10 August 2009

Interfaith Interdependence in a Post-Modern World

Rabbi Johanna Hershenson
Rabbi Johanna Hershenson
Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation – Temple Sinai

It is with humility and gratitude that I offer this, the Annual Peace Lecture, of the Otago University Chaplaincy and the Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group. I consider the invitation to speak this evening and to add my own personal observations and visions to the distinguished collection of notable scholars and clergy who have spoken in years past a formidable honour. Thank you.

Recently my 12-year old daughter who is preparing to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah asked me what world religion do I find the most interesting and what about it would I like to better understand. Momentarily forgetting she is my daughter preparing for her rite of passage into adolescence and young adulthood and that I, her mother, am also her rabbi… I told her about some of the women Sufi writers who so deeply inspire one of my closest friends and colleagues in the Wellington Interfaith Council, and how if only I had more time I'd like to study their work. She told me about her interest in the Sikhs because she feels she knows so little about them by comparison to other faith communities here in New Zealand. And then, I thought, WOW...who has this conversation?

Of course we are all here this evening precisely because we are engaged in this discourse. Some of us are people of faith while others among us are more comfortable intellectually respecting religious identity as a component in a more general cultural or ethnic sense of self or belonging. Either way, we are rooted in Enlightenment values, such as empiricism, reason, and tolerance. Moving beyond tolerance, we assert that there is a particular strength in diversity that cannot be mined from homogeny.

In business applications this concept of strength in diversity is called synergy. Leadership and management training courses, across a wide spectrum of professional fields, revolve around the notion that teamwork produces an overall better result than individuals working separately toward the same goal. Effective teams are comprised of individuals with inherently different skill sets and bases of knowledge. Every team needs a dreamer, a worker, a communicator, an organizer, a fact checker, so on and so forth. A team of dreamers might not get much done. A team of workers may very well accomplish a great deal but not get noticed. A team of communicators is likely to produce talk and no action.

In congregational life as well as in collaboration with other clergy and community leaders, I have found that the application of synergy definitely applies to the work of visioning and realizing events and projects. Insufficiently explored and articulated, though, is how these principles relate to multiculturalism and interfaith work as significant pursuits in and of themselves.

Sure, we all would agree that mutual understanding and mutual respect are essential to building and keeping peace among the nations." There is no question in my mind that our global reality forces us to get along with folks, that in the best case scenario we just don't understand and, in the worst case scenario, we deeply fear (and often for good reasons, like war and terror).

It seems to me that while building peace and keeping the peace are matters of urgency, the long-term goals ought to push us further as a species. This work is not merely about getting along better, it is about moving humanity forward in its evolution.

A few years ago, visiting the Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institute, my husband, a cultural anthropologist asked our daughters in the exhibit of human evolution, "What do you think we'll look like next?" What a ridiculously obvious yet seldom considered question. We are so proud of where we are in contrast to from whence we came that we often fail to wonder where we're going.

We can examine millions of years of evolutionary journey among primates and see mutations in the size, shape, and proportionality of unearthed archaeological evidence as well as the molecular structure of genetic material. We can infer the how's and why's by taking a close look at climate change, migration, and competition for finite resources essential to life.

Our brains have grown in size exponentially compared to the brains of our ape-like forbearers. Our dexterity is intricately more sophisticated. Some of the tools we have created are smarter than we are. As a result, the world seems smaller and time seems to move faster than ever before. More information comes our way than we can process. Viruses and bacteria keep getting smarter and more virulent. Icecaps and glaciers are melting. How long do we really have here on the planet without a serious mutation as a species?

We've evolved physically. We've evolved intellectually. Will spiritual evolution be the next frontier of our development and growth? Honestly I don't know. But I do think it is indeed interesting terrain for exploration and investigation. And whether or not it will make a difference in the bigger picture of our time on the planet, I think a pioneering attitude could eventuate a more lasting peace than either mutual understanding or mutual respect. It's about redirecting our attention to what we can become rather than how we might better police ourselves.

To begin, we need to take a look at spirituality and religion. What are they about? I would suggest that spirituality is about exploring purpose and meaning and religion is about developing spiritual identity and a community in which that identity can be contained and experienced.

Across diverse cultures, human beings seek purpose and meaning. We want to know why and how? Why do some experiences give us pleasure and others pain? Why do we suffer despite our best efforts to be decent? Why do we die? Why do bad things happen to good people? How can we find meaning in the seasons? How can we mark time so as to slow the sand spilling from the hourglass of our span of life?

The answers to the why questions comprise the wisdom of religious traditions whilst the answers to the how questions birth rituals and celebrations and means for comforting and reassuring one another. Collective wisdom and rituals give us shared language.

Amidst the chaos of life, we cultivate safety and inner peace by measuring our individual experiences in relationship to the mythologies and customs of our religious traditions.

In the beginning, we did so in isolated and homogenous communities. Leaders emerged and developed rules so that communal life would be possible. Religion and governance were one and the same.

And then, we encountered one another. Sometimes we fought and other times we built alliances that served geopolitical realities. In general, though, we still lived in our own communities. This world was a pre-modern world. Survival against natural disaster and invading forces, making babies to take over the farm or family business in the future, and finally putting food on the table were our priorities.

Industrialism and the Enlightenment ushered in the modern world. Middle classes emerged. Leisure time ensued. Adult children left home and settled their families elsewhere. Sometimes aging parents joined them, sometimes not.

We encountered one another in new, exciting, and frightening ways. We embraced reason and empiricism, ethical relativism and secular nationalism.

In a recent conversation1, one of my teachers and role models, Dean of the Rabbinic School at Boston Hebrew College, Rabbi Arthur Green, posited that this phenomenon we call modernity turned us away from religion. "The real religion of modernity after all is science and progress. As we discover the scientific truths about the universe, too much of the surface content of pre-modern religious traditions seems silly, irrelevant, and even provincial and small-minded. Still we know intuitively that something isn't right. We know intuitively that modernity and science didn't get us exactly where we thought it might. It may have taught us how to do lots of things but had no guidance to give us as to whether or not we should do them."

Rabbi Green notes "in recent times we see folks trying to go back to the traditions, as if perhaps something has been forgotten. Perhaps something important has been overlooked. This," he suggests, "is a post-modern move."

Consider the following interview responses from ordinary Temple-going Jews in the United States:

Rabbi Arthur Green teaches, "Religion in the pre-modern world was a zero-sum game. If my religion is right, yours is wrong. If I've got the truth, you are a liar. Religion in the post-modern world is not that. There is a wisdom that eludes us all. And all of the traditions have been trying to articulate that wisdom. Let's try to find it together."

Now, I think we're on to something…

Israeli author, Shai Agnon, quotes a story of the Chasidic Rebbe Chaim of Tzanz in the beginning of his book, "DAYS OF AWE". There is a man wandering through the woods and he can't find his way out. He is lost. Finally he sees somebody, and he says to the person, "Oh good! You can help me out. I'm lost. You can help me out of the woods." The other guy says, "But I've been wandering around these woods for days myself. I don't know the way out." But they stay together. "You'll show me all the places you've looked already and know don't lead out of the woods and I'll show you all the places that I've looked that don't lead out of the woods. And together we'll find the way."

What I like about this story is that the men are equals. Neither of them has more or better knowledge than the other. But because they have different information and different conclusions that they've drawn from that information, they can build something mutually beneficial and stronger than what either of them possessed alone. Everything they tried alone, didn't work. But by each of them sharing what didn't work on its own, they accrue enough information to find their way out together.

Religion in the post-modern world is not a zero-sum game. This one is right and that one is therefore wrong. It is a treasure trove of experience, reflection, and wisdom resulting from a particular faith community's journey through time and place.

Imagine sharing experiences and wisdom of our particular religious traditions with one another. What might we learn? And with that knowledge, what might we achieve? Isn't this pursuit what our interfaith relations are all about?

Another of my teachers, Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi, of Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, puts it this way4: "You have to think of every religion being a vital organ of the planet. The liver couldn't exist without the heart, and the heart without the kidneys. So you need them all. It turns out that some of the organs will have more of a relationship to other organs. For instance the lungs will have a greater connection to the heart than the pituitary gland. All the organs are totally communicating with each other. This is something that hasn't happened before, and now it's really important for all religions to be able to have permeable or at least semi-permeable membranes between them so that we can communicate with each other."

Interestingly, Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi was one of several rabbis called upon to meet with the Dalai Lama over a decade ago. The Dalai Lama was and continues to be faced with the challenge that while Tibetan Buddhism is a sacred tradition deeply connected to a sacred land, the community and the land have been forced apart. It occurred to him to seek counsel in dealing with this reality. Looking around at the peoples on the planet, who has learned how to be a sacred people separated from a sacred land? But, the Jews. And so, the chaos of modernity threw these faith communities together, just like the woods threw the two strangers together in the story of the Rebbe Chaim of Tzanz.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, from the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, takes this idea one step further:5 "We're used to thinking this way when we think about an organ in the body. We are used to thinking this way when we think about an ecosystem. All these life-forms that live together in an ecosystem are really crucial to each other. If the bees try to imitate flowers, it all falls apart. We're not used to thinking about this in terms of cultures of the human community… Each of us are, and all of us are, crucial to the health of humanity as a whole."

Earlier I borrowed the concept of synergy from business applications. Now, I'd like to introduce the idea of interdependence.

Karl Marx first used the term interdependence in his (1848) COMMUNIST MANIFESTO to articulate his idea of the universal interdependence of nations in contrast to the old local and national seclusion of independence. An independent entity takes care of itself. An interdependent entity values its own survival within the context of an even greater whole.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from a Birmingham jail cell, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

As long as fear and hatred dictate how people treat one another, we are all imprisoned by the need to maintain a defensive posture. From this position, growth is rather difficult, if not impossible.

Stephen Covey wrote in his 1989 bestseller, THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE, "Independent thinking alone is not suited to interdependent reality. Independent people who do not have the maturity to think and act interdependently may be good individual producers, but they won't be good leaders or team players. They're not coming from the paradigm of interdependence necessary to succeed in marriage, family, or organizational reality."

Finally Mahatma Gandhi taught, "Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being. Without interrelation with society he cannot realize his oneness with the universe or suppress his egotism. His social interdependence enables him to test his faith and to prove himself on the touchstone of reality."

I believe the time has come for us to push our work in interfaith relations forward into a new and quite frankly very exciting dimension. It is no longer enough for us to exercise tolerance. It is no longer enough for us to cultivate mutual respect. We are all wandering in the woods. Keeping track of where we've been, each of us has something important and significant to share as well as something important and significant to learn.

From Christians, I have learned the healing power of a deeply loving presence. In relationship with Muslims, I have cultivated immense strength fashioned in submission. From Buddhists, I have gained knowledge about the suffering I bring upon myself in my attachments to things, including ideas. In friendship with Hindus, I have shed my fear of multiple incarnations and forms of a single truth. None of these lessons has made me any less Jewish. All of these lessons have made me a better human being.

Whether we are ready for it or not, we live in a post-modern world. Our own particular faith communities provide us with identity, intimacy, and means for cultivating meaning and purpose in our being. But our own particular faith communities are only part of the whole of humanity.

In the Hebrew language the word for peace is shalom. It does not mean quiet or calm, safety or stability. Shalom means wholeness. Cultivating peace/shalom requires engagement with all that is. It requires the adoption of a gestalt that acknowledges and embraces the good, the bad, and the ugly right alongside the beautiful, the familiar, and the unknown.

Our daily liturgy in Jewish tradition concludes with the prayer, Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya'aseh shalom alaynu – May God who forms peace in the highest portions of the heavens be a source of peace among us. Perhaps more importantly here and now, May we, created in God's image, take it upon ourselves to be a source of peace in the lives of one another. Amen.


1Taken from my interview with Rabbi/Dr. Arthur Green in November, 2009, for my documentary film about Torah, currently in post-production.

2Sheri Saladow, Temple Beth El of South Orange County, California.

3Cindy Leish, Temple Beth El of South Orange County, California.

4Taken from my interview with Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi in November, 2009, for my documentary film about Torah, currently in post-production.

5Taken from my interview with Rabbi Arthur Waskow in November, 2009, for my documentary film about Torah, currently in post-production.