In 2006, Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Religion founded the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults, an initiative that aims to engage the community with interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The coordinators for the 2013 Season were Moshe Givental (Judaism), Sydney Maltese (Christianity), Jawad Bayat (Islam) and Farrah Walji (Islam).
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I want to share a teaching with you from my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He says that all of the world’s wisdom traditions are like the vital organs of the body of humanity. Each religion, each tradition, is absolutely vital to the health of the human family. Whether you are Jewish or Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim, Christian or Humanist, whatever tradition gives you life, meaning, direction and purpose, it is your very living out of that tradition’s wisdom that gives humanity its vitality, and I would dare to say its worthiness.
Now, what would happen if the various organs in your body began to fight for dominance and power? The eyes arguing with the toes, the lungs wrestling with your liver? Indeed, this is exactly how ridiculous religious hatred and wars should sound to all of us. Ridiculous. We are instead part of one inseparable and absolutely interdependent whole.
I also want to take my teacher’s wisdom one step further. I would argue that each one of us, each one of you sitting in the audience, is a vital organ of the human family. It is not just your community or wisdom tradition that is vital to the health of humanity; it is you yourself as an individual. The threats to our planet’s health and human dignity everywhere are so dire today, that the contribution and wisdom of each and every individual is all the more vital. So I want to challenge you today: Do not be afraid to be yourself. Do not be afraid to stand up for what you believe in your heart of hearts, no matter what anyone else says, and no matter how many people disagree with you. Don’t be afraid to help a person in need, even if you are tired and the other person looks terribly “other.” And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, don’t forget to search out the vitality of that “other” sitting across the table, across the city, country or religion. The idea that every one of you is absolutely vital doesn’t just mean that you are important, but that we all hold a holy spark of vitality that is a necessary part of the health of each other human being and humanity as a whole. It is no wonder that both the Jewish and Muslim traditions teach that to save a life is as if to save an entire world, and to destroy a life is as if to destroy an entire world. Each one of you is an absolutely unique and irreplaceable spark of God. So I want to challenge you again: Don’t forget to stoke the fire of your own spark, and always be on the lookout for how you can see God and be enriched by the sparks of wisdom and holiness in others around you.
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I’ve learned so much from all of you in this community, and I’m not sure I have any wisdom to impart. But I can certainly tell you about what I know best about myself, and — maybe inadvertently — teach a thing or two.
The other day, I was thinking back on the past eight weeks. I told someone, “I genuinely believe that my entire life has serendipitously led me to this summer.” And then I thought about that some more.
I really didn’t plan to be here this summer. I never really make plans. I always go with what calls to me. I never set out to create an oasis for the family of Abraham — but the family certainly created an oasis for me.
How did I serendipitously stumble here? It might have started seven years ago, when I realized that other people were not invincible. You see, I grew up in a wheelchair — and listen, I’d rather have your hate than your pity for my wheelchair days — and I always felt it was riotously unfair of God to have given every other person I encountered perfectly functional legs and to keep me trapped in a dysfunctional body.
That was when I learned about the difference between equality and justice. One could treat me and any other kids as equals, certainly, but we would never be the same, because I would always carry a physical disadvantage. I wanted a just playing field, not an equal playing field.
I learned that other people were not invincible, and some felt just the same way as I did — people of other races, of other cultures, of other religions. There may be equality in this country, but there certainly wasn’t justice everywhere. I was pretty fired up about this because I knew what it felt like to be on the wrong side of “different.” I wanted to fight for what I thought justice might be.
Well, it didn’t take me too long to realize that I wasn’t going to change things by fighting. First of all, I can fight you just about as well as I can throw you. (Use your imaginations.) But I learned, thank God, that people respond so much better to compassion than to compulsion, to empathy than enmity, to love rather than hate. And you can make such a profound difference simply by modeling the peace you wish to see in the world.
So that’s what led me to this oasis — the desire to stand with those who are different, who come at life with a variety of advantages and disadvantages, to celebrate each other in what makes us diverse and beautiful and to seek together justice though our compassion and our love.
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Once upon a time, a traveling grammarian came to a body of water and enlisted the services of a boatman to ferry him across. As they made their way, the grammarian asked the boatman, “Do you know the science of grammar?”
The humble boatman thought for a moment and admitted somewhat dejectedly that he did not. Issuing his definitive conclusion, the grammarian declared, “You’ve wasted half your life.”
Not much later, a storm began to blow up on the sea so that the small vessel was in peril of turning over. The boatman asked the grammarian, “Do you know the science of swimming?” When the grammarian replied that he did not, the boatman said, “You’ve wasted your entire life.”
So, what may this swimming look like in a world of diverse traditions and ways of understanding the world? This much may indeed be the case: If we resist serious engagement with the world’s religious traditions, our theology may prove as useful as grammar in a typhoon. In the words of Robert Cummings Neville: “One of the most important tasks of theology today is to develop strategies for determining how to enter into the meaning system of another tradition, not merely as a temporary member of that tradition, but in such a way as to see how they bear upon one another.” This story of the boatman and grammarian (by Rumi) illustrates that there will come a time for swimming. Such a story and lesson encourages us beyond our convenient categories and comfortable ways of thinking. Moreover, there will come a time to set across the sea, and it’ll be important to take such swimming lessons from whomever this boatman will be. We’ll swim leisurely together with the man or woman in the ocean of infinite mercy some people call God, calling out to all others to join, saying that the water is just fine.
Taking swimming lessons from the many, so to speak, boatmen here at Chautauqua has taught me much during my service as an APYA coordinator. The ocean, the sea we encounter, which we may have no familiarity with, may be worrisome and/or joyous. This has been my experience here: further taking lessons, further learning how to swim and further enjoying and appreciating all the individuals I’ve encountered and learned from. So, I call out by saying that the water is fine; it’s neither too hot nor cold, neither too deep nor shallow. It’s just fine, so come on in.
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I will take many things with me, but the most important thing that I have retained from this experience is the inspiration for a master plan of mine. Has anyone read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff? Well, if you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want some milk, then a mirror to check out his milk moustache, and so on and so forth until the cycle is complete to where he wants another cookie. Similarly, what would happen if we were to give a child a seed of love? If you give a child a seed of love, he’s going to want a play date. If he gets a play date, he’s going to want a friendship. Once he gets a friendship, he’s going to want to dialogue; this process will continue until eventually that child will also plant a seed of love. So if you’ve gotten nothing else during your time here today, I hope you remember one thing: You have to give a little love to get a little love.