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Rabbi David Wolpe

Rabbi David Wolpe

Posted: September 13, 2010 01:39 PM

From Religion's Failure, Redemption

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Religion again plagues the world. What a wonderful opportunity.
When my daughter was young she could not hear often enough about Dumbo. Dumbo, for those of you who have forgotten (although there is a certain irony in forgetting an elephant) was the elephant whose disability -- abnormally large ears -- enabled him to fly.
The idea that darkness, disability, even death are catalysts to life is a central idea of faith. When in "Moby Dick" Ishmael saves himself at the last moment from drowning by grabbing hold of a coffin we are reminded of this truth. The darkness holds promise.
Right now in the world religion is both widespread and deeply wounded. It is wounded by the assaults from without and the rot from within.
The combined dismissal of God and human uniqueness by science and sociology is powerful. But it can enable religious people to examine what is essential to their faith and what is not. Understanding which areas are properly assigned to the sciences can help purge religion of hubris and a sort of intellectual overreaching.
From within religion suffers terribly from the prevalence of violence in the name of faith. Yet this is a chance for religions to explore anew what God asks of us. Martyrdom was once admired. Once it served as a byword for courageously facing oppression, not for fomenting it. Martyrdom is now a terrible scourge on the landscape, and religious teachings that once encouraged it as an ideal must disparage it as a sin.
Religion's great strength is also its disability: the gift for evoking allegiance from its adherents. That is the catalyst for soup kitchens and relief workers all over the world. Only when religions greatest partisans remember that the same impulse can be perverted to evil will we be able to use the impediment to achieve great things.
In "The Count of Monte Christo" the Abbe Faria spends years tunneling out of his cell only to find himself in a new one. Religions transformations have too often found themselves trapped in the world they thought they escaped: of insularity, authoritarianism, xenophobia. We can in fact open to a world of acceptance, but only if we build on the darknesses of the past. The eye, as Rabbi Yochanan teaches in the Talmud, has a light part and a dark part. One can only see through the dark part. There has been darkness in religion in the past. Perhaps in in the shadow of our own destruction it will encourage us to see. Spotting God's image in one another is the great religious calling. When we lose that, we risk losing everything. When we succeed, we restore our souls and help redeem God's world.