By Mrs Jane Baron-Rechtman, Professor of World Religions and Bio-ethics at the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY and Member of the Interfaith Council on Ethics Education for Children
“I had a professor once who used to say there are two things you should read every day: the Bible and the New York Times. His thinking was, if you want to understand human beings, what makes us tick, what our strengths, weaknesses, values, yearnings, wishes, sense of reality is all about, there’s nothing more human than those two texts. Personally, I expand that to include the wisdom literature of all different traditions – and the New York Times. And I consider myself so very fortunate that as a teacher of the world religions, I get to spend my days doing just that – reading and discussing the wisdom literature of different human cultures – with young minds who make really interesting comments and questions.
I get to ponder the important questions of life and the answers from extremely different world views! The shamanic experience taps into layers of reality vastly different than my here and now. And yet, who knows, maybe they’re in touch with the multi-universes that string theorists speak of. Maybe the spirits of indigenous cultures are the same as entangled particles.
I get to read and reread the Hindu story of the Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna – like us — faces an ethical dilemma. The dilemmas he and we face are not between between good versus bad, they’re between two conflicting values like truth or loyalty, individual rights vs. community rights. And yet, he (and we) are reminded that a person “cannot escape the force of action by abstaining from action.. .perform necessary action, it is more powerful than inaction.”
The Buddhist notions of impermanence – that everything changes all the time so don’t cling to things as they are, and the ideas of compassion for and interconnectedness of all beings deeply shape me in every day ways. To treat each sentient being as if they were my adored child is a loving practice.
Judaism, the religion of my people, helps me to remember the prophetic call for justice and mercy to all people – particularly the oppressed. MLK used to quote the biblical prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” And the rabbi Hillel used to ask three questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
Christianity gives us a story of radical transformation. Just like wheat changes into bread, grapes into wine, seeds into flowering plants, Jesus used stories and healings to show radical change our lives and our society so that we could be more loving and just.
The ethical demands of Islam, in both the Quran and the sayings of Muhammed (pbuh) to be kind, to be charitable, and to live up to a high standard, are ones that resonate with me. Said Muhammed: “Show kindness to the creatures of the earth so that G-d may be kind to you.” And also “Visit the sick, feed the hungry and free the captives.”
Yes, I know and understand (particularly when I read the New York Times!) that religions cause a great deal of pain and suffering in this world. We humans sure know how to screw up and twist some good ideas! But I still think there’s a great deal of beauty, love, and wisdom in all of these traditions just as I still believe there’s a great deal of beauty, love and wisdom in human despite our tendency toward the opposite as well. In any case, studying religious wisdom is a really good way of understanding human beings and it acts as a guide post in life. Or, as the 13 century Sufi poet, Rumi said:
“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”