Last week I attended the Andover Newton and Hebrew College Joint Community Day. The event was sponsored by Andover Newton, Hebrew College, and the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE). This was a day I had been looking forward to for weeks! Both schools cancel classes for one day and come together for a day of interfaith learning and dialogue on our two campuses located atop this hill in Newton. The goal of Community Day is to engage the students, faculty, and staff of our two institutions in learning with one another, instead of just about one another.
The day’s theme was “I Have a Dream: Living the Legacy,” in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech at the March on Washington. To honor this theme, the day began with opening reflections in ANTS’ Wilson Chapel on the legacy of Dr. King from various students and staff, followed by havruta discussions (a Jewish educational method of learning in pairs) on another, lesser-known civil rights leader, Diane Nash, and her legacy of leadership. Next, I attended a morning session on “Muslim and Christian Models of Leadership Formation,” where we discussed varying understandings and changing expectations of leadership in our faith communities. Following lunch at Hebrew College, the program resumed in the afternoon with another round of breakout sessions and I attended the session for the CIRCLE group I am part of, “Troubling Texts: Exploring Religious Sources of Violence.” We examined scripture from the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 16) and the New Testament (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) that have not been understood to be life-affirming for women. The day ended with an interfaith concert highlighting and honoring our faith traditions and leaders through music, video, spoken word, and dance.
I loved Community Day, which is not surprising because this type of interfaith engagement and relationship between the two institutions was my main reason for attending Andover Newton in the first place! I felt inspired and affirmed when I listened to my classmates share their reflections on Dr. King, when a new acquaintance told me his story about why he felt called to rabbinical school, and when Kol Arev (the choir of Hebrew College) brought forth their musical talents during the final concert. On a personal note, I was humbled and honored to be asked to read part of a speech by twentieth century Jewish scholar and leader Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel as part of the concert. I loved the intentionality of the organizers: Jewish rabbinical student was asked to read part of a sermon by Rev. King and a Christian student (me) was sought out to read the words of Rabbi Heschel. I believe this seemingly small decision added a depth of meaning to the words themselves, affirming that they are timeless and bound to no particular faith or faith leader, but rather they are accessible, striking, and significant for persons of all faiths and backgrounds. I believe that choosing the legacy of King, Heschel, Nash, and other faith leaders as the main theme for Community Day was an excellent decision, one that both affirms and challenges us as faith leaders to live into their legacy.
Community Day impacted my own understanding of interfaith by highlighting how the use of the arts can be a beautiful and effective tool to reach across boundaries. This is not a completely new concept for me, as I was a member of Juniata College’s concert choir, which traveled internationally every year and crossed national, ethnic, and cultural boundaries through the gift of music. However the use of music, media, and dance during the final interfaith concert demonstrated the power and universality of these gifts in specifically interfaith encounters. I hope that I can use this insight in the future as I seek to create opportunities for others to genuinely and effectively engage across religious lines.
In closing, I’d love to share Rabbi Heschel’s speech that I was asked to read. Afterwards, many people in attendance came up to me and told me how powerfully I delivered these words. These affirmations were especially meaningful to me, because I too felt a presence and a power while I was reading. It is difficult to articulate, but somehow I felt the words of this great faith leader echo in my bones, spring forth from my mouth, and bounce off the walls as we remembered and honored a legacy of prophetic wisdom and justice. May they resound with you as well.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Religion and Race,” January 14, 1963
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.”
The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.
Let us dodge no issues. Let us yield no inch to bigotry, let us make no compromise with callousness.
In the words of William Lloyd Garrison, “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject [slavery] I do not wish to think, to speak, or to write with moderation. I am in earnest–I will not equivocate -I will not excuse–I will not retreat a single inch–and I will be heard.”
Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the word “race” and feel no self reproach?
Race as a normative legal or political concept is capable of expanding to formidable dimensions. A mere thought, it extends to become a way of thinking, a highway of insolence, as well as a standard of values, overriding truth, justice, beauty. As a standard of values and behavior, race operates as a comprehensive doctrine, as racism. And racism is worse than idolatry. Racism is satanism, unmitigated evil.
Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.
Perhaps this Conference should have been called “Religion or Race.” You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.
Shortly before he died, Moses spoke to his people. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). The aim of this conference is first of all to state clearly the stark alternative. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have set before you religion and race, life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.