Faith in Public

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
May 18, 2019

This morning I will begin with two question I won't clearly answer:
What is the public role of faith in the 21st century?
How do we share our faith without imposing it?

This morning I would like to share some stories that sit on the balance of those issues.
Yesterday morning I received a packet of evangelical materials on my doorstep. It was dropped off at 7:42 AM according to my video doorbell. The person who left it on my doorstep moved so quickly that the camera didn’t pick up their face. They did not ring the bell. They left a similar dvd/book/pamphlet set at another Jewish neighbor’s house--but not at any of our Christian neighbors homes.

On facebook I wrote:

At 7:42am this morning someone thought I might want “a message of hope and gladness for the Jewish people”. It is now in its proper place.
If the message is so important, why would you leave it at the door? Why wouldn’t you ring the bell? Also, why would you come at 7:42? If you believe so passionately in the truth of your material, why did you drop it off and run away?
I understand that evangelism comes from a place of “love”, but it feels aggressive.
I am proud of my faith. I am happy to share my Judaism with anyone who is interested. I am happy to welcome people into the covenant, the Brit. I also would never leave a message that the only way to Gd is through Judaism. I’m glad my faith sees the world to come as a universal potential for good people and not limited to those who have found the covenant. Look up the Noachide Laws and you can learn more!
Missionizing may come from a place of love, but it can be harmful. It can be hurtful. When someone leaves materials only on Jewish doorsteps, it also feels very creepy. It also is sad. What kind of Gd do you believe in that will only accept someone if they believe exactly like you do?

There is an old joke about a person who dies and goes to heaven. They are wandering around and see a huge wall. It encloses a large area and they wonder who is inside. After asking around they discover the answer. “That’s the xyz heaven. They don’t believe anyone else is here.” I’ve heard the joke from ministers and priests of different faith traditions. It is funny--but also a bit sad.

This week I was privileged to discuss Jewish texts about the afterlife. One of the interesting parts of those texts is the reminder that they do not necessarily speak only about Jews. In our faith, the world to come is not limited to those who share our Covenant. Non-Jews have a place in the world to come--as long as they are righteous--as long as they follow a few basic prohibitions.
  • not to commit idolatry
  • not to commit blasphemy
  • not to commit murder
  • not to have forbidden sexual relations
  • not to commit theft
  • not to eat flesh cut from a living animal
  • to establish courts of justice to punish violators of the other six laws.

I cannot say why this particular pamphlet made me so uncomfortable. I’ve received many of them at shul over the years, but seeing a message specifically written to convert Jews on my doorstep made me feel other-ed, unwelcome, in a very unpleasant way.

In a more positive example, I was asked to give a blessing to the City Council this week. I shared the following.

To the esteemed and honorable members of the St. Petersburg City Council and Mayor Kriseman, thank you for inviting me here today. My name is Rabbi Philip Weintraub and I serve Congregation B’nai Israel on 58th Street, a synagogue which has been in the City of St Petersburg for almost 100 years. As a member of the clergy in this city, I know the hard work that you all put in to bring peace, growth and goodness into this city.

I’d like to share a brief word from Leviticus 24. For many Leviticus is the challenging book of the Bible. It is law and sacrifice, things that seem foreign to the modern world. Yet, I believe that this particular verse is a relevant today as it was in its original context. In Jewish congregations this week all around the world, we will read.

If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him:
שֶׁ֚בֶר תַּ֣חַת שֶׁ֔בֶר עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֥ן מוּם֙ בָּֽאָדָ֔ם כֵּ֖ן יִנָּ֥תֶן בּֽוֹ׃

fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.

On their face, these voices sound cruel, primitive, violent, yet when interpreted, they demonstrate justice. In my tradition, our sacred texts teach that these verses were never to be taken literally, but rather to represent monetary damages. They demand that those injured through others actions receive fair compensation to live their lives.

Standing in front of you all, I see people who must carefully consider the needs of our entire city. To lead you must not only follow the letter of the law, but find the spirit. You must fight for justice for all of us, from the indigent to the wealthy. My prayer for you is that you continue your thoughtful work, continue to fight for us all, continue to bring blessing to our city.

How are the two different? How is it that we have blessings at government meetings at all? Is not the text of the first amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

As I am not a lawyer, I’ll step over the constitutional arguments and look at the language I chose. In speaking to the council, I shared a brief teaching from our faith. I was careful not to suggest that my interpretation was the only one. I concluded with a brief prayer, without naming Gd. All of this was intentional, to ensure that anyone present could feel included and welcomed without being pushed away.

Last night, we had Kabbalat Shabbat on the beach. We used our liturgy in a public place, AND all were welcome. We did not check membership or even faith. We shared our teachings and our music without pressure. In the words of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, that is “public space Judaism”. It is a way to engage people in our faith, to engage unaffiliated Jews. These activities show our pride in our faith, the joy of being Jewish. They are a no-barrier way for people to join us and participate.  Joining us on the beach we had a Jewish couple vacationing from Argentina and some other young Jews who happened to be nearby.

It makes me think about a slideshow Rabbi Josh Rabin, of the USCJ, shared with us a few weeks ago. “Doesn’t Chabad do that?” It was photographs of my colleagues around the country teaching in coffee shops, breweries, at Sesame Place, in Barnes and Nobles, and even giant Hanukkah menorah lightings. Virtually every page was something we do at CBI! Jewish outreach requires us to step out of our comfort zones--not everyone is going to move to town and immediately look us up. We have to be visible, welcoming, AND show how much we value our traditions.

Looking at the world today, when the fastest growing religion is none, we must be open with our faith. We must be out there. We must do public space Judaism. At the same time, we do it in a way that is not threatening. We do not force our ways on others. We celebrate our differences. This is what makes America an incredible place to live.