Won’t You Be My Neighbor

Yom Kippur Morning 5779
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

My dear friend of three decades, Rabbi Harold Robinson the retired rabbi of Hyannis for many years, who is also a retired Admiral in the US Navy and was deputy head of the Chaplain Corps for the Navy and the Marines, visited our congregation several weeks ago, sailing from his home in Hyannis to Nantucket for the Labor Day Weekend. He arrived at Hendrix Hall and was so moved the warmth of his reception and the service itself, he returned two weeks later for Shabbat Shuvah (this past Friday).  I had asked him before the service if he would like to share a few words. Those present were moved to hear that as a Navy Chaplain, he has been around the world both conducting services and attending services.  In his address to our congregation, he stated that he has never been more warmly welcomed anywhere than he was here on Nantucket.

When my friend, Rabbi Rick Jacobs was installed as the most President of the Union of Reform Judaism, in his introductory acceptance speech, Rick described his hopes for the future of the community which included an embrace of all who sought Jewish community. In his speech he introduced a phrase: “Audacious Hospitality”, which he wanted to be the hallmark of synagogue life.

Jack Wertheimer, noted researcher and historian of Jewish communal life in America, released a paper on the eve of the High Holidays, sharing the results of his research in all the ways that non-orthodox rabbis try to entice Jews to return to the synagogue for the holidays.  The results of his research indicated that the majority of rabbis make efforts to be warm, engaging, and inclusive; to innovate both liturgically and musically, and to make the services relevant and meaningful.  Yet, he critiques these efforts as, “vague but faddish nostrums [like} hospitality, diversity, spirituality, creativity, non-judgementalism, tikkun olam, and personalized religion.”  These he dismisses as weak tools to counter what should be an informed engagement in the liturgy – ignoring the historical fact that the liturgy and the music of the synagogue service has been dynamic and changing, bringing in the sensitivities of the secular culture and the musical motifs of the dominant culture – all in an attempt at keeping the liturgical experience accessible to the widest swath of Jews. (And this is true of the orthodox community as well – nusach – or musical modes, reflect geography and culture; piyyutim, liturgical poetry, reflect the strivings of the Jews living in a particular culture).

In an anecdotal survey that I have conducted by perusing the rabbinic FaceBook pages, I have determined what is THE most subject to preach about in this High Holiday season.  It is NOT the current state of political affairs.  It is NOT the issue of veracity in the public square.  It is NOT Israel.  It IS a documentary released this year that has particular significance to this community: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and the story of Fred Rogers’ devotion to children – and loving and being loved. There is no question that from High Holiday pulpits across the country, Fred Rogers is the most talked about Protestant Minister since Reinhold Niebuhr

Rabbi Rick Jacobs didn’t invent “audacious hospitality” – Fred Rogers did. But he did it by starting with a biblical verse, and tweaking it up one notch.  The Torah teaches us V’ahavta l’rayecha k’mocha Love your neighbor as yourself. This Presbyterian minister, changed the phrase to Love your neighbor AND yourself.

While Marianne and I were both too old to be “viewers” as children, we watched the show with our own children – and we were always struck by the emphasis on accepting oneself first and foremost – self-love, must accompany the love of others. Without loving oneself, the love of others can become desperate, needy, and subservient.  But love of oneself and love of others creates a healthy “neighborhood.”  Two elements are necessary in the creation of a neighborhood – how we view one another – and how we engage with one another.

Martin Buber, the great 20thCentury Jewish Existentialist philosopher, wrote a ground-breaking essay in 1923 “Ich Und Du” poorly translated as I and Thou (the new translation is I and You).  He taught that in the relational world, we humans divide our relations into two word-pairs, Ich – Es, I-It, (the two words divided by a hyphen – and believe me, I understand hyphens) and Ich-Du, I-You. Ich-Es, I-It, is our normal interaction with others – we treat others as tools to advance our needs and desires. That is not necessarily a negative – it is necessary in transactional efficiency. Anyone in our world orbit can be an It, even our beloved partners.  When one asks a partner if the laundry is done, or the shopping is complete, or are the children bathed and ready for bed, the relationship is I -It.  However, we are capable of elevating the other, caring about the whole person, their needs, aspirations, desires, concerns, and we enter into a true relationship, looking into one another’s eyes, language becomes unnecessary, both objectivity and subjectivity fall away and we stand before one another in true relationship – that is I-You. But this I-You relationship would be impossible if I didn’t “love the other And myself” (and Buber added that when two enter into I-You there is a third party present: God – as this is a holy interaction).

We also need to understand the importance of engagement. American psychologist Carl Rogers offered the therapeutic world the notion of “client centered therapy” in which the therapist is non-judgemental, and interested in helping the client develop into a fully formed person, one that he defined as capable of being open to experiences, living in the moment, being creative, exercising freedom of choice and being constructive.  From his work engaging patients, in 1957 he developed the notion of active listening. When one is an active listener, one is able to report back to the person listened to, what was heard.  Only when the initial speaker validates the voracity of what was heard, can the listener respond from their own point of view. This was a dialogue exists, rather than a two-way monologue, each saying what one wants, but not really listening to the response of the other. As we watched Mr. Rogers interact with children, whether on his show, or in everyday life, it was always clear: in any interaction with a child, Rogers listened deeply – not just to the words but the fears, anxieties, and lack of understanding behind those words.  And he thoughtfully answered the bigger question – not the simple one.  Viewers of the documentary could not help but be moved by Fred’s interaction with children when they queried him about loss, and illness.  He first got on their level, physically squatting down – he actively listened and then he responded.

Fred Rogers’ didn’t just create a neighborhood, but he gave us a prescription of how to create our own neighborhoods – be they families, communities or congregations. A true neighborhood exists when people treat each other as persons of worth and value – and engage with one another openly and without a preconceived agenda.

I have been blessed to be a part of this community for a five years – and I experienced the same feelings about this community that Rabbi Robinson expressed.  There is an abiding love and concern shared among the majority of this community.  Newcomers are warmly welcomed in.  The concern expressed about the well-being of congregants is palpably felt, and shared. Regardless of who leads services, there is a general invitation offered to join in this community.

Wertheimer got it wrong.  Attempts to create warm and welcoming congregations, that are accessible and non-judgemental are NOT “vague and faddish nostrums…” but are the very essence of a proper congregation – and Fred Rogers got it right when he taught us all that the way to create a welcoming neighborhood is to follow the injunction to “Love your neighbor And yourself.”