Tabernacle at Temple Beth Torah where God's Word is housed at Temple Beth Torah, Holliston, MA
Reverend Bonnie Steinroeder, pastor of First Congregational Church in Holliston, Massachusetts, and I were recently invited to evening prayer services with our Jewish neighbors and friends at Temple Beth Torah for Yom Kippur. Our friendships were forged through close connections between the Christian churches in town and the local synagogue some years ago. Additionally, our interfaith dialogue project called the Metrowest Interfaith Dialogue Project began with these important relationships and widened the circle to include nearby faith leaders from other religious traditions including communities of Hindus, Sikhs, Bahai, Muslims, and the Spiritual but not Religious (SBNR).
As a Christian that draws deeply from our Judaic roots, where the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are received as one whole letter of love from God, the rhythm and cadence of the evening prayer of Yom Kippur resonated profoundly within me. As we walked into the prayer space with warm greetings from Rabbi Mimi Micner and members of the community, we began our prayer with Kol Nidrei.
Rabbi Mimi and the Cantor wore white albs with their Tallitot or prayer shawls draped over them in what I perceived as anticipation of atonement and renewal for the whole congregation. I thought the declaration of Kol Nidrei to renounce past oaths to God was odd. But other commentators address this issue by saying that Kol Nidrei, in actuality, emphasizes the importance of keeping one’s word and reaffirms our belief in honoring our commitments. Numbers 15:26 is recited: “May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are at fault.” How appropriate, as we enter a day when we will be saying over and over how we plan to change and do teshuvah, our return to God.
As a gentile Catholic interfaith leader, I found as I stood with my Jewish neighbors, my own need to be forgiven by God, along with theirs, and how our healing is so inextricably tied together. Not just on a personal level, but in our interfaith ties and the ties we all share with humanity and the earth. Christianity’s history is darkly blemished by antisemitism, often citing our sacred texts for its justification. The Middle Ages saw the persecution of Jews following the outbreak of the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century by the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s saw improvements in the relationship following a repudiation of the Jewish deicide accusations and addressed the topic of antisemitism for the first time. Atonement can lead to new ways in our relationships.
During the Shema on Yom Kippur, the second line, Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto LeOlam Va’ed, “Blessed is the Name of His Glorious Kingdom for all eternity” is read aloud. Moses originally heard this line from the angels when he was on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah from God. Though normally said quietly, on Yom Kippur it is said out loud. Normally, one dares not utter angelic phrases loudly, but on Yom Kippur, it is as if we are all spiritually raised to the level of angels, and we say the verse out loud. Courage is required!
The Shema recounts the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy and the prayer that reverberates throughout other religious traditions, including Islam. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed is the name of His glorious Kingdom for all eternity. You shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children…” We all hold this enduring behest as Christians who also account for these same words through the lips of Jesus, with the addition from Leviticus, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)
Intergenerationally, across one hundred and twenty-six nations, through thousands of languages, through art, sacred texts, and enshrined in our secular cultures such as the Bill of Human Rights, we hold together, this all-encompassing command, perhaps even a plea. Listen to God, to each other, to the earth, to the cries of injustice, and to our need to celebrate our common humanity. Together we are a parable of God’s miracle each and every day if we choose to see each other as such. Our rich diversity of religious paths, each one a “sacrament” of God, profoundly shows that our religious diversity belies one interfaith voice, and the power of love that voice carries in a way our individual traditions cannot.
The Contemporary Burden of Antisemitism
There were other rich experiences in this evening’s prayer of Yom Kippur, but my attention was captured by the sermon of Rabbi Mimi and the burden of antisemitism. She spoke about how she often felt, in her younger days, that her Jewish community was alone, withstanding centuries of persecution without support or friends. It reminded me of the recent PBS film by Ken Burns and his collaborators, The US and the Holocaust. At best, this three-part series is profoundly disturbing in its truth of antisemitism, which was not only the product of Nazi politics but was also shored up by the unseen hand of Jewish prejudice outside of Europe, including the United States.
As the program notes explain, this project “examines America’s response to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the twentieth century. Americans consider themselves a “nation of immigrants,” but as the catastrophe of the Holocaust unfolded in Europe, the United States proved unwilling to open its doors to more than a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of desperate people seeking refuge. Through riveting firsthand testimony of witnesses and survivors who as children endured persecution, violence, and flight as their families tried to escape Hitler, this series delves deeply into the tragic human consequences of public indifference, bureaucratic red tape, and restrictive quota laws in America.”
Antisemitism in the US existed since colonial times and continued in various forms. Fundamentally, as the country evolved and became more diverse culturally and religiously, responses to this pluralism provoked isolationism and entrenched racism. The “Great Replacement” theme was stressed by highlighting the supposed threat of Jews and other immigrants replacing Native Americans. Antisemitic activists in the 1920s and 1930s were led by Henry Ford and other figures like William Dudley Pelley, Charles Coughlin, and Gerald L. K. Smith, as well as the Ku Klux Klan. They promulgated various interrelated conspiracy theories that widely spread the fear that Jews were working for the destruction or replacement of white Americans and Christianity in the U.S.
The roots of the “Great Replacement” endures today in white nationalism, populism, and nativism. Although we moved from our image of a country as Anglo-Saxon to Judeo-Christian (Today how do we include all of the others outside Judaism and Christianity?), there is much to do yet. On October 27, 2018, the very first time we gathered as an interfaith community in this same synagogue, another mass shooting took place at the Tree of Life, or L ‘Simcha Congregation Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Protesting a Jewish immigrant service that provides humanitarian relief to refugees, Bower said on social media, “They like to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Eleven people were killed, and six people were wounded.
Jewish Communities and Their Allies
Rabbi Mimi went on to say how her mindset that Jews were alone in the world was not quite as accurate as she thought. She discovered stories of non-Jews who put themselves at great risk to hide and rescue her people running from Nazi persecution. It was palpable for her, connecting her to her family in those very days. She underlined that the Jewish community today cannot engage with antisemitism alone and that allies were crucial, what I see as the power of #oneinterfaithvoice. She recounted in our town where Rev. Bonnie and I collaborated to have Nazi war memorabilia removed from a local antique shop. She emphasized in our little town and everywhere else, how our one interfaith voice is crucial to creating inclusive communities in a world with pronounced divisions of antisemitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism at their core.
Our evening prayer of Yom Kippur raises up our common oaths to God, and thus to each other, in vivid expectation of what our communities could be like if only we “listen” to the God who speaks to all of humanity in extraordinary ways. According to tradition, it is on Yom Kippur that God decides each person’s fate, so Jews are encouraged to make amends and ask forgiveness for sins committed during the past year. In our Metrowest Interfaith Dialogue Project, we are learning how to listen, act and renew our covenant with God and with each other. In my own Christian faith, it is about seeing each other as God sees us, and imagining a world together that are like icons, views of the dreams of God.