Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s remarks at the Interfaith Banquet
Center for Interfaith Cooperation
Interfaith Ambassadors of the Year Award
March 18, 2018
Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
(Once upon a time) When Dennis and I were studying religion in college, the primer for interfaith was Will Herberg’s seminal book, Protestant, Catholic and Jew. Herberg wrote of ethnic divisions fading against a backdrop of three primary faith expressions, a “triple melting pot” that made up the American landscape. That landscape is now more textured and complicated than ever before. We are a country of multiple identities, of Christians and Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and secularists.
Despite America being the most religiously diverse nation, we know little about each other. We live in a country, where more and more people when asked what their religion is, say, “none.” For faith traditions to be a source of strength, a resource for values, we cannot simply agree to tolerate one another, but to understand each other, not only the ways we are alike but also how we are different.
In the mid-20th century, interfaith conversations were among the like-minded. We made important contributions, standing together in national crises, building Habitat for Humanity homes; forming alliances to feed the hungry and to welcome immigrants. We worked against discriminatory legislation, prayed and celebrated together.
The interfaith gatherings of this century must build bridges that are far more complex and challenging than before.
We must develop conversations between the “religious” and the “nones.” Progressives and conservatives have to figure out how to talk without demeaning the other. We can’t say, either you agree with me on everything, or you’re against me. Extremism, on the left or the right, cannot be the religious standard bearer.
Interfaith is not just about getting to know one another; it is about figuring out how to be and work together even when we disagree. I am reminded of Arthur Schopenhauer’s Porcupine Parable. He tells of how porcupines come together on frosty nights to get warm, despite the fact that closeness brings its own discomfort. Hearing this parable birthed a new story.
One especially cold winter the porcupines had a hard time staying warm. Their regular places of refuge did not help. To avoid freezing to death, they decided on a plan. They came close to each other, very close, and to their surprise, they stopped shivering. They stopped shaking. They came so close, they could smell each other’s breath. They came so close, they could hear each other’s heartbeat. They came so close they could feel each other’s quills, tens of thousands of them.
That was a problem, a big problem! (The weather outside was frightful, but cuddling was not so delightful!) The closer they came, the more they were irritated. The closer they came, the more they were stabbed. They protested and complained. They withdrew from each other. Too painful, they determined. Apart was better than together.
But the wind’s breath was frosty. Tree branches broke from the weight of the ice. The porcupines were so cold. They shuddered and they shook. They twitched and they quivered. So the prickle of porcupines decided to come back together again. They stopped shivering. They stopped shaking. The quills still stabbed. They pricked and they jabbed. Some still whined and others still grumbled. But warm was better than freezing. The prickle of porcupines concluded that together was better than apart. A story for our generation.
Impossible for the story to be true? Don’t say it cannot be. It hasn’t happened yet, so we’ll wait and see. Impossible. Until it’s not.