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September 11: A Memory and a Challenge

Howard A. Berman
Fall 2006

(This sermon was delivered on Yom Kippur Eve, October 1, 2006, at the Boston Jewish Spirit congregation in Boston, Massachusetts.)  
We come together this evening, at this threshold of a New Year, with hearts and minds filled with so many deep emotions, impressions and concerns. Even at the most usual and routine of times, the High Holy Days are an intense period for all of us. And yet this year, once again, the Holy Days have taken on yet another, even deeper dimension — one which intensifies this Season’s already complex emotions and moods. As we have marked the fifth anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001 over the past few weeks, we know that for us, as American Jews, these ancient observances will, from now on, forever be linked in our consciousness to the memories of that terrible moment in our history.  
Five years ago, as Rosh Hashanah dawned in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, indeed only 6 days later, virtually the entire focus of our worship, our sermons, and indeed our very presence together, was the sharing of our pain and grief; and our seeking together, in our faith and tradition, a source of comfort and hope … I doubt if any of us will ever forget the High Holy days of 2001 and their major place in our personal experience of America’s national tragedy. What a blessing it was for the Jewish community to have had, at that very moment, a context and a setting for communal gathering and reflection. How deeply powerful and poignantly relevant were this season’s eternal message of renewal and healing, memory and hope, at this time five years ago.  
And now, as we commemorate this anniversary, once again in the very midst of this sacred season, we are all the more conscious that the observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, will from now on, always encompass the annual Yahrtzeit of September 11th.  
The Role of Religion  
And so this confluence of calendar dates compels us once again to focus our thoughts and prayers on this transforming event. And in the midst of all of the voluminous political and historical commentary flooding the media, the newspapers and magazines, and the bookstore shelves, we may well ask: what unique perspective can we reflect on, here and now … as Jews, as people of faith, in light of the continuing crisis of terrorism and war facing our nation and our world?  
Now what is so remarkable about a spiritual analysis of the meaning of September 11th, is that this particular perspective takes us to the very heart and core of the major issues at hand. Any inquiry into the nature of the attacks on America, indeed, inevitably brings us to a focus on religion. The broader implications certainly encompass a variety of questions of international politics, of global social and economic forces, debates of military and diplomatic strategy, and of national security policy. But at the very center of the question of September 11th, and indeed of virtually all of the political and social conflicts in the world today, is the issue of religion. It is truly amazing that in this supposedly secular, scientific, hi-tech 21st century, that religion is the underlying force and dynamic, determining today’s major world events!  
Conflicting World Views  
Now we are speaking, of course, of the enormous and ever-deepening chasm and conflict between the two major views of truth and reality in global society today:  
On one hand, a religious fundamentalism, linked to extremist ideologies and political authoritarianism…a belief system firmly rooted in traditionalist precepts and values, that, in its zealous advocacy of its own conception of truth, permits no dissent and tolerates no diversity… All religious fundamentalism shares in common a literalist interpretation of Sacred Scriptures, which are employed to define morality and truth — and all claim to be the exclusive source of Divine Revelation.  
And then, in contrast, there is the culture of progressive religious and social liberalism … steeped in democratic values, that embraces modernity, pluralism and individual freedom. Religious liberalism holds that Divine Truth is revealed — or perceived — anew in every generation. It is to be found both in a broad, historically conscious understanding of Scripture — as well as in the knowledge we have gained from modern culture and science. Most significantly, progressive spirituality affirms that truth is revealed in the ethically informed individual human conscience and intellect. These are, of course, the historic religious values that are at the core of our Reform Jewish tradition.  
Fundamentalism and Liberalism  
Now the most visible and dramatic global manifestation of this conflict, certainly centers on what is popularly — and far too simplistically — understood as the struggle between radical Islamic fundamentalism, and the liberal, humanistic values of the Judeo-Christian West. And yet, in reality, the cosmic battle between the forces of fundamentalism and liberalism, encompass the entire world: every nation and every religion … and this struggle pervades virtually every political, social and cultural conflict of our time. Each of the intractable enmities that dominate the headlines, in every corner of the globe, are essentially variations on this theme. While Osama Bin Laden may be the most notorious religious extremist in the world today, he has his counterparts everywhere, and in every religious community. Now we Americans might tend to associate this mindset with radical Islam in the Middle East: The Taliban and Al Queda; the clerical and political rulers of Iran; the Hezbollah party in Lebanon, as well as Hamas, and the Palestinian suicide bombers. However, an objective, honest analysis, points to a common thread with all forms of religious extremism.  
We see this reflected in the fundamentalism of the Christian Right here in America, where the fulminations of evangelists like Pat Robertson are no less intolerant than those of the most radical imams and ayatollahs. Indeed we must admit that these very same forces exist in some forms of Judaism and in Israeli society as well! While they may not be as aggressively violent, many ultra-Orthodox fanatics and right-wing West Bank settlers are just as wild-eyed in their militant, repressive and vengeful passions, as any radical Muslim. And while the convergence of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian history and aspirations, clash in that most volatile region of the world, this global conflict is by no means confined to the Middle East. It is, again, at the core of all the tensions tearing our world apart: the bloody riots between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan … the endless cycle of violence and hatred between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland…the still smoldering aftermath of the genocide between Christians and Muslims in Serbia and Bosnia … and the current tragedy unfolding in Darfur and the Sudan.  
Struggle in Our Own Midst  
And lest we sit in smug, self-righteous judgment of all those primitive passions raging across the seas, let us remember that this struggle also extends right here in our own midst. It is the entire basis of the culture wars that have polarized American society for much of our Nation’s history – from the days of the repressive Puritanism in colonial New England; through the Civil War, and its continuing legacy of racism and regional prejudices. Again, it is clearly manifested in the rise of conservative evangelical Christianity as a major force in contemporary American religion and politics. Every cultural and political battle in American society, over women’s reproductive choice, gay rights, immigration law, media censorship and public educational policy, are all further reflections of this global tension. Our home-grown American religious fundamentalists, right wing extremists, and racial supremacists — both black and white — are no less zealous than their ideological soul mates in Kabul or Teheran, Gaza or Jerusalem, Belfast or Baghdad. They share the same distrust of modernity, the same rejection of liberal democratic values. And while the more dramatic violence here in America may be confined to the most extreme fringes that were responsible for the Oklahoma City tragedy for example, nevertheless, the soaring rate of hate crimes in our society: destructive violence against synagogues and mosques, against African Americans and Gay and Lesbian people, all differ only in scope and scale, but not at all in purpose or intent, from the most sensationalist and catastrophic terrorist attacks.  
We also know that the global fundamentalist/liberal struggle is not only being acted out in the geopolitical and cultural spheres; it is also the major issue within every religious community today. We see it in the ever-deepening rift, and the struggles for power, between conservative and progressive forces, that have split and polarized every Protestant denomination over interpretation of the Bible — particularly regarding social issues. In the Roman Catholic Church, the conflict is even more dramatic. It is reflected most painfully in the dynamics underlying the current clergy abuse scandal that is rocking the Church world-wide to its very foundations. Here, the battle is pitting the traditionalist, authoritarian structure of the Vatican and Church hierarchy, against the growing popular movement for lay empowerment and institutional reform. And of course, even close to home, within Judaism itself, we are all painfully aware of the dramatic rise of an ever more exclusivist rigid Orthodoxy — and the unbridgeable polarization between insular traditionalists and other streams of Jewish life and practice, including our own. The stark and steady decline of cooperation, discourse, and even basic civility in Jewish communal life today, is a sad reflection — in the post-Holocaust world — of this pervasive reality.  
How to Respond  
And so faced with these daunting and indeed frightening challenges, how can we as progressive Reform Jews respond? How can we, as rational, broad-minded, peace-loving people of liberal faith, confront this struggle constructively and courageously?  
I would suggest that first of all, we need to re-examine our own authenticity as religious liberals. If our voice and position are to have any strength of conviction, any moral or intellectual integrity whatsoever, we must admit that our own commitment to our values and beliefs are nowhere near as deep and clear as those of the fundamentalists. In a sense, this is an inherent dilemma for all liberal religion — we reject monolithic authoritarian creeds and doctrines … we cherish critical inquiry and personal freedom in the formulation of our faith … we are free to challenge religious leadership … inevitably we have more questions than answers…  
And yet, if we are to hold our own in the global religious debate, let alone survive and prevail, we need to be as clear in our vision, and as deep in our commitment as the most passionate right wing fanatic. They know what they believe and what they must do … do we? Do we bring the same energy and activism to our spiritual lives and civic responsibilities, as the religious conservatives seem to be able to inspire in their followers? We must confess at this sacred time of repentance, that we all too often fail in this test. We often smugly dismiss their passion as the mindless ravings of ignorant fanatics and bigots — we complacently trust that reason will somehow prevail … but we are not always prepared to put our energy — or our time — or our money — where our mouth is. They are! And they do! And that is why the Religious Right is so influential in America and throughout the world today … and why five years ago, a rag tag band of outlaws in the caves of Afghanistan, were able to mastermind the destruction of the most visible symbols of America as a world power.  
To Live for Your Faith  
The critical question for us as Reform Jews, and for all progressive people of faith, is not — as it is for the terrorist and suicide bombers —  
“Are you willing to die for your faith?”  
but rather,  
“Are you willing to live for your faith and your values?”  
Are we willing to take our spiritual commitment seriously enough, to ground it in knowledge and understanding? Are we prepared to make our voice heard, and to struggle and if need be sacrifice for truth as we understand it? Not through violence, or the abuse of the democratic political process, but with civility, tolerance and through the integrity and depth of our spiritual values and our civic consciousness. We have to ask ourselves — are we religious progressives really willing to hand God — and the Bible — and the Flag — over as hostages to the distortions of fanatics? Or are we ready to assert our own rightful claims, and definitions, of religion and patriotism … and stop allowing extremists to hijack the voice of faith around the world today?  
A particular opportunity emerges here, in the midst of all the hostility and polarization in the human family. We need to reach out to, support and cooperate with all those of every religious tradition around the world who share our broad vision of faith and action ... all Christians and Muslims, all believers — of every spiritual path — who share our passion for freedom and justice, tolerance, pluralism and peace. We need to honestly, once and for all, have the courage to face the reality that we have a greater spiritual kinship with them, than we do with the Orthodox extremists in our own Jewish community ... and we should build our alliances and nurture our ties accordingly. As American Reform Jews, we must especially work for dialogue with our Muslim neighbors here in the United States, and help to nurture the emergence of a modern moderate, American expression of Islam … just as our liberal Jewish tradition flourished in the free, open society of the United States.  
Ultimately, a forthright confrontation with each of these imperatives is our only hope — and surely the most critical spiritual lesson we must learn from the meaning of September 11th.  
Peace and Renewal  
And so, on this holiest of nights, at this awesome time of Teshuvah, of repentance and return, I would suggest that we can reflect upon all of these challenges and possibilities, as we recall the words of our Union Prayer Book. The historic liturgy of Reform Judaism so beautifully expresses the broad, liberal spiritual ideals we cherish — and the vision we aspire to. On this sad anniversary, and yet also at this dawn of a New Year of promise and hope, may this spirit be our guide and inspiration … as we seek to strengthen our faith … heal our beloved nation … and indeed, bring peace and renewal to our troubled world:  
Almighty and merciful God, You have called us to Your service and have found us worthy to bear witness to Your truth among the people of the earth. Give us grace to fulfill this mission with enthusiasm and joy — tempered by wisdom — and guided by respect for other people’s faith and ideals. May our lives prove the strength of our own belief in the truths we proclaim. May our conduct toward our neighbors — our faithfulness in every sphere of duty — our compassion for those in need — and our patience under trial — show that the One who’s law we obey is indeed the God of all goodness — the Loving Creator of all people — that to serve You, is perfect freedom — and to worship You, the soul’s purest happiness.  
Open our eyes, that we may see and welcome all truth – whether shining through the wisdom of ancient revelations, or reaching us though the Prophets of our own time … for You — God of love, of justice and of peace — continue to shed Your light on every generation that yearns for You and seeks Your guidance.  

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