Art of Peace 2012 Tyler: Service at U.U. Fellowship

Sermon by Rabbi Neal Katz

Tyler’s second annual Art of Peace Festival ended with a peace service at the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship featuring a sermon by Rabbi Neal Katz of the Reform Judaism synagogue: Congregation Beth-El. The Art of Peace festival celebrates the International Day of Peace, established by the United Nations in 1981 and now designated as September 21. There was a week of activities, including a Thursday night peace concert at Beth-El by singer songwriter, Tom Prasada-Rao, as well as a Downtown Art Walk on Saturday. Rabbi Katz was extra busy this week as the Art of Peace Week overlapped with the High Holy Days of Judaism—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The service began with readings and comments from two other members of the Art of Peace Week staff: Mary Andrews and Anne McCrady.

Mary Andrews observed that the sixth principle of UU’ism is “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” We can have diversity without being divisive. A community can welcome the analytical mind and the generous heart. The fragile art of hospitality is a spiritual practice that begins with inner peace. So we welcome the stranger not out of obligation or duty. After Rabbi Katz’s sermon, Mrs. Andrews pointed out last year’s peace quilt behind the podium and this year’s origami cranes from the Art Walk in the foyer.

Anne McCrady, a well-known local poet, followed Mrs. Andrews. She proclaimed that poetry is the sound of the soul and part of peacemaking. Mrs. McCrady cited several famous poets throughout history such as David in the Psalms, the Eight Beatitudes in the Gospels, the Persian Rumi, Chief Seattle, Thich Nhat Hanh—the Vietnamese exile who specializes in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and Seamus Heaney—the northern Ireland poet (and 1995 Nobel Prize winner in Literature), whose work helped end strife in that region. Last year, the Art of Peace was held here in Tyler and in Belton, Texas, and a booklet was published. But this year, the winning poems in three categories were posted on the website www.tylerpeace.com : Global Peace, Community Peace, and Personal Peace. Many years ago, an Israeli sent a poem to late Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat insisting that peace poetry becomes a reality. To conclude, Mrs. McCrady stated that we must submerge in work and not dally in the shallows.

Rabbi Neal Katz began his sermon with an overview of highlights from one of his favorite books: the Jewish Peace Book, surprisingly up-to-date for something written in 1932. Rabbi Katz noted that the book suggests ways to help: make friends with those in foreign lands, be friends with those of other religions, and have a prevent war council. He reflected on the speaker’s theme at the Peace Meal of Monday dinner. Anissa Centers, anchor of KLTV, vowed to assert what’s right more often. By the way, the dinner was held at a Sikh owned Indian restaurant—Veranda Restaurant at the Ramada Inn. Rabbi Katz has been saddened by the recent deaths of three members of his small congregation; the most recent was a medical doctor. Mitch the doctor used to lament that sometimes patients quit seeing him when they discovered he was Jewish. Furthermore, he had to put up with anti-Semitic jokes by colleagues. Rabbi Katz didn’t know how to react since he couldn’t fix it. The doctor figured Neil was too idealistic.

This led to the focus of Rabbi Katz’s sermon: a rebuttal of an eleven-point hate mail against Muslims entitled, “Eleven Reasons why Moslems Can’t Be Good Americans.” Someone had anonymously mailed the letter to the rabbi. The rabbi warned us he’d talk fast because the sermon was longer than he’d prefer. This hate mail also was sent to the local mosque, which is directed by one of the rabbi’s best friends and interfaith associates--Anwar Khalifa, the architect. So Rabbi Katz disputed each of the points in the letter.

Basically, the letter was based on a premise of mistrust and suspicion. The rabbi defends interfaith dialogue with Christians, Moslems, and whoever else. He fears radicalism from members of any religion. People are inherently good and more complicated than to fall into such stereotypes. We don’t have a license to be ignorant. Importantly, Rabbi Katz noted the doctrine in Islam that there is no compulsion in religion; one should not proselytize. Have you noticed that Moslems don’t knock on your door urging you to go to the mosque? The Five Pillars of Islam are similar to practices in Judaism. Having a holy city outside the United States is more common than not. So what if you face Jerusalem, Mecca, or Rome when you pray? In a daring point, Rabbi Katz rhetorically asked if he should avoid Christians who privately assume Jews are damned? It’s better to support hearing the voices of all instead of sinking to fear mongering.

Religion needs to incorporate modernity; the rabbi says he’s not about to stone someone to death for not celebrating the Sabbath as stated in an antiquated Torah/Old Testament passage. Constitutions aren’t religious documents; there are bad governments but not bad religions. Politicizing religions damages the righteous and thoughtful aspects of religion.

Overgeneralizing is due to insecurity, and it’s easy to demonize people from a distance. As one might expect, the letter contained the tired insinuations that President Barack Obama is really a closet Muslim. To which, Rabbi Katz pointed to the President’s professed belief in Christianity, and asked so what if he really is Muslim?

Discrediting a path hurts the critic and the criticized. Rabbi Katz hopes for an increased spirit of inquiry and friendship in the future. The rabbi received a response from the “Islamophobes” that labeled his opinion as a world-view rather than a godly view. To conclude, Rabbi Katz urged us to be on the right side of the battle for peace; transform enemies into friends. Look for the common root.

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