Radical Hospitality and Ethical Culture

– Jone Johnson Lewis, Leader

In 1873, a young Felix Adler, recently returned from Germany with a doctorate in Semitics, spoke to his father’s congregation, Temple Emanuel, in New York City. Felix Adler was only 22 years old; his father, Samuel Adler, was already 64 years old, and apparently had prepared his son to take over the rabbinate of that congregation. In his talk, Felix Adler presented Judaism as a religion of deed instead of creed – echoing also American free religion – without mentioning God at all, and said that Judaism’s “destiny is to embrace in one great moral state the whole family of man.”  If you know this part of the back story behind the beginning soon after of the Ethical Culture movement, you know that this idea wasn’t well received as a program for the future of Temple Emanuel.

But that vision of an open religious movement motivated many to support the young Felix Adler in founding what this Society is now part of, the Ethical Culture movement.  Our unity is not in what we believe or disbelieve, but in embracing the ethical journey of all of humankind.  In particular, as Adler developed his philosophy further, what “ethical” meant was living in right relation to others: attributing worth to every person, and behaving in ways that make it more possible for others to act on their best, unique self – and in doing so, bring out one’s own unique best self.

This emphasis on deed before creed as what unites us is a radical hospitality, a theological inclusiveness.  As Adler said in another address in 1876 that is honored as the founding words of the Ethical Culture movement, this is a place for the “believer and the infidel.”  But this is not to say that “anything goes.”  Deed before creed means that it is by our deeds that our (personal) creeds are measured for adequacy.  Do your beliefs bring out the best in yourself and in others?  Do your beliefs lead to action that honors the human worth in every person?  Do your beliefs foster or hinder “right relations”?

This adds another dimension to the radical hospitality of Ethical Culture – for we are united in living in right relationship.  We aren’t only inclusive of those who believe differently, we are committed to living in right relationship with those who believe differently.  What unites us is not like-mindedness, but a commitment to relate to the worth and uniqueness in each other whether we think alike or not about everything else.

In 1905, in looking back on 40 years of the movement’s existence, Adler summarized this up when he spoke of the difference between Ethical Societies and Churches.

The basis of union is the sense of a common need, a keenly-realized desire to get away from bad ways of living, and at least to approximate toward better ways of living…. But there is this to be added, that the common search and effort are dependent on agreement in at least one fundamental particular. We are agreed that the thing we search for is the thing which we cannot afford to do without; we are agreed that the attempt to live in right relations, to realize what is called righteousness, to approximate toward the ideal of holiness, is that which alone gives worth to human life.

So as we explore the theme of hospitality for August, we can think of the many ways that we can practice hospitality in our personal lives, in our life within our Ethical Culture community, in our work lives, in our commitment to social justice.  What does it mean to move beyond a mere tolerance – an “it’s okay if they’re here, too,” attitude – to living in real relationship to those who don’t believe like us, think like us, act like us, vote like us, look like us, but who also seek to live in right relationship?  How will that change ourselves, how will that bring out our own ethical best and uniqueness?

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