Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
This past week, the ERJCC Book Fair began in Houston with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, who came to speak on his new book, “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence”, a must-read for our times. I wasn’t able to hear him until the next day at another program in the city, but no matter where he speaks, and though he has differences with liberal Judaism, he is a man of great knowledge who never fails to share his passionate insights for our world, today. Rabbi Sacks speaks truth to power with wisdom he derives from the depth and breadth of his education in Judaism and secular subjects. What does he have to say about our world, today?
The world we prefer to observe on TV and the internet is but a grainy image of the reality we must embrace, immediately. To Sacks, radical Islam is displacing the world we once knew, and it’s been that way since the Ottoman Empire fell in 1922. Since then, he submits, the patient plans of a resurging Islamic leadership has been preparing for the day when it would rise and shine, again. He adds that more than 40,000 websites dedicated to ISIS and radical Islam are serving their cause and doing it more effectively than any conventional weapon. Even if Facebook and Twitter were to pull down even one or more sites, there are thousands upon thousands more. What, then, can the world do?
Rabbi Sacks cites tragic statistics that puts Christianity at risk and on record. Christians are daily facing death at the hands of radical Muslims. The population of Christians has fallen dramatically in the Middle East, including 800,000 more who have become Syrian refugees; the last church in Afghanistan has burned; and, he told the gruesome story of a Christian merchant in Gaza whose store was burned after he refused to shutter it, and later whose throat was slashed. Christians remain more than 1/3 of the world’s population, and though Jewish numbers are meager by comparison, he believes that Christians and Jews can change the course of our future.
Rabbi Sacks speaks emphatically about Jews, Christians and moderate Muslims coming together for more than talk and displays of mutual friendship. He asserts that if faith’s purpose is political power and not religious influence, highlighting the merit of the separation of church and state, then we will surely lose the profound hope that the founding fathers held out for America, and what we should have learned from the Hebrew Bible and the roots of our Abrahamic faith traditions. In the Hebrew Bible, Sacks points out, we learned about Abraham who encountered God at Sodom. Abraham negotiated with God not to destroy the people of Sodom for the sake of 50 righteous souls. Eventually, Abraham negotiated with God for the sake of 10 righteous souls. This number of souls could sustain the world through acts of lovingkindness. Contrast that with the generation of Noah, who was the only righteous person and could only save his own family (not including the animals). Sacks concludes that we must be willing to use our religious influence and not religious political power to model cherished western values that flow from sacred religious teachings, which are not cherry-picked, and provide the world a standard of ethics, community, monotheism, law, and righteousness. This way forward is ultimately more enduring than the way of religious political power that asserts itself through bloody insurrection and destruction.
Sacks’ conclusion depends on the fortitude of Jews, Christians and Muslims to identify this way forward. Though Houston boasts a tolerant interfaith community, we have more to do. It’s about more than maintaining the progress that previous faith leaders helped us achieve. It’s about deepening our commitment to each other so that the God of Abraham is glorified not for political supremacy, but for the hope that western civilization first realized in the democratic foundations of countries like enlightened France, England and America.
To Sacks, the time is now. Though we claim safety between the oceans, we are only delaying the goals of radical Islamists who seek to master the global world we’ve only managed to dominate economically. Patience, says Sacks, has served them well. What will be our long-term plan at a time when our patience is running thin? The political campaign that’s well underway in America can’t be about a loss of perceived Christian religious liberties; it has to be about preserving America and western culture that provides profound religious freedoms to all faiths under the principles of a great democracy.