By Rabbi Peter Berg
When I think about my predecessors, the rabbis who came before me at The Temple, I realize that I am standing on the shoulders of giants.
In 1957, a year before our own Temple was bombed, 80 white ministers in Atlanta publicly endorsed what has been referred to as the Ministers’ Manifesto, denouncing racial segregation. The statement was published in the Atlanta papers and subsequently The New York Times.
Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, our rabbi, was instrumental in the writing of that manifesto. He knew then what we know today: that religious leaders must stand up to bigotry and hatred.
We live in challenging times. The need for interfaith support and cooperation is as important today as it ever has been. We all have strong feelings about the major issues of the day: the environment, the rights of minorities, safety and security, peace in the Middle East. Those who are wise realize that there are legitimate arguments on the other side, even if we disagree.
Our lives are a balancing act between excessive modesty and excessive self-confidence. Sometimes we feel our presence is too important to this world, and sometimes we feel our lives are no more important than anyone else’s.
When the scale tips toward arrogance, we risk becoming intolerant. Like most of us, I worry these days about fundamentalism — the belief that there is only one way. This does not mean we shouldn’t have strong faith. I am passionate about my faith. But when that passion leads one to believe that there is only one way, only one truth, inevitably violence and death follow.
The worst and most powerful idols we have today are not made of stone and wood. They are made of ideas. Is single-minded fanaticism a necessity for passion, or can we have a multilingual view of G-d — the idea that G-d is not exhausted from a singular religious path?
I’d like to believe that it is possible that Islam, Christianity and Judaism could know of a G-d who speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays and Latin on Sundays.
Any ideology that embraces only self-importance violates human rights and leads to disastrous outcomes. Those claiming to be sole owners of wisdom terrorize us every single day. We live in a world that is threatened by those who are blind to the beauty of pluralism, who despise the idea of tolerance for other religions and ways of life, who have absolutely no faith in the rules of fair play. Our ancestors abhorred idolatry because they knew that nobody owns spiritual truth.
The challenge of American democracy today is the same challenge religious Americans face. This is the reason for the 2016 Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto: to fashion a way that incompatible faith assertions can still talk with one another and still learn from one another. What is needed most in our world is to speak to our neighbors of different faiths — not with authority, but with reasoning; not with quotation, but with common ground.
Religion is still the logical grounding for our democracy, but we must learn to speak to one another in ways that we can each hear, in words that allow for learning and growth and even disagreement. This task is, in no small part, the last, greatest hope in our humanity.
In Jewish tradition, we have over 70 names and attributes for G-d. One of them is Adonai Tzilcha: “G-d is your shadow.” How can G-d be a shadow, a mere image cast on the ground, created by our own image?
If you stand bent over, then the shadow of G-d will be contracted and shriveled, but if your stand straight, the shadow will expand and grow mightily. In our community, when we stand with outstretched arms, G-d will be elevated and enlarged in our lives.
G-d is reflected in our actions. Don’t think that we live only in G-d’s shadow; act as if G-d lives in ours.
Rabbi Peter Berg is the senior rabbi of The Temple.
The Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto
This statement “denouncing religious bigotry and calling for interfaith cooperation” is posted at atlantainterfaithmanifesto.org, along with the endorsements of hundreds of people.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants religious freedom as an inalienable right. Indeed, intolerance is antithetical to our nation’s founding principles. Despite this mandate, there has been an alarming escalation of religious intolerance in our country recently, inflicting two sets of victims: those who are impugned because of their beliefs, and those whose fears are exploited by false, incendiary, misguided rhetoric.
Atlanta’s history is replete with the stories of giants who came before us, whose leadership guided us through critical moments. Today, we come together as religious, business, civic, academic, and philanthropic leaders, exhorting our fellow citizens to take inspiration from the courageous acts of our forebears and pursue the following principles:
- Advance Interfaith Cooperation:We believe that our nation’s founding commitment to democracy with religious freedom demands that we pursue interfaith cooperation; this includes respect and accommodation for diverse religious and secular identities, positive relationships between those of different religious and philosophical views, and a commitment to working together across lines of difference to advance the common good.
- Marshal Religious Diversity:We believe that Atlanta holds a special place in U.S. history as well as contemporary and future American and global spheres. The religious diversity at the heart of this city propelled the Civil Rights Movement and continues to stand as an asset that can enhance our region’s ability to respond to human rights challenges with innovative solutions.
- Celebrate Atlanta’s Broader Significance:We believe that our city has made invaluable contributions to the betterment of our nation, and we call on Atlanta to once again serve as a beacon to the country and the world, showing the power and promise of interfaith cooperation.
- Take a stand:We pledge our willingness to speak out and stand against acts of hate and intolerance that threaten the very foundation on which our society was founded.