Rabbi Alissa Wise addresses General Assembly attendees at Fort Street Presbyterian Church
Remarks by Rabbi Alissa Wise, delivered at Fort Street Presbyterian Church in Detroit on Sunday, June 15, 2014, as part of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
It is Jewish tradition to sing a series of psalms on joyous days of celebration. Today is such a day --with so many gathered together in worship and community--so I invoke the words of Psalm 118 :
פִּתְחוּ-לִי שַׁעֲרֵי-צֶדֶק; אָבֹא-בָם, אוֹדֶה יָהּ.
אוֹדְךָ, כִּי עֲנִיתָנִי; וַתְּהִי-לִי, לִישׁוּעָה.
אֶבֶן, מָאֲסוּ הַבּוֹנִים-- הָיְתָה, לְרֹאשׁ פִּנָּה.
מֵאֵת יְהוָה, הָיְתָה זֹּאת; הִיא נִפְלָאת בְּעֵינֵינוּ.
זֶה-הַיּוֹם, עָשָׂה יְהוָה; נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ.
Open the gates of justice for me, that I may enter them and give thanks unto God…
I give thanks to you for you have answered me and have been my deliverance.
The stone rejected by the builders has become the chief cornerstone.
This is God’s doing; it is marvelous in our sight.
This is the day God has made. Let us celebrate it and express our joy”
-- Psalm 118, verses 19 and 21-24
I am honored to have been asked to offer a Jewish greeting this morning. I am so grateful for the invitation. I learn so much from Presbyterian communities about how to do interfaith work. Your denomination models for me openness, curiosity, engagement, deliberate discernment, integrity and commitment. I feel so welcome in your houses of worship I have had the privilege of preaching and teaching in, and at your general assemblies, as this is my second one I am attending.
One of the most important spiritual concepts in Judaism I have found is the idea of “machloket l’shem shamayim”--disagreement for the sake of heaven. It is an acknowledgement that disagreement is a source of great possibility for enrichment and growth, for uncovering truth, and that disagreement must be done in a way that preserves, and even nurtures, continued relationship.
Over the years, I have learned that the Presbyterian community is not so different from my own Jewish community--there are myriad opinions and strongly held beliefs. Just as in the Jewish community, there is likely not one Presbyterian perspective on any issue. Like the old joke Jews often tell about each other: two jews, three opinions!
And so that then is a challenge of interfaith work--we must engage our partners not as representative of all Jews, all Christians, all Muslims, all Buddhists or what have you, but as individuals that are members of a community, engaging in a risky and generous and sometimes difficult kind of engagement beyond and across the boundaries of our homes and communities. We each come from different places and through our work together we have the opportunity to become more fully aware of our own values, beliefs, and commitments. That has been in my experience the greatest gift of the interfaith partnerships I have formed with Presbyterian friends and colleagues. Through opportunities, like this one, I am challenged to clarify what Judaism means to me, what Judaism has taught me. Through this interfaith work I become a better servant of God and social justice organizer. So thank you for this opportunity.
It is taught in Jewish tradition that “ "Every generation must scribe its own Torah.", that is, it is up to each generation to leave behind for the next generation our own code for ethical living, our own stories of pursuit of God, pursuit of peace and justice, our own efforts to honor that each of us is made b’tselem elohim, in the image of God.
It is my hope that our generations’ Torah, our generations’ sacred legacy, will be one scribed together by our sacred, delicate and valuable work of interfaith cooperation. I believe this “interfaith torah” will be a testimony to our work and witness together, as interfaith partners in action for, as we say in the jewish tradition, tikkun olam, repair of the the world. Because I know that f there is anything that is a common understanding between us it is that our world is indeed a broken and uncertain world that needs our best thinking and our best intentions.
As a new mother, I am keenly aware how critical it is for me to be proud of my work in the world and to role model for my children how to walk the walk of the values we teach them at home. I want to tell them about how we all dig deep to find clarity to act, not just despite, but because of the urgency of the disagreements within and beyond our own faith traditions. I want to be able to tell them about the “interfaith torah” we wrote together, Jews, Christians and Muslims, coming together with mutual respect, curiosity to learn from each others’ traditions, rolling up our sleeves and working together to take ACTION.
I am aware there is much business before you all this week on urgent social justice issues both domestic and international. There will be many voices speaking to all sides of the issues at hand. Therefore, I want to bless you this morning with a prayer for clarity of conscience.
May you have the strength, wisdom, and clarity of vision to use your power to work towards bringing peace and an end to oppression of all kinds.
May rhetoric of inclusivity not be mere words. May we take action to end discrimination and prejudice--here in Detroit and across the world.
May you not be afraid to act boldly and resolutely in pursuit of the words of prophet Isaiah: lo yisa goi el goi cherev, lo yilmedu od milchama “ neighbor shall not lift up sword against neighbor, and neither shall they study war any more”
May we offer each other understanding and support as we travel on our sacred journey of tikkun olam (repairing the world).
I believe that the Presbyterian Church has many new friends to gain in the Jewish community and beyond it through its courageous witness. We may not share all of our beliefs or political commitments in common. Such is the beauty and difficulty of coalition work, indeed of any kind of spiritual companionship. We have much to learn from each other, and in long-term relationships our differences are as important as our points of convergence.
Blessed are you, YHVH, Source of Wholeness, for creating unity and disagreement, cooperation and conflict and the gift of our ability to be enriched and enlivened by it all.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us!