It was a rare hot afternoon in the North of England when I met a clergy friend at Starbucks for a Frappuccino milkshake (chocolate flavour, of course). Although the drinks were cold, our conversation was passionate.
He is a vicar in the local Church and despite the fact that one of us is a Christian and the other is a Jew, there was a world we shared of our experiences in the pulpit.
Apart from sharing the nuts-and-bolts from congregational life (congregational management, the blessings and worries of old buildings and such like), we reflected on the role of our respective religions in the world. We are both undergirded by a commitment to what one might call ‘liberal religion’: not as a denomination but as a mindset. We are both committed to gender egalitarianism and LGBT inclusivity, to studying sacred text not only as an act of worship but also as a scientific endeavour and to religious diversity and pluralism.
How, then, do we convey our values in the world?
“Fundamentalists are so good at it”, I lamented.
There’s no shortage of (bad) public relations in the world of religion. One only needs to switch on a screen to read how religion is impacting our world. But it’s not always a force for good. Ask any atheist or secularist worth their salt and they will decry the damage religion inflicts onto the planet: violence, misogyny, homophobia and a rejection of a scientific worldview to name but a few.
Yet, fundamentalist religion is very good at arguing its case. The fundamentalist voices are loud in the marketplace of ideas. “What about us?” I mused, “what about liberal religion? Do we have a sense of mission, of what we want to share with the world, without it being coercive or corrosive of the values and identities of other people?”
There are so many wonderful religious initiatives I’ve been involved in during my rabbinic work in Leeds. Just recently, I’ve attended the launch of Nisa-Nashim, a joint Jewish-Muslim Women’s network, been welcomed at a Community Iftar from at Makkah Mosque, one of Leeds’ largest Muslim houses of worship, I’ve taught on the Book of Esther chevruta-style at the Leeds Church Institute, giving my Christian audience a taste of what Jewish learning looks and feels like. And of course, there’s been Mitzvah Day last November, in which Jews, Muslims and Christians pitched in together to support food banks, hospitals and refugees. On a nationwide level, the three non-Orthodox denominations (Liberal, Reform and Masorti) have pulled together to launch a private sponsorship scheme for Syrian refugees.
Yet, all these wonderful, pluralist initiatives don’t get the airplay they ought to.Negative news is deemed more newsworthy and so the good that religion brings, often on a local level, often through relationship-building, is eclipsed.
But we can change that and we should.
During Shavuot, we often celebrate Revelation. We might consider what Torah means to use internally: both internally in our own private lives and personal Jewish experiences and internally with regards to a Jewish communal dynamic. This is a culmination of our Torah and of our covenant, of course. If there is any interfacing with the wider, non-Jewish world, it’s through the Book of Ruth. Ruth, the perennial and paradigmatic convert-to-Judaism, is Shavu’ot’s boundary-crosser who teaches us what it is like to accept Torah ‘leshem shamayim’, for the sake of Heaven. But even Ruth’s narrative at the end of the day describes her entering our community rather than our community exiting into the world.
Yet, there’s a wealth of Midrashic literature that works the opposite way: why was Torah given in the wilderness, one Midrash asks, and answers, ‘so that anyone may acquire it’. The Torah, another Midrash insists, was offered to all the nations of the world before we accepted it. These Midrashim look outward rather than inward.
When we read the Torah’s account of Revelation in Exodus, we are made aware of the pyrotechnics on the mount.
‘Vayehi kolot uv’rakim v’anan kaved al ha’har v’kol shofar chazak me’od… v’har Sinai ashan kulo mipnei asher yarad alav Adonai ba’esh v’ya’al ashano k’ashan hakivshan va’yechered kol hahar me’od…’ – ‘There was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar… Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Eternal had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountrain trembled violently…’ (Ex. 19:16-18)
We often imagine what the drama of Revelation looked like to us – the sounds, the sights, the smoke and flame. But do we ever take the time to reflect on what it must have looked like to others? To the world at large?
As a student of religion, I know that many faith traditions have a marked revelatory moment: some recount the Divine being revealed in a cave, in wilderness solitude or under a sacred tree. Our tradition, however, recounts that the Divine was revealed on the top of a mountain, like a beacon in the darkness. This spectacle must have carried far and wide. There are loud voices in religion that advocate triumphalism or even violence, but as my friend and I discussed, where is ours? How do we let our values shine brightly from the mountain top without obscuring or denying the sacred truths of others? We have a lot to offer and a lot to share; we are called to a gentle covenant and a passionate vision for repairing the world. Think of the light and fire you would like to ourselves and our beautiful planet.
Chag Shavu’ot sameach!
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Image credits: Folkert Gorter