Interfaith Relations in a New Era

Sermon given November 29, 2002, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

This summer, San Antonio lost one of its most magnificent souls, when Father J. Willis Langlinais succumbed to cancer. My most enduring memory of a personal encounter with Father Langlinais was at Passover in 1993, my first year in San Antonio. My grandmother, then a sprightly 85 years old, had come to join us at the Stahl home for Seder. Right after the third cup of wine, which she merely sipped, my grandmother lost consciousness, slumping over in her chair, next to Father Langlinais. A physician at the table felt for her pulse, looked at my father grimly, and shook his head. Moments later, thank God, my grandmother regained her consciousness, and was fully recovered within minutes. My grandmother exclaimed that she was fortunate to have had a man of God at her side, Father Langlinais. Never mind the two Rabbis, one of them her grandson!

Thereafter, I saw Father Langlinais often. For decades, he had been a beloved friend of our Temple and its Rabbis. On countless occasions, he worshiped with our congregation. In sadness, he was here when his friend Rabbi Jacobson died. With joy, he was here to celebrate his friend Rabbi Stahl’s retirement.

When I was elected to succeed Rabbi Stahl as Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth-El, I received a lovely note from Father Langlinais, in which he congratulated me, but also admonished me. He told me that I would have mighty shoes to fill. That, of course, I knew.

Father Langlinais was referring primarily to both of my predecessors’ devotion of interfaith relations. Indeed, Father Langlinais was himself a pioneer in interfaith activities, seeking dialogue with the Jewish community before such interaction was fashionable. He knew giants of interfaith relations when he encountered them, and he had met two from the pulpit of Temple Beth-El.

First, Rabbi David Jacobson, of blessed memory, together with his beloved Helen, was a towering leader in securing the social safety net of our community. Working tirelessly with Catholic and Protestant clergy, Rabbi and Helen Jacobson were responsible for founding countless organizations and initiatives that bettered the lot of the less fortunate of San Antonio. From integration to mental health, their interfaith activism changed this city.

Rabbi Stahl was blessed to come into a city and congregation transformed, with a tradition of interfaith harmony. He built on that legacy, and created his own. Still deeply committed to social welfare, Rabbi Stahl’s unique contribution to Christian-Jewish relations has been in the scholarly arena. His study, his depth, and his loyal friendship have endeared him to countless Christian leaders. Rabbi Stahl’s ability to communicate a Jewish message forthrightly, with integrity, but also with respect for Christianity, has bridged gaps that could otherwise have broadened into chasms.

The chair I now hold is a place of honor in our wider community, revered because of the esteem lent to it by David Jacobson and Sam Stahl. In our city, the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El is regarded as a leader, who can be counted upon to speak out for social justice and the welfare of the less fortunate. Throughout Bexar County, the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El is valued as the primary spokesperson for Judaism in this community, one who articulates the Jewish position with knowledge, integrity, and sensitivity. As Father Langlinais wrote to me those years ago, I do have to fill the shoes of giants.

Perhaps it can be said that our first exemplar of interfaith relations is Joseph, the hero of this week’s Torah portion. Tomorrow morning, Jake will read the section in which Joseph finds himself in jail with Pharaoh’s Chief Cup Bearer and Minister of Baking. Both of Pharaoh’s servants suffer nightmares on the same night. They are deeply disturbed, but neither knows the meaning of the dream. They come to Joseph for an interpretation, and Joseph responds that the God of Israel will provide an answer. Joseph thereby upholds the glory of God in a foreign land. Joseph represents his God with dignity and with faith. The result: Egypt is delivered from a famine. Ultimately, Joseph’s own family is saved, and through them, the Jewish people survives. We learn an important lesson: Strong interfaith relations in diaspora serve God, and are also good for the Jews.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of those who have gone before us, we enjoy magnificent relations with countless Catholic and Protestant Churches whose socio-economic make-up is similar to that of our own congregation. These relationships were forged in the 20th century, at a time when Jews felt a desperate need to be accepted into American society. Today, some challenges remain, but the battle has been won. Our friendships with these north side churches endure, not because we need them, but because the partnerships are real. We enrich them, just as their love and respect continue to give meaning to our service of God. They are precious to us because they are our friends. They are our partners. Long may our mutual love and respect flourish.

Here in 21st Century America, and particularly in San Antonio, we have new challenges of interfaith relations. Latinos and African Americans were viewed as our “natural allies,” back in the days when we, like they, were excluded form mainstream America. Now that we have “made it,” though, new tensions have arisen.

Recently, somebody sent me an article about Sandy Koufax. The person who sent it enclosed an unsigned note; if you are here, please let me know! The note included the observation that Jews today have far better relations with our fellow Anglo Americans than we did during Koufax’s playing days; the situation with African Americans, though, is reversed. A gulf of misunderstanding has developed between Jews and African Americans.

Increasingly, the United States is multi-cultural. Certainly, that’s true here in San Antonio. If our interfaith relations concentrate exclusively on houses of worship whose worshipers look like us, we risk overlooking the majority of our own city. New leadership for our city and our nation will spring out of the west side, the south side, and the east side, not only from north Bexar County.

Moreover, we American Jews have a responsibility to those of other religions, who are neither Christian nor Jewish. To paraphrase our tradition: We were strangers in the land of America, let us remember the heart of the stranger. Often, ironically, we are included, not excluded, by those who seek to impose religion on our public schools and government institutions. They will advocate for a “Judeo-Christian” society. Whatever that means, that term is meant to exclude Americans of other faiths and of no faiths.

In our new era, interfaith relations must include everybody. Yesterday, at San Fernando Cathedral, I participated in the annual Thanksgiving service. What a privilege, to worship with San Antonians from every sector of our city, of a wide variety of religious backgrounds. What an honor, to have been invited, as I was, to ask God’s blessing upon offerings brought by Catholics together with Sikhs, Baptists together with Buddhists, Methodists together with Muslims, Presbyterians together with Hindus, Episcopalians together with of Baha’is.

Three months from today, we will be celebrating the rededication, the hanukkah, if you will, of our completely revitalized Temple facilities. A few years back, when we began contemplating this project, some suggested that we move our Temple to the north side, closer to many of our younger families. Of course, we had any number of reasons for remaining at 211 Belknap, not the least of them being this majestic sanctuary. And yet, perhaps a deeper reason compels. Had we moved north, we would have left the heart of San Antonio without any visible Jewish presence whatsoever. We would have marginalized our community as strictly a north side phenomenon. Jews would have been invisible to the east, south, and west of our city.

In this new era, let us carry the torch of Rabbi Jacobson and Rabbi Stahl. Let us continue to cry out for social justice in San Antonio. Let us study our faith and the faiths of others with integrity. And let us reach out across all lines, the lines of race and religion, the lines of socio-economic status and geography. Let Temple Beth-El continue to be a beacon of light, as together we build a brighter, and more unified future, for San Antonio and America.