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Remembering Sidney Willens

My dying friend, explaining his beliefs, turns toward me with the expression a man displays discovering the taste of rotten food in his mouth, and spits out, “I have absolutely no use for religion whatsoever.”

I say nothing, no rabbinic or personal response, as though the room were empty and he had spoken to the air. After all, he’s dying; my response wouldn’t change his opinions and never have; and his moral impact on our city has been almost incomparable. He’s a one-man change machine. He hates committees because they are excuses for getting nothing done, and he has for 7 decades challenged convention and altered the course of our city’s history with his activism. More Isaiah than Jeremiah in his hopeful critique, he wouldn’t take no for an answer, ever.

He’s wrong about religion, at least in theory. But right about much of what passes for religion in practice. It’s like biting into the flesh of what appears to be a lush peach and discovering putrid rot. Universally, religion digs shafts into the bedrock of human consciousness and comes up with the conclusion that humans can participate in the harmony at the core of Creation. Religion is humanity’s baby that someone is always kidnapping; or, perhaps better, the wise old man in the corner whom no one can hear unless you put your ear right next to his mouth.

“Justice, justice shall you pursue,” Deuteronomy commands. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” teach Leviticus and Jesus. “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; all the rest is commentary; go and learn,” taught Hillel. Rev. Theodore Parker, followed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.” Only prophets truly live unstintingly according to such words. Yet, there are those among us who try.

President Trump has done us a favor by demonstrating what demagogic raw ego will inflict upon even a democratically elected government. America’s evangelicals daily prove that hypocrisy can override all moral judgment, enunciating principles pronounced with great conviction when the perpetrator is African American but rationalized away when the white president is following your play-book. As Professor Jonathan Haidt teaches, most moral argument is rationalization of our innermost prejudices and convictions.

Is my friend right? Is religion demonic? Often yes, because it’s pietism rather than piety.

My dogs will never betray me, and they love me unconditionally. But humans, unlike my dogs, possess reflective consciousness. We not only think, we think about thinking. Shall I feed this man or not? We say to ourselves, “He may be a drunk. It may be his fault. He may be too weak to do what is right and help himself. Let him pull himself up by his own bootstraps, and then he’ll be a man.” It’s all rationalization, human reflective thought.

Unconditional love would have told him immediately to demonstrate the love my dog demonstrates unhesitatingly: feed him; truly listen to his story; recognize this is the image of God; see how God is incarnate in every human being if you take the interest to discover the core, the place where God hides. We call it the soul. Everyone’s got one. Sometimes they’re buried deep within, but isn’t yours? Isn't true religion actions that mirror to others the loving we crave for ourselves?

Rituals are to remind us of these truths. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that he who arises from prayer unchanged has not truly prayed. True religion doesn’t make the newspapers, doesn’t built Taj Mahal structures, doesn’t make banal pronouncements. True religion, the kind my friend actually embraces and has embraced his entire life, liberates the other to become fully himself, and therefore sets free the God in us all.

You see, my friend’s personal religion expresses his soul, his inmost conviction, his finding humanity in every human being. He identifies “religion” with externals, pietisms, hypocrisy, and often self-serving actions hidden in mellifluous and often grand but empty words. That’s why he rejects it.

True religion is not widespread, but it cuts across all classes, races, socio-economic statuses and nationalities. You find it among introverts and extroverts, the Schindlers and the Einsteins. True religion is lyrical, because it sees and reflects the harmonies in creation, and attempts to attune the religious person to those harmonies, as God intended. True religion is the face of God.

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