I have been blessed to be involved in a number of opportunities for interfaith dialogue over the past several months. In a variety of settings, laypeople and clergy from a number of different religious traditions have discussed matters ranging from marriage equality to the epidemic of violence in Seattle to homelessness and poverty. Invariably, at some point in these discussions, a facilitator has asked the question, “What brings you to the table?” The question represents an attempt to explore what brings a person of faith to want to spend time and energy on such issues.
As I consider the responses I’ve heard at these various gatherings, they are frequently variations on a similar theme.
“I am here,” the participants say, “because my faith exhorts me to perform acts of social justice, because my scriptural tradition teaches that I must reach out to correct societal inequalities and assist the less fortunate and underprivileged in our community, because my religion abides by a golden rule that inspires my actions.”
The Golden Rule. An ancient construct, it is nearly as old as civilization itself. Early Chinese, Greek, and Roman writings all record versions of this precept, and every modern mainstream religious tradition has its own iteration. We all may have variant concepts of how to apply this ideal to our daily interactions with others, but at the end of the day, there would seem to be consensus about our human responsibility to act justly.
This being the case, the question then arises: Why does inequity persist in the world? Discounting for a moment the fact that Seattle is deemed one of the most “unchurched” regions of the country, statistics suggest that our nation overall has a high rate of religious affiliation. If so many of us are people of faith, and all of us agree that our faith tells us to perform acts of loving kindness — to do unto others as we would have others do unto us — why are we not living in a messianic age?
I don’t think the blame for this lies in the laps of those who are “secular” or not deeply immersed in their chosen faith. Rather, I think we have gotten away from having the tenets of our faith inform our daily behavior. Rich Stearns, CEO of the evangelical social-service organization World Vision, writes in his book “The Hole in Our Gospel” that many Christians have lost sight of the true intent of Jesus’ ministry: To advocate for a renewed focus on attending to the welfare of the downtrodden in our communities. As Jews, we take our cues from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, yet the message remains the same. Unless we can begin to make ethical decisions through the lens of our scriptural teachings, until we integrate the teachings of Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and their counterparts into our daily deliberations, we are not living to our highest potential. For the “Golden Rule” to have meaning in our lives, we must not merely pay it lip service.
Once again I find myself writing my guest article for the JTNews while serving on faculty at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Kalsman in Arlington. This week, more than 100 campers, in the midst of their typical camping activities, are engaging in shiurim in which they are discussing what it means to be a Jewish superhero. Together, campers, counselors, and staff are discovering that, in Judaism, heroics derive less from feats of strength or the ability to fly and more from the performance of middot and mitzvot that lead to tikkun olam. We hope they will return to their homes ready to perform simple acts that will work for the betterment of their communities.
The point is not to prescribe a list of required mitzvot and middot, or to suggest that one is more worthy than another because of the quality and/or quantity of commandments and traditions that he or she is able to fulfill. Rather, I think it’s about consciousness: The more these young people — and indeed, all of us — can pause in their lives and consider, “did I treat that person with as much respect as I should have?” “could I have assisted that person in any way?” the more we can build toward deliberately living our lives according to the Golden Rule.