Many Americans are calling for national healing as many of us are feeling that the nation is too divided and too polarized. Too much focus on the “I” as opposed to the “we”, according to Rabbi Sacks’ latest book, “Morality.” One of the challenges in solving this divisiveness is the fact that so many of us are sure that we are in the right and it’s the other side that needs to change. We want the country to change, but it seems that the steps to do so elude us because we are stuck in our own echo chambers and only see the faults on “the other side.” In “Morality,” Rabbi Sacks calls for a cultural climate change consisting of seeking covenants with each other to create a shared vision and a moral community. Specifically, he writes that religion can teach us about how to create a moral society where we care about the other, where we feel a sense of belonging, and where we open ourselves up to others and the world.
Recently, I was reading that Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm, a young dynamic thinker, has created the Joshua Project under the slogan that “America doesn’t protect religion, religion protects America.” He is rolling out a digital media platform to bring together Jews, Catholics and evangelicals to share the wisdom of the Bible and highlight how it can inform our approach to so many contemporary issues from politics to psychology and relationships. Like Rabbi Sacks, Rabbi Lamm also believes that religion had a significant role in shaping America at its foundation and it must continue to have a significant role especially in times like those we are in today.
The idea that Jewish and Christian faith leaders can come together and provide perspectives on Biblical passages for the betterment of society is a beautiful idea, although some may argue that it is a dangerous idea. In 1964, Rav Soloveitchik wrote a famous essay entitled “Confrontation,” wherein he argued that a community’s faith is an intimate affair and there is no room for theological dialogue. After all, if one believes that Jesus is the son of God and the other does not, can there really be any meaningful theological discussion? Aren’t our differences too fundamental, and our beliefs too far apart? Rav Soloveitchik was also concerned about religious relativism, that we will sacrifice our unique religious truth for the sake of unity. He worried that an unsaid expectation of theological dialogue is that if the Church makes any fundamental changes in their evaluation of Judaism and the Jewish people, then the Jewish people must in turn consider doing the same regarding Christianity. This too, cannot be a prelude to healthy collaboration and discussion.
That being said, I believe that our greatest theological fear nowadays should not be the influence of Christianity as Rav Soloveitchik feared. Instead, I believe a far larger threat is secularism, i.e, those who reject the very idea of worship to a higher power. As Rabbi Sacks writes in Morality, “the religious mindset awakens us to transcendence.” Religion in general and study of the Torah in particular can be a source of tremendous meaning for society today. To join together with members of other faiths to communicate with one another and create a unified approach to contemporary issues, be they family or racism or alcohol use, seems wholly dissimilar to the potentially coercive interfaith dialogue to which Rav Soloveitchik was opposed. Is there a danger that maybe some Jews listening to a Catholic speaker may interpret the Bible in a manner that is fundamentally inconsistent with our Jewish beliefs? Yes. But it seems that the goal of this project is to emulate for the American people the value of religion and in particular how our Torah can provide significant guidance for contemporary society. I applaud this effort and any efforts where men and women of faith can come together not just to address antisemitism which is a specific Jewish concern, but when they can come together and communicate how religion can teach much needed broader values to the society in which we all live.
I also believe that this mission is so critical not just for Americans at large, but for our children who study in Yeshiva day schools as well. There is often a disconnect between the Torah content that our children learn in school, whether it’s Biblical stories, holiday celebrations, or Talmudic passages, and how that content manifests in practically shaping our lives. How many times have we heard our children ask, “How will studying this help me in life?” That is fair question for our children to ask, and we must be prepared to answer it.
Using Chanukah as an example, it is relatively easy to excite our young children about this holiday when we have Chanukah parties and we bake donuts, cook latkes, play dreidel and give them presents. But what about when they get older? What is the message of Chanukah to them and how do they incorporate this message into their lives in the modern world? Why are we celebrating a military victory that involved Jew killing Jew over religion? How is the Chanukah story consistent with the American value of freedom of religion? Why are we celebrating the success of the Hasmoneans when two generations later, their descendants identified with the culture against which they fought? Does Chanukah stand for withdrawing from the outside world completely or for embracing it and if so, how do we embrace it without becoming those individuals against whom the Hasmoneans battled? These are very challenging questions and these are questions with which we must help our children struggle.
We have the greatest blueprint for a happy and meaningful life, be that as a Jew or as a member of the broader society. I hope that the outreach that people like Rabbi Sacks and now Rabbi Lamm are making to those outside our community will impact us as well, by reinforcing how critical it is for our children’s education to teach more than Jewish literacy and Jewish values, but to constantly reinforce how those values inform how we create a meaningful Jewish society and a meaningful American society.