October, 2015, #2, "Sacred Envy"

on Monday, 12 October 2015. Posted in Rabbi's Message

Shabbat Sermon
October 9, 2015


Some of you know that I am a fan of the “God Squad” column that appears in the Kenosha News and in many other newspapers. Aside from the great sense of humor that Rabbi Gellman displays in most columns, I like the gentle interfaith message and accessible teaching of religion in the syndicated advice column. “God Squad” was originally co-written by Rabbi Marc Gellman and his priest friend, Monsignor Thomas Hartman. Unfortunately, the Monsignor was stricken with Parkinson’s disease and Rabbi Gellman had to continue the column without him. But, it is still a column in which people of any faith can send in a religious or theological question, and receive an answer. Last week’s column was inspired by the Pope’s visit, and highlighted the importance of interfaith dialogue and friendship. Gellman wrote: “interfaith dialogue is about learning that there are many paths up the same mountain….” In other words, we have much to learn from others whose faith is different than our own, and even though we may take different paths, we are all seeking the same truth.

For some, this is a difficult concept. What would we have to learn from someone whose faith is different than ours—except something with which we do not agree or has no relevance to us? Many people think that the way they were taught is the “right” way, and that there is really no point in knowing what others believe, except to, perhaps, pump up their confidence that they are right and others are wrong or to convince the others that they are misguided. In this view, it is best to avoid a discussion of religion and beliefs with most people because, once you go down that road, you are asking for trouble.

Obviously Rabbi Gellman is presenting a very different view here and it is one that he lived out in his life by starting his shared column with the priest. And I believe that most liberal-thinking people of many faiths embrace the view of “many paths up the same mountain.” But, the actual practice of true, interfaith dialogue is entered into by few. This year in Kenosha we will have a marvelous opportunity to enter into real and meaningful religious dialogue during an entire weekend devoted to that topic. In mid March, Beth Hillel will be the site of one of these events, and I hope that our members will attend not only that special Shabbat evening, but the entire weekend of activities.

A well-known Christian theologian coined the term “sacred envy” when speaking about the importance of interfaith understanding. Bishop Krister Stendahl, who taught at Harvard Divinty school, used this term to describe “being rooted in one spiritual place… while… realizing the sacred gifts that are more deeply held…in others.” He said that “sacred envy” “allows us to learn from others without becoming them….” (Brad Hirschfield in Sh’ma, May 10, 1996)

“To learn from others without becoming them:” That says it all. It is this idea that has inspired and group of faith leaders in Kenosha to work together over the past year to bring an outstanding Jewish-Christian scholar of international stature to our community. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a faithful Jew who is an expert in New Testament, and a professor at Vanderbilt University, will speak at Beth Hillel and also at Carthage College, First United Methodist Church, and Holy Rosary Catholic parish on the weekend of Mar 10-13.

You may ask yourself why would the rabbi be sharing this information so many months in advance? Or you may wonder: “What exactly can I learn from a faith different than my own?” To answer both of these questions, I would like to flesh out Bishop Stendhal’s idea of “sacred envy,” of “being rooted in one place while realizing the sacred gifts that are more deeply held in others.”

You will never find a greater proponent than me for the idea that Judaism is a complete religion with richness and depth and an ability to give comfort and inspire that is rivaled by none. I am, in Stendahl’s words, “rooted in one place.” How could I do the work I do each day if I were not? My life is devoted to teaching others that Judaism is a fulfilling and meaningful system for living that will make its adherents’ lives better and fuller. Not only am I rooted in Judaism, but my career and calling is to inspire all of you to be rooted in Judaism as well. And, of course, proponents of every religion feel the same about their own faiths. The interfaith endeavor thrives on the acceptance of the principle that we are all happily “rooted in our own places.”

At Beth Hillel we often play host to Christian groups who want to see what Jewish worship is like. We are proud to share our traditions with them and feel gratified when they love our prayer book, when they “ooh” and “ah” over seeing the Torah up close or marvel that we pray in Hebrew. Many of us invite non-Jewish guests to our Seders because we want to share what is beautiful and thought-provoking about our story and culture. It is easy for us to herald the interfaith endeavor when it is about others appreciating us. I am not sure, however, that we are so welcoming of the experience when it goes the other way. We do offer a class on understanding other religions in the teen Midrasha program of our school. But, as adults, we do not go out on Sunday mornings to see how Christians pray, giving ourselves a chance to “ooh” and “ah” over their communion customs and enjoy their hymns. Speaking from experience from an earlier period at Beth Hillel when we had an pulpit exchange with the AME church, Coleman Chapel, I am willing to bet that few of our members are interested in such an excursion. But I would be happy to be proven wrong.

We are all rooted in and fed and strengthened by our own faiths, and that is how it should be, but we can still admire and learn from and even be inspired by others’ faiths. This is, of course, the second half of that statement by Bishop Stendahl: The part where we “realize the sacred gifts that are more deeply held in others.”

When we did have that pulpit exchange with Coleman Chapel, I know I can speak for the few of us who did attend-- that we were “wowed” by the rocking church choir and organ music that filled the space and got people in the pews moving and shaking. I loved the fact that when I delivered the sermon, the congregation actually responded at regular intervals to what I was saying—not just politely nodding their heads like I see here, but shouting out “you tell ‘em Rabbi” and things like that. (I had to warn the pastor when he spoke here that no one was going to respond to his sermon, but they were still listening!) We were totally impressed with how members of the congregation got up an offered their own spontaneous prayers in front of others. By the way, this opportunity to give a spontaneous prayer happens all the time at interfaith meetings, and I am learning, but, let me tell you, the Christians at the table, even the lay people, are much more skilled at this than I am, after my many years of trying. We are used to a book telling us what words to pray, so dredging them up from inside ourselves is a skill few of us have developed.

These are examples of, in Stendahls’ words, the “sacred gifts of others,” that we can admire and emulate even while being rooted in our own place. But, we cannot do so if we never leave our place and venture into another.

We learn not only from others’ worship style, but also from others’ theology. Some of you know that I gave a High Holy Day sermon this year based on the words of a Christian hymn, Amazing Grace, and even borrowed the tune to give new life to the prayer Avinu Malkeynu from our mahzor. I also raised up the theological term “grace” that is widely used in Christian parlance, but not so much in Jewish prayer and discussion, and explained that grace is an idea that we Jews have as well, although its theological shading is somewhat different in Judaism and Christianity. (If you want to know more about what I said, you can go to the Beth Hillel website where that sermon and the others from the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are posted.) This is just one example of how, through interfaith dialogue, we can realize “the sacred gifts that are more deeply held in others.”

I find that Jews are often dismissive of other religion’s ways of looking at life’s big questions, just as much, if not more so, than people of other faiths. We may not want to convert others to our way of thinking, but many of us do not think that the other faiths have anything that is worth considering. This is a very narrow and closed-minded point of view. We hold this view because we have not really explored what others have to offer. Learning from a highly sought-after, world-class scholar, Amy–Jill Levine, who is coming to Kenosha in March, will be an opportunity to begin such an exploration. Why would a committed Jew become a New Testament scholar, devoting her entire academic career to educating Jews and non-Jews about what they can learn from each other? Because she believes in Stendahl’s principle. Over 4 days in March, moving from Lutheran Carthage College on Thursday to Beth Hillel on Friday for Shabbat to Holy Rosary Catholic parish after Mass on Saturday night, to First United Methodist on Sunday morning, Dr. Levine will speak on the following topics:

“Mistakes Jews and Christians Make about Each Other”
“Jesus and Judaism: Why the Connection Matters” (this is the one at BHT)
“The Parables of Jesus as Jewish Stories”
“How Jews and Christians Read Scripture Differently”

I hope these topics peak your curiosity enough to come not only on Friday night to Beth Hillel, but to one or more of the other events. All of the programs and the services at the congregations will be open to the public.

In an interview with Rabbi Gellman of “God Squad” fame, Gellman spoke of his work with Monsignor Hartman. He said: “When we were together, we were like a band. He had his own music and I had my own music, but there was something about the way we played together that was better than his music and my music alone.” I think this could be said about what all people can do together when they open themselves up to the interfaith experience.

Gellman also said in that interview:

“Tom and I were very aware there was no way we were ever going to agree on Jesus and so we didn’t talk a lot about Jesus. What we realized is that our ethical orientation to the world was the same and that the world was broken and in need. If people who are engaged in interfaith dialogue need to focus on their ideological differences rather than their ethical similarities, they are betraying the promise of interfaith dialogue.” (Palm Beach Daily News Jan 13, 2013)

My feeling is that we have to talk about Jesus in interfaith dialogue, and that we can learn a great deal from the stories Christians tell about Jesus that inspire them and by listening to how their belief in Jesus as the Christ feed them. By listening to Dr. Levine in March, we will even find that many of Jesus’ stories are really, in essence, Jewish stories, akin to midrash.

But, I think I know what Gellman was saying: As friends, Marc and Tommy did not have to talk about Jesus because they knew they disagreed, and that was okay. The rest of what Gellman said in that last quotation is very important—that as people of differing faiths, there are many more areas in which we agree than disagree, and there is much we can do together, when we come together in true dialogue.

I invite you to join me in this interfaith dialogue endeavor, in which I have been blessed to be immersed for over 30 years. You can begin by setting aside the weekend of March 10-13 to learn from Dr. AJ Levine. It will be a way to begin experiencing what Bishop Stendahl called “sacred envy,” a very positive kind of envy--which we should all cultivate. I hope to see you there.

May FOOD OF THE MONTH: canned or dried beans

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