In the Name of a Leader

MLK Day, 2010

High atop one of the lone skyscrapers in suburban Detroit, a group of interfaith leaders convened on a gray cold day in January to brainstorm how various faith communities might work together to level the landscape. A landscape rife with separation and segregation, even all these years after the civil rights movement blazed its way through the nation.

Here in Detroit, we are still so separate. Never the two shall meet…and it cuts across various faith groups as much as intrafaith. I know well the divisions within my own Jewish world and I’ve never liked them.

But years ago, I believed that the separations between Jewish denominations was due to lack of understanding and a misguided view of how each community finds meaning.

I was wrong. One of the reasons we are all divided is that we wag our fingers and judge what the other does. And you know it’s true.

I lived for 8 years in the Orthodox world, subverting my liberal beliefs and hiding my questions about the practice of relegating women to behind-the-divider status. What, exactly, is the threat of a woman’s voice amid religious prayer? Why are men so fragile that they need protection from view and song of their feminine counterparts?

Are we not partners in this? And really, that question is not just about men and women in Orthodox observance, but it’s about Jew and Christian and Muslim and Ba’hai and all the various differences and “others” in this world of faith.

Are we not all saying the same thing – that we are not so arrogant as to believe the world starts and ends with us but that we were put here to make a  difference and to find meaning and to illuminate the path for those who are questioning?

Yes, we do the same thing, we hold the same beliefs and yet we separate ourselves out of fear and discomfort of the way the words sound in a different inflection, in a foreign language. It is, in a word, ridiculous. Think of how much more time and energy we would have if we did not pour it into anxiety and fear.

Last fall, in the sunny Saturday of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, I took my kids to the green landscape of Cranbrook. We hiked the grounds in open sun, under tall trees, beside the rippling lake. We climbed rocks, lay in the grass, ran among the gardens.

At the river in the back of the property, we sat on the bank and tore little pieces from stale bread to throw into the cascading waters as symbols of our “choices.” It’s an old ceremony known as tashlich, where the bread crumbs symbolize sins washed away in the fast-moving river.

Only for my young children, I changed the wording. “What choices would you like to make differently in the new year?” I asked them and I asked myself, and we took turns, from mother down to 3-year-old youngest, and we answered in earnest.

After, walking back among the gravel and trees, we were quieter, reflective. It was, for each of us, the most meaningful new year celebration of our lives. And our synagogue was open air, vast sky, bright sun.

There are many who would judge me for making this choice, but I relish in it – for it was the freedom of thought and a desire for meaning that propelled me to substantiate the celebration in a tactile way.

And that’s what I mean. I don’t care what others think because I’ve found my own meaning. And I’m not judging what they do either – stay in synagogue all day long, or find answers in all manner of faith groups. They’re yours for the choosing.

This life is not about finger-wagging and punishment. It’s about learning, building, refining and celebrating. All of our traditions teach us this in one way or another.

Today we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who wanted to level the playing field so all could play. It’s a message for every single one of us. If only our ears are able to hear it. 

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