Sunday, September 13, 2009


Sermons and Lessons


What We Might Do Together

A famous four-volume work on the history of atheism in the West, published sixty years ago, begins with the statement: “God has died. The time has come to write His history.” Today, no historian would regard such a project as urgent; our major anxiety today seems to be diametrically opposed. Man may be dying and there will be no one to write his history. This is the problem that shatters all complacency, “Is man obsolete?” A generation ago people maintained: technological civilization contradicts religion. Today, we are wondering does technological civilization contradict man? The striking feature of our age is not the presence of anxiety, but the inadequacy of anxiety, the insufficient awareness of what is at stake in the human situation. It is as if the nightmare of our fears surpassed our capacity for fear.

Men all over the world see the writing on the wall, but are too illiterate to understand what it says. We all have that sense of dread for what may be in store for us, it is a fear of absolute evil, a fear of total destruction. It is more than an emotion. An apocalyptic monster has descended upon the world, and there is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. What is the nature of that monster? Is it a demon the power of which is ultimate; in the presence of which there is only despair?

This is a time in which it is considered unreasonable to believe in the presence of the Divine, but quite reasonable to believe in the presence of the demonic. And yet, as a Jew, I recoil from the belief in the demonic. Over and against the belief in the ultimate power of the demon stands the admonition of Moses: “Know, therefore, this day and believe in your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above, on the earth beneath; there is no one else.” There are no demonic threes.

The great act of redemption brought about by Moses and the Prophets of Israel, was the elimination of the demons, the gods, and demigods from the consciousness of man; the demons which populated the world of ancient man are dead in the Bible. And yet, even Moses knew that man is endowed with the power to make a god; he has an uncanny ability to create or to revive a demon. Indeed, man’s worship of power has resurrected the demon of power.

It is not a coincidence that the three of us who participate in this evening’s panel discussion also serve as co-chairmen of the National Committee of Clergy and Laymen concerned about Vietnam.

The meeting place of this evening’s discussion should be not the Palmer House in Chicago but somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam. An ecumenical nightmare - Christians, Jews, Buddhists, dying together, killing one another. So soon after Auschwitz, so soon after Hitler.

The question about Auschwitz to be asked is not: “Where was God?” but rather: “Where was man?” The God of Abraham has never promised always to hold back Cain’s hand from killing his brother. To equate God and history is idolatry. God is present when man’s heart is alive. When the heart turns stone, when man is absent, God is banished, and his¬tory, disengaged, is distress.

What should have been humanity’s answer to the Nazi atrocities? Repentance, a revival of the conscience, a sense of unceasing, burning shame, a persistent effort to be worthy of the name human, to prevent the justification of a death of man theology, to control the urge to cruelty.

Is it not a desecration of our commitment to act as if that agony never happened, to go on with religion as usual at a time when nuclear disaster is being made a serious possibility?

We should have learned at least one lesson: Don’t hate!

Today is the anniversary of the death of President Kennedy. His assassination shook the world. Yet it made no impact on our laws and customs. No lesson was learned, no conclusion was drawn. Guns are still available c.o.d. Mass killing in Chicago, in Houston, in Arizona, and elsewhere, is becoming a favorite past-time of young boys.

The Pentagons of the world are Temples. Within their hallowed walls the great decisions come about: How many shall live, how many shall die.

The envoys of peace weep bitterly.
The highways lie waste .
Covenants are broken,
Witnesses are despised,
There is no regard for man. - ( Isaiah 33:8)

Jonah is running to Tarshish, while Nineveh is tottering on the brink. Are we not all guilty of Jonah’s failure? We have been running to Tarshish when the call is to go to Ninevah.

“What is the use of running, when you are on the wrong road?” What are the traps and spiritual pitfalls that account for the outrage of the war in Vietnam? What is the use of so¬cial security when you have a surplus of nuclear weapons?

Religion cannot be the same after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Its teachings must be pondered not only in the halls of learning but also in the presence of inmates in extermination camps, and in the sight of the mushroom of a nuclear explosion.

The new situation in the world has plunged every one of us into unknown regions of responsibility. Unprepared, perplexed, misguided, the world is a spiritual no man’s land. Men all over the world are waiting for a way out of distress, for a new certainty of the meaning of being human. Will help come out of those who seek to keep alive the words of the prophets?

This is, indeed, a grave hour for those who are committed to honor the name of God.

The ultimate standards of living, according to Jewish teaching, are Kiddush Ha-Shem and Hillul Ha-Shem. The one means that everything within one’s power should be done to glorify the name of God before the world, the other that everything should be avoided to reflect dishonor upon the religion and thereby desecrate the name of God.

According to the ancient rabbis, the Lord said to Israel: “I have brought you out of Egypt upon the condition that you sacrifice your very lives should the honor of My name require it.” (Sifra, ed. Weiss, 99d).

“All sins may be atoned for by repentance, by means of the Day of Atonement, or through the chastening power of affliction, but acts which cause the desecration of the name of God will not be forgiven. ‘Surely this iniquity will not be forgiven you till you die, says the Lord of hosts’” (Isaiah 23:14).

In the light of these principles, e.g. a slight act of injustice is regarded as a grave offense when committed by a person whose religious leadership is acknowledged and of whose conduct an example is expected.

God had trust in us and gave us His word, some of His wisdom and some of His power. But we have distorted His word, His wisdom, and abused His gift of power.

Those who pray tremble when they realize how staggering are the debts of the religions of the West. We have mortgaged our souls and borrowed so much grace, patience and forgiveness. We have promised charity, love, guidance and a way of redemption, and now we are challenged to keep the promise, to honor the pledge. How shall we prevent bankruptcy in the presence of God and man?

God has moved out of the fortress of pedestrian certainties and is dwelling in perplexities. He has abandoned our cornplacencies and has entered our spiritual agony, upsetting dogmas, discrediting articulations. Beyond all doctrines and greater than human faith stands God, God’s question of man, God’s waiting for man, for every man, God in search of man. Deeper than all our understanding is our bold certainty that God is with us in distress, hiding in the scandal of our ambiguities. And now God may send those whom we have expected least “to do His deed - strange is His deed; to carry out his work - alien is His work.” (Isaiah 28:21)

What is the use of running to Tarshish when the call is to go to Ninevah?

We must learn how to labor in the affairs of the world with fear and trembling. While involved in public affairs, we must not cease to cultivate the secrets of religious privacy

Abraham who despised the spirit of Sodom and Gomorrah as much as Washington despises the ideology of Red China was nevertheless horrified by the Lord’s design to rain napalm, brimstone and fire upon the sinful cities. But why? Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah would be a spectacular manifestation of God’s power in the world! So why did Abraham oppose an action which would have been a great triumph for “religion”? It is said in that story: “Abraham is still standing before the Lord” (18:22). To this very day Abraham is still pleading, still standing before the Lord “in fear and trembling.”

It is necessary to go to Ninevah; it is also vital to learn how to stand before God. For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship.

Unlike Jonah, Jeremiah did not go into the desert of loneliness. He remained a solitary dissenter in the midst of his people. Defied by his contemporaries, bewildered by the ways of the Lord, he would rather be defeated with God than victorious without him.

The cardinal problem is not the survival of religion, but the survival of man. What is required is a continuous effort to overcome hardness of heart, callousness, and above all to in¬spire the world with the biblical image of man, not to forget that man without God is a torso, to prevent the dehumanization of man. For the opposite of human is not the animal. The opposite of the human is the demonic.

Contemporary man is a being afflicted with contradictions and perplexities, living in anguish in an affluent society. His anxiety makes a mockery of his boasts. Passing through several revolutions simultaneously, his thinking is behind the times. High standards of living, vulgar standards of thinking, too feeble to stop the process of the spiritual liquidation of man. Man is becoming obsolete, computers are taking over.

The issue we face is not secularization but total mechanization, militarization. The issue is not empty pews, but empty hearts.

If the ultimate goal is power, then modern man has come of age. However, if the ultimate goal is meaning of existence, then man has already descended into a new infancy.

At times it is as if our normal consciousness were a state of partly suspended animation. Our perceptivity limited, our categories onesided.

Things that matter most are of no relevance to many of us. Pedestrian categories will not lead us to the summit; to attain understanding for realness of God we have to rise to a higher level of thinking and experience.

This is an age in which even our common sense is tainted with commercialism and expediency. To recover sensitivity to the divine, we must develop in uncommon sense, rebel against seemingly relevant, against conventional validity; to unthink many thoughts, to abandon many habits, to sacrifice many pretensions.

The temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed. All that is left is a wailing wall. A stone wall stands between God and man. Is there a way of piercing the wall?

Is there a way of surmounting the wall?

What is the substance, of which that wall is made? Is it, as the prophets maintain, man’s heart of stone? Or is it, as Isaiah also claims, the hiding of God? The darkening of his presence?

Perhaps this is the chief vocation of man: to scale the wall, to sense what is revealed wherever he is concealed, to realize that even a wall cannot separate man from God, that the darkness is but a challenge and a passageway.

We have pulled down the shutters and locked the doors. No light should enter, no echo should disturb our complacency. Man is the master, all else is a void. Religion came to be understood in commercial terms. We will pay our dues, and He will offer protection.

God has not complied with our expectations. So we sulk, and call it quits. Who is to blame? Is God simply wicked - has He failed to keep the deal?

The hour calls for a breakthrough through the splendid platitudes that dominate our thinking, for efforts to counteract the systematic deflation of man, for a commitment to recall the dimension of depth within which the central issues of human existence can be seen in a way compatible with the dangerous grandeur of the human condition.

Characteristic of our own religious situation is an awareness that theology is out of context, irrelevant to the emergencies engulfing us, pitifully incongruous with the energies technology has released, and unrelated to our anguish.

The word heaven is a problem, and so is the living, loving God, and so is the humanity in man a grave problem. There are two ways of dealing with a problem: one is an effort to solve it, the other is an effort to dissolve it, to kill it.

Let us not make a virtue of spiritual obtuseness. Why canonize deficiencies? Why glorify failure?

The crisis is wider, the anguish is deeper. What is at stake is not only articles of the creeds, paragraphs of the law; what is at stake is the humanity of man, the nearness of God.

What do we claim? That religious commitment is not just an ingredient of the social order, an adjunct or reinforcement of existence, but rather the heart and core of being human.

We have been preoccupied with issues, some marginal, some obsolete, evading urgent problems, offering answers to questions no longer asked, adjusting to demands of intellectual comfort, cherishing solutions that disregard emergencies.

We suffer from the fact that our understanding of religion today has been reduced to ritual, doctrine, institution, symbol, theology, detached from the pretheological situation, the presymbolic depth of existence. To redirect the trend, we must lay bare what is involved in religious existence; we must recover the situations which both precede and correspond to the theological formulations; we must recall the questions which religious doctrines are trying to answer, the antecedents of religious commitment, the presuppositions of faith. What are the prerequisites, conditions, qualifications for being sensitive to God? Are we always ready to talk about Him?

There are levels of thinking where God is irrelevant, categories that stifle all intimations of the holy.

We are inclined to quantify quality as we are to canonize prejudice. Just as the primitive man sought to personalize the impersonal, the contemporary man seeks to depersonalize the personal, to think in average ways, yet every thought pertaining to God can only be conceived in uncommon ways.

God is not a word but a name. It can only be uttered in astonishment. Astonishment is the result of openness to the true mystery, of sensing the ineffable. It is through openness to the mystery that we are present to the presence of God, open to the ineffable Name.

The urgent problem is not only the truth of religion, but man’s capacity to sense the truth of religion, the authenticity of religious concern. Religious truth does not shine in a vacuum. It is certainly not comprehensible when the antecedents of religious insight and commitment are wasted away; when the mind is dazzled by ideologies which either obscure or misrepresent man’s ultimate questions; when life is lived in a way which tends to abuse and to squander the gold mines, the challenging resources of human existence. The primary issue of theology is pretheological; it is the total situation of man and his attitudes toward life and the world.

What is necessary is a recall to those ultimate sources of the spirit’s life which commonplace thinking never touches. Theology must begin in depth-theology. Knowing must be preceded by listening to the call: “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

No one attains faith without first achieving the prerequisites of faith. First we praise, then we believe. We begin with a sense of wonder and arrive at radical amazement. The first response is reverence and awe, openness to the mystery that surrounds, and we are led to be overwhelmed by the glory.

God is not a concept produced by deliberation. God is an outcry wrung from heart and mind; God is never an explanation, it is always a challenge. It can only be uttered in astonishment.

Religious existence is a pilgrimage rather than an arrival. Its teaching - a challenge rather than an intellectual establishment, an encyclopedia of ready-made answers.

Perhaps the grave error in theology is the claim to finality, to absolute truth, as if all of God’s wisdom were revealed to us completely and once and for all, as if God had nothing more to say.

God is a problem alive when the mind is in communion with the conscience, when realizing that in depth we are receivers rather than manipulators. The word God is an assault, a thunder in the soul, not a notion to play with. Prayer is the premise, moments of devotion are prerequisites of reflection. A word about God must not be born out of wedlock of heart and mind. It must not be uttered unless it has the stamp of one’s own soul.

Detachment of doctrine from devotion, detachment of reason from reverence, of scrutiny from the sense of the ineffable reduces God as a challenge to a logical hypothesis, theoretically important, but not overwhelmingly urgent. God is only relevant when overwhelmingly urgent.

It is a fatal mistake to think that believing in God is gained with ease or sustained without strain.

Faith is steadfastness in spite of failure. It is defiance and persistence in the face of frustration.

The most fruitful level for interreligious discussion is not that of dogmatic theology but that of depth-theology.

There are four dimensions of religious existence, four necessary components of man’s relationships to God: (a) the teaching, the essentials of which are summarized in the form of a creed, which serve as guiding principles in our thinking about matters temporal or eternal, the dimension of the doctrine; (b) faith, inwardness, the direction of one’s heart, the intimacy of religion, the dimension of privacy; (c) the law, or the sacred act to be carried out in the sanctuary in society or at home, the dimension of the deed; (d) the context in which creed, faith and ritual come to pass, such as the community or the covenant, history, tradition, the dimension of transcendence.

In the dimension of the deed there are obviously vast areas for cooperation among men of different commitments in terms of intellectual communication, of sharing concern and knowledge in applied religion, particularly as they relate to social action.

In the dimension of faith, the encounter proceeds in terms of personal witness and example, sharing insights, confessing inadequacy. On the level of doctrine we seek to convey the content of what we believe in, on the level of faith we experience in one another the presence of a person radiant with reflections of a greater presence.

I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting of men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility and contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind’s reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God’s commandment, while stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith.

What divides us? What unites us? We disagree in law and creed, in commitments which lie at the very heart of our religious existence. We say “No” to one another in some doctrines essential and sacred to us. What unites us? Our being accountable to God, our being objects of God’s concern, precious in His eyes. Our conceptions of what ails us may be different; but the anxiety is the same. The language, the imagination, the concretization of our hopes are different, but the embarrassment is the same, and so is the sigh, the sorrow, and the necessity to obey.

We may disagree about the ways of achieving fear and trembling, but the fear and trembling are the same. The demands are different, but the conscience is the same, and so is arrogance, iniquity. The proclamations are different, the callousness is the same, and so is the challenge we face in many moments of spiritual agony.

Above all, while dogmas and forms of worship are divergent, God is the same. What unites us? A commitment to the Hebrew Bible as Holy Scripture. Faith in the Creator, the God of Abraham, commitment to many of His commandments, to justice and mercy, a sense of contrition, sensitivity to the sanctity of life and to the involvement of God in history, the conviction that without the holy the good will be defeated, prayer that history may not end before the end of days, and so much more.

There are moments when we all stand together and see our faces in the mirror: the anguish of humanity and its helplessness; the perplexity of the individual and the need of divine guidance; being called to praise and to do what is required.

Many of our people still think in terms of an age in which Judaism wrapped itself in spiritual isolation. In our days, however, for the majority of our people involvement has replaced isolation.

The emancipation has brought us to the very heart of the total society. It has not only given us rights, but also imposed obligations. It has expanded the scope of our responsibility and concern. Whether we like it or not, the words we utter and the actions in which we are engaged affect the life of the total community.

We affirm the principle of separation of church and state, we reject the separation of religion and the human situation. We abhor the equation of state and society, of power and conscience, and perceive society in the image of human beings comprising it. The human individual is beset with needs and is called upon to serve ends.

To what religious ends must my fellowmen be guided?

The world we live in has become a single neighborhood, and the role of religious commitment, of reverence and compassion, in the thinking of our fellowmen is becoming a domestic issue. What goes on in the Christian world affects us deeply. Unless we learn how to help one another, we may only hurt each other.

Our society is in crisis not because we intensely disagree but because we feebly agree. “The clash of doctrines is not a disaster, it is an opportunity” (Alfred Whitehead).

The survival of mankind is in balance. One wave of hatred, callousness, or contempt may bring in its wake the destruction of all mankind. Vicious deeds are but an aftermath of what is conceived in the hearts and minds of man. It is from the inner life of man and from the articulation of evil thoughts that evil actions take their rise. It is therefore of extreme importance that the sinfulness of thoughts of suspicion and hatred and particularly the sinfulness of any contemptuous utterance, however flippantly it is meant, be made clear to all mankind. This applies in particular to thoughts and utterances about individuals or groups of other religions, races and nations. Speech has power and few men realize that words do not fade. What starts out as a sound ends in a deed.

In an age in which the spiritual premises of our existence are both questioned and even militantly removed, the urgent problem is not the competition among some religions but the condition of all religions, the condition of man, crassness, chaos, darkness, despair.

There is much we can do together in matters of supreme concern and relevance to both Judaism and Christianity.

The world is too small for anything but mutual care and deep respect; the world is too great for anything but responsibility for one another.

A full awareness and appreciation of our fellowmen’s spiritual commitments becomes a moral obligation for all of us.

A Jew who hears what he prays cannot be indifferent to whether God’s way is known in the world, to whether the gentiles know how to praise. In our liturgy we proclaim every day:

Give thanks to the Lord,
Call upon Him,
Make known His deeds among the peoples!
- (Psalms 105:1)

In the Omer liturgy it is customary to recite Psalm 67:

May God be gracious to us and bless us and
make His face to shine upon us, that Thy way
may be known upon earth, Thy saving power
among all nations.
Let the peoples praise Thee, 0 God;
let all the peoples praise Thee!

What is our task as Jews in relation to Gentiles? I rely upon the words of an inspired Hassidic sage in expounding Deuteronomy 28:9t. “The Lord shall establish you as His holy people . . . if you keep the commandments . . . and walk in His ways. And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the Lord’s name is proclaimed upon you, and they will acquire reverence through you.”

The real bond between people of different creeds is the awe and fear of God they have in common. It is easy to speak about the different dogmas we are committed to; it is hard to communicate the fear and reverence. It is easy to communicate the learning we have inherited, it is hard to communicate the praise, contrition and the sense of the ineffable. But souls which are in accord with what is precious in the eyes of God, souls to whom God’s love for them is more precious than their own lives, will always meet in the presence of Him whose glory fills the hearts and transcends the minds.

What, then, is the purpose of interreligious cooperation?

It is neither to flatter nor to refute one another, but to help one another; to share insight and learning, to cooperate in academic ventures on the highest scholarly level, and what is even more important to search in the wilderness for well-springs of devotion, for treasures of stillness, for the power of love and care for man. What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another in the terrible predicament of here and now by the courage to believe that the word of the Lord endures for ever as well as here and now; to work for peace in Vietnam, for racial justice in our own land, to purify the minds from contempt, suspicion and hatred; to cooperate in trying to bring about a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the Living God.

There ought to be standards and rules for interreligious dialogue. An example of such a rule for Catholics and Protestants would be not to discuss the supremacy of the bishop of Rome or Papacy; an example of such a rule for Christians and Jews would be not to discuss Christology.

The God of Abraham, the Creator of heaven and earth, deemed it wise to conceal His presence in the world in which we live. He did not make it easy for us to have faith in Him, to remain faithful to Him.

This is our tragedy; the insecurity of faith, the unbearable burden of our commitment. The facts that deny the divine are mighty, indeed; the arguments of agnosticism are eloquent, the events that defy Him are spectacular. Our Faith is too often tinged with arrogance, self-righteousness. It is even capable of becoming demonic . . . Even the creeds we proclaim are in danger of becoming idolatry. Our faith is fragile, never immune to error, distortion or deception.

There are no final proofs for the existence of God, Father and Creator of all. There are only witnesses. Supreme among them are the prophets of Israel.

Humanity is an unfinished task, and so is religion. The law, the creed, the teaching and the wisdom are here, yet without the outburst of prophetic demands coming upon us again and again, religion may become fossilized.

Here is the experience of a child of seven who was reading in school the chapter which tells of the sacrifice of Isaac. “Isaac was on the way to Mount Moriah with his father; then he lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed.” My heart began to beat even faster; it actually sobbed with pity fix Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife. And now my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly; the voice of the angel was heard: “Abraham, lay not thine hand upon the lad, fir now I know that thou fearest God.” And here I broke out in tears and wept aloud. “Why are you crying?” asked the Rabbi. “You know that Isaac was not killed.” And I said to him, still weeping, “But, Rabbi, supposing the angel had come a second too late?”

The Rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that “an angel cannot come late.”

An angel cannot be late, but man, made of flesh and blood, may be late.

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