on either end of the religious spectrum — highly devout or avowedly secular — and the moderate religious middle is shrinking. And yet, almost paradoxically, Putnam and Campbell found in their research a high degree of tolerance for people of another faith, and for those who have no faith at all.
Why? The authors argue that the answer is what they call the Aunt Susan Principle: “We all have an Aunt Susan in our lives, the sort of person who epitomizes what it means to be a saint, but whose religious background is different from our own…. [Y]ou know that Aunt Susan is destined for heaven. And if she is going to heaven, what does that say about other people who share her religion or lack of religion? Maybe they can go to heaven too.”
This service began 40 years ago, the community coming together to respond to a proposed march in Skokie by Nazi supporters. 40 years, later , not having achieved a spiritual promised land here, we keep working towards it
I’ll conclude with a short story about what we in ancient times believed to be the holiest experience in history. That on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest place on earth which was the temple mount on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, the holiest Jew, the high priest went into the holiest of holies and uttered the holiest word there was, the ineffable name of God. Now we don’t know exactly where that spot was. We no longer have high priests. We don’t know how to pronounce that name of God. And so, all we can do is try and aspire to act as if every day is Yom Kippur, every word we utter be that name of God, every step we take be a step towards the holy of holies and everyone act as though we are an emissary of God, because we are. To love our neighbors as ourselves.

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