First Unitarian Church of Providence
worship & spiritual practice
about sunday services


"Why I am a Unitarian Universalist Jew"
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, December 11, 2016

Click Here to Download or Use the Audio Player Below to Listen to This Sermon.

Our ancient reading this morning, An Unfailing Treasure, is from the Wisdom of Solomon:
I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepters and thrones,
and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her.
Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem,
because all gold is but a little sand in her sight,
and silver will be accounted as clay before her.
I loved her more than health and beauty,
and I chose to have her rather than light,
because her radiance never ceases.
All good things came to me along with her,
and in her hands uncounted wealth.
I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them;
but I did not know that she was their mother.
I learned without guile and I impart without grudging;
I do not hide her wealth
for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals.
Martin Buber was an Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a form of existentialism centered on the distinction between the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship. Our second reading is an adapted excerpt from Martin Buber’s book, The Way of Man:
Every person born into this world represents some¬thing new, something that never existed before, some¬thing original and unique. 'It is the duty of every person … to know and consider that he is unique in the world in his particular character and that there has never been anyone like him in the world, for if there had been someone like him, there would have been no need for him to be in the world. Every single [person] is a new thing in the world, and is called upon to fulfill his particularity in this world… Every [person’s] foremost task is the actualization of his unique, unprecedented and never recurring potentialities, and not the repetition of some¬thing that another, and be it even the greatest, has already achieved. The wise Rabbi Bunam once said in old age, when he had already grown blind: 'I should not like to change places with our father Abraham! What good would it do God if Abraham became like blind Bunam, and blind Bunam became like Abraham? Rather than have this happen, I think I shall try to become more like myself.'

My sermon this morning, "Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist Jew," is the third in an occasional series being presented throughout the course of this year. Earlier sermons included "Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Humanist," and "Why I am a UU Christian." Copies of those sermons are available on the church website or in the Parish House Parlor.

My intention with this series is to view life experience as a Unitarian Universalist, through a number of theological perspectives, in ways that I hope will be of value to those of us who claim to be religious liberals embracing diversity and freedom of conscience in religious matters. Our faith tradition encourages us to look through different lenses with the hope of possibly seeing larger glimpses of truth, in order that we might find greater meaning in our lives. Another part of the intention is to address a question that I hear being raised by a number of you here at First Unitarian during this interim period. That is: what is our spiritual center?

My premise is that the core of Unitarian Universalism cannot be found within any single religious perspective, but that our theological/spiritual heart can be found in all traditions that provide us – as we proclaim in the Sources section of our Principles and Purposes – "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life."

Our fidelity, I would suggest, lies in our ardent search for truth and not in any exclusive claims of orthodox ownership of it. And so, this sermon series is intended to explore paths that have revealed truth to pilgrims who have gone before us, while at the same time, providing a common experience of the journey that we share in the exploration. Our spiritual center may very well lie in the hospitable sharing of our explorations along that journey with one another.

Since the title of each of these sermons begins with "Why I am a Unitarian Universalist," once again, I begin there with a great sense of appreciation. I am a Unitarian Universalist because here I am not told what to believe. I'm asked what I do believe. Moreover, I'm asked how that belief matters, both in my own life and in the world. I am asked here to accept things on faith, but on my faith—not anyone else’s. I am a UU because I know my life’s path is a journey, a pilgrimage, and not just a meaningless passage from birth to death.

So, I am a Unitarian Universalist because this faith tradition calls me – in community – to make the most of my life, to do the best with it, and to love the most fully I can. I am a Unitarian Universalist because I believe in the potential for humanity to learn and grow. And with that potential, I believe, no matter how dark it may feel at times, in the possibility of a better world, rooted more firmly in the ideals of truth, beauty, love and justice.

So, why I am a Unitarian Universalist Jew. Okay, you’ve got me on this one. I’m not really Jewish! Although, Unitarian Universalism does provide me, as it might you, with an engaging invitation to consider our Jewish roots. The truth is that I personally do have Jewish roots and they’re not merely religious. I grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, where you might not think there’s a large Jewish population. And you’d be right – there isn’t. But there is a Jewish neighborhood there, just the same. And the Ortman house sat quite within the perimeter of that neighborhood.

I grew up surrounded by Jews, the smells of holiday cooking, hamentashen shared over the backyard fence at Purim, the sukkahs, backyard stick structures that are part of the harvest holiday of Sukkot, that we thought they were a way cool place to have supper. The local rabbi’s house and yard were adjacent to ours. I was a Shabbas goy for our next-door neighbor Rosie Levy, even before I knew what a Shabbas goy was. For those of you who might not know what that is, a Shabbas goy is a non-Jew who turns on lights or ovens or other tasks not permitted to be performed by orthodox Jews on the Sabbath. So my proximity to Jews and to Jewishness has always been very close.

It might seem odd and somewhat tangential, but I don’t think it is, that both my brother and I married Jewish women. Having a partially Jewish home, as an adult, has seemed as natural to me as growing up in a Jewish neighborhood. I already had quite a taste for the food and can still never get enough of it, especially potato latkes, lox, gefilte fish, and brisket. Did I mention blintzes? And on the Blustein side of our family, I continue to be the only family member who can correctly pronounce the guttural sound of "ch" as in choopa or Hanukkah.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began to suspect an even closer familial connection to Judaism. I was talking with a Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleague, Rev. Anita Farber. I mentioned to her that my grandmother – my father’s mother – was also named Farber. Anita asked if my grandmother was, like herself, from a Jewish family. I said no, that she wasn’t, but it did begin my thinking that Mabel Farber quite possibly could have been.

There was never any mention of it in my German Catholic family. But I suppose if Mabel's family had been Jewish, that would be the way it would play out in my family – there would be no mention of it. Many German Jews converted to Christianity, and my grandmother’s family, the Farbers, could surely have been among them. It even seems likely. By Hitler’s definition of Jewishness, I could very easily actually be Jewish. This, of course, would indeed make me a Unitarian Universalist Jew.

But even more than cultural or familial affinities that I may feel toward Jewishness, or potential family history that I may have, as a Unitarian Universalist I feel a very strong connection to Jewish theology, especially in the reform or more liberal Jewish schools of thought. First of all, the idea that the name of God cannot be spoken, is, I think, genius. To name God is to put ourselves on familiar footing with the most incredible mystery in the universe – the cause of being. That takes a lot of chutzpah! And more, the idea is that naming God is not only a sin of arrogance, it is also a mistake to think that the name we might give, and therefore the idea we might have, could or should be the same for any other person. I like the idea that God cannot be named. The idea that God is an unknown and unknowable quantity suits me just fine.

I’m also fond of the importance of performing mitzvahs, the doing of good deeds. Each year at the High Holy Days on Rosh Hashanah, the Book of Life is opened and reviewed for one week. On Yom Kippur, the book is closed. If your name is in it, then you are good to go for one more year. The way to get your name into the Book of Life is by performing mitzvahs, doing good deeds in your home, your community, and in the world. It seems to me that the world would be a much better place if everyone’s focus was on performing mitzvahs.

The Jewish approach to religious teaching and learning is very similar to our own Unitarian Universalist approach. We ask a lot of questions; so do Jews. Ask a Jew why they ask so many questions and the likely answer is "So, why shouldn't we?" As Tevye says in "Fiddler on the Roof," the real answer to why so many questions is... Tradition.

The Talmud and Midrash represent centuries of a questing and questioning religious tradition. Our own inquiring Unitarian Universalist faith draws on many sources to encourage us in religious community and on our spiritual paths. There are four sources that we primarily draw on. They are Christianity, Humanism, Earth Centered Traditions, and Judaism. While the connection to each of these four sources is an important part of who we are, I often feel that theologically we are most closely linked to Judaism, and again – especially liberal Judaism – because of the reasons I’ve already mentioned, but there is another basis, which for me makes it particularly so. That is the central way in which we commonly make use of the metaphor in our religious discourse. I’m sure that there would be many Jews who would disagree with me on this, and I’m as sure there are many Unitarian Universalists who would disagree, too. Just the same, it is my experience in both Unitarian Universalism and in Liberal Judaism that religious language is used not in any dogmatic, literal or fundamentalist way.

Religious words such as heaven, hell, sin, HaShem (which is a way of not saying the word God), and many other words are used not so much to name actual people, places or events. They are primarily used as guides to help us look more carefully within ourselves in order to better connect with that which is in us, in the world around us, and in what we might consider to be more permanent or holy. We use metaphors as guides to help us look more carefully out into the world, so that we might live more meaningful lives in our day-to-day existence, which is so transient.

As an example, when Martin Buber says, "Any natural act, if hallowed, leads to God, and nature needs man for what no angel can perform on it, namely its hallowing." To me that's like Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson saying when we act in nature, treating it as sacred, with intention and propriety, that leads to goodness, and nature relies on humanity for what no supernatural entity can provide it, which is its goodness – its sacredness.

Another way in which liberal Judaism and Unitarian Universalism connect religiously is through the telling of stories. It is in the telling of stories where we are often best able to find and learn meaning from our experiences. We still have much to learn from Judaism on this account, and I suspect that’s why so often we use stories from that source. Similarly, Judaism offers a set of traditions spanning nearly 6,000 years of history. While our Unitarian Universalist stories and traditions reach back a mere 400 years, they are strengthened by the richness of our elder forbear.

I’m a Unitarian Universalist Jew, or at least a Unitarian Universalist Jewish advocate, because I find a strong affinity with what I perceive to be at the core of Jewishness. It’s interesting because I find that core to be structured in much the same way as the Ten Commandments are structured. First, it’s about the nature and relationship we have with what is divine or what we find most holy. And second, it’s about the nature of our relationships with the rest of humanity.

The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of the 20th Century spoke of the "Holy" this way in his book The Sabbath:
We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment, it is the moment that lends significance to things.

One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word kadosh – holy; a word which is – more than any other – representative of the mystery and majesty of the Divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? (He asks) Was it a mountain? Was it an altar?

It is indeed a unique occasion at which the distinguished word kadosh is used for the first the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: "And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy." There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.
That's why, Rabbi Heschel tells us, we cannot touch or know the divine. It is because it is not a person, nor a place, nor a thing. That which is divine… is time. And time is always new; we are always in a new relationship with it. And if we are going to be in right relationship, we will need to relate to time with intentionality and integrity. That’s why the Sabbath is so important: it’s about taking time, being with time, being in and with the holy.

As for the nature and relationship of humanity with itself, we can turn to the Babylonian Talmud. In answering the question "Does Judaism have an essence?" the Talmud answers that one question with four more that it calls "God’s first questions." In the hour when an individual is brought before the heavenly court for judgment, the person is asked:
  • Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?
  • Did you set aside regular time for Torah study?
  • Did you work at having children?
  • Did you look forward to the world’s redemption?
In citing this verse, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his book Jewish Wisdom asks us to note that the first question asked in heaven is not "Did you believe in God?" or "Did you observe all the rituals?" but "Were you honest in business?" The first order of business to be addressed at the metaphoric pearly gates is a question of ethics and how you treated your fellow human beings.

The second question regarding the Torah is about how a person learns to be a fully moral human being. Not only have you tried to be fair, but have you tried to be good? Have you tried to promote goodness?

The third question is about raising children, whether they are born to you or adopted, or even if they have been in some other way entrusted to you. This question is about being responsible stewards and caretakers of the next generation, as humanity moves forward in perfecting the world.

The fourth question is about moving beyond ourselves, beyond our families, beyond even our communities, to being responsible citizens of the world. Tikkun olam, the repair or perfection of the world, is the final and the largest question asked of the individual in the summary of one's life. This Talmudic passage is not so very different from some of our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes.

There are many reasons why I am happy to combine the roots of Judaism with my practice of Unitarian Universalism. Another one of my great Jewish teachers was Victor Frankl, through his insightful and inspiring book Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s likely the most significant book I’ve read in my life. The central idea is the existential thought that we create meaning in our lives, we find meaning in our lives by reaching beyond ourselves, by transcending our own pain, and by connecting, through love, with the world around us. Dr. Frankl’s thoughts were born of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp where all of his family members were put to death. He did not speak of meaning or purpose lightly.

There is much that can feed us as Unitarian Universalists which comes from our Jewish roots. We would do well to nurture those roots and to heed the lives that we are called to through them. As Martin Buber said in our reading earlier, "Every... person is a new thing in the world, called upon to fulfill his or her particularity in this world… Every person’s foremost task is the actualization of his or her unique, unprecedented and never recurring potentialities…" This is the life that our Jewish roots call us to, a life that is filled with purpose.

Unitarian Universalism calls us in this same way.

One more story from Martin Buber:
Rabbi Shneur Zalman, The Rav of Northern White Russia (died 1813), was put in jail in Petersburg, because the [adversaries of Hassidism] had de¬nounced his principles and his way of living to the government. He was awaiting trial when the chief of the gendarmes entered his cell. The majestic and quiet face of the rav, who was so deep in meditation that he did not at first notice his visitor, suggested to the chief, a thoughtful person... He began to converse with his prisoner and brought up a number of questions which had occurred to him in reading the Scriptures. Finally he asked: "How are we to understand that God, the all-knowing, said to Adam: ‘Where art thou?’"

"Do you believe," answered the rav, "that the Scrip¬tures are eternal and that every era, every generation and every [person] is included in them?"

"I believe this," said the other.

"Well then, said the [Rabbi], "in every era, God calls to every [person]: ‘Where are you in your world? So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how far have you gotten in your world?’ God says something like this: ‘You have lived 46 years. How far along are you?’"

When the chief of the gendarmes heard his age mentioned, he pulled himself together, laid his hand on the rav’s shoulder, and cried: "Bravo!" But [silently inside] his heart trembled.
Our hearts should tremble, too. There are questions to be asked, and questions to be answered. Where are you? How far are you along your journey? Where is your holy space? Where is your holy time? What is your ethic in dealing with your fellow human beings? How do you study and promote the causes of goodness? How does your life serve the generations yet to come? And what are you doing to make the world a more just and loving place?

The work of the religious person, of Jews, of Unitarian Universalists, of any religious person, is never done. Now, always now, is our sacred journey in time. L’chiam!