Spirit in the Sky

Newsweek [4/13/2009] editor, Jon Meacham writes about “The End of Christian America”. He writes; “While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago. I think this is a good thing, good for our political culture, which, as the American Founders saw, is complex and charged enough without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance. It is good for Christianity, too, in that many Christians are rediscovering the virtues of a separation of church and state that protects what Roger Williams … called, “the garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the world.”
I think that Jon Meacham could write similar words about Judaism in the State of Israel. In Israel, which has no separation of “church” and state, the fight over the role that the governmental Rabbanut plays is getting larger and more contentious every day. Rabbis who are part of the Rabbanut find themselves involved in political intrigues and often entangled in the same kind of corruption that all too often ensnares the politicians. More and more Israeli citizens find they can be spiritual without the kind of Orthodox Judaism that is being forced upon them by the Rabbanut.
I agree. When religion becomes political, it begins to undermine the very values that it is trying to impose on others. Religion is not meant to exist in the political sphere. The point is that a coercive religion will eventually undermine itself. The teaching of religion to adults and children depends less on coercing a person to believe, and more upon showing that what we believe is better taught through actions rather than words. A spiritual person is one who teaches through the example of his life. What we say or do in our personal lives is far more important in spreading the words of faith than all the political power in the world. For example, right wing Christians insisted that Public schools should begin the day with a prayer, one that more often than not included references to Jesus, prayers that were inappropriate to the non Christians who may also be attending the class. The members of the Christian Right believed that we could become a more prayerful, spiritual nation if we could only force our children into a moment of prayer. Forget for a moment that such prayer is illegal in our country where church and state are separate, consider the fact that public schools do not have the mission to teach about prayer and reinforce praying. By requiring a prayerful moment at the beginning of every day, the effect on students eventually would be to rebel against this kind of mandated prayer.
On the other hand, as I have often said, any prayer recited daily, 20 minutes earlier with the family at the kitchen table in the student’s home, that prayer will have a lasting effect in that child’s life.
The most important way a faith can change the course of a nation is to teach that faith through word and deed. When a person lives the faith he or she holds, such a person is an inspiration to others. When that person tries to pass legislation that will require society to hold a principle of faith, the society will eventually reject the attempt at religious coercion. The religious right in America has tried for many years to ban abortion, limit divorce and forbid gay marriage. In state after state such laws have been defeated. Similarly in Israel, the Rabbanut has struggled to maintain their grip on marriage, conversion and the money that the state pays to religious schools. The evidence grows each day about how corrupt the rabbis of the Rabbanut have become and the resentment that is rising in Israeli society. Without state sanctioned civil marriages which are opposed by the rabbis of the Rabbanut, Israelis go to the island of Cyprus to get married and avoiding the need to jump through the hoops required by the Rabbanut. The leaders of the Orthodox parties that control the Rabbanut have so soured citizens on Judaism, Israelis now visit India seeking spirituality rather than finding it in the holy land. A large majority of Israelis have nothing but contempt for the Rabbanut and all that they stand for.
A Religious leader who would want seminary students to have an impact in the world, should be steering them away from politics and into a ministry that will go out and live the very morality that they wish to bring to the world. Faith is best taught by example. People aspire to religious leadership because they themselves were inspired by the faith of a mentor. There is a famous story about a boy whose parents wanted him to be a student in the great yeshiva of the Hafetz Hayim. The boy had other ideas about what he wanted to do with his life. He went to the school and failed the entrance exam. The problem was, he needed to stay overnight so he could leave the next morning. The school had a policy that non-students could not stay overnight in the dorms. So the Hafez Hayim had the boy sleep over his own house. In the middle of the night, the sage came into the boy’s room, and noticing how cold the room was, took off his own coat and placed it over the boy. The boy became a successful businessman who always gave generously to charity. Why? He was impressed that the great Sage took the time to care about the welfare of a young boy. “That coat still keeps me warm.” The man would say.
In Judaism, religious leaders are “rabbis”. The word means “teacher”. We teach best when we teach by the example of our lives. Let us influence the politicians through our actions. If we believe in Justice, let us teach what our faith says about justice and judges and if enough people like what we say, they will create the support for better judicial qualifications. If we believe in education, let us teach what a school should instill in a child and if enough agree with us, they will create the support needed to evaluate curriculum or start a private school that teaches those values. If we despise Hate, let us bring people together to understand each other’s needs. If we feel for the homeless, let us teach others to develop a program to find the way to bring the destitute off the streets. Religious people can do this by teaching the fundamentals of their faith. When that faith speaks to enough of society, when that faith offers a solution to a problem that speaks to the needs of all citizens, then that faith can move mountains and make a real change in the world.
On a cold December night in 1983, 11-year-old Trevor Ferrell saw a TV newscast about people living on the streets of Philadelphia. Those images stirred Trevor and he pleaded with his parents to take him to downtown Philadelphia so he could give his blanket and pillow to the first homeless person he met. In ensuing weeks, with the help of his family, classmates and neighbors, Trevor made regular trips into Philadelphia to distribute food, clothing and blankets to those in need. Inspiring hundreds of generous citizens and businesses, this little “campaign” soon grew into shelters and an entire array of services for the homeless. The compassion of one small boy took on a life of its own and become a part of the vital services offered to the 24,000 homeless of Philadelphia. The Campaign has grown over the years in its approach and sophistication to best enable the homeless to become self-sufficient.
This is the kind of change that religions can perform when taken out of the political realm and into the real work of making a difference. Religious leaders can inspire in our country the commitment to make a real difference. Our country is filled with churches and synagogues that sponsor homeless shelters, provide food for the hungry, who extend a hand to those who are sick and support those who have suffered a loss. Religion provided the moral underpinnings of the Civil Rights Movement in this country. Religious leaders who oppose hate have created an atmosphere where those who spread hate are no longer welcome in our communities. I know that there are faith communities that do not welcome gays and lesbians into their communities, but it is also religious teachings about the equality of all humans under God that pushes acceptance of civil rights for homosexuals forward.
As for a religious agenda, Religious leaders need to stop speaking for the entire nation and start speaking for their own communities. Abortion may be legal in the United States, but a community that believes in adoption rather than abortion should teach that value so the members of that community will make good choices. Prayer may not be allowed in public schools, but a faith community that believes in prayer should teach that each family should begin each day with a prayer. No law could be passed in this country that could force a religious leader to perform a same sex marriage if that is not a teaching of his or her faith. Not everything that is legal is necessarily right. We cannot and should not try and coerce members of other faiths and beliefs to do what they hold to be wrong or to give up that which their community allows. Only when we teach our own faith community our religious tenets of what is right and what is wrong, can we hope to instill in them the faith to make good choices. And I should also point out that clergy should be the first to set the example. Clergy, who wish to be taken seriously, should be sure to always practice what they preach. The landscape is already littered with religious leaders who thought they were above and beyond the “divine” rules that they insisted others must obey.
This separation of church and state is not always easy. There are issues of public policy that challenge the wall of separation. What happens when a religious community says it is OK to batter a wife or a child? What should happen if a faith relies on prayer rather than medicine to cure someone afflicted with disease? Can the state force someone to have a blood transfusion that is against the teachings of his faith? Can the state forbid female circumcision, or even male circumcision as cruel in spite of teachings that make such surgery a religious ritual? That these remain difficult issues is testimony to the living faith that drives our country.
That religion has something to say about government is a given. That religion should change the world one soul at a time should be dogma. When we dabble in passing laws that will force others to obey our understanding of God’s will, we will drive people far away from a life of faith. Let us teach love and not coercion. For only when we live humbly according to teachings of our faith, we will draw others to our side.

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