Thanksgiving for Diversity

Published November 29, 2017

By Rabbi Ari Plost

Thanksgiving Day may have been inspired by the story of a peaceful feast, but it became a national holiday during a time of war.

Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the holiday on October 3, 1863, just weeks after the Union Army of the Cumberland was defeated at the battle of Chickamauga, which involved the second-highest number of casualties of the Civil War. Battlefields of that sort, at Antietam and Gettysburg, surround where I serve as a rabbi, in Hagerstown, Maryland, and remind us of the terrible price we pay when our divisions become so great that there’s no resolving them.

Today, with the country divided along lines of red and blue, rather than blue and gray, perhaps we should pause during our Thanksgiving meals to reflect on whether our current skirmishing over religious, cultural, and political difficulties could result in the very fabric of our nation unraveling once again, and whether there might be a better way to prevent it.

Americans are clearly worried about the direction of the country. According a poll last week by Harvard CAPS-Harris, 58 percent of people surveyed think the country is on the wrong track, while only 30 percent think it is on the right track. A similar poll the same week by the Marist organization put the “wrong track” number at 67 percent, and the “right direction” number at 27 percent.

What to do about the country’s divisions isn’t something that polls can reveal. But sometimes, in towns and cities like mine across the country, we get a glimpse of what being more unified could be like. I saw it this past weekend as eighteen clergy members of the Hagerstown Area Religious Council gathered at my synagogue for a Thanksgiving service: Jews, Roman Catholics, members of several Protestant denominations, Muslims and Buddhists.

A monseigneur with the Roman Catholic Church offered a Thanksgiving message, and I shared with them a plea for faith written by another Hagerstown resident who lived here two hundred years earlier, and who made recognizing and celebrating religious diversity his life’s work—Maryland legislator and poet Thomas Kennedy:

O! God be ever on our side,

In peace, in war our counsels guide,

May we forsake our evil ways,

And find a pleasure in thy praise;

Thy praise with joy, with love we sing,

Thou only great and sovereign king,

Thou art the God we shall adore,

In life, in death, and evermore.

His vision of unity, peace and joy was written after a war had just ended, at a time when diversity was more notion than reality. Maryland was home to fewer than 150 Jews, and Kennedy had never met one. Anti-Semitism was official state policy: Jews were forbidden from holding elected or appointed offices. Kennedy, a devout Presbyterian, made it his business to change that. Passage of his “Jew Bill” took eight years, but it became law in 1826, paving the way for the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment some 40 years later, which prohibited religious tests and guaranteed all citizens equal protection under the law.

Just a few weeks earlier my synagogue had celebrated the Jewish feast of Sukkot, or “Booths,” which was originally a harvest festival like Thanksgiving, and may have given rise to it. During Sukkot, I teach the children to wave symbolic branches and fruits from four different plants—myrtle, palm, willow, and the lemon-like citron—what is called the “luvav and etrog.” Historically, these were part of a ritual prayer for rain, which in an agricultural community could mean the difference between life and death. Rabbinic commentators have theorized that this unlikely grouping of elements, which is prescribed in the Bible, shows how the four species depend on one another—how the fruit-bearing palm and citron need the non-fruit-bearing willow and myrtle to make the ritual complete.

The luvav and etrog thus offer us an image how the unity of One is made manifest by diversity: they are gathered as part of the rabbi’s prayer for rain. Without rain, the people perish; without diversity, the nation perishes, which is reflected in our national motto, e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”). In just such a way, Kennedy’s work to pass the “Jew Bill” was based on his conviction that America needed its religious diversity—that such diversity was actually essential to the growth and flourishing of the new nation.

All across the country this week, community interfaith services like Hagerstown’s were speaking to the idea that what unites us is our diversity. We need not remember the pains of war to come together as a nation, but can instead sense the divine presence in each of us. And, as we sit down at the Thanksgiving table, that’s something that we should pause to give thanks for. Indeed, it might even give us all cause for hope.

Ari Plost is Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Hagerstown, Maryland, and President of the Hagerstown Area Religious Council.

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