It is a privilege for me, as a Jewish woman, to address this fasting dinner in honor of the Muslim season of Ramadan at one of the region’s leading Catholic institutions. While the interfaith character of this occasion is notable, it is not all that unusual in a pluralistic democratic society. Let us enjoy being together and rejoice in the fact that we live in a society that makes such a phenomenon possible. And at the same time let us mourn the fact that it is most unusual, I would say even inconceivable, in many places in the world. Unfortunately there are not so many places in the world where people have both the desire and the opportunity to gather together in common cause—people of many different faiths and even people of no faith. What we are fortunate enough to share is the right to live in a place where we are free to believe whatever our own hearts and minds and our own traditions want us to believe—without fear.
No document has been more touching to me as an American Jew than the letter that George Washington wrote to the congregation of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. I will read you the closing lines, which sound very much like a prayer:
“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” If my limited knowledge of religion serves me well, I think we Jews, Christians and Muslims all consider ourselves to be of the “stock of Abraham.” As we rejoice in Washington’s world view, which was very advanced and reflected the hopes and dreams of this very young democratic nation, we must also mourn the fact that all too few people in this world practice their religions in an atmosphere in which “there shall be none to make (them) afraid.” How much have we learned about tolerance and respect for those who are very different from us in the past 208 years? Why are we still fighting against each other? Why do nations continue to fight each other, not only on religious issues, but on economic and political issues as well? Alas, I can’t think of any good reasons that even wise men and women see war as the only option that they have and wonder why they do not accept diplomacy and constructive compromise as valid solutions to their problems. I wish I could say that religion is a neutral or a positive force in support of peace in the world, but we know that it is not always the case.
Yet diversity and interdependence are inherent in and essential to the very nature of life. They are the natural order of things—the formula for success and sustainability. Environmentalists understand that better than the rest of us. The world is diverse—it is the balances and interactions of the diverse elements in the natural world that comprise an ecologically sound environment. And, as we look into the social, economic, political and religious spheres we find, too, that it is the diversity and the interaction of the various elements in our community, our nation and our world that make for a dynamic, creative and yes, sustainable environment.
Are we ready, in this most interdependent of eras, to agree to celebrate at once our differences and our uniqueness? The revolution in information and communication technologies gives us creatures of the 21st century an unprecedented opportunity for choosing a future of promise—and the promise, of course, is freedom and justice for all the world’s people. This opportunity brings with it challenges and responsibilities, because commitment goes beyond proclamations and rhetoric—though both are important. But we must have actions as well. We must enter into the world of civic engagement and belief that our hard work-work that will never end—to make the world better—is the way we make good on our dream of liberty and justice for all. Whatever our particular religious faith may be, we must work together, motivated by our faith in the human potential for living together peacefully on this planet. Interdependence is both good and bad. It can be threatening to our physical, psychological and economic well being; it can be disturbing to our social equilibrium in that it presents the challenges that have plagued human beings throughout our history—but to a much greater extent. Challenges that were threatening even at the local level now claim our attention at the global level. It is daunting to learn that our slightest actions can have repercussions half way around the globe. In this new world, which requires our bravery and our ingenuity, what can we do and what will we do to choose a future of promise?
When I reflect on such matters I ask myself two questions—and I will now ask them of you. What kind of society are we? And what kind of society do we aspire to be? Because we live in a free society, we have the right to ask these questions, because we citizens are the agents of change that will drive our political and economic engines to meet our needs and desires, and our hopes. My answers to the questions are as follows. We are a society that is a pluralistic democracy that has high ideals and access to change through the law. What kind of society we aspire to be is not so easy to answer. There are some who want to have their own freedoms but are not interested in the well being of others—witness the perilously widening gap between rich and poor; there are religious fundamentalists who are not tolerant of those who do not agree with their beliefs; there are neighbors who cannot accept neighbors who have different skin colors, different religions, different sexual preferences and such. How do we handle these serious problems?
I propose that we institute or where it exists, increase substantially, education for tolerance and for citizenship—and I mean 21st century global citizenship– in all our institutions. We have to cultivate the will to move forward in offering the possibility of liberty and justice for all, and we have to develop the skills to do that as well. The American motto, as many of you know, is E Pluribus Unum. From many, one. Isn’t that a good motto for the planet? We are individuals, yes—and what we can attain as such has gone and will continue to go further than we might ever have imagined. But we are also here with and for each other—and we have gone a relatively short distance by comparison; but we can go considerably further if we develop in our population—and in particular our young people– the will and the skills to build a global civil society.
We need interfaith understanding, and inter-ethnic understanding and inter-gender understanding and inter-class understanding—international understanding and even interplanetary understanding. For now we just need to get on that path. Our interdependence is a given. It’s up to us to acknowledge it and live morally and civically, according to its guidance.
Education for global citizenship can and should be a first principle in higher education. I propose that Marywood and all institutions of higher learning accept that principle. Richard Levin, the president of Yale University, had this to say to graduating students this year in his baccalaureate address: “…a complete 21st century education requires one essential new skill: the capacity for cross-cultural understanding. To be adequately prepared for life in a highly interdependent world, you need the ability…to recognize and appreciate that those from other nations and other cultures see the world differently, hold different assumptions, and often reach different conclusions even when presented with the same facts. Only with this capacity for cross-cultural understanding will you achieve your full potential in the inevitably global careers you will pursue and the contributions you will make to the greater society.”
From what I know of Marywood, and we are witness to it this evening, it is an institution that balances its particularity with its universality— though grounded in history and an important set of traditions, understands the global challenges that we have the privilege to address in this interdependent 21st century world. It is at once Catholic (upper case) in its religious commitment and catholic (lower case)—in its commitment to all human beings. That’s why we are here tonight celebrating the healthy diversity of our world. May we live in harmony with our particular faiths and at the same time demonstrate our collective faith in our capacity to bring the freedoms, rights and responsibilities that we enjoy to all the world’s people.