Friday, February 28, 2014

FLASH: some use faith to draw others closer, not push them down

     For the decade that I was a member of Shir Hadash Synagogue, the congregation didn’t have a building of its own to call home. So we held services where we could in the northwest suburbs. During High Holy Days, when the faithful would turn out en masse, that meant celebrating Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur at Our Lady of the Brook Catholic Church in Northbrook, a lovely, light-filled space, and the Rev. Thomas Moran would sometimes appear at our services and do a reading.
     At the time, the symbiosis between the synagogue and the church struck me as something merely nice. They welcomed us and we went. But now, with bakers and caterers and wedding photographers across the country raising a cry, trying to claim a newly minted right to refuse to do business with customers who belong to groups of which they don’t approve — gays, primarily, but there’s no reason why that right, once recognized, couldn’t be extended to allow shunning just about anyone based on religious scruple — I wondered if the arrangement is perhaps timely and instructive. 
     I had to ask: Is not offering your church, your sacred space, to Jews far more extreme than anything these laws are designed to address? Here you have a people who don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Who don’t merely engage in a forbidden sexual practice, but bear direct hereditary guilt — in the minds of some — for the savior’s death. Is this not a far greater imposition on your faith than baking a wedding cake and sticking two plastic grooms on top? I wondered: Did not Our Lady of the Brook parishioners complain about renting their facilities to Christ Denial Inc.?
     “We had one or two of those,” Moran said.
     And what, I wondered, did you tell them?
     “I just said, ‘Well, Jesus was Jewish. So was Mary, so were the Apostles. None of them were Christians.’ I said that even Pope Benedict is working for closer relationships. Even in Rome. It’s a good interfaith move.”
     Religion is complicated, but its relationship with the greater world can be divided into one of two general camps. There is the we’re-right-(whoever “we” happens to be)-you’re-wrong-but-luckily-you-can-be-killed-or-converted-or-pushed-into-the-shadows camp. Call that the Old Way.
     The Old Way was popular for, oh, 3,000 years, and as an engine of human misery, comes right after disease and war. Yet it holds sway in hearts today, though not in Arizona, not officially, since the governor on Wednesday vetoed the law enshrining discrimination against gays based on Old Way religion. Shunning gays is one thing; shunning 5 percent of the tourist trade is another matter. Talk about an epiphany.
     But similar laws are still pending in Georgia, Kansas, Tennessee and South Dakota.
     Then there is the New Way, the can’t-we-all-get-along camp, the result of recognizing the heartbreak that results from the Old Way, after you realize that even a big religion, even the Roman Catholic Church, or Islam, is not so big that it’s ever going to cover the earth. You might as well tolerate the laughable sects and fringe cults that others call faith, even explore their strange and mistaken notions of theology, because no matter how hard you stamp on them, they’re not going away. You might even find you have things in common. Our Lady of the Brook not only supplies space for Shir Hadash services, but Shir Hadash congregants danced at an Easter Week celebration, and Eitan Weiner-Kaplow, Shir Hadash’s rabbi, co-taught a course about Esther with Peery Duderstadt, Our Lady’s deacon, in a class attended by congregants from both.
     “Everyone got along just fine,” Moran said. “There is such a thing as ‘material cooperation.’ I can supply cookies. I can supply flowers.”
     There is no reason to shun each other.
     “I just spent four days in the Vatican,” Weiner-Kaplow said, explaining that he was with a party of rabbis exploring the seat of Catholicism. “It’s a key principle of a holy and religious life, especially in Reconstructionist Judaism. It’s not about meddling, not about commingling, not about compromising your own tradition at all. It’s about honoring and respecting other faiths and traditions, and seeking commonalities so together we can share our humanity and share living on Earth. We recognize that all faiths and traditions are searching for God in their own unique way. They’re all pathways to living a moral and spiritual and holy life.”
     Is it really so puzzling how that outlook can be winning out over “I’ve decided that my religion commands me not to bake wedding cakes for homosexuals”?


  1. Neil,

    If you believe that each person must come to their own decision regarding faith and that God is the ultimate judge, then it becomes much easier to show charity toward others who do not share your views. I've always thought that one of the great things about America was that people who think the other guy is going to hell can work together and even be friends. Please understand that this does not make me wishy-washy. When religion acts in ways harmful to its adherents and outsiders, it should have no special protection against criticism. Nor does claiming that "The Bible says..." settle an issue as there is often disagreement on just what the book means. From my perspective, the religious right has come to act in ways hateful which would not have countenanced in the past because they've been influenced by their political allies who have played that sick game (i.e., "race" card) to win power. That's why it's almost always a bad idea to comingle religion and public policy.

    1. I think we're in agreement here. The question is not what your views are, but how you are allowed to act on them. I am perfectly free to believe that God commands that black people shouldn't be able to eat grilled cheese at Woolworth's. What I am no longer free do to is to put that belief in action at the lunch counter I own. It's like pharmacists who don't feel right selling contraception -- then don't be a pharmacist. If I suggested that only people who share my beliefs should read my columns, that would be ridiculous. If you are a public enterprise, then you must accommodate the public.

  2. Good one about blacks and Woolworth. I detest southerners from that period and beyond.

    1. My one of my high school biology teachers (and also an assistant football coach) was from North Carolina. On the day JFK died, he would not cancel the scheduled exam, despite anguished pleas from his sobbing students. Worse still, he smirked at us when he saw how grief-stricken we were. I despised all Southerners after that tragic and fateful day, and for a long time afterward.


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