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Another Thing You Didn’t Know
or Completing Hitler’s Work

by the Rev. Elizabeth A. Lerner
Service at UUCSS on October 12, 2003

World War II and the events that led up to it rocked the world religiously as much as in any other way. Every religion was affected, and changed, because of what that time told us about what could happen in the world, not least in the name of one faith against another. Judaism, of course, was pulled in every direction imaginable. People became more orthodox, others became humanists, and every variation in between. But wherever Jews fell on the theological spectrum, one thing united many of them: their determination to keep their heritage alive and to pass it on to the next generation. Perhaps the most ringing religious response was that of the Jewish theologican and philosopher Emil Fackenheim. Judaism contains 613 lesser ‘commandments’—rules for being an observant Jew. Fackenheim’s declared that the holocaust engendered a new, 614th commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Give Hitler a Posthumous Victory.” In other words, if for no other reason than to defeat Hitler’s aim, Jews could not abandon their heritage, even if their faith was shaken or empty, even if they were afraid to declare their identity, no matter what, they had to remain, and raise their children to be, Jews.

A few years ago, a good friend of mine, the Jewish son of a holocaust survivor, was best man at his Jewish friend’s wedding. The friend was marrying a Catholic girl. Thy searched long and hard for a rabbi who was willing to perform the wedding. Though the wedding was in Texas, the only rabbi they could find was located in New York and charged a high fee. They paid his fee, and also for his roundtrip flight and his accomodation in Texas. My friend Dan and his friend went personally to pick the rabbi up at the airport and bring him to the hotel. And in the car on the way to the hotel, the rabbi was talking to the groom about his imminent marriage and said to him: “You are completing Hitler’s work.” This terrible, hateful thing he said is not actually that unusual. Since the groom and his now wife told me that story, a few years ago at Dan’s wedding, I’ve heard similar ones. Jews actually say this to each other when one of them is leaving, or marrying outside the fold.

There’s a lot I could say about this, not least about the hypocritical clergyman who says such things even as he accepts exorbitant fees to perform the very service he condemns. But my purpose today is actually to explore that very dynamic, so-called ‘completing Hitler’s work’, because among other things, it’s an accusation often made of Jews who come to us, to Unitarian Universalism.

Surverys show that many of us, most of us in fact, come to Unitarian Universalism from another religion. Whether we were active in that faith, or passive in it, we came here from there. For many of us, we didn’t learn about Unitarian Universalism until just before we got here. I cannot begin to count how many people have told me that they were UU’s for years or decades, but didn’t know it because they didn’t know there was a religion that believed or felt as they did about spiritual openness, religious pluralism, honest respect and authentically seeking and honoring meaning in life. Many people have said that walking in here and other UU congregations was a revelation and offered an immediate sense of belonging...finally. And because that sense was true and deep, coming often after a dark night or even season of the soul, there was joy in the morning. Joy to have found a home and a people to call our own.

Perhaps because almost none of us are here out of a sense of constraint or obligation, because most of us chose to be in this faith and this congregation in particular, we’re pretty enthusiastic about it. Church is not a duty dance. It’s fun, it’s uplifting, it’s supportive, it’s relevant. And feeling good about it as we do makes it easy to be unaware of the challenge it is for others of us to be here. For a number of us UUCSS’ers, our membership in this free faith community is hard, mostly because it sets us apart from our families of origin that are not, not at all, UU families of origin.

When I mention this conflict, I’m really not just talking about Jewish UU’s here. I know there are some among us with families strongly associated with other faiths: Southern Baptist, Pentacostal, Catholic - for whom this is a perennial and wrenching issue. Every family gathering is about defending one’s faith against the other, and vice versa. Carefully orchestrated conversations in cars and around barbeques and after attending the home congregation one weekend raise issues of coming back to the fold, and sometimes also the consequences of refusing. Pressure, derision, condemnation, rejection, estrangement... sometimes nothing is too much when the issues are as bottom line as these: a loved one’s faith and righteousness and eternal damnation.

This is especially common for UU’s coming out of Judaism. We’ve just come through the High Holy Days - the most important holidays in the Jewish liturgical year. If they go to temple at all, this is when Jews go. And it’s a time for profound reflection and resolution, especially around the issue of what it is to live as a Jew.

I’ve spoken before about my own experience of working to unite my Jewish heritage and UU faith and some of the criticism I’ve come in for along the way. Many of you know I’m the current president of UU’s for Jewish Awareness, an organization that works to offer resources and opportunities for a range of needs, from the many Unitarian Universalists who have come to our faith from Judaism, to the challenges of interfaith couples and families, to religious professionals and laypeople with a personal or spiritual interest in Jewish/UU issues, stories, resources and heritage. My work in this area has always been grounded on my knowledge that for a lot of “Jew-U’s,” ours is a position as uneasy as it is necessary. We believe in UU’ism and are compelled to throw in our lot with this faith. And we feel guilt about abandoning - because abandoning is what it feels like we’re doing, even as we may continue to honor holidays and teach them to our children - we feel guilty about abandoning a faith for which our ancestors and even relatives in living memory died, mostly in horrible ways. Because being Jewish is not just a faith tradition, it is a heritage, a culture, an identity.

There’s a lot of attention to multiculturalism in Unitarian Universalism these days. This is not another term for racial or ethnic diversity; it’s more about cultural and religious diversity within our faith. If you’ve leafed through our hymnal you’ve noticed we have songs and readings from many faith traditions. Though the majority of material comes from Christianity, we’ve also got Sufi, Hindu, Daoist, Native American, Buddhist, Pagan...and of course Jewish.

Not everyone thinks this is okay. Some people, for instance UU’s with Native American roots think it is shallow and imperialistic for us to appropriate words and rituals from the many Native American traditions, especially when few of us know much about those traditions beyond what we find in the hymnal. Some folks go so far as to say it doesn’t matter how much you know; even if you know a lot, if you weren’t born to it, you’re an outsider and you have no right to any of it, period, especially in regard to a people who have already had so much taken from them.

These are tough issues. If we stick with the Native American issue, indeed they have lost so much, forcibly, often violently. Their complex and rich heritage is almost all they have left. The rest of us hear about vision quests and dream catchers and animal totems that inspire and sustain individuals, the perception of spirits that imbue all living things: bear spirit, deer spirit, beaver spirit, fish spirit, spirit of the north, the south, the east, the west. And so what if we like it, so what if we feel drawn by it, to it to give our self a pretty totem name: windhorse or tall deer - we don’t really know the experience and heritage as we would from the inside, we never will, and it’s not our right to take what doesn’t belong to us.

I can’t, and wouldn’t, argue with a Native American about this, or about their right to feel that way. But I do argue with extending the argument out from that as a principle for UU’s generally. And there are a few reasons for this.
One is that I believe that religious syncretism is inevitable. Some people attach interfaith appropriation to white European attitudes that come out of an enduring imperialist impulse. Well, that’s catchy and very contemporary, but it’s also wrong. Studying religious history reveals that as long as there has been religion there has also been influence of one faith on another, and the borrowing and importation of traditions, rituals, stories and even deities. I’m not talking about intentional missionary conversion here, I’m talking about trade and military and migration interactions influencing people who come upon a god, a tradition, a theology, a ritual, and feel it’s attraction for themselves, and take some of it with them. Thus did Isis come to Greece, carried back from Egypt by the soldiers of Alexander the Great to be garbed and presented as if a Greek goddess, but with all her Egyptian qualities. Thus also was the composite god Serapis created. Thus was Mithras cult brought to Rome from Persia, and thus did Mithras eventually combine with aspects of Apollo and Jewish and Jesus tradition to result in aspects of Jesus when Christianity finally came into its own long after Jesus’ death.

People have been drawn and influenced by different religions time out of mind; it’s fundamental to human religious experience, it is a human, not an imperialist, impulse. And frankly, it’s also why trying to avoid or even condemn influence of religions on each other is simplistic and unrealistic. It seems to me that the real issue is not whether to draw on other faith traditions—because if we don’t, if we restrain ourselves entirely, others will go right ahead and do it howsoever they feel moved—but how to do it. UU’s are uniquely suited, because of our pluralism and frequent interfaith background to consider what kind of standards ought to operate in exploring different faiths and wisdom. And when we do it, with a sense of our standards, we ought to keep the bar high, do it well - and thus, help determine what responsible religious influence looks like.

When I was a minister at Star Island retreat last summer, I was facilitating a discussion series on this issue, and we were talking about it in relation to children’s religious education. One woman made a wonderful point. We spend heaps of time and money and thought and training, preparing our UU instructors to teach our sex education curriculum, Our Whole Lives, to our children and ourselves. We take it very, very seriously. What do we do to prepare our instructors to teach about world religions? Nothing. Well, not nothing. We give them a curriculum and the support of the Religious Education Director, and generally folks have some personal experience to draw on...but that’s it. No special training. No requirements. Nothing to address what equips us, or doesn’t, to discuss another religious belief or ritual...let alone perform it in class.

We all care about being people of faith who search, and searching well. I’ll never forget the Sunday service I went to around the December holidays a few years ago, where the minister did the sermon that morning with a newsprint chart and a marker. He was talking about what unites the big holidays of the season, Kwanzaa, Hannukah and Christmas. It’s nice to think there is a lot that unites them, and certainly the congregation wanted to think so. So he asked them the congregation what they knew about each holiday and lo, it turned out they were basically the same thing - light and hope in darkness. Which isn’t true. Kwanzaa I know little about, but Christmas and Hannukah I know a lot about and light and hope in darkness is only true in the biggest picture sense. Christmas is about the birth of a savior, the prince of peace, in particular circumstances. Hannukah is about the forcing of a people to successful but violent means of defending their faith and identity. Lumping them together doesn’t really serve an end I can get behind, though it’s tempting to a pluralstic vision like ours. It’s the kind of thing we need to resist, to do better, so that we can defend our ways with integrity, and develop them with comfort.

Another reason for defending interfaith experience and orientation is that religion isn’t ownable. No matter how we who are participants in one faith or another, sometimes with strong cultural and identity aspects, feel about our faith, it isn’t like money. It isn’t diminished by sharing. When some of our money goes off with someone else, we generally have less, though we may also have something else instead we gained in exchange. But when some of our faith goes off with someone else, we still have all that we had before, and perhaps a richer future before us because something elemental and potentially transformative has been shared by us. Like air, faith moves everywhere across continents and oceans and ages and identities. The most we can do is try to direct the currents or failing that benefit from the currents that move whether we will or not.

And finally Unitarian Universalism is historically founded on respecting and searching. To deny anyone the right to search into a tradition that truly calls them denies our most fundamental principle—the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Note that key word, responsible. That doesn’t mean buying one book, or seeing a film, and coming up with a bunch of romantic options that require little or nothing of us, but that might, we feel, lend us a certain mystique. That means delving deeply and honoring the faiths that call to us for what they are and what they require, not what we wish them to be, or to make us become.

And it means, risking ourselves and being willing to be changed, not changing our subject to suit ourselves. A good example of this is the ways that becoming a Deaf Access congregation and honoring the ways of deaf culture is changing us. It’s a new dynamic for us, that coming here being deaf, just as coming here from another faith, involves reaching out across differences. Deaf Access is one way we are learning to honor the challenges faced and courage mustered by many in order to come here and join with people who are not the same. It seems unimaginable that anyone could say of us here that we are completing Hitler’s work. But it is a common, terrible accusation that many ‘lapsed’ Jews are familiar with. And that dynamic of condemnation, regardless of specifics, is true for many more of us than we probably realize. We need to continue to develop the mindfulness and consideration that we are all learning by deepening our welcome and accessibility to our deaf members and friends and apply it more broadly. We need to learn to expect that many, perhaps most of our visitors come having faced challenges and mustered courage even to come in the door.

Everyone has a story. Everyone is on a journey. Every pilgrimage, howsoever chosen, however much embraced, is also a hardship. Every search yields some answer, but not always the answer we sought. Every seeker has the right to seek, freely and responsibly. We are all seekers who have known hardship and have precious stories and wisdom to share - let us learn to see this in each other, to know it as truth, to honor it in our ways, and thus to see with our soul’s eye the daily courage and fearsome vulnerability that come with being a person of free faith in this world.


Opening Words (#515)

Hymn #217 - O Sing Hallelujah

Meditation (#536)

Readings #467 - Listen, Israel (Love your God with all your might...)

Hymn #218 - Who Can Say