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Sermons About Diversity and Inclusion

Mon, 03/07/2016 - 12:30pm -- Ravid Tilles

February was Jewish Inclusion and Disabilities Awareness Month. The timing could not have been more perfect with the Torah reading cycle! Here are two sermons that I gave, in consecutive weeks, which taught about the importance of being diverse and unified. The importance of inclusion and the importance of celebrating difference. The first semon is specifically about how we should include people with disabilities in our communities and the second one takes a slightly different spin and talks about the current political scene in America. Enjoy and feel free to comment!


Shabbat Trumah - 2/13/16

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I have a lot of respect for our American fore fathers. I am a proud American and I do my best to uphold the ideals and values that were laid out in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. But I want to make one quick, but important, suggested edit to this famous line in the Declaration of Independence: No, I’m not talking about how it should say people instead of men. That’s a given. Where our forefathers got it wrong is that all people are NOT created equal…they are created equally.

What’s the difference? To say that we are all created equal, that is to say, that we are all the same, diminishes the diversity of human existence. We are not equal. Some of us are tall and some of us are short. Some of us have dark skin and some of us have light skin. Some of us have lots of hair, and then there’s me. We are most certainly not created equal. I never stood an equal chance to dunk as Lebron James, and that’s ok. If we were all “equal” life would be boring.

We are though, created equally. We are all endowed by God, our Creator, with the right to human dignity, the right to pursue happiness. Every person has a bit of Godliness inside of them, EVERY person. It is a shared quality that all human beings posses as a part of our natural creation.

In this morning’s Torah reading, God begins the detailed description of what religious symbols will be placed in the portable tabernacle, the Mishkan. He tells Moses to collect materials from the people in order to create the ornamentation of the Holy structure in which the divine spirit will dwell. One of the most recognizable ornaments in the Mishkan is the Menorah.

I have spoken many times here about the symbolism of the Menorah, but one aspect in particular seems very relevant today. The Menorah, with its six branches, is meant to come from a singular block of gold. That is to say, that when making the Menorah, Moses and his craftsmen were not to build one piece at a time and weld them together, rather take one large piece of gold and carve it down to the shape that we now recognize as the Menorah.

I still have, in my father’s basement, a number of Chanukiyot that were the wood blocks with the lug nuts for the candles and the Shamash had two. Classic pre school art project, but not what God had in mind! The Menorah had to come from a singular source. And the reason, we know, is obvious. Because it represents the diversity of humanity and the oneness of our beings and God. The multiple branches and the singular block of gold.

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin tells us that: In the beginning, only one person was created as a demonstration of God’s greatness. A human being mints many coins, from a single mold and all are duplicated, interchangeable one with the other. Yet God creates everyone in the mold of the first person, and there are NO duplicates. Each human being is unique.” One source. Infinite offshoots.

Just as the Menorah, with its six branches, comes from a single block of gold so too we, human beings, are minted from a single mold yet spread out and have our differences. We take different paths, make different choices, have different styles and believe variant ideologies. We look different. Our brains and our bodies work different. We are dispersed, both literally and figuratively as with the menorah, but we have a single source. God.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Jewish communities around the country are encouraged to educate, advocate and create awareness in order to foster inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in all aspects of Jewish life. As many of you know, this topic is dear to my heart and something that we live with and think about all the time, not just this month. But it is important to understand ways that we can all be more aware.

And it’s not that we need to be more aware of the fact that people have disabilities. We all know it. And we all sympathize and maybe even empathize with families who have loved ones with varying forms of disabilities: from physical, to emotional to cognitive. We easily look at people with “special needs” and feel a need to help, but more importantly we must begin to open our hearts to what it means to be inclusive.

Being inclusive means recognizing that people are davka not created equal. It’s not about creating opportunities for people with disabilities to conform to norms. It’s not about saying you’re just like everyone else. Because none of us are created the same! Because when we do that. When we try to tell someone that they can be like everyone else, we devalue their divine character of uniqueness. It would be like telling one of the branches of the Menorah that it is actually one of the others. It’s impossible, and it’s demeaning.

Inclusion isn’t about ignoring differences, it is about embracing them for the sake of unity. Yes the word diversity has the same root as divide, but Judaism teaches us that diversity is our shared attribute. Diversity is the one thing we have in common! It is our unifying call. We are all the same in that we are all different.

The Talmud tells us about the Rabbis of Yavneh who used to say: I am God’s creature and my fellow is God’s creature. My work is in the city and their work is in the field. I rise early for my work and they rise early for their work. Just as they do not presume to do my work, I do not presume to do theirs. One may do much or one may do little, it is all the same, provided one directs their heart to heaven.

Sometimes we fall into a trap where we presume that a person with a disability wants to do what we do. Wants to live our “typical” life. Wants to be “normal.” No!  If a person with a disability wants to do a task or take a job or live their way it is our responsibility to help them any way we can. But it is not our job to presume what will make their life meaningful. Inclusion isn’t about wishing that a person was more able bodied or more able minded, inclusion is about accepting that each person is who they are, and a child of God, and should be affirmed.

According to the group Barriers to Bridges, a national organization that advocates for people with disabilities, a welcoming community or congregation must offer the following: empowerment, not pity. Advocacy, not avoidance. Support, not stigma.” It’s easy to confront difference in this world with pity. We can look at people who struggle to connect socially or who struggle to navigate their bodies and feel sad that they are not more able bodied. But what our tradition tells us, and what this month is about, is reminding us that we must confront difference with empowerment. We have to support people of all different levels of abilities, because when we stigmatize we marginalize.

This month is all about affirming the Godliness that every human being posses. As long as someone values human life and the shared experience of creation, they should be treated equally dignified. We must recognize that every person is a person first, and the very nature of personhood is to be unique and different. That’s why one big push this month is to educate about people first language. We must stop saying disabled people. Or blind man. Or deaf woman. We must change to people first: people who are disabled. A man who has many qualities that make up his character like kindness, creativity, interest in science….who is also blind.  

Shira Ruderman, of the Ruderman Foundation, a Jewish organization dedicated to furthering the inclusion of people with disabilities says: Inclusion is a state of mind. It is not a project it is not an initiative. She goes on to say that in ideal society is a society where every person feels comfortable with who they are and what they would like to do. In an ideal society, every person will look at their potential and their abilities not their disabilities.” She is right. That we have to change our mindset to always embrace diversity and affirm self determination.

Our mindset should focus on each person’s essence. The WAY in which we were created, which is to say equally. From the same block of gold. From the same mint. In the image of the same creator. And this, by the way, must apply to how we encounter everyone, even those who seem fully able or without any clear challenges. Inclusion and disability awareness is about recognizing EVERY person has shared diversity. Recognizing that no one is created equal to the next. That EVERY person needs support and love. Compassion and dignity. That everyone has abilities and everyone has things that they find more challenging.

So while our forefathers did great work in laying a foundation for equality and democracy in this country, it is time to amend the Declaration of Independence. We do ourselves a disservice if we try to be equal with our neighbors or our friends or our family. So perhaps our founding document should instead read: We hold this truth to be self evident. All people are created equally different and endowed with the spirit of our Creator. And therefore, we all have the same inalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What do you think? I think it still works.

Let us end with a bracha, blessing God, as the Talmud tell us: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, M’shaneh et Habriot.  Blessed are you Lord God, Ruler of the Universe, who varies creation.” Amen.


Shabbat Tetzaveh - 2/20/16

On Sunday during the Grammys there was a wonderful commercial for android phones. It showed a man playing beautiful classical music on a piano. Words popped up which read, "a piano has 88 keys and each one sounds the different." The words then ask, "but what if they all sounded the same." Then the pianist turns around and plays a second piano where all the keys are tuned to the same note. Obviously, it sounds awful. The commercial ends saying, be together. Not the same.

Even though I'm an iPhone user, I found the commercial very compelling and I said to myself..."I wish I had seen that commercial before my sermon last week!" Because last week I spoke about how February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion month. I spoke about the beauty found in the diversity of human creation. I spoke about the menorah and its six branches coming from a single source. The message, just like this commercial was be together, not the same.

That is truly a message we see throughout Jewish tradition. The value of variant perspective and diverse thought. And yet we hardly ever, if ever, see it in our politics. So many of our politicians pander on about their religious conviction and their deep, personal faith (ironically the only serious candidate who doesn't speak about their faith is the first Jewish person to ever win a Presidential Primary but that's a different sermon for a different time). But here are all the other candidates claiming to be religious and devout, and yet they live their lives trying to polarize and delegitimize. Very irreligious. Very anti-divine. 

Hey look, if the Pope can say that Presidential candidates are not true Christians, I feel like I have some ground to stand on.

For the past week the political rhetoric has been particularly profane, especially around the talk about appointing a replacement for Justice Scalia. I'm not interested, at least in this forum, to discuss the legal issues and the political ramifications of whether or not President Obama should appoint the next judge. But I am disappointed how quickly the talk, and the use of Scalia's death was made a political tool to gain advantage in the Supreme Court. This is a human life lost. Whether you agree or disagree with his positions. Whether you appreciate his brilliance or not. He was a human being, worth much more than political points in a debate. 

Through all of the divisive talk about liberal vs. conservative values. Democrats vs. republicans. The White House vs. the Senate. Through all of this, what rises to the top is the statement released by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They were friends. They were buddies. Apparently, because both Justices Scalia and Ginsburg were big opera fans, and would often see shows together, there was a operatic parody of their life, which she referenced in her statement. Justice Ginsburg wrote:

Toward the end of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet: 'We are different, we are one,' different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve. From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies. We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots—the 'applesauce' and 'argle bargle'—and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion... It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.

Everyone who follows these sorts of things knows that these two were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Justice Scalia known for being the most Conservative justice in our high court and Justice Ginsburg known for being the most liberal. Very seldom did they vote the same way in court. But as she said, we are different. We are one. They made each other better. Just like the piano keys. Be together. Not the same. Because being the same makes life sound terrible. 

Unfortunately in the political arena, which is very in our faces these days, believing differently is divisive. It's black and white. You vote for me or you don't, and if not you're misguided. Candidates try to convince us to believe like them and show our allegiance with votes. Their lust for support drives them to abandon diversity and fight for conformity.

In this mornings Torah reading, similar to what we saw in last weeks parsha, we see an important lesson about unity and diversity. We learn about the ephod and the hoshen mishpat, the breast plate worn by the high priest. We learn that the hoshen has 12 gems, representing the 12 tribes. Each tribe had a different precious mineral like emerald or topaz. When all of the stones were together this breast plate was said to have a special power to determine difficult court cases that human judges couldn't figure out? 

Kind of like a magic 8 ball but more relevant to this week, like a divine, magical, Supreme Court. It was 12 stones, 12 unique stones, each one needed to complete this powerful, decision making, breastplate. Like a piano needs 88 different keys, like a Supreme Court needs 7 DIFFERENT justices to succeed, the hoshen mishpat needs 12 uniquely precious stones, representing 12 unique tribes, to bring God's rule into the world. 

This past Thursday was a commemorative day on the Jewish calendar very seldom talked about. Who here has ever heard about commemorating the 9th of Adar? Not the 9th of Av, but the 9th of Adar. It is a day that I learned about once at the beginning of rabbinical school but had seldom thought about until recently. 

According to Jewish tradition, 2000 years ago, on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, the usual peaceful and constructive disagreements between two dynasties of Jewish thought, known as Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, erupted into a destructive conflict over 18 legal matters. They mostly disagreed about issues regarding maintaining insular communities and family purity. The disagreements turned so violent that they led to the death of thousands. The day was said to be as tragic as the day the Golden Calf was created, when the Israelites got impatient waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain following the Revelation at Sinai. Our medieval sages declared the 9th of Adar as a fast day, but it was never observed.*

There is a chance that you have heard of the disagreements between Hillel and Shammai, about 300 recorded in the Mishnah, but one of the darkest days in Jewish history is when these disagreements lose the value of diversity. When they shift from constructive discussions about how to connect to our beautiful Torah and devolve into destructive rhetoric and eventually death. 

Our Talmud is full of disagreements. Different opinions. Different perspectives. Sometimes the Talmud offers an answer as to which perspective should be taken and sometimes it doesn't. But there is always a dissenting opinion. And not only that, the dissenting opinion is often given a lot of weight and later rabbis try to come up with reasons why the dissenting opinion had value. The tragedy of the ninth of Adar is that the value of disagreement and diversity was lost. 

Our tradition is hardly ever about convincing people that our way is right. When our ancient rabbis and their students tried to convince each other things turned violent. Judaism is about celebrating and encouraging difference. Building bridges and not walls.

If only our politicians could live like this. Creating space for constructive disagreement instead of attacking at every turn. Seeing the value of diversity instead of homogeneity. Instead of disparaging and belittling members of their own parties or other parties, Jewish tradition tells us that there is room for more than one right way. And even when we strongly disagree. Even when our key on the piano sounds much different from another, there can still be value and divinity in other opinions.

As Rabbi Zedakiah Ben Avraham of Rome once said: Everyone receives reward from God for what each is convinced is the right thing, if this conviction has no other motive but the love of God.

As long as we focus on our shared creator. As long as we leave our heart open enough to see the value in other and dissenting opinions. If we stay motivated by the things that unite us and accepting of our differences. As long as we keep any disagreements we have within our community or personal lives as motivated by good, and the hope to further the missions of Torah. As long as we never allow the politicians in Washington to divide us with rhetoric and vitriol. We can keep the divinity inside this world.

Sometimes the people we enjoy the most. The people who most fulfill and enrich our lives. Are the people who are most different from us. Who challenge us and push us. Who disagree with us. Who's gem on the hoshen is different or whose key is at the other end of the scale. These are the people that we should seek out, not to convince or be convinced. But to strengthen our own sense of self or simply to help us celebrate the vastness of God's creation. 

May the sounds of togetherness and unity one day overtake the voices of politics and dissent.


Cited from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-robyn-fryer-bodzin/lets-disagree-more-constr_b_9237406.html

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