Preaching to a Very Mixed Choir
What do you tell a gathering of clerics, when they give you about a minute, and others can be expected to offer some PC drivel? Speaking at the World Summit Of Religious Leaders Forum On Globalization, Religion And Traditional Values this morning in Baku, my colleague Rabbi Abraham Cooper managed to express something with substance and effect, by drawing on Chazal. (I will admit to having had some input in the drafting of the speech. :-)) Introduced by an imam from Kuwait, this, in part, is what he told the crowd:
The Rabbis taught: Ke-sheim she-partzufeihem shonos, kach doseihem shonos. “Just as their faces are different, so are their opinions and beliefs….” What is the connection? Why link faces to beliefs? A learned Rabbi, Yisrael Gustman, himself a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, offers this unique explanation:
We may not like the way somebody else looks, but we hardly blame him or her for the size of their head, the color of their eyes, or length of their nose. We recognize that people looking different, is part of the way G-d set up our world. We should understand that people’s different beliefs are exactly the same. We should accept each person with diverse beliefs without hating the people who espouse those beliefs.
I come to Baku as the representative of the 400, 000 constituent families of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish Human Rights NGO named in honor of a survivor of the Nazi genocide who lost 89 members of his family during the Second World War and devoted his life to bringing Nazi War Criminals before the bar of Justice….
It is also a special honor to return to Baku, a city where in 1972, I came to celebrate the Jewish High Holy Days with Jewish believers at a time when Azerbaijan was a part of the Soviet Union, which as our esteemed brothers-in-faith can personally attest to was an atheist regime bent on breaking the will and commitment of all believers. I remember during my first visit here in Baku on the Festival of Sukkoth, how the local KGB went out of its way to “ensure my safety”, by making it extraordinarily difficult to study Torah with my co-religionists in the local synagogues. I remember as well, seeing how difficult the circumstances were for other believers—Christian and Muslim who were nearly crushed under that oppressive system.
In those days the world looked at believers, especially religious leaders, in the Soviet Union as beacons of light, as heroes for all humanity to respect and protect.
In 2010, we are confronted with a paradoxical reality. Freedom of Religion is now a protected right in most of the nations of the former USSR and indeed in most of the civilized world. Yet today, when you hear the word Religion, it is too often associated with strife, conflict, and yes, the terrorist scourge that poses an existential threat to us all. We live in a time when young people from all economic strata happily strap bombs on their bodies and blow themselves up, even in houses of prayer, in the name of religion. We live in a time, when there are Religious leaders who promise all the rewards of heaven and all the blessings of G-d to those “brave” enough to mass murder innocents.
We also live at a time that Religion is scorned by some as irrelevant to the modern world and its concerns. If we wish to keep religion strong, if we wish to make it attractive to a new generation of young people, we must be able to harness its power for the betterment of the world. And that is why we have gathered at this important meeting.
A good place to start would be to declare unanimously that blowing up people in His Name is never, ever justifiable. It disgraces Him, rather than brings honor to His Name…
He concluded by asking for their active support for a UN resolution making suicide bombing a crime against humanity.