We Must Be A Beacon of Light and Hope . . . Before It’s Too Late

Remarks from Rabbi David Saperstein, the new U.S. ambassador for religious freedom.

When Rabbi David Saperstein was sworn in as the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom on February 20, he became the first non-Christian to hold the job. Prior to this role, Saperstein served as director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and has been called the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek. 

The speech he gave at his swearing-in ceremony was emotional and effective — and deeply personal. Below is an excerpt, but you can read his full remarks here.

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During my career, my mandate has indeed covered a wide range of issues, but there are few that have been as central to my heart as that of religious freedom, for like most Jews, I know all too well that over the centuries, the Jewish people have been a quintessential victim of religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, and demonization.

Indeed, the Bible on which I affirmed the oath today was published at the turn of the century by the Hebrew publishing company owned by — in part, by part of my mother’s family and purchased by my great-grandfather, an orthodox rabbi, on my father’s side, both part of families that left Europe looking for refuge, freedom, and opportunity in this great land, which distinctly offered all three. But through too many tragedies we have learned firsthand the cost of universal rights, security, and wellbeing of religious communities when good people remain silent in the face of persecution.

This is just one key reason why I stand here today, to affirm that I cannot remain silent. When we see historic Christian, Yezidi, other communities in Iraq, from which I have just returned, in Syria being devastated; when we see Baha’is in Iran, Tibetan Buddhists in China, Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Rohingya Muslims in Burma, all victims of governmental or societal discrimination, harassment, persecution, physical attacks, sexual violence, enslavement — even in Western Europe we are witnessing a steady increase in anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric and anti-Semitic discourse and acts of desecration and violence against Jewish individuals, synagogues, and institutions and communities that we thought we would never, never see again after World War II.

Sadly, this list is far from exhaustive, but shows a broad range of serious threats to religious freedom and religious communities in nearly every corner of the globe. I approach my new responsibilities mindful of Dr. Martin Luther King’s warning, who challenged our nation and humanity — in a remarkable Riverside Church speech on Vietnam: “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’”

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So allow me to conclude with a personal story. In the summer of 1939, my father traveled throughout Poland and Palestine. He was one of the last to see the glory of European Jewry in full bloom. He visited Danzig, now Gdansk, just days after the Nazis had taken over. He went with enthusiasm to see the magnificent historic main synagogue of this vibrant Jewish community. To his utter dismay, it lay shattered in ruins. Only the portal over what had been the beautiful entrance front doors still stood. On the lawn, there was a sign that had been erected by the Nazis during the campaign which read “Komm lieber Mai und mache von Juden uns jetzt frei — come dear month of May and free us from the Jews.”

With a chilling sense of the impending disaster symbolized by this scene, he gazed upward and saw the words — the ancient vision of Malachi, still inscribed over that remaining doorway: “Halo Av echad l’chulanu; halo eyl echad b’ra’anu — have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Two visions: one of hatred and tyranny, the other of brotherhood and sisterhood, of unity and peace; one of oppression, the other of freedom; one of darkness and despair, the other of light and hope.” This is a choice we face today.

To the religiously oppressed in every land who live in fear, afraid to speak of their beliefs; who worship in underground churches, mosques, or temples, lest authorities discover and punish their devotion to an authority higher than the state; who languish in prisons, simply because they love God in their own way; who question the existence of God; who feel so desperate that they flee their homes to avoid persecution, indeed, as we have seen so often to avoid simply being killed because of their faith — to all of them, together, you and I here, the State Department, this Administration, the Congress, together our nation can be, must be, will be a beacon of light and hope.

I pray that contributing to the fulfillment of that dream will be my legacy. Bless you all for being here.

Image courtesy of World Economic Forum.

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  • Carstonio

    Great sentiment. Only one caveat: “simply because they love God in their own way” and “who question the existence of God” treat belief in the existence of a single god as the norm or default. The name “God” doesn’t apply to non-monotheistic religions with different theological concepts. Saperstein’s excellent points about religious freedom apply to everyone no matter what they believe or don’t believe.

    • Sam

      He did say “who question the existence of God”…

    • Sam

      He did say “who question the existence of God”…

      • Carstonio

        Sure, but his phrasing implies that people who belong to non-Abrahamic religions, or people who don’t follow any religion, are in denial. That’s like separating all devotees of major league baseball into Yankees fans and non-Yankees fans.

        • Sam

          I suppose you could read into it that way. I don’t think that is what he was saying but to each their own. :)

          • Carstonio

            Of course he wasn’t saying that. I wasn’t accusing him of deliberately slighting people outside the Abrahamic religions. I was suggesting something like the ethnocentrism highlighted in Leo Lionni’s classic children’s book “Fish is Fish” – when the frog describes the creatures who live outside the water, the fish picture these as variations of fish. I encounter Christians who try to justify “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance by asserting that “all religions believe in God.” That would be news to Shintoism or animism or Confucianism. Still, far better for someone like the rabbi to prize inclusiveness and make an honest mistake, than someone like those Christians to advocate exclusivity while branding it as inclusive.

          • Sam

            So you are saying that the religious ambassador of the US, a rabbi, should be more areligious in his statement so as to be more inclusive to those who don’t view the world the way he does. Ignore realpolitick and audience and focus on the nebulous audience of potentially anyone at any time instead?

          • Carstonio

            Not “areligious” but neutrality among religions. The rabbi was addressing individual religious freedom, and that principle applies to everyone no matter what his or her position on religion. People who aren’t religious still count as a religious minority whose rights must be protected, just like people who believe in a single god, in many gods, or in other types of supernatural entities. The rabbi wasn’t speaking in a synagogue, or to an exclusively Jewish or monotheistic audience, so it’s appropriate and necessary to address religious freedom in terms that don’t endorse some positions on religion over others.

          • Sam

            So to quote:

            I suppose you could read into it that way. I don’t think that is what he was saying but to each their own.

            :)

          • Carstonio

            Again, this isn’t about intentions, which matter less than the consequences of words and actions. Specifically, what the rabbi meant by his words does matter, but not as much as the implications of his words.

          • Sam

            How about this, how would you write this so that all of the appropriate implications are made? What words would you use or avoid to remove any doubt or issues with implications?

  • Sam

    This is what the world needs. A mutual respect and understanding.
    By saying all of so-and-so are like this or saying that only real so-and-so are like this we only deepen the artificial divides that separate us.