A Conversation with Rabbi Bruce Lustig, Senior Rabbi, Washington Hebrew Congregation, Washington, D.C.
April 1, 2018
Background: In April 2018, undergraduate student May Teng interviewed Rabbi Bruce Lustig as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Rabbi Lustig has served as a rabbi at the Washington Hebrew Congregation for over 20 years, where he has contributed to the wealth of social justice activities carried out by the congregation. In this interview, Rabbi Lustig explains the role of the Judaism as a driving force for engaging in social justice, as well as the benefits of engaging in interfaith partnerships and dialogue.
Could you please describe your role at the Washington Hebrew Congregation as senior rabbi, particularly as it pertains to service work?
The congregation is somewhere between 2,700 and 3,000 families, so it’s a very large congregation. I became senior rabbi in 2000, so I’m in my eighteenth year of being senior rabbi. I’ve been at the congregation for 32 years.
The congregation has always had a social justice bent, meaning that if you had to draw a pie in terms of interest, I would say that the section concerning social justice would even exceed worship. I think that this congregation shows its honor of G-d by engaging in social justice work, so I have been involved in social justice since the day I came to this congregation. I’m a person who believes that there is no belief that doesn’t have a corollary action to it. I can say, “I love you,” but if I don’t show you that love in any way, if it’s not demonstrable in some fashion, then it may not have much force in the world.
This congregation demonstrates its belief in G-d through social justice. A congregation is like any other institution. My mentor used to say that a congregation is a corporation, and a corporation has no soul. So what you have to worry about is, people will say, we either have to cut back on social justice activities or education, and how can we be spending more if we’re not making Jews by teaching them about Judaism? They’re both equally important, and I didn’t want to run those dilemmas with the budget program, so on my twenty-fifth anniversary with the congregation I raised over $2 million so that over the next 20 years we’d have over $100,000 to do social justice work.
Would you be able to share any examples of religious teachings or scripture that inspire your commitment to social justice?
Last night I was teaching our confirmation kids, and our theme was “sedih sedih tirdof”: justice, justice, you shall pursue. Some of the kids actually said, that means we’re commanded to do justice. But I think that basically the core story for Jews is the Passover Haggadah, and when we talk about our identity as a people we continually talk about this idea: that we were oppressed people, we were slaves, and we cried out to G-d to liberate us from our oppression. Having had that background, the idea of seeking freedom becomes paradigmatic, whether that’s personal freedom, freedom from bigotry, hatred, or any of those things. I think that’s at the core of what drives people in the congregation. We read a piece from Isaiah that says, “Resist the fast that I ask of you—is it not to clothe the naked, feed the homeless, and take care of the widow and the orphan?”
You mentioned that educating children is a central part to this as well. What would you say is the role of education for young people, and how does that relate to a conviction for service work?
In our daily prayer, we have a prayer called the V’ahavta, which says you shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And then it goes on to say how you should do that—when you get up in the morning, when you lie down in the morning, basically all the time. So all the time we have to be an example to our children. It doesn’t matter what you say in the classroom; it matters what you do. I don’t think that a belief can be called a belief unless you really demonstrate it. It’s not really a belief until it’s actualized in some sort of action. During the parting of the Red Sea, the midrash says that there’s one man who kept walking into the sea, and it wasn’t until it got up to his nostrils that the sea parted—meaning, he demonstrated his belief by action. During the Passover Seder, we commemorate the moment that the Jews marked their doorways with blood so that the angel would pass over their house. It meant you couldn’t be part of Nixon’s silent majority—once you marked your door, what you sacrificed was sacred, and you were all in.
I’ve also noticed that interfaith interaction is a major component of engagement here at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. I even recently attended a Shabbat service where Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah made his first ever visit to a synagogue. How do you see the role of interfaith activity as fitting into your work within the congregation?
Well, like any family, if the family isn’t getting along, you need to do something to get them together and make sure they do get along. You saw Bin Bayyah came; we had 25, 30 ministers of all faith up on the bimah. This is the ninth most influential Muslim in the world. This is not like being the most influential Jew in the world, because when you talk about Muslims you’re talking about billions of people. It was a big deal that he came.
The bigger deal for me was, there was a joint choir between our children and the All Dulles Area Muslim Society children. I stuck my head into the youth wing, where the choirs were having dinner together, and one of the little girls from the Muslim community was saying, “So, when that big ark opened up and those scrolls were on display—that’s like your Qu’ran?” And one of the children said, “Yeah, it contains the guide to what you’re supposed to do,” and they started talking about what’s in the Torah and what’s in the Qu’ran. Often, you have to pay attention not to the stone that drops in the pond but to the wake that it makes. Bin Bayyah was a great event. But the greater event was that those kids were eating together and sharing together, and the pride that they had in singing Hebrew, Arabic, and English songs to this great leader. Those kids won’t ever forget that. They have a model of harmony and cooperation.
If I reach out to people who are the same as me, that’s not very difficult work. So I’m partnering with evangelical Christians who I don’t agree with at all on a lot of social issues. We have to find ground to be able to understand how we can all be children of one G-d, and how do we love G-d together. It’s really easy for me to meet with Episcopal [leaders]; our values are identical on many, many things. But as for meeting with an evangelical pastor and talking about certain things—they may love Israel more than I do, because they’re not willing to be critical of it. They see Israel as the coming of the second Messiah.
Do you find significant obstacles there?
I see them more as opportunities than obstacles. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion Jonathan Haidt wrote about how brain waves show that when we start talking about certain things in arguments, we’ve already completed the thought process. We don’t even listen; we already know what we think. If that’s the case, then it’s really on us to step back and force ourselves into a place in we will really listen and not be there to convert or change somebody. We need to get to a place where we can accept someone where they are. That’s the challenge. And, in that process, you will fortify what you really think and believe, and the best way to do that is for children to be in interfaith exchange.
Out back behind the synagogue we have a number of benches. We take pre-painted wood slats and we put out texts about peace. Those texts are taken from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but they’re not attributed. We ask people to find a text that resonates with them most, and paint them onto these pieces of wood. Then we’ll bring out a source sheet, and the Jews will be very surprised that they picked a thing that Jesus said, or that the Prophet Muhammed said. Then we say: all the teachings of peace are similar. Those same wood slats are dried, and Jews, Christians, and Muslims build those wooden slats into a bench. Those benches stand in front of our congregations, and several other synagogues, churches, and an Islamic center. Those benches are supposed to be an opportunity to sit down and talk to somebody face-to-face. The midrash tells us that underneath the Holy Ark were two cherubims. Those two little angels are looking at each other, and it says that between those two faces are where G-d resides. That tells us, it’s only when we encounter somebody face-to-face that we encounter G-d.
But do you think that there is a limit to topics of discussion across faiths?
There is, but if you make it personal and get to know somebody, then it becomes much easier. I am starting a program called Sarah and Abraham’s Tent, which aims to get people of different faiths together. The first meeting, a small group will simply meet, eat dinner, and get to know each other. The next time, they come together and spend time viewing each other’s worship. And once they view each other’s worship, they talk about whether there was anything in the worship that was spiritually moving to you, and they come to appreciate the different modalities. When I was in a mosque in Abu Dhabi, it was so grand and beautiful. If someone were to ask me, I found it to be more beautiful and spiritually enhancing than a lot of synagogues I’ve been in. Then you can start doing dialogue and discussing certain issues, and eventually they can start building their own peace benches, as well.
We’re all interested in social justice, so it’s a great way to get everyone together on their commonality and then to build relationships where we can talk about our differences.
And does this work the same way within different sects of Judaism itself?
That’s always a greater challenge. Some of your most intense fights are going to be with your own family. If your family differs in certain things, that’s a greater threat to your identity. I have more in common sometimes with the Catholic and Episcopal bishops than I do with the Orthodox rabbis in town. I have to work very hard not to allow my innate prejudices regarding some of the things they stand for to get in the way of dialogue and cooperation. That’s hard to do, especially because some of my distaste for that stems from the lack of tolerance they have for liberal Judaism. They don’t want to accept me, and I don’t want to be like the kid on the playground who pushes back when someone pushes him. That’ll get you nowhere, but that’s often what happens.
What do you find has surprised you the most in the congregation’s longstanding history of social justice and interfaith work?
Having grown up in the South, I had a certain vision of evangelical Christians that made me think they were not very sophisticated. Because some of their theology is so straightforward, and because I reject many things in regard to their theology, it’s easy to make the leap that they’re just not very sophisticated.
I met some of brightest and most capable people in the religious world when I started meeting with some of these evangelicals. They really know their stuff, and I’m not just talking about Bible and verse. They really know how to deliver religious life to people in America. I may not like all the things they represent or do, but I think their delivery system is something that should be looked at. I see these things as a learning opportunity. There are people in these evangelical congregations who are nurses and doctors who will give a year of their life to work in a mission church or hospital. That surprised me, that I had so much to learn from the evangelicals that I hadn’t realized.
Do you have any last thoughts on what young people should hear about the effects of religion on society?
In one of the meetings that I’ve had recently, someone said that we need to work more towards diversity. One of the women responded that diversity is a fad; inclusion is a process. We didn’t create diversity—diversity is already there. The process is to be inclusive. I think people might want to stay away because they’re not sure what their faith system is, or they can take religion as an evil because it’s causing disharmony or war in the world. I think that’s a mistake.
All faith and religious learning is important for human life. What motivates religion in my mind is, once we realize we’re finite, we want to know what our purpose is, and that’s what religion really does. It’s about meaning-making. Whether you’re agnostic, atheist, totally secular...whatever you are, those ultimate questions will ask themselves. The question is whether or not you’re ready to answer them. The way you can be ready is by understanding what other people who have gone on that journey have look at, and what has happened, though it doesn’t mean you have to believe in what they do. If you want to have a cake, it’s kind of crazy to just figure out on your own how to make it; you look at a recipe. You can modify it, but you don’t have to learn everything from firsthand experience. There is a balance between our faith and being engaged in the world. I think that we have to think between that tension between what we believe and what we experience.
I have a money clip and on one side it says, “I believe with absolute faith.” The other side says, “The righteous one eats to satiate his soul.” To eat to satiate your soul means that you have to engage in the world to experience it; to believe with absolute faith means you also just have to believe. We live in between those things. When I reach in my pocket to grab my money, I want to understand where I am between those two things. That’s a metaphor, because our greatest resource is not our money; it’s our time. You get one ride.