Coming to Trinity, like coming to Westminster, is like coming home. The names on the program may change and the faces in the pews may be in different combinations, but the memory of the hospitality and friendship that found weekly expression for over a year will never disappear. It is always an honor and a privilege to be welcomed back, and a comfort to be among our community family.
Most of us think of family as a place to express affection and loyalty. Certainly, there is no more important quality to family than the love and support it gives to everyone member. At this time of year, we remind each other of the warm and fuzzy reassurance that comes with being part of a family. It is palpable, so much so that others who join us from other houses of worship feel as if they belong as well.
When a family is strongest, another important quality emerges – the ability to struggle with deeper questions of relationships, relationships both inside and outside the family itself. And that’s what I come here to do tonight. To struggle. To agonize over a question that has burbled inside me for ten weeks, barely revealing its shape, let alone its content.
I reached down inside and grabbed it before it could slink away. And when I looked into the eyes of my inner tormenter, I was taken aback by what I saw. I am a rabbi. I am by vocation and avocation a preacher and a teacher – it says so on my diploma. I am a religious guy, Judaism is my religion. And so when saw it, it shook me up.
The men who flew those four airplanes into buildings and grounds were in pursuit of a religious mandate. They turned their lives over to God, as they understood God. They lived the values and principles of their religion, as they understood those values and principles. There were religious guys. Maybe not by your standards and my standards, but judging themselves the way I judge myself, they were religious guys. They had a vision for the world. And we Americans did not fit that vision. In fact, we Americans were working against that vision. So we Americans had to be stopped, lest we continue to pollute their vision of the world. In their minds' eyes, the destination of history is a world living in submission to the will of Allah. The world will be redeemed when Allah reigns supreme and the infidels have been converted or eliminated.
Were they evil? By my standards, certainly. And my first reaction was that this world would not be redeemed until evil like theirs was...well, converted or eliminated.
I couldn’t fathom the notion that there was some moral equivalency between my attitude and the actions of the murderous terrorists. And I still reject the notion, even as I struggle. But it was clear to me that my vision of the new heaven and the new earth, the vision of Isaiah that has inspired Jew and Christian alike, needed some scrutiny.
Jewish liturgy is fixed and dependable. Certain prayers are included in every formal worship, and formal worship happens three times a day. The prayer that concludes each service is known as aleinu, which is the first word in two long paragraphs. The first paragraph celebrates the Jewish covenant with God and reminds us of our duty to acknowledge God’s sovereignty in our world. The second paragraph is a vision of the future, a time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth. It will be, according to the vision, a world without idolatry, a world in which the wicked will repent, a world perfected under God’s sovereignty, a world in which the assurance of the prophet Zechariah will be true: the Lord will be sovereign over all the earth; on that day, the Lord will be one and God’s name will be one.
I have always been taught – and always believed – that Zechariah’s vision was not of a world in which everyone became a Jew, but that people of all religions and nations would come to recognize the one true God as the only God, and call God the same thing.
There is a certain smugness that comes from such a vision. It means, I guess, that no more will people refer to Allah or to Jesus or to Krishna or to God, for that matter. Instead, the mysterious and sacred name that our ancestors knew will emerge as the one way in which the Lord is acknowledged. But inherent in that imagining is the notion that we Jews, custodians of that original name, will find out that we had it mostly right all along. The other Johnny-come-latelys will smack their foreheads and declare, “Oh, I get it now!”
The Christians in this room know how it is in a different context. The message of Jesus as redeemer and savior is one that Christianity posits, in all its expressions, is open to all who will believe. But the European traditions of Christianity, from which the churches gathered tonight emerge, unfailingly represented Jesus as a light-skinned European, often with blonde hair and blue eyes, and never remotely resembling the people of color so welcome under the wings of his saving grace. And did Jesus ever look like the Middle Eastern Jew he really was in the paintings and statues of Catholic and Protestant institutions in Christian Europe? Of course not.
We see the world as it is and as it should be through the filter of our own sense of worth.
And I do not criticize us for doing so. If we are to believe that we are faithful participants in the covenants we affirm, then we must see ourselves in God’s image, which means seeing God’s image in ourselves.
But my squirmy question won’t go away with that simple assurance. Because after I have come to terms with the notion that maybe a redeemed world will not be filled with Jews and wannabes, after you have come to terms with the notion that Jesus does not look like Brad Pitt, I still want to know one answer.
If the world were perfected under God’s sovereignty tomorrow, if the Messiah arrived and the world were at peace, would I still be Jewish?
It is no small question. When Isaiah prophesies “the former things shall not be remembered, they shall never come to mind,” does it include the values and practices to which my vocation and my heart have been devoted? If the lion will eat straw like the ox, if the serpent’s food will be the earth, will I keep the Sabbath, the dietary laws, the festivals and fasts? Will midrash matter? Will we yet teach the Talmud? And will there any longer be a need for sacred Scripture?
Ask yourself your own set of questions about your own set of beliefs. The agony will be the same. Because the true believer, the person who lives his life in the four amot, the square mile of Torah, the person who has given over her life entirely to Jesus, the person who has submitted entirely to the will of Allah – that person believes he or she is living in the closest approximation to paradise here on earth. And inevitably, the conclusion must be that the only thing holding the world back from redemption is those who will not see the light.
I asked this question of my colleagues, rabbis who participate with me in an on-line discussion group. One of them was quite clear: the redeemed world is a Jewish world. There is no room for paganism and polytheism, the Trinity must become a Unity and Buddhists must be theists or they have no share in that world yet to come. Another one danced a little bit and suggested that in such a world we would broaden our definition of what it meant to be a monotheist so as to expand the circle around those currently outside. And one, playing on a common misreading of tonight’s Scripture said, “the lion will lie down with the lamb, but the Jews get to be the lion.”
How do I look you, my community family, in the eyes and say, “Do your best at what you do, but it will never be quite good enough?” Stu Broberg will tell you that he heard that from a Muslim cleric a few weeks ago, and it astonished him. Jews have heard it from Christians for centuries, and the resentment has been incredible. Surveying the gash in side of the Pentagon, wrought by true believers in an unfamiliar faith, can I say that when the paradigm REALLY shifts, I’ll still be right, but the rest of you will be wrong?
Another friend of mine, a rabbi who is both my teacher and friend, sent me another response. He wrote: the covenant with Abraham and some of his descendants was in interim expedient, following Adam’s and Eve’s removal from paradise and the failure of the initial covenant attempts with Noah...I am part of a covenant chain that began with Abraham and will conclude with messianic times...and I dare not break the link in my generation. Judaism, though temporary, is an experiment of the highest order. Hopefully, it points us in the right direction. It is not the only [such experiment]. But Judaism’s glory is that at the end of days, it will not be. It is a means to a greater end. In messianic times...right behavior would be engraved on each and every heart.
His message soothed my soul and made me deeply sad. I am not sure if I was sad from a sense of ultimate loss, or at my blindness in mistaking the road for the destination. Either way, I wondered, looking at the question that squirmed no longer, but now felt heavy with the weight of resolution, how would I recognize what that redeemed world would look like? What kind of destination does Judaism lead us to find along a parallel but distinct path with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and a thousand more ways to reach for the ultimate concern?
It must be a place that recognizes equally the many paths and welcomes every person who arrives on its shores. It must be a place that gleans the best that each of us can bring in service to each other and a world redeemed. It must be a place that begins with the premise of the sanctity of human life and experience and yearns in its songs and society for that time when there will be no sounds of weeping and wailing, no more infant or graybeard who does not live out his days, where nothing evil or vile shall be done.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, the first since my question plunged into my heart on the wings of hijacked airliners. And I will be most thankful that I have glimpsed the promise of that world for which I yearn. God bless America.