Rabbi Gary Creditor: "Is It A Scandal [see Latin definition] To Be Particular?"
October 19th, 2012
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
Last Friday night I delivered a short sermon entitled: "Why Do They Hate Us So Much?" It originated in my 10th grade Confirmation class which is studying Judaism by looking at Christianity. Discussing the history of early Christianity and its separation from Judaism naturally led into the antagonism of Christianity towards Judaism until the modern age. I related several incidents of my own childhood and observed how different their lives were from mine. We had a great conversation. In the sermon, I used the question as the pretext to talk about the 50th anniversary of the onset of the Second Vatican Council and the great changes that came from it.
Last week's Torah portion of Beresheet is the root of many significant theological differences between Judaism and Christianity. In passing I indicated some of them, as always, being respectful of their faith as well as ours. I prefaced the matter in saying that Vatican II did not change Christian theology and it did not change Jewish theology. I suggested that the real challenge for people of faith is to take faith seriously, for all faiths demand us act on behalf of those who are disadvantaged from whatever cause, to eliminate poverty, guns, murder, disease and ignorance.
Much to my surprise, when this sermon was released on the listserv of the Rabbinical Assembly it ignited a firestorm of comment between colleagues concerning the Aleynu prayer. Along with Shema Yisrael and Adon Olam, Aleynu probably ranks as one of the better sung pieces of liturgy. But like the others, I think that many are not familiar with its content and theology. Some of my colleagues raced to defend this prayer, citing its supposed authorship and date. Others presented their own particular rewrites that are palatable to their consciences.
I would like to respond to my colleagues and share this conversation with you as well, especially as my sermons are released to our own listserv besides being posted on my blog and on the Rabbinical Assembly listserv, courtesy of our son. I can "kill lots of birds with one sermon!" While this is an immense subject, I am going to do this in extreme brevity.
I begin by sharing with you an episode that I taught the Confirmation Class this past Sunday. From 2006 to 2008 the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore joined with Union Theological Seminary /Presbyterian School of Christian Studies a "conversation" whose topic was: "The Scandal of Particularity." I was invited to attend and participate in the sessions held in Richmond. I was greatly honored.
The title was so uniquely worded because it referred to the Latin origin of the word scandal, which is trap , namely was it, is it a trap to iterate and reiterate our religious and theological uniqueness and difference? Near the conclusion, about thirty Christian and Jewish scholars sat around the table and a Christian minister asked: "Would the Jews among us answer: Would it be all right if the Christians called themselves Israel?"
Yours truly had the privilege of being the first Jew in line. All eyes looked towards me. I was the sole pulpit Rabbi in a group of academicians. From all the previous discussions, I knew the answer they wanted. Instead, I said "No." Israel is the unique name for the Jewish people. It indicates my lineage from my Patriarch Jacob, my place in the Jewish people, the bearers of the unique message of Judaism. I cannot give up my name. You could have heard the air being sucked out of the room.
Is it so wrong, is it a 'scandal' – a 'trap' to identify – believe in my or any particularity?
Why was it, is it assumed that me the Jew and my Judaism can be, have to "homogenized" out of existence?
Can I be forthright, upright and out right about my identity while still respecting the identity of others?
There is a scholarly dispute about the origins of Aleynu but all agree that it was before the rise of Christianity to prominence, probably in Babylonia long before Christianity reached there, and so it does not refer to that faith. It was composed for recitation on Rosh HaShanah. Because of its meaning, it was then adopted as the closing liturgy for all services.
Aleynu proclaims the uniqueness of Judaism and of being Jews, the bearer of the message. Perhaps in the time of its composition, when the world was overwhelmingly pagan and amid the debaucheries of the Roman Empire, it might have also included the thought "that we were better than them." I can even imagine Jews entering the gas chambers of the Holocaust believing that too. But Aleynu doesn't say that. Siddur Sim Shalom does not translate it literally, but there are four opening phrases that stress the individuality of being a Jew, and thus we then bow down to the one and only Creator and Master of the world. In the Aleynu it is not a generic "God" but specifically God as revealed in Torah and Prophets, Yud, Hay, Vov, Hay. The first paragraph also proclaims that there is no other God. The second paragraph enunciates the hope of a better world and, even without using the word Messiah, but quoting from Zechariah 14:9, that at the end of time, the Messianic Era, "the only one to be worshipped will be Adonai – Yud, Hay, Vov, Hay – whose Name will be the only one invoked." [Or Hadash, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, page 51].
This is our unique and individual Jewish theology. I make no apologies for it. It comes directly out of the belief system that is Judaism, straight from the pages of our Torah and out of the mouths of the Prophets who surround us in these windows. That is why I answered my colleagues around the table that they couldn't be Israel. If I as a Jew am not Israel, I am not. By homogenizing away the core of the faith, I eliminate the faith. This I will not do.
The substance of Christianity proclaims Jesus as Messiah and that the teachings of the Gospels are the truth and salvation proceeds only through the rituals of the Church. Similarly, Islam proclaims the same about its own teachings about Allah with Mohammed as its singular Prophet. I don't expect any faith to give up its unique expression of the faith. When I sit at the table with my Christian and Muslim colleagues and share openly faith statements on any issue wherein we can agree, cooperate and improve our world, we all know our particular theologies. We do not get into a contest about "who is better." We believe, strongly, deeply, with conviction in our different theologies. No one is asked to gut their faith and self destruct. The reverse! We find fascinating the points of comparison, of similarity and of difference. It is exciting to be in dialogue, each believing in their own, while sharing fellowship, being people with faith.
There is no scandal, no trap, in being particular.
We can each proclaim our own, be strong as Jews, Christians and Muslims, as we realize that faith, religion, God is a mystery, beyond our human knowledge. No faith can prove its truth. None of these sophisticated philosophical theological systems can say that one is better than the other. Adherents to any must believe that theirs is the right one , but to do so with humility and modesty, recognizing that in our human time, we will never know.
So I conclude with the same sentence from last week:
We will know that the Messiah has come when from the pulpits of mosque, church and synagogue it is taught and accepted, that all roads lead to God.