Humilitas (Yom Kippur Morning Sermon – October 8, 2011)

Gut Yontif – Shabbat Shalom – G’mar Tov!

If a rock concert was a somewhat unexpected setting for a spiritual experience; a performance by Yo Yo Ma and the BSO a bit more likely; it was the third experience that really rocked me this summer. In this case, the setting itself was not a strange place for someone to have a powerful experience. The setting was a church. And, since Jewish tradition teaches us that we all worship the same God, it was not such an unlikely spot. Though I have been to church on many occasions, this time was different.

The site was Grace Chapel in Lexington, about which our President, Bruce Green wrote in his September bulletin article. Though I have heard about the place for years, I’d never been to Grace before mid-August. The occasion for this first visit was a two-day Global Leadership Summit sponsored by the Willow Creek Association, based out of Barrington, Illinois. On the recommendation of a rabbinic colleague, eight of us – four staff and four lay-leaders, signed on to attend the two-day Leadership Conference at the satellite site in Lexington. We figured we might come away having heard a few good ideas about community and leadership (perhaps useful for our Welcoming and Engagement campaign); we expected we’d hear some good contemporary Christian music (we did); and we figured we might hear an inspirational talk or two (Also true). I’m not entirely sure what we really expected. Nor were the leaders at Grace Chapel quite sure what to make of our group’s attendance. They were exceedingly gracious and welcoming. I received a phone call the day before the Conference to welcome us and was asked if we knew what we were coming to. I chuckled and explained that I’d spent five years as a rabbi in Jackson, MS and that at least I understood that there would be heavy Christian overtones to the event. The care and hospitality we received continued throughout and beyond those two days. There was no attempt to convert us. We found genuine acceptance of a group of people who think, believe, and live differently. The impact of this event – including witnessing the community in worship – and some of the most powerful and inspiring presentations has left me changed. Powerful experiences at a Church should be no surprise, but at a Global Leadership Conference. (By Global they mean 140,000 participants at over 300 sites around the world), that was unexpected. The many lessons my colleagues, on what we are now calling the Willow Creek team, and I learned are too many to share now. The learning and reflection since those two days continues to be powerful – both on a personal level, as well as in my journey as your rabbi, and I hope, in our journey as a community. Stay tuned.

One of the speakers at the conference was John Dickson. Dickson is a professional musician, a TV presenter, an historian, and an Anglican minister. A senior research fellow in Ancient History at Macquarie University and a co-director of the Centre for Public Christianity, Dickson is an incredibly bright and funny Aussie who is a powerful speaker who truly makes his listeners think. His talk was entitled Humilitas. As I listened, I felt a strong sense of connection to one of the themes which emerged from our House Meetings last year. Listening to Dickson, and reflecting on those who spoke about their concerns regarding the tenor of discourse in our society during the House Meetings, it struck me that there is a common thread here. In today’s world, and discourse, it so often seems like we have lost our capacity to balance our thoughts and feelings with a core religious and moral value – humility.

After hearing Dickson speak at the Conference, I read his most recent book, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership, in which he explores the origins of humility as a value and the many ways in which we understand and strive for humility in our lives. I was particularly taken early on with Dickson as he debunked the broadly held misconception that the value of humility originates with Jesus and in Christian Scriptures. He writes: “I just want to point out that the peculiar Western meaning of ‘humility’ derives [first] from the usage of the Hebrew-speaking Jews, [then] Latin-speaking Romans, and the Greeks, in particular Greek-speaking Christians of the first century. In all three languages the word used to describe humility means ‘low,’ as in low to the ground: the Hebrew [is] anava . . . Used negatively the [humility] to be put low, that is, “to be humiliated.’ Positively, [it] means to lower yourself or ‘to be humble.’”

Humility is a huge issue in today’s world. So too, humiliation. We live in a world wherein so many speak with such certainty and such authority that it often becomes difficult, if not impossible, to hold a conversation as people are talking, if not screaming past one another. Indeed, our media-driven culture today feeds this disintegration of the art of debate and discourse. Watch some of the “talking-head” shows on a variety of TV channels. No one listens, and in truth no one is open to learning what the other has to say. We see it in public discourse here in Newton and in other communities that surround us. We see it, to be sure, on our national political scene. This summer’s display around budget negotiations was a disgrace to all of our elected officials in Washington. We see it in the 2012 Presidential campaign for an election, which is yet 13 months away and is already hot and bothered. We see it in the discourse of children and youth as they take their cues from the adults around them, and especially from our culture. And, as I said on Rosh Hashanah, we see it in our own inability as a Jewish community to discuss matters on which there are divergent points of view.

Disagreement is as old as humanity itself. Indeed, after the Torah opens with the story of creation, culminating in the creation of human beings, there is conflict as Cain murders his brother Abel. It’s interesting to note that in the text we are told that Abel said something to Cain, but the text bears an ellipsis, and we are not told what words were spoken. We only know that the outcome was the world’s first murder.

A famous passage in the Talmud (Tractate Eruvin 13b) records the fact that the two leading schools of thought in first century Palestine had a running series of disputes for over three years. The Talmud teaches: “There was a dispute between Beyt Hillel and Beyt Shammai, the former asserting, “The law is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “The law is in agreement with our views.” As the two sides were vigorously disputing their claims, a bat kol, a Divine voice came forth from heaven, announcing, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim, “These and those are the words of the living God.” Some of you may have heard my teacher Rabbi David Hartman expound on this teaching on NPR’s Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett a few weeks back. He taught that the force of Eilu v’eilu is to suggest that the Divine Voice interrupts the debate to proclaim, “no one owns the truth. No single idea ends the discussion.” In the words of David Hartman, “Dialogue creates possibility for more fruitful discussion.” Citing another rabbinic source, Rabbi Hartman goes on to share a passage from the Midrash which teaches that when the Torah was given at Sinai, there were many who heard it differently. This is to teach us that no single interpretation is valid in and of itself.” There has never been a single truth in Judaism. In the words of David Hartman, “We meet reality through the visions of other people. To be a Jew is to say, ‘Why are you right? You are going to have to explain that to me. And I’m going to argue with you.’” And that discussion, or argument, must take into account the limitations of knowledge that any of us have. We must take into account the fact that the other, with whom we engage is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God and that person deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.

But we seem to have lost this vision of others as precious human beings. In Humilitas, Dickson notes that “There is a failure of ethical imagination in our culture . . . We have forgotten how to flex two mental muscles at the same time: the muscle of moral conviction and the muscle of compassion to all regardless of their morality. Secular society no less than religion often operates on a narrow-minded logic: you can only love those whose lives you approve of. You can only be friends with people who agree with you…” Dickson suggests, “There is a third way, based on a different logic. It’s where we learn to respect and care for those with whom we profoundly disagree. We maintain our convictions but choose never to allow them to become justification for thinking ourselves better than those with contrary convictions. We move beyond mere tolerance to true humility.”

Tolerance is an oft-mentioned concept in our society and discourse. But what does it really mean to speak of “tolerance.” What does it mean to say, I “tolerate you.” While a dictionary definition explains “tolerance” as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own,” the reality in our world suggests a somewhat different application. Indeed, whether it’s the debate over healthcare, gay marriage, abortion, the right of Muslim communities (and others for that matter) to build houses of worship, discussion of Israel within our Jewish community, or a myriad of other subjects, all too often it seems as if we have lost that notion of a “fair, objective and permissive attitude” towards opinions different from our own. Several years ago, as we gathered with neighbors from our broader Newton community on the lawn outside this Sanctuary in the aftermath of our Temple Shalom sign being desecrated with a swastika, I stated that while the act may have been the prank of young people (we still don’t know), we live in a culture of disrespect in which hateful speech and half-truths are accepted as communication. I fear we are teaching the younger generation that it’s okay to label others with hateful tags because they hold different beliefs than we do, politically, religiously or otherwise. We are teaching the next generation that listening is not what matters. Screaming most loudly and with extreme passion is what counts. Of course we are not all teaching that message, far from it. But I am deeply concerned about our culture of disrespect. I am disturbed by the name-calling, hateful and dishonest assertions that are made in a variety of realms that are so often intended to provoke fear or create division. John Dickson puts it this way: “Humility applied to (deeply held) convictions does not mean believing things any less; it means treating those who hold contrary beliefs with respect and friendship.”

If we really want to pursue tikkun olam – the repair of our broken world, let us start with what issues from our mouths – and from the mouths of those around us. We should stop ourselves from hateful, intolerant, uncivil speech and behavior. And when we see it in those around us we must call it out and stand up against it.

At the Leadership Conference, Rev. Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Church, asked participants in his opening talk, “Have you had your bell rung lately?” He was talking about leadership – and for me, the Willow Creek Leadership Conference definitely “rang my bell.” It has awakened in me a broad range of thoughts, concerns and actions. And John Dickson’s compelling talk and book have forced me to see humility as a cornerstone of the civility I believe we so desperately need to cultivate. As we enter this New Year, may we each examine our hearts and souls. May we examine our thoughts, words, deeds, forms of expression. May we hold ourselves, and those around us to the higher standard of humility. May we fight against the humiliation of others. May we conduct our lives – in all their realms – with a sense of humility that leads us, our children, our community, and our world towards greater civility. May our debates be passionate without humiliation and denigration. May our words and deeds help us to build the messianic world, the world of justice and shalom we so deeply crave. Today’s a great day to start!

G’mar chatimah tovah! May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year – a year of sweetness, good health, learning, laughter, civil discourse, blessing and shalom!

One thought on “Humilitas (Yom Kippur Morning Sermon – October 8, 2011)

  1. Rabbi Gurvis, This sermon reeeeealy got to me. I love YOYOMA! So the music part pulled me right in. And the message….to be present… what I think we need so badly. Thank you for sharing your brilliant thoughts.
    We wish you a beautiful Shana Tova, a Happy Sukkot, and send love from Texas…..
    Lana Croft (Neil’s Galveston Aunt)

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