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Rabbi: Faiths should set aside differences

Harold S. Kushner talks about the growing openness between Jews and non-Jews.

Jewish people have much to offer to others, but touting their religion as the best or only true faith is not what they should be about, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner told an audience of more than 600 people here Wednesday night.

"We can be proudly Jewish without having to insist that everyone else is wrong," he said. "We have to believe that being Jewish is the most wonderful thing that can happen to a person. Live that way and inspire your non-Jewish neighbors to take similar pride in their faith."

Kushner, the best-selling author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, made his remarks at a fundraiser for Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor. Attendees paid ticket prices as high as $1,250, which included the opportunity to join the rabbi for dinner prior to the event.

Kushner's speech centered on ideas that others can learn from the Jewish people.

He talked about the growing openness and closeness between Jews and non-Jews. He shared a thought from a friend: "We really make too much (of) the differences between Judaism and Christianity. Jews are waiting for the Messiah to come, Christians are waiting for the second coming of Jesus. Why don't we just put everything aside so when the Messiah comes we'll ask him, "Have you ever been here before?' "

Kushner asked his audience to avoid getting into the marketplace of competing religions.

"If you claim religion is basically about belief, knowing the right answers about God, you paint yourself into that corner of being obliged to say, "If my religion is right, yours must be wrong,' " he said.

The rabbi, who lives in the Boston area with his wife of 40 years, Suzette, also spoke about his visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

"Part of me was saying they really did a good job, that this is a story that needs to be told. But if we have the attention of the non-Jewish world for an hour and a half, are we sure this is the one thing we want to teach them . . . the Jew as victim?"

Kushner said he would like to have seen another museum next door featuring greats such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud that would show what Jews have done for the world.

Kushner led congregations for 30 years, 24 in Natick, Mass. He gave up pastoring 10 years ago because of his writing and lecturing. His other books include When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, When Children Ask About God, and How Good Do We Have To Be.

In his talk, he outlined distinctive features of the Jewish religion.

One of the fundamental structural differences between Judaism and Christianity, he said, is that "we were a people before we were a faith. Christianity was a faith before they were a people."

He said being Jewish is not so much about sharing beliefs about God, but about sharing a sense of community.

"We belong to each other even when we don't agree with each other," he said. "That's why you can have an atheist Jew in a way you can't have an atheist Baptist or Presbyterian. Because the Jew, whatever he may or may not believe theologically, casts his lot with the past, present and future of the Jewish people.

"The oldest discernible purpose of religion is not to put people in touch with God, but to put people in touch with each other," said Kushner, citing a study by a French sociologist. "When you have something to celebrate or something to mourn, when there's a famine or a harvest, you don't want to have to face it alone, but with other people."

Another lesson that can be learned from the Jews, he said, is that prayer should be offering up thanks to God, not begging for something that we want. He said that people from all religions have come to confuse God with Santa Claus.

"I don't want to be told God could have answered your prayer and chose to say no," he said, "because then you're either angry at yourself for not deserving a positive answer or angry at God for not giving you what you deserve."