Friday, January 2, 2015

A Thought for the New Year of 2015…. An Antidote to the Tom Lehrer anthem

We all remember the song about hate. This group hates that group and that group hates another group and everyone hates the …. So it goes, and so it has gone for way too many decades, centuries, since the beginning of recorded history as reflected in the Torah/Jewish Bible, when Cain and Abel had their tragic altercation. Our Rabbis tell us that there is an important missing text in that story, namely WHAT EXACTLY WAS SAID from one brother to another before our first recorded incident of fratricide. There have been a plethora of theories about what words could have possible led to such horrible results. What could they have possible been?

The day after New Year’s, here I am playing “Sunday morning,” you know, sitting with my coffee and croissant and reading the paper. Lo and behold, I come across this great commentary by E.J. Dionne entitled “Great questions about the future of religious faith” in The Philadelphia Inquirer. It can be found at It is a quick and highly recommended read.

His point is beautiful in its simplicity. He explains that the desired mark of our pluralistic society is that we ask questions of each other and begins by quoting the well-known story of Rabbis from long ago. One asks the other “Why is it that you Rabbis almost always put your teachings in the form of a question?” The answer – That is a very good question! We learned long ago that “Questions unite, answers divide.” There is actually a question, interestingly enough, as to whom that was attributed. Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel are the leading contenders. Does it really matter? The point is that questions open doors for dialogue; declarative and absolute statements close door and draw boundaries, too often resulting in disastrous results.

Throughout the same issue of our local paper, there are many articles about QUESTIONS in the New Year. What will happen in the Palestinian debate over statehood and self governance? What will be the future of too many places in the world that are presently mired in conflict? What is going on in this country between our police forces and the people that they are supposed to be invested in protecting? How are we to heal these insurmountable rifts in our fractured world?

Dionne goes on to laud the new Pope who is really dedicated to addressing so many of these questions of conflict from the position of his foundationally held Christian values? What are those values, you ask? GREAT QUESTION!!!! These values, interestingly enough are more often than not shared by people who uphold different variances of religious faith as central to their lives. The problem is that too often those same people are so wrapped up in the accuracy and correctitude of their personal beliefs, that these become facts and the questions are lost.

I am an avid Law and Order fan. I skip the first three minutes because even with scripts and stage blood, I cannot stand to look at violence. I then LOVE watching the process. In this process, supposedly hardened people adamantly hold on to their stories of what happened and justify their despicable actions vehemently with declarative statements. As the hour winds down, the guilty party will often break down and move from statements to questions (e.g. What was I supposed to do? Can you understand how I thought that …?) Imagine if they would have begun with questions, the script would have been so different. While this might not make for great television and ratings, it definitely is something to consider in looking at the real life conflicts that are so part of our existence daily.

So what might these questions look like? Let us join John Lennon for a moment and IMAGINE. What if the Jews asked the Christians what Jesus means to them and show respect for that perspective? What if the Monotheists who fight over whose understanding of G-d is better ask Buddhists about their ways of peace? What if Protestants could ask Catholics about the importance of sacraments? What if Moslems really considered what submission means? What if religious and self identified ritualistically observant persons of faith could ask the questions that would have them look at less observant individuals with new found respect for their ethically informed behaviors? And what if we all remember what our Rabbis (teachers) of old show us – that questions are far more compelling than answers, for one question can and does spark many answers, and there is not just ONE correct way!

As 2015 dawns, let us commit ourselves to these questions. Let us resolve that we will work to understand each other and ourselves better and come to terms as much with what we are not sure that we know and ask, while questioning what we are so sure that we know along the way as well. Maybe then and only then will we learn to listen and share the beautiful ways of our religious faiths instead of using them as the weapons they were never meant to be. Then we will be able to write the new version of the Tom Lehrer song together and show that finally we have learned the lesson of Cain and Abel – NOT TO LEAVE OUT QUESTIONS! KUM BA YA!

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