Welcome to INTERFAITH REFLECTIONS. As a partner in Interfaith Solidarity Network, you are warmly invited to join in this interfaith dialogue. Whether you’re a member of the clergy or a lay member of a congregation, please send your Interfaith Reflections submission (of any length) to Andy Carmichael, Communications Chair at ISN.
A reflection from Rabbi Jim Kaufman, Emeritus Rabbi, Temple Beth Hillel, ISN Board Member and Chair of the ISN Program Committee
ISRAEL: Prayers Contend Rather Than Blend
Millions daily turn eastward to Jerusalem. Jews to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Christians to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Muslims to the Dome of the Rock. And the prayers blend peacefully in the easterly winds.
Israel, is a very sensitive and complex interfaith topic under normal circumstances. When tensions devolve to war and death, interfaith dialogue practically ceases and our prayers contend rather than blend.
Though the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” (surely an understatement) is a geo-political struggle between Palestinians and Israelis, adherents of Islam, Judaism and Christianity are swept into the “conflict” because of the importance of Israel in their respective faith constructs.
If only Israel, after its establishment 73 years ago could embody the vision of 19th Century thinker Ahad Haam. He did not see every Jew moving to Israel but wrote of an Israel as a generator of such spiritual force that its existence had a worldwide impact. He knew as well that with the reality of Muslim and Christian holy sites, Israel could be a spiritual center for much of the world’s faith community, a cultural center whose spiritual energies emanated outward from it to the world, from Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy places there, to Jews, Christians and Muslims living in everywhere.
There are 2.3 billion Christians, 2 billion Muslims, and 13 million Jews in the world, constituting almost 55% of the world’s religious population. For Christians and Muslims it is not a “homeland” but an historical and spiritual center. For Jews it is a very necessary “homeland”, given the history of anti-Semitism.
So, yes it is by necessity a Jewish state but take a look at this excerpt from its Declaration of Independence declared May 14, 1948, 73 years ago:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
America, born in 1776, took 13 years to finally adopt a Constitution and Bill of Rights in 1789 that established the governmental apparatus to eventually achieve equality of its citizenry.
However, at age 73, Israel still has yet to ratify a “Constitution” that would create the path to fulfilling the vision of the 1948 Declaration, and ultimately the Biblical vision of Ahad Haam: Israel as a positive spiritual force throughout the world.
“And Israel shall be a light unto the nations.” (Isaiah 49:6)
Though a Constitution of the State of Israel has been on the “back burner” since 1948, Israel has yet to adopt it. Thus what guides the country is not a nationally agreed upon set of laws and values but what the Knesset (the governing body of Israel) votes on any given day. (Unless the judicial system rules it illegal) Bottom line: there is no “Israeli Bill of Rights”, no set of equally applied civil rights to all who live there. Surely the 20% of its citizens who are not Jewish and the millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories are most times living lives minimally as “second class citizens”, and oftimes suffocatingly oppressed and tyrannized.
Am I a supporter of a “two state solution” to the “conflict”? Indeed. But even when (and I do believe “when” and not “if”) a secure and independent Israel and a secure and independent Palestine become a reality, Israel still must grow to be more than a technological wonder state, it must be a positive spiritual locus for 55% of the world. Only Israel, not Palestine, can be a potent spiritual symbol for all three religions.
As a Rabbi for almost 50 years, I have delivered countless sermons imploring American Jews to support Israel while at the same time imploring Israel to affect the vision of Ahad Haam.
At this writing (May 18, 2021) Israel is a source of fear and pain for the Israelis and the Palestinians who live there. For us here, Jew, Christian, and Muslim, Israel’s spiritual role in our lives is diminished as we mourn the loss of life and in the throes of this chaotic darkness, lose sight of an Israel that can be a symbol of spiritual diversity living in unity and peace.
We are geographically dislocated from Israel, physically thousands of miles away, yet spiritually so close in mind and heart. (A prayer book text comes to mind: “God, Thou art as close to us as breathing and yet art farther than the farthermost star.”) Our prayers ascend from California, yet drift in one direction, Jerusalem, eastward: Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Dome of the Rock.
May we be a source of light and hope for every Israeli and Palestinian as we unite in solidarity to pray for peace and dignity, an Israel that with our faith and support can truly become a “light unto all the nations”.
And may each of us, during our own prayers, summon a compassionate “listening ear” for the prayers of our neighbors.
Here is a reflection from Jane Nichol who attends Temple Judea, and is an ISN Eco Justice Committee Member. This was Jane’s contribution to our April 25 ‘Sacred Ground’ event.
I’m going to share a few thoughts based on the Earth Justice Haggadah from our Passover celebration in April.
Passover reminds us of the profound truth that there is nothing more essential to life than to live in harmony with the land.
We can’t afford to pray and hope alone, of course; we need to work, diligently, to make the world just a little more ready for redemption, for sustainability.
Let us declare all we’ve done so far dayenu, enough for us. And for all that must yet be done, together, let us say “od LO dayenu, it’s not yet enough.”
Let us dream of that far-off mythic day when we are “done” with the work of Creation care:
- when the climate is stabilized
- pollution is ended
- environmental justice is established
- our sacred ground is restored, and
- everyone has become a shomer Adamah, guardian of the Earth.
Today, let us celebrate the work we’ve done so far in that direction, and declare it “good,” and “done.”
Tomorrow, let’s pick up where all previous efforts have left off, and bring our world one more small step towards redemption. Together.
Thoughts on January 6, 2021
By The Rt. Rev. John Harvey Taylor
VII Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles
We have all been shocked and saddened by scenes in Washington DC today. Armed insurrectionists, in an attempt to overturn the results of a free and fair election, stormed the US Capitol Building. We pray for them because they believed in the lies they were told by the President of the United States. Their actions threaten the very pillars of our democracy, as well as the safety of those who work inside the Capitol and those who work and live in the surrounding area.
Let us recognize that we are in a valley of moral injury, and pray for the President and others who inflict this upon our nation. Moral injury is defined as a betrayal of what is right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high stakes environment. We pray that we may be saved from this time of trial.
We of Interfaith Solidarity Network invoke scripture to speak truth and pray for a reordering of our nation in nonviolence, peace, justice and mercy.
. . . if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
2 Chronicles 7:14 (NIV)
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that we may stand against the wiles of evil in our midst. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness…stand firm in truth and righteousness. As shoes put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
Ephesians 6: 10-15
Now there has come to you from God a light and a clear divine writ, through
which God guides all who seek his goodly acceptance of paths of peace . . .
A Prayer for this Evening
God of mercy and peace, source of all light and love: Calm every troubled heart in our country as a polarized people grapples with our divisions, resentments, and fears. By your grace, may the conflict in Washington come to a peaceful end. May the lawful work of the United States Congress and the United States Government resume so that the interests and will of the people are respected, with truth and justice for all. Amen.
Good Friday: End the Death Penalty
By Daniel Tamm, ISN Board Chair
Let us on this Good Friday call attention to the urgency of ending racist, arbitrary, and immoral state-sanctioned killing. Let the word go out to the Biden-Harris administration to honor their commitment and bring an end to the federal death penalty.
Today we recall the state-sanctioned killing of Jesus Christ. In the trial narrative in the Gospel of John (17:1-16), it is Pilate’s very human behavior and political instincts that we are focused on. He knows he’s got nothing. After continually trying to release Jesus in the face of strenuous objections by the chief priests and police, it is political self-interest that Pilate finally responds to. He cannot allow negative news to reach Rome that might suggest that he’s appeasing a colonized troublemaker who may be setting himself up against the emperor, as ridiculous as that is in reality.
In a more recent context, how do we account for the acceleration in federal executions by the Trump administration in July 2020 if not political self- interest? He seizes an opportunity to demonstrate dominance, a perception of strength leading up to Election Day. It fits his profile.
Here is the list of federal executions that resumed in July 2020:
July 14, Daniel Lewis Lee
July 16, Wesley Ira Purkey
July 17, Dustin Lee Honken
August 26, Lezmond Charles Mitchell
August 28, Keith Dwayne Nelson
September 22, William Emmett LeCroy Jr.
September 24, Christopher Andre Vialva
November 19, Orlando Cordia Hall
December 10, Brandon Bernard
December 11, Alfred Bourgeois
January 13, Lisa Montgomery
January 14, Cory Johnson
January 15, Dustin John Higgs
These government killings represent more federal executions in the final months of the president’s term than in the previous 67 years combined. What heightens the cruelty of this extreme violence is that nearly half of them were carried out after Joe Biden, who professes opposition to the death penalty, won the November election.
Our country is still a long way from recovering from this kind of moral injury inflicted on us over the past four years. Our deep collective soul wound will need long time healing.
Support for death as punishment has been steadily losing ground.
In 1967, Lenny Bruce famously said, “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”
Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People
Today, more and more, people have begun to accept that fundamental values and rule of law do not require that we kill people to punish them. There is no scientific evidence that supports its effectiveness. Wrongful convictions occur. According to Death Penalty Information Center, for every 8.3 people executed in the United States in the modern era of the death penalty, one person on death row has been exonerated.
Flaws exist in any system. Sometimes law enforcement overreaches. Sometimes prosecutors overreach. Sometimes jurors are dishonest, evidence is unstable, the quality of counsel varies and issues are missed or never raised.
If we look deeper into the historical context, we find a direct connection to slavery. Prosecutors overwhelmingly choose to pursue the death penalty in cases involving white people if a Black man is accused, especially if the case involves a white female.
In late 2019, a national Gallup Poll found only 36% of Americans supported death when the choice of life without parole was offered.
Outspoken leaders are changing the laws. On March 24, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia, signed legislation to abolish the death penalty in that state. He is quoted as saying, “There is no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the South, or in this nation…Signing this new law is the right thing to do,” Northam said. “It is the moral thing to do.”
Attending the ceremony, Mike Mullin, a criminal prosecutor and sponsor of the abolition legislation, made this point, “We’ve carried out the death penalty in extraordinarily unfair fashion,” he said. “Only four times out of nearly 1400 [executions] was the defendant white and the victim Black.” Rev. LaKeisha Cook, justice reform organizer for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, added “Today, we start a new chapter, embracing the possibility of a new, evidence-based approach to public safety: one that values the dignity of all human beings and is focused on transforming the justice system into one that is rooted in fairness, accountability, and redemption.”
And Robert Dunham, Executive Director of Death Penalty Information Center, noted, “The symbolic value of a legislature sitting in the former capital of the Confederacy dismantling this tool of racial oppression cannot be overstated.” Virginia is the 11th state in 16 years to abolish the death penalty.
Sister Helen Prejean, in a recent article in The Nation entitled “President Biden is Our Chance to End the Death Penalty” (02/08/21) found that a guideline for government killing that the Supreme Court set forth in 1976 in the Gregg v. Georgia decision when it reinstituted the death penalty is flawed. A provision of the decision is that it only be imposed on “the worst of the worst.” Sr. Helen reacted to the vagueness of that criterion in light of equal protection under the law. She writes that “over the last 45 years a profile of the ‘worst of the worst’ has clearly emerged: poor people who cannot afford an attorney to defend them; people who are mentally ill; those who were broken by neglect, abuse, and violence in their childhood; and the most glaring, pervasive characteristic of all, those who killed white people.”
Legislation has been introduced by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) that would end capital punishment at the federal level and require the resentencing of all federal inmates on death row. Let us pray together in collective action and advocate to end this deeply flawed punishment once and for all.
Good Friday, April 2, 2021
This Interfaith Reflection comes from Rabbi Jim Kaufman, Emeritus Rabbi, Temple Beth Hillel and ISN Board member.
BUS BENCH BROADSIDE
(BROADSIDE definition: a strongly worded comment”)
Surely you have seen the pictured bus bench around the San Fernando Valley? You perhaps wondered: What is that scribbling? What does it mean? It is Hebrew. From the Torah, the first five books of Hebrew Scriptures. You’ll find it in the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, and verse 18. Translation: “…and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha”)
These words have been on scores of bus benches long before the pandemic, so the original intent of the “advertiser” (whose identity I do not know) was not to target the American who considers Covid 19 a hoax and therefore warrants no protective response. This message must have originally been intended to address the heightened disrespect for different political leanings and the resulting dysfunction that it prompted in the macro, our governmental process, and in the micro, in our filial ties and circle of friends. The political rancor that permeates American life is so toxic; it has driven one person to purchase advertising space on bus benches imploring people to “love your neighbor as you love yourself”. Implying of course that in the realm of “self-love” we do come to accept those aspects of ourselves that we do not like or do not understand. And if we can accept them for ourselves, we should surely do so for others.
But then Covid 19 strikes and this “bus bench broadside” makes the demand for love, or at least tolerance, of others more imperative, even life saving.
But let’s look for a moment at Leviticus 19:18 and notice a few things:
In Hebrew, it is in “command” form. Hardly a suggestion: “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself!”
But can we command “love”?
The answer lies in the detail surrounding Leviticus 19:18:
Lev. 19:1 “You shall be holy”- you shall live an ethical, moral life
Lev. 19:10 “. . . and when you harvest your vineyard, . . . you shall leave the fallen fruit for the poor and the stranger who are in need.”
Lev. 19:11 “. . . you shall not lie to one another”.
Lev. 19:12 “. . . you shall not oppress our neighbor”.
Lev. 19:15 “You shall not favor the poor or the rich, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”
Lev. 19:16 “You shall not gossip, spread false tales . . .”
Lev. 19: 18 “You shall not bear a grudge nor wreak vengeance upon your neighbor, but you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
No, you can’t “command” love but you can create that love with specific legislation that will lead to “love”. And that is what Leviticus 19 seeks to do. Personal and communal holiness is achieved when a set of behaviors as elucidated in this famous Biblical chapter (called “The Holiness Code”) is achieved. The path to “true love” is ethical behavior.
Imagine if everyone just adhered as best as humanly possible to the above commands, if would indeed obviate the necessity for commanding “love”. If you execute successfully on Leviticus 19, verses 1 through 17, you’ll achieve Leviticus 19:18. In these Covid times, Leviticus 19:18 and all of the injunctions surrounding it demand that we do NOT say:
“I am more “essential” than my neighbor”.
“I must be moved ahead of my neighbor in the “vaccine” queue”.
“I don’t need to wear a mask, its silly, its inconvenient, and its uncomfortable”.
“I know many have died, but not in my family and I still believe this is a hoax”
Leviticus 19 – all of it – simply reminds us that my life is equal to the life of another and my behavior, to be ethical (holy) must facilitate the “common good”. That’s why the injunction to “love your neighbor” is preceded by a set of commands that will create the matrix for love. Leviticus 19 in its totality, commands “circumspection”, underpinning the belief that your life is just as essential as mine. Contemplate your behavior before you act. Is it only for your own good or is it for the “common good” as well?
And so our “Bus Bench Broadside” is commanding some circumspection at this historic introspective period in American life. Yes, wear a mask, social distance and shelter whenever possible . . . all for yourself and for the common good. And yes, before you get in line for a shot, consider whether someone else is either equally in need or even more in need than you.
So I am offering this rewrite of Leviticus 19:18:
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself” – even if it requires some self-sacrifice.
Much to learn from a bus bench.