The Power of Words to Include/Exclude (12/23/16 Sermon)
Fri, December 30, 2016
If you have been out and about the past couple of weeks, you have undoubtedly received all of these greetings in one setting or another. They are simple “social niceties” and all well intentioned — yet each one has meanings attached. Do you get a different feeling when the supermarket cashier wishes you ‘Happy Holidays!’ rather than ‘Merry Christmas!?’ In both cases, the person means well, to be thoughtful. In accepting the greeting of “Happy Holidays!” you can, of course, wholeheartedly sign on. It’s a very open-ended wish. The “Merry Christmas” greeting is caring but yet is something in which you are really not a part: like a well-meaning but slightly awkward reminder of a party that you’re not invited to.
As Jews, we are particularly aware – especially at this time of year – of the messages within words and word choices. Words have the power to make someone feel included, close, part of a whole. Words also have the power to exclude – to make someone feel disconnected.
The confluence this weekend of Christmas and Chanukah brings to mind a term that has a history of almost 100 years in this country: the phrase, “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Most of you have likely heard this term used in different circumstances and may have wondered what exactly it means. Is it a term of connection and inclusion? Is it a term of restrictive exclusion? In my study of the phrase’s history, I found an interesting and complicated story behind it. The very diverse ways that the term, “Judeo-Christian” has been used in the United States over the past century reflects a wide array of feelings about what it means to be a country of citizens of many backgrounds, cultures and beliefs. I’d like to share a bit of this history this evening for the purpose of reflecting: How may we best move forward as a country, made up of religiously diverse citizens, that continues to expand its definitions of what it means to be a good American?
We may not be aware that the population of the United States was so dominated by people of Protestant faiths for so long that even into the late 1800’s, Protestant Churches outnumbered all other houses of worship more than 10:1. The Supreme Court, in 1892, put out a statement that the US is a Christian nation – and the term, Christian, at that time most likely was intended to exclude Catholics.
As more immigrants came to this country at the turn of the century, including many non-Protestants, and as anti-Semitism and racism rose in Europe as well as in our own country, there were those concerned enough to join together against intolerance. This included American religious leaders who began an interfaith organization dedicated to diversity called the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It was from this progressive mindset that the term, “Judeo-Christian” became popular as a way to help people understand that Christianity and Judaism both stood for strong religious values that were aligned with good American values. It was perhaps a radical notion – that people could differ in religious beliefs and practices and traditions while still being good, honest, loyal members of the civic community! And the term, Judeo-Christian represented this very idea through the years of World War II.
The military was a major player in this move toward greater acceptance of religious diversity. Those of you with present or past connections to the military, particularly during times of conflict, know that it is of vital importance that people of very differing backgrounds are able to work together, side-by-side, as a trusted, united team. So the military joined forces with the National Conference of Christians and Jews – the NCCJ — to spread the word of religious unity in diversity. Over 8 million pamphlets were given to American soldiers during World War II that the NCCJ had put together. In these pamphlets, American GI’s read, “WWII is a war of ideas between dictatorship and the essentials in our Judeo-Christian tradition. . . America is a country that has been strengthened and nurtured by three ennobling traditions: Protestants, Catholics and Jews.”
These are words that at the time would have been radically progressive and meant to be inclusive. But we already can see, through our modern eyes, that not everyone is part of this new, exciting friendship. There are people left out of this three-fold equation.
And some people already could see the problems with this term, “Judeo-Christian.” A story is shared of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. At that world’s fair there was a large and impressive exhibit called The Temple of Religion. Above its entrance read: “For all who worship God and prize Religious Freedom.” Yet the exhibit was a tribute to the now familiar triad: Protestants, Catholics and Jews. This was a huge step forward in diversity for a country that had been so centered around Protestantism. Yet more than one visitor noted that there were still Americans left out. One visitor recorded the comment, “The Temple of Religion should instead be called, the Temple of the Established Religions of America.”
Interestingly, the West Coast was already a few steps ahead in this regard. About this same time, there was a large and similar fair in San Francisco: “The Golden Gate Exposition.” The San Francisco Temple exhibit additionally included Mormons, Baha’i’s, Christian Scientists and Buddhists.
As the War ends and America moves forward into the 50’s and 60’s, there are a few different directions taken by the term, Judeo-Christian.
As America enters the Cold War with Russia, the term becomes political. At the time, our conflict with the Russians was framed as a Judeo-Christian country at war with the godless communists. Judeo-Christian becomes a political rallying cry suggesting that our differences are not so much about economic and political and cultural disagreements but rather are rooted in the fact that they are secular and we are not.
Through those years and even to our present day, Judeo-Christian has become a term used to express two ideas: One: that to be American is, at its core, to be a believer in one very specific idea of God, and two: That people who are secular or of some other religious expression besides Protestant, Catholic and Jew, are not as authentically American as others.
And so a simple term: a hyphenated phrase – comes to morph in meaning very drastically from 90 years ago. A word that was intended to build bridges among people of differing beliefs. A word created to say, “you can be unique and also be a valued part of a shared community,” A word intended to teach those living before the breakout of World War II that our beloved country is beautiful because it is a patchwork quilt of differences – has become a word that is now used to teach the opposite.
Our Torah portion this week has a lot to say about the power of words to both hurt and heal – to both tear down and build up relationships. In fact the Hebrew words, deebah, daber, yagayd – all meaning ‘word’ and ‘tell’ and ‘speak’ – appear multiple times in the portion. A portion that begins with Joseph speaking words to his brothers about his dreams: that they will all end up bowing down to him. In the portion we read that his words caused great ill-will among his brothers – tearing down the family relationship. Unfortunately, a war of words between Joseph and his brothers builds to the point where Joseph is sold by them into slavery in Egypt.
There is only one positive use of words in this part of our Torah portion. Joseph is wandering, lost, looking to find and connect with the brothers he has alienated. And a strange man seems to come out of nowhere. Jewish tradition teaches that this man is a messenger of God – an angel. The man and Joseph meet. The man opens his mouth to speak. And what comes out is a question. “Mah t’vakesh?” What are you seeking? What are you looking to find? And the man listens for Joseph’s answer – not assuming he knows what Joseph wants or needs. Joseph tells him he is looking for his brothers – to find them – to be with them. And then the man tells him what he knows and sends Joseph along on his way.
I think about the term Judeo-Christian – how the term was a beautiful literary creation to reach out in love across traditions. And although we have reached a time when the term itself can no longer be used in this way, I think about what is really core to the phrase. Maybe it’s not Judeo, and maybe it’s not Christian. Maybe it’s the hyphen!
A hyphen is the radical notion that two words can be very different but can be linked together to create something new, different and wonderful. And just as differing words can be joined together with a hyphen, so can differing people and cultures be joined to create a wonderful community, society and world.
As one way to create that link is through words, I do think that our Torah portion this week provides us a valuable message about the way to use our words to connect. I find it very instructive that the words used by God’s messenger to Joseph were in the form of a question: “Mah t’vakesh?” “What is it that you are seeking?” The man’s words are open-ended, they are curious, they have no agenda. He does not approach Joseph with assumptions. They allow a space for Joseph to respond fully.
As we look to connect with neighbors and fellow Americans of other cultures, other backgrounds, other beliefs, whether religious or not, we may not always know the right words to use to make that connection. We may use words that are fraught with meanings that aren’t on our radar. Words can sometimes, even when we mean well, cause tension in relationships.
But taking a lesson from the angel of our Torah portion, we can strive to use words of openness – more questions than statements – more non-judgmental curiosity than asserting our own perspective.
Using words that enable the respectful space needed for both participants in the conversation to learn and grow.
During this time when we and those different from ourselves strive for light in the darkness, let us remember that even as we each search in unique ways, we are all united in our quest for hope. May this festive season of lights serve as a beacon to all of us – to help us move forward together – a hyphenated nation of unique individuals and groups.
May we use our words and our actions to come together in peace.