Sermon by Jay Wolin
I wanted to share with you today a journey that started in a town in Lithuania and is continuing today in Orlando. I have read that approximately 9% of UUs come from Jewish backgrounds. I myself was born and raised in the Jewish religion and culture. And yet today, I consider myself without question a Unitarian Universalist. It has been a long road filled with questions and even some (is this a shock?) guilt, up until the point I came to that realization. There are many things that I have learned from and cherish from my Jewish background. I carry those thoughts within me every day on every step of the journey. As my mother always used to tell me, “No matter what you call yourself, you were born a Jew and you will always be a Jew” To some to degree that is true. But we create our own path. We can label ourselves any way that we choose…Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist, but that is all they are - labels. Ways to group people together who have a shared purpose or idea. I would like to expand that.
We are all human beings…on a journey….some may not realize it, some may embrace it some may deny it, , but we are surely all on a human journey. I think for us all to realize peace in this world, everyone needs to look at it from that perspective. My journey now has the label of Unitarian Universalist, for I feel that within this group is the best way to search for the eternal truths within the universe, for it allows me to encompass the knowledge of teachers from many backgrounds, and is supportive of exploring new spiritual paths. But all of this started with and is aided by my Jewish upbringing.
My great grandfather, Jacob Wolisinsky, was the lay leader of his Jewish community in Osmani, which is now part of Lithuania. Due to growing anti-Semitism , he emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s. He later brought the rest of his family over including my grandfather in the early part of the 20 th century. My great grandfather and grandfather were very religious orthodox jews. For those who are not aware there are different types/sects of Judaism. One is orthodox, which by its name you can imagine is the most traditional which follows all the ceremonial laws and practices, including keeping the Sabbath and keeping a kosher household. Reform Judaism, in which my parents raised my siblings and I is a sect of Judaism that believed in adapting Judaism to the current environment in which the individual lived. In Reform Judaism, services are mostly in English with the exception of certain prayers and Torah readings, which were read in Hebrew and ceremonial practices are limited based on the choice of the individualMy family attended services most every Friday night, and I attended religious school twice a week. I was bar mitzvahed at the age of thirteen, and continued to study with the rabbi regarding the history of Judaism for two years after my bar mitzvah. So I was steeped in Jewish history, and religious studying, so one would wonder, what could lead me to pursue other religious knowledge and paths.
Growing up, I lived in a typical NYC middle class borough neighborhood. A mix of Irish and Italian Catholic, as well as Jewish families. We all went to school and played together. When I was young, my parents, embracing the melting pot that was New York, shared the Winter holidays with friends who were Catholic. So at the age of five years old, I had my first interaction with the Christian world. This simple act even as a child showed me that we were more alike than different and has stayed with me forever. We were just two families with children whom both the parents and children were friends sharing a festive time celebrating life together. I was too innocent to understand that there were differences in our religion. Looking back on it, this set the foundation for my beliefs of interacting with people…not to judge them based on their labels, but rather based on who they are.
I remember the first time I entered a church…I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was ten years old. My childhood friend I had spoke of earlier with whom I had shared the winter holiday season had invited me to go to something called “mass”. Now first I have to tell you I had no idea what church was. Oh I knew it was where non Jews went to pray. I truthfully though had no idea what went on in a church. I was truly ignorant of what other religions believed or what their prayer service were like. I went not of any rebelliousness just the first manifestation of my exploratory nature To me this was one of the first of my great adventures. Even having said that, to this day, I remember the palpable fear I felt upon entering the church. Would I burn upon entering...Then I saw this large statue of a man hanging on a cross. Then the real fear set in At the time not knowing the story of who Jesus was I was confused…., Is this what they do to non believers, I thought? If I had known at the time he was a Jewish rabbi, I would have really been out of my mind….but my friend assured me everything would be all right, that he was the image of the god they believed in. This made me think of the RE class I taught a few years back where the class went to visit various other religions’ worship services and how enlightening that was to the children and to myself as well, and how each and every one of the congregations we visited were appreciative of our interest and willingness to share our time with them. Instead of fear through ignorance, such as I experienced as a youth, I think that understanding and learning each other’s different and in many ways similar underlying beliefs is one avenue that will lead to peace.
As with most children, I didn’t have a choice as to what religion I would be brought up in. I think the first inkling of independent thought I had on this topic was the day of my bar mitzvah…This is the ceremony during which at the age of 13 the child actually conducts the service, and reads from the torah. It is supposed to be the time of transition to adulthood, at least symbolically. This should have been an extremely spiritual experience. I studied for months on end..and basically I repeated by rote a foreign language that I had no idea what it meant. The day which was supposed to be the culmination of years of study, that was supposed to be a significant religious experience, was basically a meaningless day to me. I had done my duty to my family, but I had learned nothing other than how to memorize some sounds. The seeds of discontent were planted.
When I saw the young people of this church stand up here during their coming of age ceremony, I thought to myself, these people really connected with each other and this experience seemed to have added something to and was a positive experience to their lives….that is what this type of event should be…Somewhere in the recesses of my brain even at that age I knew this….Yet I still went back to study with the Rabbi for two more years, studying both current and past Jewish history … At this point in time in the history of our country, (not to date myself or anything) we were going through end of the Vietnam war and the beginning of the Watergate crisis. I would bring up these questions and topics, about how to make the whole world a better place, a place of peace and love and harmony, how could we fight the unending cynicism that seemed to be enveloping our society….that is what I was interested in I wanted to know if religion could provide me these answers. Well it was rewarding meeting with and talking with the rabbi, but the study of current and past Jewish history left my questions unanswered.
The irony of my transition from Judaism to UUism is that one of the strengths of Jewish religion and culture was also one of the things that sent me in search of other religions. Much of Jewish study is based on interpretation of the Torah. Much of the literature in this area are discussions of rabbis questioning what each statement and or law truly relates to. We are taught from childhood to question, for in asking the right questions, will result in obtaining the best answers. So I asked the rabbi questions about the life I knew and saw around me and what place religion played as a part in it. At this point in time in the history of our country, (not to date myself or anything) we were going through end of the Vietnam war and the beginning of the Watergate crisis. I would bring up these questions and topics, about how to make the whole world a better place, a place of peace and love and harmony, how could we fight the unending cynicism that seemed to be enveloping our society (that may not be exactly how I asked it, but that was the gist of the conversation) ….that is what I was interested in. Well it was rewarding meeting with and talking with the rabbi, but the study of current and past Jewish history left my questions unanswered. When they went unanswered , or were unsatisfactory, I just assumed there were no answers, and thus that religion had nothing to offer me. As I grew and learned of the outside world, My questions and curiosity led me to investigate other religions and philosophies. I used the same questioning techniques I had learned at the synagogue, and to this day I am still finding answers and still have more questions. Unitarianism clearly is open to this as again I repeat one of our seven principles, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
One of the other major impacts Judaism had on me was learning to be sensitive to the suffering and persecution of others. I had of course studied in Hebrew school regarding the persecution of Jews throughout the history of world due to our religious beliefs. But of course there was a much more current display of suffering. In my parents lifetime we had the experience the Holocaust. It stands as a reminder of humans inhumanity towards fellow humans even in the “age of enlightenment”. This is the reason why social action and helping others is one of the pillars of the Jewish faith and culture.The message has always been, since we know how it feels to be oppressed for our beliefs, we should help all people who are oppressed, It is why members of the Jewish faith were and still are at the forefront of the civil rights movement in this country. Although I see no reason to follow a religion merely because one’s ancestors suffered for it, there is every reason to learn from such suffering so as to alleviate it for all people of all religions. This is also why I found Unitarianism such a natural transition for me. Again One of our seven principles is “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”
So how is Judaism different than Unitarianism. There are several difference that I see. First is the concept of the Chosen People. As written in the Jewish Bible the Jews were chosen by God, as well as to spread the word of God to the world. Although it is true that Judaism is the oldest Monotheistic religion in Western culture, I find it hard to imagine as a rational person that if there was an all knowing, all powerful God, he would grant his allegiance to only a small group of nomadic people, but rather he would be a God for all beings. And many of the moral teachings espoused by Jewish Law are not unique to Judaism, but can be seen throughout history in different cultures.
Secondly Judaism looks to Israel from an historical basis as its ancestral home. From the biblical perspective, it is the land that God gave to the Jews, and in the current perspective this is due to anti-Semitism in the world that would not allow Jewish people to integrate into European and Asian society, so it was a place for people of Jewish heritage to be able to go to that would be their own society. To some extent that is something that is always a difference. Judaism is both a religion and culture. There is a shared history of life living within Israel, and for much of history, of surviving life in the Diaspora, away from Israel. Interestingly, being exiled from Israel, created a bonding of the cultural and religious aspects throughout the world to help maintain connectedness. Now that Israel has returned to be a Jewish State, Jewish people living away from Israel, tend to support it vociferously, to try to maintain that cultural connection that they physically reject. For me, it tells me that unless I am willing to move to Israel, the religion must be able to stand on its own and have universal application, without the historical connection.
Lastly when I look at our seven principles, all of them could apply to Judaism. The real difference I see is in the Sources of our living traditions. Judaism focuses on the Jewish Bible whereas UUism draws on words, deeds, wisdom and spiritual teachings from multiple sources. This has allowed me to broaden my perspective, to better understand people from differing religious backgrounds, and is a more universal approach to religion.
So, I ask myself, what does it mean to be a Jewish UU. I like to think of Unitarianism as the next phase of Reform Judaism. I will call it Universal Judaism. It is the further adaptation of Judaism to the modern world. Obviously the UU faith does not have the dogma or creed that I must accept Jesus as my personal savior. I do have belief and faith though, in the human condition. Judaism as well as Unitarian Universalism is based on faith and ethical action.
I often think back to my great grandfather, and what it must have felt like to leave your family and venture forth into the unknown, a brand new world with the hope of making a better life for all of the family. I often felt like that, when I joined the UU faith. That I had left my family behind. But like my great grandfather, I risk all, and venture forth into a brave new world, and adapt to the world as it is, and as I make it, with the hope of bringing my family along one day. A day when all people respect the dignity and worth of all beings, a day where people from all races can live together in unison, a day where people from all ethnic backgrounds can share and enjoy the richness of each others culture, a day where people of all sexual orientations are welcome at the courthouse, a day where people from all religious backgrounds can pray together in peace. A day where every human being can be united, as we live together within the eternal truths of this world.