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Saturday Morning Worship: "The Jew in the Chalice"

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General Assembly 2004 Event 3002

Speaker: The Rev. Liz Lerner

As the Rev. Elizabeth Lerner welcomed worshippers who gathered at the Long Beach Convention Center on Saturday morning, she said, "What a pleasure, what an honor to be here this morning and see before me a multitude of UUs. Your commitment to our saving faith makes this gathering more crucial. As UUs I honor you for the persistent courage and the vulnerability required to be a person of free faith in this world. Thanks you for our commitment to carry our free faith forward."

Lerner said, "Everyone has a story, and I share them because I believe they are also about your story. We are all seekers who have precious wisdom and stories to share. Many of us were raised UUs; more of us came from another identity, and my message here today is about those who understand that their faith is about a group of experiences. This is not about where we are, but where we came from. Will we weave in our diverse religious heritages to weave a tapestry of UUism, or wave them as a flag, to get attention and make a point?" She responded, "Those metaphors give away my bias, but I believe it: If we fail to do the real spiritual work to make our diversity inherent within the framework of our UU covenant, our hymn does not speak about WHAT sounds along the ages. I have wondered that….too often we content ourselves with a comforting, vague, universality when we could be connected to the beauty of the particular which gives religion power. Not just to change, but to grow.

"A few years ago, a friend, a Jewish son of a holocaust survivor, was at a wedding, a Jew wedding a Catholic girl. The only rabbi they could find was a rabbi in New York who charged a high fee. My friend Dan went to the airport to pick up the rabbi with the groom. The rabbi was talking about the wedding. The rabbi said to the groom, 'you are completing Hitler's work.' Since then, I have heard similar tales…the hypocritical clergyman who expects high fees to perform the services he condemns. I want to explore that sense [about completing Hitler's work]…for it is a phrase that sometimes is leveled at Jews who come to UUism.

"Emile Fackenheim says the ultimate message of the holocaust was a commandment: 'thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory,' and in order to defeat Hitler's claim, Jews needed to remain true to our heritage. We are so welcoming to the joyous people who walk through our doors wishing they had found us ten or twenty years earlier. People come from backgrounds so different from UUism. We don't expect it to be that hard, that painful for folks. And we don't do much to honor that struggle and help Jews reconcile their past with their UU faith and living. The more I have begun to explore this in my work, people have come to me to share their struggles. They love this UU faith, but it doesn't make it easy to deal with their Jewish, fundamentalist Christian, or Greek orthodox past, or present."

Lerner said she wanted to focus on the elements that confront people when they are exploring our faith after living in another for so long: Pressure, derision, condemnation, rejection, estrangement. She said, "I am addressing the Jewish angle, because I was raised half Jewish. In my interfaith upbringing, much as my mother loves the pagan greenery and Christmas, my mother also worked hard to celebrate the Jewish holidays as well. Passover was the biggest deal, with a gathering of relatives, a Seder meal, and what felt like interminable recitations in Hebrew. My father was descended from a long line of rebbes, and a great grandfather was sacrificed as part of a pogrom…that was what encouraged relatives to leave for this country. While Jewish law would not consider me Jewish, Hitler's law would have put me in the death camps and with those who died. That sense of vulnerability has never left me, and I believe I share this with all Jews everywhere.

"My parents chose to raise me Unitarian Universalist…the general worldiness, liberalism, and what some would call agnosticism suited my family's interfaith identity, and what happened in our home, also happened at church. UU offered an opportunity to explore the relationship between UUism and many other relationships.

"Francis David said, 'God is indivisible, God is one'; and the Jewish faith gave us this prayer: 'hear o Israel, the lord our god, the lord is one.' And the relationship is contemporary. We have so many people in interfaith relationships who come here, tothis faith, to find a home with us.

"Judiaism is filled with morality, visions of justice, and spirituality that is profound and moving. People should rest on Shabbat, even the farm animals. Once every seven days, and once every seven years, even for a year, comes the decree that we should rest and not even farm the land."

"What makes being a UU Jew or a JewU hard, are commitments to gender inclusivity or moving beyond patriarchal parochialism. The problem with my problem, with Jewish tradition, is all that has kept the Jewish culture intact over the centuries. It is hard to know how to respect that without ending up with ideas that are possible or acceptable to others. I wondered what my rebbe ancestors would think…that a woman was working as a scholar and a religious leader, that I am selling out my religious heritage, that I study Talmud, and that I work in a church building that has a star of David, but also a cross, and a goddess.

"A Jew blessed me with the answer…that they would be repelled or appalled. I think it's true…I see such power and beauty in the intersection of these faiths, in the opportunity to draw on the millennia of Jewish expression. [And] there are no guidelines on how to make my life as a Jew and a UU right. But I believe it is right to be engaged in this work of exploration and reconciliation. We invite and welcome interfaith families and individuals. My background colors how I am a UU - but it doesn't diminish the story.

"We each have a story, not only to share, but to weave into the tapestry of our congregations. What have you left behind, that you didn't want to leave behind? What have you kept that would feed your congregation, and perhaps all of us?

"Unitarian Universalism calls us to honor our conscience, and we need to honor the depth of our roots and the height of our vision. Revelation is continuous and we must remember this if we are to reach our best selves. The path, of my journey, is clear, when approaching our best selves. There is as much meaning as we can stand to seek. Choices are not always clear, and life is not always as we want it. But choose life, that you and your descendents may live. L'Chaim. Amen."

As a closing song, Lerner was joined by Jim Paoletti, a member of her congregation in teaching a setting of the beloved Jewish text "Dodi Li," which is, Lerner explained, a Shabbat song often sung to welcome the Sabbath. The words [transliterated]: "Dodi li va a ni lo haroeh Ba sho sha nim," mean: "My beloved is mine and I am his; we feast in a field of lilies." It is, Lerner said, "A love song, but rabinically interpreted to be a love song about faith."

Reported by Deborah Weiner.

"The Jew in the Chalice"

A Sermon by the Rev. Liz Lerner

What a pleasure, what an honor, to be here this morning, to see this multitude of Unitarian Universalists. Precious people, your commitment to this saving faith, to our message of respect and openness and responsibility and engagement… each year events make this message more crucial… and you are its messengers. As Unitarian Universalists I honor you for the persistent courage and fearsome vulnerability required to be a person of free faith in this world. Thank you for covening this year, again, to carry our faith forward, and for being here this morning.

Everyone has a story. My words this morning are partly about my story, but I share them believing that they're also about your story, because we are all on a journey and we have all experienced that every journey, every pilgrimage, howsoever chosen, however much embraced, is also a hardship. Every search yields some answer, but not always the answer we sought. We are all seekers who have faced difficult questions and intimidating answers, who have precious stories and wisdom to share.

Some of us were raised Unitarian Universalist. More of us came to it from some other faith, and my theme today is particularly about those whose UU identity is part of a larger, interfaith or multicultural experience. We talk and know a lot about the range of theologies people represent in our congregations: from atheist to theist, from Buddhist to Sufi, from existentialist to Christian. But what I'm talking about is not so much where we've come as where we came from. Because we have a choice we all make in Unitarian Universalism: will we weave in our diverse religious histories and backgrounds to enrich and deepen the tapestry that is Unitarian Universalism, or will we merely wave them as we would a flag, only to draw attention or make a point? Those metaphors kinda give away my bias, don't they? But I believe it; our diverse religious and cultural backgrounds and heritages bring nothing to this faith if we, newcomers and longtimers alike, fail to do the real spiritual work to make our diversity coherent within the larger framework of our UU movement.

It is easy to sing about something that 'sounds along the ages,' harder to define what that is. Our hymn doesn't do it; how many of us have read that hymn wondering, as Jane Rzepka pointed out a couple of years ago, what is it that sounds along the ages? Too often we content ourselves with a comforting, vague universality when we could be better served by attention to the beauty of the particular, which gives religion much of its power. We need to get better at doing this, so that we offer our people opportunities not just for acceptance but for integration, not just to change but to grow.

Well, that's very abstract; what am I really talking about? A few years ago, a good friend of mine, the Jewish son of a holocaust survivor, was best man at his Jewish friend's wedding. The friend was marrying a Catholic girl. They searched long and hard for a rabbi who was willing to perform the wedding. Though the wedding was in Texas, the only rabbi they could find to perform their interfaith wedding was located in New York and charged a high fee. They paid his fee, and also for his roundtrip flight and his accommodation in Texas. My friend Dan and his friend went personally to pick up the rabbi at the airport and bring him to the hotel. In the car on the way to the hotel, the rabbi was talking to the groom about his imminent marriage and his conversation was far from congratulatory. In fact, what the rabbi said to the groom was: "You are completing Hitler's work."

Since the groom and his wife told me that story, I've heard similar tales. Some Jews say this to others who are leaving Judaism, or marrying outside the faith. There's a lot one could say about this, not least about the hypocritical clergyman who pronounces such curses even as he accepts exorbitant fees to perform the very service he condemns. But I actually want to explore that charge, so-called 'completing Hitler's work', because among other things, it's an accusation also sometimes leveled at Jews who come to us, to Unitarian Universalism.

The accusation builds on a piece of post-holocaust theology proposed by a Jewish philosopher and theologian named Emil Fackenheim. In the wake of the holocaust and the inevitable crisis of faith it posed for many surviving Jews, he proposed a kind of behavioral modification theology. Fackenheim said the ultimate theological imperative, after Hitler, wasn't to question the nature or validity of Judaism or the Jewish relationship to God; no, it was much more worldly. There are 613 historic lesser commandments in Judaism, having to do with how to be observant. Fackenheim declared that the holocaust engendered a new, 614th commandment: "Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory." In order to finally and lastingly defeat Hitler's aim, Jews needed to remain true to their heritage.

We are so used to the joyous stories of people who walk through our doors and feel they have come home—who only wish they'd found us 10 or 20 or 40 years ago. This can make it hard to realize that finding a home among us is not always that simple. For some it involves estrangement from family or friends or even their culture of birth, because they come from a background that is so different from the ways of Unitarian Universalism. We don't expect that it will be that hard, that painful, for folks—we don't always leave room for people to tell us when it is, and we certainly don't do much in our faith to honor that struggle, or offer much in the way of tools for people to use in reconciling their past personal and religious heritage with their UU faith and living. The more I have begun to talk about this in my work, the more people have come forward to me: in my own church, over email or the phone—to share their struggles. They love this UU faith—but that doesn't make it easy to deal with their Jewish or fundamentalist Christian or Greek Orthodox family and friends and past and present.

When I mention this conflict, I'm really not just talking about Jewish UU's here. I know there are many among us with families strongly associated with other faiths: Southern Baptist, Pentacostal, Catholic—for whom this is a perennial and wrenching issue. Every family gathering can become about defending one's faith against the other. Carefully orchestrated conversations in cars and around barbeques and after attending the home congregation one weekend raise issues of coming back to the fold, and sometimes also the consequences of refusing. Pressure, derision, condemnation, rejection, estrangement... sometimes nothing is too much when the issues are as bottom line as a loved one's faith and righteousness and eternal damnation.

I'm addressing the Jewish angle because though I was raised UU, I'm also half-Jewish. My mother's family is Polish and Italian Catholic, but through my father, I am Ashkenazic, which means that I am of the Eastern European branch of Jews, as opposed to the Sephardic Jews who hail from places like Spain and Morocco. My father grew up Orthodox Jewish in Dorchester, Mass. My father's family came from Russia. Some of my great grandparents and grandparents took all their possessions, sold them, left their shtetl near Kiev, bribed the border guards, got on a boat, and came to America. For anyone who's seen "Fiddler on the Roof," the last scene of the village is a good illustration.

I grew up with some sense of being Jewish, for a few reasons. One was that after the ancient destruction of the holy temple in Jerusalem, Judaism became a faith celebrated in the home. The home matters as much as the synagogue in terms of Jewish practice. Much as my mother loves the pagan greenery of Christmas and decorations and gifts, she really worked just as hard on Jewish holidays. We had hamentaschen at Purim, and celebrated the Jewish New Year with challah and honey, and cooked and cleaned and learned and sang for every holiday. I learned the basic blessings in Hebrew and could translate them word for word into English. Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kid shanu bm'mitzvotav vitizi vanu l'chad lich ner, shel Pesach. "Blessed art thou, sovereign creator of the universe, who commands us regarding the celebration of Pesach." Passover was the biggest deal with a gathering of relatives, a seder meal and what then seemed like interminable recitation of Hebrew.

My Jewish heritage is that I am descended from about 16 direct generations of rebbes going back to Yisrael Rudnick, the Kuchurov Rebbe, whose nickname was Sroleck the Reb. Kuchurov was somewhere in what is now the Ukraine. That great, great uncle Yisrael was crucified by Christian Russians during the Russian revolution during a pogrom to break up the shtetl. It was his murder that motivated my relatives to sell everything and leave for America. That connects to the last factor sealing my sense of Jewish identity; learning about the Holocaust, learning that while Jewish law considered that I wasn't officially Jewish, Hitler's dictates would easily have placed me on the trains, in the labor and death camps, behind the fences, with the other Jews. There is an enduring sense of profound vulnerability that came to me with that knowledge. Those of my Russian relatives that survived pogroms and attacks during the Russian Revolution and Civil War were dead by the end of the Second World War, killed in mass executions of Russian Jewish shtetls and buried in unmarked crowded graves. The sense of vulnerability has never left me and I believe I share this sense with almost all Jews everywhere since the Holocaust.

My parents chose to raise my sister and me Unitarian Universalist. The general worldliness, liberalism and what some would call 'agnosticism' of this faith matched their own, and also the openness and pluralism of Unitarian Universalism seemed uniquely suited to our family's interfaith religious identity. Because Unitarian-Universalism is so religiously multifaceted, growing up in a bi-religious household never felt like a conflict—the same holidays and discussions that happened in our home happened also at church.

Growing up half Jewish and UU offers a lot of opportunities and challenges for exploring the relationship between Judaism and Unitarian Universalism. And there is a relationship; like all relationships, it has many facets. It is traditional; we honor our Judeo-Christian heritage and Jewish and Christian teaching which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves. It is historic; around the turn of the last century there was a hot intellectual debate in Boston between Unitarians and Jews regarding a surprising question: were the two faiths the same? We can perhaps see aspects of the issue if we consider Unitarian Francis David's words: "We must accept God's truth in this lifetime. Salvation must be accomplished here on earth. God is indivisible. God is one." and the central statement of Jewish faith (which is also so focused on how we live in this world, this lifetime), the Sh'ma: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." And the relationship is contemporary because we Unitarian Universalists do have so many people in interfaith marriages or families, or who come out of Judaism to find a faith home with us.

As I learned in my graduate studies of Judaism, which I did as part of my preparation for UU ministry, there is a lot of beauty, wisdom, power and even humor in Judaism, even in the Hebrew Bible. Who knew that in Numbers 11, during their forty years in the wilderness the chosen people had had it and cried out in their anguish: "Enough with the manna—we want garlic!" in the Bible.

Judaism is filled with morality and visions of justice and living and spirituality that are moving and profound; Ecclesiastes, the 23rd Psalm. The Hebrew Bible mandates that not only Jews should rest on Shabbat (Sabbath) but also their servants, Jewish or not, and not only the servants but also the farm animals should not be made to work on Shabbat, and not only the animals but also the land. Once every seven days, and for an entire year once every seven years comes the sabbatical year when you do not work the land.

Nothing is perfect—there are also dark and disappointing stories and interpretations of the divine that are petty and chauvanistic and provisions for slavery and treatment of slaves in the Bible, and more, but there is also much to admire and even strive for. The famed good Samaritan of the Christian parable was acting in accord with the Jewish law in Torah which Samaritans follow to this day.

My heritage and studies made Judaism live for me, and make me want to honor it and incorporate it into my life. But being a UU Jew, or a Jew-U, is hard in many ways. The sensitivity of we UU's to inclusive language, gender equality, justice, and moving beyond patriarchal or parochial traditions does make some aspects of modern Judaism very hard for me at times. There is the sexism: the traditional daily blessing wherein Jewish men thank god for not making them a woman, the small and largely unhonored role of women in the Bible. We learn of the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but there is no mention of the long-suffering and venerable Sarah, Rachel, and Leah. Likewise, yarmulkes (skull caps) are traditionally for men to wear, as are tallises (prayer shawls). 

There is also the exclusivity of the Jewish self-conception as chosen people with a sense of uniquely close relationship to God and the divine, as a bride to a groom, possessing a special, ultimate truth. (Of course this religious dynamic is not limited to Judaism, but Judaism is the religion I am personally concerned with, so...). This is the justification for the Jews' biblical invasion of Middle East's fertile crescent and killing or exiling native peoples. This has changed some more recently; in fact some modern Jewish theology no longer holds that only Jews are saved, rather that Jews are chosen by their observance to redeem all the peoples of the earth—this is even an explanation for the strangely consistent suffering of Jews throughout history and the world for the last 3-4,000 years. But participants in Passover and other holidays know that this exclusivity and sense of chosenness or superiority are still celebrated and lifted up throughout the liturgical year. We see it even in the debates around domestic policy in Israel with the Israeli and Palestinian people.

What makes my difficulties with such traditional elements of Judaism especially difficult is that tradition, and adherence to tradition, is all that has kept the Jews and Jewish culture intact over all the centuries. It is hard to know how to respect tradition without ending up stuck with ideas, beliefs, and behavior that is no longer possible or acceptable to me.

I used to say that I wondered what my rebbe ancestors would think of me. Would they be glad that I am rekindling my Jewish heritage? Would they think it shameful that a woman is working as a scholar and religious leader? Would they feel that my loyalty to Unitarian Universalism and its messages, nebulous as they sometimes are, is selling out the very heritage so many Jews have suffered and even died for? Would they be glad for me, proud of me, or shocked at me, to hear me recite a b'racha, a blessing at the Passover seder, and then see me in a church building on Sunday in my robes and stole which has on it a Jewish star and also crosses, symbols of Greek paganism and of nature, a depiction of a deity and a goddess no less?

A Jewish professor of mine blessed me with the answer, which I think I had already known in my heart: they would be repelled and appalled. People don't always like to hear me say that—I didn't like it when he said it. But I think it's true, and I've made my peace with it. I was raised UU and I was raised Jewish. I cannot be other than I am. Moreover, I see such power and beauty in the intersection of these faiths, in opportunities for us to draw on those millennia of Jewish spiritual expression, of theological reflection, of concern for justice and for right living in this world.

There are no guidelines about how to make my life as a Jew and a Unitarian Universalist meaningful and right. But I know that it seems spiritually right to be engaged in this work of exploration and reconciliation. Unitarian Universalism tells us to heed and honor our conscience, that it is not only an ethical voice but a spiritual instrument. We all need to heed the depth of our roots and the height of our visions. As James Luther Adams, our UU theologian, declared; revelation is ongoing, continuous. Remembering this is essential if we are to grow to become our deepest and best selves. For my own journey, I can say the path is rarely clear, especially when approaching what matters most, but no one ever said the most direct path is the best. There seems to me to be endless meaning to be found in life, as much meaning as we can stand to seek. Choices are not always clear, life is not always as we want it, but by God it is life. L'CHIYEM!

Amen.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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