As I looked up at the beautifully appointed sign posted on Denny Way in downtown Seattle, I could not help but think of the 1970 hit song — “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign/Do this, don’t do that. Can’t you read the sign!”
The sign I was responding to stated in big bold gothic letters a message that to me is not so beautiful, but I know speaks to many: “Imagine No Religion,” it read, put up by a group supposedly advocating the separation of church and state. Yet rather than promote a wall of separation, the billboard proffered yet another ad hominem attack on any form of religiosity.
Attacks on God and spirituality are indeed prevalent today. Many facilely attribute all the wrongs in the world from suicide bombing, and oppression of women, to internecine hatred and environmental degradation to religion. Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything, writes that religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry.” In response to such assertions, I, as a progressive religious person, at times want to put up my own billboard. Not one painted with a picture of the smiling Rabbis Singer and Wendy Marcus, encouraging everyone to come to Beth Am in that scary evangelical sort of way, but with the words,
“Imagine No Math and Physics.”
Using the same logic, one could conclude that those disciplines are the true evil because they led to the creation of the atomic bomb and such modern secular constructs as mutually assured destruction. Don’t worry — our rabbi’s discretionary fund will not be put to such use. But like math and physics, we need to understand that when embraced in the beautiful way in which they were originally intended to be followed, religion and spirituality can be amazingly positive forces in our lives.
Think of it. When I imagine no religion, I imagine no Moses at the burning bush finding the courage to be a liberator. I imagine no Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King sharing his dream with the world. I imagine no Chief Sealth teaching us about the holiness of nature; no Dalai Lama willing to challenge an oppressive godless society at great personal risk. I imagine no Mother Teresa giving herself to the poor of Calcutta and reminding all of us that we can do more to help those experiencing abject privation. I imagine no Averroes and the work he did in the Islamic world that saved Aristotle for the West, and without whom there would never have been a Maimonides.
So often the wrongs in the world, contemptuously laid at the altar of the world’s religions, are not the result of any particular God idea or system of spirituality, but are the direct result of the human lust for power and dominance that most religions attempt to curtail. Cloaking their true motives in the name of a religious ideal, some people act in hurtful and disgusting ways.
Extremists in any form, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, will take advantage wherever they can and we must oppose them just as we must oppose secular extremists who in the name of racial purity or economic revolution have caused in the modern age far greater destruction than the adherents of any religion. To abandon the beauty of religiosity because extremists have appropriated religious forms would be tantamount to blaming the victim.
In Seattle, part of what we are trying to do here at Beth Am, and I know is also true at many of our fellow synagogues, is to engage in a revival of a religious or spiritual Judaism that is serious, asking us to be connected to a covenant of commitment, of meaning, and of hope. It is a Judaism that is joyful, helping to feed our spirits and warm our hearts to life’s wonders; a Judaism that is intellectually vital, stimulating our minds and enabling our eyes to see even more clearly God’s beauty in the intricacy of creation; and a Judaism that intends to be supportive as we face significant life moments and demands action calling upon us to work as God’s partners to right the world’s wrongs and remove as much pain as we can from existence.
But I admit that such a path is ambitious and difficult. I worry that we misunderstand the significance of our own position as successors of generations of Jewish history who now have the blessing and the opportunity to help Jewish progressive religious life to flourish.
For example, let me share a story about a friend, Melvin Bert, whom everyone calls Yogi. As a founder and educational director of the Tibetan Vision Project, each year Yogi goes to that oppressed region to teach ophthalmological practices and to try to eliminate eye disease. Despite Chinese mistrust, Yogi and his team manage to walk their cart through various parts of the country, treating villagers along the way and then, at the Lhasa hospital, train local doctors in better practices.
“I must tell you what happened last year, Rabbi,” he said. “The lead local doctor asked me in the middle of a surgery if I was Jewish. Not knowing if he was a Chinese agent, I didn’t respond, but just said, ‘Let’s do our work.’ Throughout the week, he kept asking me, at different moments, if I was Jewish. Finally, I confronted him, and said, ‘Yes, I am Jewish. Why do you keep asking?’
“’Because,’ this Tibetan physician replied, ‘the only people who have come to help us from the outside have all been Jews. Can you tell me why?’”
The story is amazing, and yet so was Yogi’s response: He replied to the doctor that he was not sure why so many Jews had bothered to come volunteer in Tibet.
In my experience, Yogi’s response is not unique. When I talk to some in our community who are out doing work — important work like stopping global warming, saving the planet, aiding the homeless, or standing up for labor rights — they sometimes wonder why I link Judaism with their proclivity for social activism. I do so because I believe it is the good in this religious tradition that has laid the foundation for individual Jews’ commitment to social justice.
I believe it is no accident that we Jews are overrepresented among activists for social justice; that we often vote sociologically in a way that is not reflective of our economic standing; that despite our own fears about being accepted, we struggled for civil rights in the ’60s and now are deeply involved in working for gay, lesbian and transgender rights; opposing genocide in Darfur and are working to stop global warming and environmental degradation throughout the world.
I understand the religious foundation of this commitment to social justice — that it is fed by the spiritual vitality of the Jewish tradition — but do you? I love the phrase, “Im ein kemach, ein Torah” — with no flour there can be no Torah. But I believe it is also true, “Im ein Torah, ein tikkun olam” — without Torah, without prayer, without learning in Judaism, we will not have tikkun olam — repair of the world.
Why do we who are often at the forefront of the struggle to bring about tikkun olam fail to understand the importance of the spiritual well that feeds our desire to right the world’s wrongs? Our optimistic belief that the individual can make a difference flows from a religious connection to the idea of covenant in which we as Jews see ourselves as God’s partners in being able to affect the world. It is derived from Abraham arguing with God for Justice at Sodom and Gomorrah; from Moses, a broken individual heeding the call from his conscience to become a liberator of slaves; from Isaiah, who asks, “What is the sacrifice God demands — that you destroy the shackles of oppression, that you provide the homeless poor with a home, then when you call — when you are engaged in social justice — God will say ‘Hineni — here I am.’”
From this perspective I cannot imagine a world with no religion. In fact, such a vision frightens me — especially a world with no Judaism — a world where we practice an idolatry of the self, or worship the image in the mirror, or the material in our homes.
We need religion, and we need to understand that spirituality and study and action together form an organic, integrated structure in Judaism. Understand that when you help another you are being a religious Jew; when you pause and see the profound beauty around you, you are being Jewishly spiritual; when you question as you study, and struggle with ideas, you are following the example of the ancient rabbis who, as an essential part of Judaism, valued asking hard questions over finding easy answers. The spirituality we encourage in synagogue feeds the capacity to be active out there in the greater world. This is why Yogi, along with all those other Jews, go to Tibet, and why I hope your grandchildren as connected Jews will also do the work that needs to be done in their day — as God’s partners — carrying the Torah forward our imagination fueled by our encounter with the spiritual wonders that can so help us to renew not just our lives, but the life of this world.