Episode 76: Rabbi David Stern Part 1

Rabbi David Stern is on Good God today. Like George, he has been a prominent faith leader in Dallas for 30 years. Their friendship has deepened their respect for the similarities and differences between Christianity and Judaism. Listen as they discuss the roles of individual v. communal responsibility, the Ten Commandments, and how to keep "one foot on Sinai and one foot in the world."

Listen here, read the transcript below, or click here for the full video version.

George Mason: Christians and Jews worship the same God, share parts of the same Bible, and in fact claim Jesus in different ways. We'll be talking with Rabbi David Stern about some of those similarities and differences on Good God. Stay tuned.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm your host, George Mason, and I'm delighted to welcome to the program today, Rabbi David Stern. David.

David Stern: Hello, George.

George Mason: We are so glad to have you. David is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, here in Dallas, a congregation in the Reform Jewish movement. In fact, David, you've just come off of two years of leading the rabbinical group nationwide, so I'm sure you're taking a deep breath right now.

David Stern: Happy to be home.

George Mason: Yes, I'll bet that's right. It's been a lot of travel. That's very good. Well, I think one of the things I'd like to start with is just a recognition that, you and I have been here a long time together. This is 30 years for both of us, that we've been part of our congregations. You first, as associate rabbi and then a senior rabbi. But here we are three decades together, and we've walked a quite an interesting path where, been lots of opportunities for us to work together in the community, speak in different ways, and it's been one of the most rewarding things for me across time. So, thank you.

David Stern: A huge blessing in my life. A huge blessing.

George Mason: Thank you. Well, what reflections do you have in 30 years of being the leader of a congregation in Dallas, Texas? A place that many people might say is traditionally the buckle of the Bible belt, right? Yet, Temple Emanu-El is an incredibly vital congregation, doing so much, both within and then also without, in the community. How do you reflect back on these years?

David Stern: Well, I think that in terms of our shared work, the gift of having a partner in the journey who can reflect back honestly in terms of theology, in terms of stances in the public square, in terms of the language we use, and the impact it has, this friendship and partnership has been invaluable to me. I don't know how you feel about it, but when I look back on the 30 years, especially in terms of the public square part, there are parts of our jobs that get easier year after year, because we get better at it and because the relationships deepen and because forgiveness broadens for when we mess up.

David Stern: But I think the work in the public square is harder now than it was when we started. I think that the politicization and the polarization of almost every utterance and syllable of speech, not necessarily that we have intended it that way, but because it is perceived that way.

George Mason: Wait, that happens to you too?

David Stern: Very rarely.

George Mason: Of course, because your congregation all agrees all the time.

David Stern: Exactly. Uniformities are byword. I think that not just within our communities, but we know what's happening out there in the world. That's why I'm so grateful for forums like Good God. The challenge to us as faith leaders to articulate values propositions, to have those be transpolitical, and to have them be heard and understood and felt that way. To be genuine in our advocacy for diversity and not just have that be lip service hoping that everyone agrees with us.

David Stern: I think those are challenges to us as individuals, as faith leaders, to our communities, because we know that if we shut down, if out of fear or concern, we say, "Oh, it's not worth it because everything will immediately be polarized and become toxic, therefore, I'm not going to weigh in." Well then I think we've started to fail in our mission. And fail in our faith. It's not ancillary to this calling, it's central to this calling. And if we treat it as sort of trimmable ...

George Mason: Well, trimmable is what I think many people would prefer in the pew in that, they sense that every single day, every time they turn on the news, and even in their families and personal relationships, every conversation has an edge. It's about what you think about the president, how you feel about the Congress, what's your position on immigration? What's your view of Israel? What's your ... oh my goodness. And then we carve up our relationships all week long and then we come to our congregations for our weekly services, and people are saying, "Can I have a break? Can I find some peace with God?" I get that. I mean, I truly do understand that. And yet, here we are.

George Mason: If we think about the lineage of our role and extending back into our biblical texts, and our spiritual forebearers, they never made such a distinction between the spiritual and the earthly, you might say. The everyday. In fact, their deepest concerns was about the way we treat one another. And this is what politics is, isn't it? It's about our life together.

David Stern: Correct. I think that your point about people wanting to find haven and sanctuary is valid, and that need is valid. We can't ignore that, but we can't let ourselves be limited to that either. We're not simply there to be a salve for people. I think that to me, what justifies whatever we might choose to do, and whatever we might choose to do can only be justified by a sense of respect for the interlocutor, for the listener, for the congregant, whoever it might be.

David Stern: I'm not saying it makes everybody happy, but when that comes through, that means that we are understanding the brokenheartedness of everyone with whom we speak. We do recognize the imperative for our communities to be places of healing, but they can't be places of healing just for ourselves. They have to be forces of healing for the society too.

George Mason: Right. And if we went to a doctor because we had an ailment, and the doctor said, "I know that we need surgery, or we need to address this, but it's going to be painful, so I know you probably don't want me to." Well obviously, we would consider that malpractice. But I do think it's interesting, you're talking about how we actually do hold people in our hearts and minds when we prepare ourselves to speak and to act in spiritual leadership roles. This is true in the congregation, but it's also true in our wider relationships. An example of that would be, because of our friendship over time, I have a sense, I sort of know, I think, what matters to you.

David Stern: Yes you do.

George Mason: What hurts you, what would challenge me from you, if I took a position that might be different or might be challenging in our relationship or in our religious traditions. Because of these relationships, the deeper we have these relationships, the more thoughtful and careful we are. Not necessarily to compromise our own convictions but to account for one another-

David Stern: I think that's beautifully said.

George Mason: ... because the relationships matter so deeply.

David Stern: And it's not done with a congregation, certainly in your leadership and I aspire to in mine, that's done out of love for the other not out of self-protective, anxious, caution. I'm not trying to get away with something or trying to figure out how to say something or try to have it be inoffensive, I'm trying to have regard for the people with whom I speak.

David Stern: And I think, for me the through line, or a through line is ... and it's why relationship is so important. If you and I show up for people in full heart in their times of need and pain, whether that be the kind of pain that lands you in the hospital, or the kind of pain that lands you in the pastor's office. When I show up, or you show up then for the immigrant in El Paso, there's a better chance that a congregant sees the through line of care. This is the same heart, and the same gesture, and the same engine that took place in your office. They may have a political objection, but if we're doing our jobs right on the relationship level, I think that there's a chance that they will get.

George Mason: Let's say there's a higher probability that they'll get.

David Stern: A higher probability.

George Mason: Because I think it is true. I can name people in our congregation for whom that is absolutely true. The loyalty and the sort of stickiness of relationship goes beyond philosophical differences, political conflict or whatever the case may be. But, it is also true that one of the more painful things about our work is when that's not true.

David Stern: Correct.

George Mason: Is when we have this emotional and spiritual bank of experience with people, and we think that the deposits are there and can be withdrawn during times when we really knock heads or disagree. And then people move banks. They walk down the street, and in our culture, everything is about choice.

David Stern: It's painful for everyone.

George Mason: It's painful for everyone. It's painful for them, it's painful for us, and we've both experienced it and it's probably one of the hardest things we deal with. But it does also go to an interesting thing, I think, David, of the American religious ethos. So, both of our traditions are rooted in an assumption, both Christianity and Judaism, an assumption that the community is a covenantal people, and it comes first. But our American ethos, the individual comes first.

David Stern: Correct.

George Mason: When we've transferred that into our congregational and religious life, it becomes more transactional than covenantal. This is one of the biggest challenges I think we feel in ministry, isn't it?

David Stern: Correct. I 100% agree. Although I have to say, that within both of our traditions also, there is an ongoing, I think vital and ultimately salutary, but there is an ongoing tension between the individual and the communal. I recently saw an article about the change in American political culture in the use of the term responsibility.

George Mason: Oh really?

David Stern: I think it would actually fit your spiritual frame also. It may not be a chronological marker, but let's just say at what point. At what point does the culture shift from understanding responsibility as my responsibility towards another, to the personal responsibility that we started to hear about in the 1980s that is, someone is not deserving of another person's support unless they are acting responsibly? And at what point does that become a box that I have to check in order to be deserving? And at what point is it, as you say, a covenantal obligation that the community has, regardless of what the person gets on their deservingness report card?

George Mason: Well, I mean, this goes back to roots of our ethical mandates in our traditions. That these are not guidelines for behavior, they are expectations of how you ... when you look at the 10 words, for instance, the Ten Commandments, what you're talking about here are not boxes to check for the individual, it's about the protection of the community, isn't it?

David Stern: Correct.

George Mason: It's about the nature of our life together, and the way we live in the world as people of God.

David Stern: Right. But what I'll give you is the tension is, so at least if we take the biblical context, here are these pronouncements that are offered to, that are commanded to, the totality of the community gathered at Mount Sinai, yet in the grammar, they're each offered in the singular.

George Mason: True.

David Stern: So I believe that that dance is ongoing. Because ultimately, the health of the community is going to depend upon individual choice, but we can't let that lapse into a self-absorbed individual.

George Mason: Well, and this goes to even, when Jesus was wandering about in his ministry years, he was always addressing people personally and saying, "If any want to be my follower, let them take up their own cross and follow me. Let them deny themselves, take up their cross." In fact, oddly enough, "Leave father and mother, become part of this new community." And there's, I think, some allusion back to Elijah and some of that, can I go back first and these sorts of things. But there is, as you say, a call to come to this new community that's being formed of disciples, but it's a personal call. It's an individual call. Well, let's pick up that when we come back from the break.

David Stern: Great. Thank you.

George Mason: The Good God program is a project of Faith Commons, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2018 to help promote the common good. Doing public theology across faith traditions and across racial and ethnic lines is an important thing today in our communities. We hope you'll continue to enjoy Good God, but look at some of the other things we're doing also through Faith Commons, at www.faithcommons.org.

George Mason: We're back with David Stern. David we were talking about personal responsibility and the community. I want to maybe extend that a little bit and talk about the fact that you and I have frequently through the years been asked to talk about religious liberty in public forums. Places where we would articulate this notion of the separation of church and state, the first amendments, protection of religious minorities, and that grows out of, for both of us, a minority consciousness of religion in America.

George Mason: The first amendment being owed to this idea that people who are not the dominant religious culture should be respected equally and have complete freedom. It seems to me that there's a strength, both in Judaism, which represents, what, about 2% of the population roughly in the U.S.?

David Stern: Ish.

George Mason: And our historic Baptist tradition that I try to represent, which in early America was not part of the established colonies and was always being persecuted, so as we maintain that sense of our minority place religiously, it's easier to defend everyone else's religious place as well. But we seem to have a problem, Baptists certainly, when we became dominant in the south. When we became more of the cultural default and where we had a sort of hegemony in communities and culture. The mayor was on the third pew and the school superintendent and the county judge and all that sort of thing.

George Mason: This is true even in Israel with Jews. For the first time in the State of Israel, in a modern life now, a dominant religious perspective, what happens, do you think, to us when we move from this responsibility for our neighbor, because we understand the need for our neighbor be responsible to us, to this majority position?

David Stern: Well, it's a fascinating question. To me, it's a question about how to hold power justly. Some scholars argue that the Torah, the first five books and certainly beyond them, but the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, constitute an exilic document. That they were composed and certainly redacted in exile. And that exilic sensibility, some would argue is reflected in every core Jewish ethic. I don't quite see it as an accident of history, but I do see consistency between an exilic mentality, which we could argue as a minority mentality, a subpower mentality, and the kind of ethos that's articulated in the scripture that we share. Make sense?

George Mason: Yes.

David Stern: There are a couple attendant risks it seems to me, now I'll speak specifically as a Jew. The first risk is that power is always a risk. Power corrupts. You could argue that everything in the Hebrew Bible is about the just use of power. That power could be political power, it could be the power in a relationship between two lovers, it could be the power in a relationship between a business person and a customer. Jewish law is arguably an architecture designed to help us understand the just use of power.

George Mason: Everything.

David Stern: It's present in every exchange. Correct?

George Mason: Yes.

David Stern: Okay. That's clearly a challenge that these cultures face. And, the complexity from the other side is that Jewish history teaches me never to romanticize powerlessness.

George Mason: Ahhh. Oh, this is really good.

David Stern: Because powerlessness also leads to evil. Not my evil, but the evil of one who would take advantage of my powerlessness.

George Mason: The evil is what is done to me.

David Stern: I think it's very important in Jewish thought and Jewish history to understand that powerlessness is not a virtue. And that makes the challenge of the just use of power all the more pointed.

George Mason: Very good.

David Stern: I think that in Israel ... look I'm not the greatest fan of the present Israeli administration. It is an instrument of politics. I'm not sure it's an instrument of Judaism. It's an instrument of politics, but I do think that for any of us as individuals, as subgroups, as religious subgroups ... you could say it of Temple Emanu-El. Temple Emanu-El to some extent, enjoys a dominant position in the Jewish community of Dallas. We have to be very thoughtful every day about not being presumptuous, about not being arrogant, about being alert to our flaws, about being supportive of other congregations and communities within the Jewish community. I'm not saying it's earned or deserved, but with that historical position comes a certain level of responsibility.

David Stern: Look, what is it? Leviticus 25:23, in the thing about, "You shall not sell the land beyond reclaim," God says, "For the land is mine. Because you are a stranger's resident with me." Now what does that mean? And you've taught me ... I remember early on there was a potential flirtation between a city government organization and the clergy of the city. You said to me, "We have to be careful lest we get too cozy with the ruling power." That was right out of Leviticus. What does it mean to be in the world, but strange enough to the world and stranger enough in the world, that we don't get seduced by its powers?

David Stern: That to me, that my dad's language for that, may he rest in peace, was that the Jews should always stand. And because he was of the Reform denomination, he believed deeply in our engagement in the world. He said, "Jews should always stand with one foot in the world and one foot at Sinai." That we have to have enough, remove enough of what you have called critical distance to be able to see things and name things, but to do it in a language that still has us in the world. It seems to me that the risk of the power seduction that you described, for anyone, anywhere, any religious group, any political power, is that we forget the foot at Sinai.

George Mason: Looking back in terms of the trajectory of Israel's history, you have a foot at Sinai, but you also have a longing for the promised land.

David Stern: Correct.

George Mason: So, we are people on the move. We have to maintain a sense that we have been given a way of life to live as we have a sense of homelessness in the world, and yet-

David Stern: We yearn for home.

George Mason: ... there is a yearning for home.

David Stern: 100%.

George Mason: So then-

David Stern: And a secure home.

George Mason: And a secure home. Exactly. So, what happens when you cross the Jordan? What happens when you move into? What happens when you declare, whether in 1776 or in 1948, that this is now a secure home for people like us? How do we live with that power, and how do we understand that every nation is still temporal, still provisional? Notwithstanding the promises of God, that always seemed to me at least, to have a future to them that is more than the present. That is yet to come. So that we can't just protect what is, but we are working a project.

David Stern: And this is what you and Rabbi Nancy Kasten have written of so eloquently, the risks of the idolizing of nationalism. I think that in the Israeli context, there's a reason that we call it the Jewish state and not the Jew's state. Because we have expectations of its behavior and not just of its demography. And that it seems to me is the right of every Jew, to call the Jewish state that belongs to us all, to those standards. The truth of the matter is, it happens much more vibrantly and vociferously within the State of Israel than it does in the American Jewish community. The American Jewish community is much less interesting and much more hidebound in its approaches towards Israeli politics than Israeli citizens are. Israeli citizens are loud and argumentative and it's a radically free press that challenged its government every single day. And that part of Israel is the best of democracy.

David Stern: The grappling with the tragedy and pain of the plight of Palestinians, the grappling with the human rights of human beings who have not only a right to their own humanity, but a right to their own state, and determining a way to do that while keeping parties secure and safe is, and I don't say it's vexing as a way of dismissing the problem, I say it's vexing as a way of insisting on the problem. Is a source of tremendous pain and provocation. Any Jew who's paying attention regardless of their position, they could be as supportive of the present government as they wish to be, what's clear is that the problem can't be denied, and any approach to it, because it is a Jewish state and not just a Jew's state, has to be morally justifiable.

George Mason: Wow. I want to go back to this notion of what it is to live in a culture where we are one foot at Sinai and one foot in the world. As Christians, we like to say, "In the world, but not of the world," you might say.

David Stern: Well, Christ in culture, Christ above culture, Christ with culture, that whole ...

George Mason: There it is. Thank you. Richard Niebuhr. I think there's a distinction. A friend of mine who works with refugees said that what we try to do is to help refugees become integrated into the culture without assimilating into the culture. And I think the distinction between, for us as religious people as well, is integration means that we're engaged. That we acknowledge that we're part of this body politic, and we're going to bring our faith to it, our values, our convictions, and we're going to be patriots in that very important sense. But we are not going to blindly salute and become part of a culture that departs from the spiritual values that we have, the religious identity that has to be preserved generation to generation, or there's some deep loss for the larger society, not just for us.

David Stern: Correct. It's the stew pot versus melting pot idea, that there has to be significant preservation of integrity of distinctive message of distinctive mission, even as our own adherence would argue about what that distinctive vision is.

George Mason: Of course.

David Stern: And there will be diversity of voices there, but to be able to bring it and to be able to bring it without fear. I do think that one of the effects of attacks on religious institutions, whether those be a horrible shooting in a church or a horrible shooting in a synagogue, is that it brings a measure of fear to that next moment of possible self-expression or self-assertion in religious terms. The toll of deaths is itself devastating and eternal, whatever the number, but that's not the end of the toll. The toll is not limited to the body count.

David Stern: For in a Jewish community, the toll is, the next March when a family is deciding whether to send their kids to a Jewish preschool. They have that moment of hesitation, and they have a conversation at the kitchen table they wouldn't have had 10 years ago. And they wonder. Or they wonder about the kid on the field trip, or they wonder ... Orthodox Jews who are accustomed to in the United States wearing religious garb publicly, there isn't an Orthodox Jew who goes to Paris and doesn't put on a baseball cap over their head covering.

George Mason: Wow.

David Stern: So what does that do, and what does that say about the culture that we're creating? My dark joke about it is that the ultimate goal of anti-Semites may not be to kill all of us, it's just to get us to spend all of our synagogue budgets on security. So we don't have anything left to teach people Torah.

George Mason: Wow. Well, we need to put a comma here, because we have another episode to continue this conversation. But this is just getting started. This is terrific. David, thank you for all the wonderful relationship we've had over time in these conversations. I'm glad we're getting to share it a little more broadly through Good God. Good to have you.

David Stern: I feel good about it too. Thank you George.

George Mason: You bet.

Jim White: Good God is created by Dr. George Mason. Produced and directed by Jim White. Guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, conversations with George Mason, is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God, and faith, and the common good. All material copy write, 2019 by Faith Commons.

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