For some time I have been fishing around for a term that describes how a Reform Jew in United States has a God belief. Reform Jews, like moderate Muslims, Hindus and liberal Christians walk an unusually vitriolic minefield in the public square these days. Two decades ago, the public square was a fairly convivial place for religious people with different theologies. We could talk across the wide spectrum of ideas without crass condemnation from contrarians; however, these days have passed.
The Supreme Court confirmed at the beginning of May that these days of respect for the other and his/her theology are gone, another footnote in the history of the United States. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that sectarian prayers are legal as a part of the official agenda of government meetings, in this case, local towns. This decision is merely the capstone of a trend that has been building for two decades at least.
A tradition in many states has been a “Prayer Breakfast” to celebrate the religious traditions that the state protects and embraces. Early on there was an agreement among the clergy that participated that we celebrate with prayers and readings that promoted the universal, positive aspects of our diverse traditions. Particularistic words and rituals would be set aside for the morning. Those who refused to set aside their particularism did not attend.
Something happened. The strict particularists decided that instead of boycotting these ecumenical breakfasts, they would take political control of these government sponsored breakfasts and convert them into an event that met their denominational criteria. With the help of friendly politicians, the ecumenicists were either silenced or chased away. In Louisiana in the mid-90’s, the Jews and liberal Christians in Baton Rouge were told there would be no bending for other faiths.
The irony of this trend to use political means to push particular religious views is actually a frantic response to an overarching trend in the United States. Estimates are that up to 80% of the population is basically secular, that is to say deliberately non-religious.
As Reform Jews we are neither Orthodox nor are we secular. We have sympathies in both trends but stand apart and firm in our own distinct path. Our theology is much more practical and forgiving; more tolerant, and I would argue, resilient. We have much to reflect upon this summer.
In the days after our Peter, Paul & Mary Concert, the words of many of the songs kept popping into my head. A few too many verses of “Puff the Magic Dragon” drove me to distraction but the effects were temporary. The composition that returned to the fore was a song written by Bob Dylan and immortalized by PP&C, “Blowin’ in the Wind”. These nine big questions are still relevant today.
Big questions: no one wants to ask the big questions. The gimmick on the talk shows and the talking heads shows is to pose questions that appear to be big when they are not. Big questions are boring and boring questions are not good for ratings. Big questions often don’t have answers and if they do, they are never easy or simple. No one on television likes to look like they don’t have the answers.
There is nothing new in these observations. Many a generation, even before the advent of electronic communication, had the same human desires to shy away from the difficult and convoluted questions of the day if possible. Bob Dylan’s composition upended this typical human aversion with poetic prose wrapped in a beautiful melody. He made the ugly truths palatable, or sing-able, as the case may be.
The heyday of these musicians and composers was a period of tremendous turmoil that touched every part of society. Civil rights, Vietnam and the Pill were upending the United States as it emerged from the 1950’s. Today we are in the midst of another upheaval that spreads across the entirety of the country. The financial collapse, a severe recession, political hyper-partisanship, two wars, and international terrorism are in the news every week. Every household is affected in some manner.
A new list of questions is demanding address and few are willing to tackle the subjects. These questions must be addressed. This is my list but I’m sure that many of you have your own.
How is it possible to not be consumed with pessimism and cynicism in a world that thrives on hyperbole?
How can person of good circumstance not pay taxes and consider him/herself a good citizen?
How many will study for the test and never learn the lesson?
How can one witness betrayal by an investment bank and remain a client?
How can one cry over a terrible oil spill and ignore all of the already dead stretches of sea that it is coating?
How can one accept lobbyist money in one hand and hold a populist microphone in the other?
How can some people be complacent as the world around them changes so quickly?
How many people will plug into new digital devices for distraction instead of construction?
How many years can a person complain and never lift a finger to protest?