This Week’s Sermon- Parashat Shmot: Am I Charlie?

I delivered the following sermon this morning at Beth Israel. Please note, as I explained to the Congregation, that I wrote this sermon on Thursday evening before the horrendous attack at the kosher supermarket in Paris. On two occasions this morning, we expressed solidarity, concern and hope for the Jews of Paris and all who are in danger. This sermon was a reaction to the attack in Paris on Thursday.


The terrorist attack in Paris this week was a horrendous, uncivilized, evil act. And, the fact that it was done in the name of a religious faith makes it even more of a hillul hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

But, there is another side to this story that I want to explore this morning. For the past few days I have been thinking seriously about the issue of satirizing religious leaders or religions. I certainly am not in favor of censorship nor do I think religions or religious leaders are above reproach or should be given a free pass to escape the critical spotlight shown upon other institutions. But, it still bothers me deeply to see such caricatures of religious faiths that the French newspaper Charlie Hedbo published.

To feel that one’s religious faith has been demeaned or insulted is an experience that most of us who consider ourselves religious have experienced in one way or another during the course of our lives. It is a heartbreaking experience to have one’s faith tradition or one’s religious leaders or teachers mocked. Of course, it is horrendous and completely unjustifiable to respond to such mockery with murder or acts of violence but it is painful nonetheless.

What bothers me most deeply about the caricatures is that while religious leaders and thinkers who preach violence or hatred deserve to be publicly condemned and I have no hesitation doing that or seeing it done, there are many religious leaders and thinkers who reject violence and hatred and are trying desperately to bring our world closer to redemption. They tend not to get as much attention and I despise and refute the idea that religion only brings pain to the world. I feel that caricatures or any type of “art” which paint with a broad brush hurt all of us.

So, amidst the legitimate concern about censorship and free speech and the horrible example of hatred and violence demonstrated by the extremist Muslims who perpetrated these acts, let us take a moment to look at some positive religious examples around us. Let me refer to two local organizations and three individuals who epitomize a different, constructive approach to what religion can and should be.

I have spoken on several occasions at programs sponsored by the Niagara Foundation, a group dedicated to bringing understanding between the Abrahamic faiths. Those programs have highlighted Jewish, Christian and Moslem leaders who have reached out in concern and love and clearly, publicly and forcefully condemned all acts of violence. Gathered in a room with people who truly seek mutual respect for religious faiths is refreshing indeed.

While I obviously don’t endorse some of the philosophical positions of the Catholic Church, I continue to be so deeply impressed by the kindness, the sincerity, sensitivity and the humility of Pope Francis. He represents in so many ways what religion can be for the world and stands as a shining example for all of us.

And, when I think of our own faith, I think of leaders and teachers such as Abraham Joshua Heschel whose 42nd yahrzeit was observed yesterday. He was a man who personified what religious faith can be: teaching us to be humble, to never accept violence or hatred as “the way it should be” but to be truly surprised and dismayed at every act of violence. He stood for civil rights, for an end to war, even for environmental justice before it was popular to do so and begged us to make our lives a work of art.

And, a few weeks ago, we learned of the death of one of the most honored teachers of our movement, Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Rabbi Schulweis built a vibrant and visionary synagogue in Los Angeles. He founded organizations to bring recognition to non-Jews who performed acts of courage and heroism to save Jews during the Shoah and joined with Leonard Fein, Zichrono livracha, to form MAZON: a Jewish response to Hunger.

But to me Rabbi Schulweis will always be known first and foremost as the author of one my favorite books: For Those Who Can’t Believe. This book is a gem, helping to show how Jewish faith can be fulfilling even for those who think critically and don’t buy pat answers. It is a marvelous book and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

One of the points Rabbi Schulweis makes in this book is that many people make assumptions about what religions teach and assume therefore they can’t believe in the faith in which they were raised. Regarding a young man who is cynical about Judaism, Schulweis writes; “Paradoxically, the only religious notions he considers authentic are those he cannot believe; the only ones he can believe are those he thinks to be inauthentic.” This is similar to that old line they used to say, and maybe still do, about secular Israelis who would object to non-Orthodox synagogues because “the shul I don’t go to is Orthodox”. Offering alternatives which challenge assumptions and preconceived notions about faith often fail because it is easier to reject religion based on what you think religions teach than to engage in serious spiritual consideration of what a faith has to offer.

So, while those who demonize religious faiths have unfortunately some very legitimate grounds to criticize and extremist terror is certainly the most blatant, painting with a broad brush is insulting.There are just too many who still do good work in the name of religions and I believe in the power of religious faith to bring this world to a better place. I haven’t given up yet despite what I read in the papers.

I am pleased and honored to once again welcome Reverend George Lambrides, co-director of the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County to Beth Israel today. The Round Table seeks to educate, to bring people together and to demonstrate that learning about each other’s faith will help us to understand each other and to encourage us to work together to improve our community and our world.

Tomorrow, at Zion Lutheran Church, the Round Table will present this year’s Faces of Faith program in which members of different religious community from Washtenaw County will introduce their faith to others in a fascinating and inspiring format of small group discussions. The program takes place from 2-4 Sunday afternoon and I encourage all of you to attend.

There are many who are using the expression: “Je Suis Charlie” to make a stand in favor of free expression of ideas. In terms of standing against censorship, courageously standing against those who seek to silence others and standing in solidarity with those who have been victimized by terror, I also say: Je Suis Charlie.

But, that doesn’t mean I admire the way the newspaper has characterized Jews, Christians and Moslems. I don’t. I find these cartoons to be offensive to all.

So, in addition to standing for freedom of expression, those of us who believe religious faith can be a constructive aspect of our world and deserves respect must be willing to say- and I’ll say it in English because my French is not good enough- “I am a religious individual and I work for good in the world”. In that way we will be following in the tradition of our teachers whom we remember today and honoring those throughout the world who continue to truly do God’s work.

They are the ones who deserve to be on the front pages.

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