“Upholding Faith; Serving Humanity” : An Address for the Islamic Society of North America

September 2, 2007

By Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus

I am honored to participate in this program today, and bring greetings from Rabbi Peter Knobel, President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, an organization of 1800 Reform rabbis in North America and around the world, and Rabbi Steven Mason, President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, a group of hundreds of rabbis across the Jewish religious spectrum. I have read Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s remarks delivered to your assembly on Friday, and I echo his call for increased interreligious dialogue.

I very much appreciate the address of the Hon. Mr. Rasool. As part of the People of the Book, I also turn to sacred scriptures for guidance in facing the challenges the contemporary world gives to people of faith. The best text I can find for guidance on the subject of how we, as leaders and followers of various religious traditions, can uphold faith and serve humanity is from the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Micah 6:8, as the prophet states:

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם מַה טּוֹב וּמָה יְי דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ כִּי אִם עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ:
“You have been told, O mortal, what is good and what the Eternal requires of you: only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your God.”

The first requirement is to do justice. People of faith realize that justice is not only a goal for all, but doing justice is a requirement for anyone who takes seriously the sacred texts of all of our faiths. However, none of us can hope that our work for justice will bear fruit if we work alone. If we want to be effective, we need to build and strengthen coalitions to work for basic human rights like decent housing, and universal health care, and economic justice, and fair access to employment, and freedom from violence, and clean air and water. These are not just issues for politicians to argue about as they manipulate the purse-strings of our society, often at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. These are religious issues that demand our attention and our combined energy. If we truly believe that every person is created in the image of God, then we cannot tolerate a system that disrespects some because of their race or gender or age or orientation or nationality, and disregards others whose appearance or behavior might cause discomfort. I pray that in the years to come, religious communities will increase their involvement in these issues, so that we can work to eliminate the injustice that permeates our society.

The statement from Micah continues with the instruction to love kindness. Ours has become a very hard and unkind world. The language people use in the public sphere – and I don’t mean only talk radio – should be offensive to every ear and unacceptable to people of faith. The behavior that is spewed daily on our television screens is an affront to humanity and to God. The role models that our children see are base and crude and immodest. I am no prude, but I feel that we are sinking to new lows. We can try to blame the media, but they only give the public what they want. It is up to us, the religious communities, to help our people want something better, something more tasteful and decent and civilized than the empty calories they are being fed. If we love kindness, we will not tolerate demeaning and degrading depictions of women as objects. If we love kindness, we will not glorify violence as entertainment. If we love kindness, we will take the psalmist’s advice to “guard your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech.”

And finally Micah tells us to walk modestly with our God. Of course this phrase, like so many others, is open to interpretation. I read it now to say that God has the power and the answers, and we need to be modest as we walk with God. In this context I would respectfully suggest that each of our faiths interprets God’s will and God’s expectations of us differently. We are only human, and cannot know everything. By walking modestly with our God, we recognize that we do not have all the truth and all the answers. I believe in religious pluralism. Pluralism recognizes that others hold truths that I do not share, but even while fundamentally disagreeing on what we hold sacred, we can respect others and their beliefs. This is, of course, very difficult and challenging, since we believe what we believe with great passion and sincerity. But it is the key to authentic interreligious relationships. We do not enter into dialogue with the motive of converting the other, but rather of hearing and learning from and teaching our partners in dialogue.

As we listen to each other, as we weave together the strands of our Abrahamic faiths, we have the potential to face our common challenges, to serve God and humanity. May we continue the conversation as we journey forward together.


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