Pulpit Exchange: Rabbi Joe Blair

The Challenges and Opportunities of being a Minority Religion in an Increasingly Secular and Pluralistic Society

“Lil’ Ole Us – Being a Minority”
Some Thoughts from the Perspective of a Rabbi to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro 

Rabbi Joe Blair
May 19, 2013/10 Sivan 5773

Good morning. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to join you this morning. I appreciate your indulgence and hospitality. Particular thanks to Rev. Piper who has again graciously agreed to this pulpit exchange, and who presented his fascinating, informative, and challenging thoughts yesterday morning at Temple House of Israel in Staunton.

A side note: Ed – I thought I told you not to be too good – it makes me look really bad! In the words of Oliver Hardy, “Now look at the fine mess you have gotten me into!

Some of you were present yesterday morning when Rev. Piper spoke. He talked a little about the history of the UUs, and the philosophy of openness and inclusion that guides them, which he described as both a strength and a weakness.

I open with an observation that Judaism is a fairly old religion, so has a long tradition, a sacred text, and a set of rituals and practices that is relatively unchanging, though certainly not static. Divisions in Judaism tend to be more along the lines of practice – how strict you are about observing the rules – rather than along theological lines. We don’t really have any heresies, after that big one a couple of thousand years ago about the assigning of divinity and godhead to a human being – apparently a position we share in common with many UUs. ?

Another thing we share in common is a strong commitment to the following of an ethical system, which we measure by how well it is acted upon in the world: deed, not creed.

And Judaism teaches that all faiths, and none, are to be honored, so long as those who follow them incorporate and act on what are referenced as the seven Noahide Laws. We are taught that one does not need to be a Jew to be a good person, doing godly work in the world. So Judaism, like UU, is tolerant and accepting of other faith paths.

But Judaism differs from UU in a significant fashion in that Judaism is very much a particularistic faith, and not universalistic in its’ focus. There is the clear understanding that you either are a Jew, or you are not. The rules that apply to Jews are many and varied. Jews are obliged to certain things; others are not. There is a clear understanding of membership, a sort of tribal connection, of being ‘in’ or ‘out’. The boundaries are not tremendously porous, and the process of crossing them can be daunting, as well as difficult and time consuming. You can’t become a Jew simply by wanting to, or believing any one thing, or by joining a congregation. The process of conversion is long, and hard, and requires a significant commitment and much effort. We don’t seek converts – and in fact, we are required to discourage them. A pretty good formula for remaining a minority religion, wouldn’t you say? ?

We don’t need to argue about which way is better, or to resolve what is more likely to work. We have neither the time nor the inclination to do so today. Instead, our focus is on the challenges and the opportunities that our conditions and situations as UUs and as Jews present.

If you came today to hear the golden honeyed drops of wisdom, or to receive pearls of understanding, we had best head for the food now. I have few answers, but I know the questions that are circling for me, and I will share my thoughts, briefly, then ask for yours.

Rev. Piper spoke yesterday about those who identify themselves as ‘none of the above’ when asked about religious affiliation, and in my response I raised the issue of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ group. Between these two large and growing groups, I think we are seeing our numbers for potential membership in our respective communities dwindling, because these are the people with whom the concept of religious community and the more traditional worship forms do not connect. We also noted that this tends to be generational for the most part. With that in mind, we need to be thinking of what it is that speaks to these groups, as well as our current membership.

We all know that we live in a time when things are changing fairly rapidly due to technology. One of the things we are all able to observe is that there is a massive invasion of communication devices that are showing up in places and being used in ways that we never would have imagined in past. And those devices are shifting the users’ ideas and experiences of what it means to relate and communicate – and therefore what it means to be in community.

It would have never occurred to me when I was in college to imagine that by being online – tweeting, emailing, sending texts, posting videos, or sharing photos - with people at three different locations simultaneously, I was somehow in conversation with all of them, and also participating in the party or other communal activity in which they were engaged, and about which they were tweeting, emailing, sending texts, posting videos, or sharing photos - but that is precisely what we see today. It has gotten to the point that it is not uncommon to see or hear about couples or friends sitting in the same room, and communicating with each other, and others, all by posting online – and feeling that they are communicating and relating to each other in community.

I admit that I am not part of that trend. I still have a ‘dumb phone’ and I don’t enjoy texting to communicate. I suspect that many of us who are of a certain age are not making that shift. Some of us are trying to do so, while still remaining in the world we knew and know. It is a time of transition, and it is not clear where it will go from here. But whether we ourselves wish to enter that mode or not, we need to accept that it is here to stay, and deal with it, or we risk cutting ourselves off from those who operate that way.

To make the point plainly; I don’t know how many of you have seen the humorous, but very relevant you-tube video about cell phones in church. You can find it online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2_c81Nnsc0. The end result is that the person whose cell phone goes off during the service is condemned to oblivion – technology intruding is bad!

The focus is from the viewpoint of people like me who don’t understand the need for technology or how it fits into the worship or communal experience. The upshot is that anyone using technology in the service will be punished – which is funny, because it speaks about responding against a trend we don’t want to see, and at the same time very sad, because it says that we are ‘right’ and the technology users are ‘wrong’, and we don’t want them to be in our group. It is exclusionary and judgmental.

And yet, the very sense that is expressed that technology takes away from the experience of community and relationship is not the experience or view of others, mostly younger than I. They are feeling that if they connect to an event via smart phone or tablet, they are present and participating. They can ‘be’ in multiple places at once.

Even in staid, slow-to-change Judaism, this is creeping in and becoming a reality as some congregations are moving to having the liturgy projected on screens, or broadcast on tablets or smart phones, doing away with prayer books, streaming the service live - and lately I have even heard of some efforts to tweet the service: sending out a sequence of 140 character messages to ‘involve’ remote participants. Admittedly, I don’t ‘get it’. But it is not about me, and we need to recognize that there are people for whom this works.

At the same time, we have plenty of evidence that there is a deep and abiding sense of lack in people we see on the street, a desire for connection, and a hunger for something of meaning that is spiritually nourishing and substantive. We see that in the numbers that flock to anything that promises to fill that void for them, usually with most of them leaving those ‘quick fix’ panaceas disappointed and empty – and often poorer in pocket.

So the five broad question areas that I want to pose today are these.

1) Who are these people? What do they want and need? How do we find and communicate with and attract them, or are they so different from us that we need to let them go their way?

2) What does it mean to commune and to be in community? Can there be community without face-to-face interaction? What is a relationship, if it is remote, and only via electronics?

3) How do we offer a meaningful experience to people whose very idea of what it means to communicate is so different? The model of our worship services is one that is not working for them, and apparently it does not speak to them. Can we, should we, and how would we incorporate them into our worship and our community - or join theirs - without losing our own sense of what is meaningful and valuable about coming together? Is this possible to do while maintaining the integrity of our beliefs and practices?

4) Is the very concept of a ‘membership model’ for religious communities outmoded and no longer viable? What else is possible, and what could work that can address both the needs of our current community members and these other unconnected folks?

5) And how do we do all of this in the face of the reality of being a minority, with a fairly muted voice in the larger cacophony of “communications” that are constantly being broadcast at warp speed and maximum volume?

There are no easy answers, but I recall now the teachings of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot: “You are not obliged to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Our task is to wrestle with this. We may – probably will - reach different answers for our two faith communities, but we can talk together about the issues, and learn from each other.

Now I ask you to share your wisdom with me.

Reverend Piper, I turn first to you.