You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. (Devarim 14:1)
Do not carve yourselves up
into pure and impure,
men and women,
left and right,
rich and poor,
gay and straight,
them and us.
Do not slash the body
that houses every being,
do not split the skin
that girds you all, for
underneath it, black or white,
each one is My child.
In Parashat Re’eh, we read the commandment “You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves (lo titgodedu) or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. The literal meaning of this verse prohibits pagan mourning customs that include self-mutilating practices similar to those described in Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Ba’al (1 Kings 18:28). However, the Rabbis of the Talmud in Yevamot 13b re-interpret the verse in a way that has lost none of its relevance today. They suggest that the word titgodedu is etymologically related to the word agudah meaning group. They compare this verse with that in Psalms 94:21 which contains the word yagodu, meaning “they group together (against the soul of the righteous).” So the Rabbis derive that lo titgodedu is actually an exhortation meaning “Do not divide up into rival factions (agudot agudot).”
Tellingly, this injunction is preceded by the reminder “You are children of the Lord your God.”
In the twentieth century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972) stands out as a giant of “building bridges” both within the Jewish community as well as in pioneering interfaith dialogue. In an interview in On Being with Krista Tippett, on the “Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua Heschel” http://www.onbeing.org/program/spiritual-audacity-abraham-joshua-heschel/227/extraaudio?embed=1&start_track=1&?embed=1, Professor Arnold Eisen recalls that in 1953 Rabbi Heschel addressed the Assemblage of Reform Rabbis and later in the same month, he spoke to the Conservative rabbis. (He told the former that they needed to pay more attention to Jewish law which Reform Judaism had rejected, and to the latter he told that they paid too much attention to law and needed to address Jewish spirituality.)
In an article on Rabbi Heschel http://www.crosscurrents.org/heschel.htm, Dr Reuven Kimelman summarises, “Heschel’s fulfilled desire to be connected with … diverse constituencies is reflected in the fact that over thirty national organizations, Jewish and otherwise, sponsored the sheloshim in his honor. His roots in Judaism reached so deep that they penetrated that substratum of life which nourishes all mankind. Heschel’s ability to relate to so many people on their various levels flowed from his conviction that man’s grandeur surpasses his ideologies. His ability to deal with the thought and attitudes of so many religious communities issued from a certitude that God transcends His theologies.”
With regard to Rabbi Heschel’s interfaith activity, Professor Eisen comments “Heschel was a mystic. And you’ll find a lot of mystics throughout the ages — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu — who believe they have an experience of God that goes beyond language, that goes beyond culture, that proves to them the unity of the Divine and then they understand various religious traditions as ways, as it were, of putting this experience into words. And the words always fall short. And one of the things that enabled Heschel to be so open to people of other faiths and to feel real kinship with them was this fundamental mysticism, this sense that the experience of God goes beyond any individual tradition, is greater than any individual tradition, as it were, encompasses all of them.
“And then there was the personal experience, and here was the man who was able to see in other human beings that he met, for example, the Pope and the cardinals that he met in encounters through Vatican II, Martin Luther King, Reinhold Niebuhr. He encountered other people of faith and I think was open enough to see in them depths of religious, as it were, belonging. That they too live in the presence of God and therefore they have kinship with him. And these encounters reinforce one another and grow in him this sense of a mystery beyond any tradition’s capacity to fully understand it.
“So there’s Heschel out there in the world marching in Selma sure that those people marching with him are no less children of God, full of insight into God, than he is. This is rare in a contemporary world. Even with all of our talk about pluralism and all of our religious dialogue, the deep conviction that we need to be open to others because we have something important to learn from them. This remains rare. And it’s one of the things that Heschel had to teach that I’m most grateful for.”