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All Disasters Are Miracles

Mar21

by: Rabbi Eliahu Klein on March 21st, 2016 | Comments Off

(A work of fiction)

Fifteen inmates showed up for today’s Jewish services. Seven inmates were Jewish, seven were a mixture of African American and seven were Latino. I, Jewish Chaplain Weitz, talked about the history of the Jews as it relates to the miraculous and enigmatic Purim story.

“Has anybody ready the Book of Esther in the Bible?” I announced to the attendees in the prison chapel. There were no hands today; I began to introduce the history of King Nebuchadnezzar who destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem. How tens of thousands of Jews were sent into exile and were forced to live in Babylon. And how the story of Purim took place right before the return of the Jews under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. McAllister, a black inmate, yelled out:

“Rabbi, with all due respect, this sounds like one more ancient story. I don’t want to hear another sob story. What’s the real meaning of the story Purim?”

I turned to him. “That’s a great question,” I said, “I believe it’s a narrative that shows how God manifests in many ways. In Biblical times people believed in miracles that broke the rules of nature. These revealed miracles manifested as clear as day; a miracle manifested and the rules of nature were broken.  There are other miracles, whereby one can’t tell that there was a miracle; however, one knows that a miracle did happen. This is called a concealed miracle. There is God revealed and God concealed.  God revealed is God revealing Himself as it were, to Moses on Mt. Sinai. God concealed is God during the Holocaust.”

As I was speaking I looked around the room and tried to gauge how my guys were taking all this in. I could tell something was missing. I could feel they weren’t getting what I was saying. There was silence. The dead silence of no understanding. The silence of dead souls yearning to be awakened.

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On Race, Religion, and Human Complexity

Mar10

by: on March 10th, 2016 | 4 Comments »

In a debate in Flint, MI, on Sunday, Bernie Sanders, asked to describe his “racial blind spots,” said this:

“When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto – you don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.”

The Clinton campaign quickly mobilized to condemn him for a raft of implications, saying that not all Black people live in ghettos, that not all people who live in ghettos are Black – many are immigrants who belong to other racial categories, for instance. Some people objected that not all white people lack understanding of racism’s impact, others that there are plenty of whites who know poverty firsthand.

This is a rehearsal of politics-as-usual, of course, in which each faux pas is ammunition, and huge edifices of argument are loaded onto the usage of a word or phrase, (in Bob Dylan’s immortal words) “just like a mattress balanced on a bottle of wine.” It will happen again before November, many times. I doubt many of my progressive friends would take exception to Sanders’ underlying point – however poorly expressed – that many white people have not experienced overt discrimination and harassment on account of their race and may therefore lack adequate empathy and understanding.

I have no objection to holding candidates to a high standard of speech, so long as the standard isn’t double. But as for me, especially when it comes to elections, Dorothy Day of Catholic Worker fame is my guide: “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.” (I have earlier written about why I choose Sanders’ actions over Clinton’s words.)

Someone who shares the Clinton campaign’s condemnation posted Sanders’ original statement and subsequent attempt at clarification to a progressive e-list I take part in.One response focused on calling an “old white male” to task for communicating badly on race. Another noted the word “ghetto” originally referred to areas restricted to Jews. (To be precise, the term in Venetian dialect was ghèto and came into usage in 1516 to formalize the boundaries on Jews’ residence and rights.) And that Sanders’ own family history reflected this experience: his father had emigrated from Poland, while many relatives who stayed behind perished in the Holocaust. Sanders attributes his own politicization to awareness of these events.

The “old white male” commenter retorted that “Jewish refugees from Europe were probably white. Just sayin’.”

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Monotheism as a Moral Issue, Part Two: God’s Image and Equality

Mar8

by: George P. Fletcher on March 8th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Julius Schnorr.

Note: This is part two of a four part series by George P. Fletcher.

Genesis 1:26

AND GOD SAID, LET US MAKE ADAM IN OUR IMAGE, AFTER OUR LIKENESS

Part II. God’s Image and Equality

This text has an unappreciated relationship to our commitment to human equality. In my class on Biblical Jurisprudence I usually begin by asking the students whether they agree that human equality is a premise of modern jurisprudence and if so, how they justify our commitment, A subsidiary question is whether if the law is so committed, can override the principle with an argument for affirmative action or some other social good.

Virtually all of the students begin with utilitarian arguments. The principle of equality allegedly maintains peace among different segments of society. This is a dubious claim. Wage inequality, which results from and sustains hierarchy, has reached disturbing proportions in the United States. No one seems disturbed by our continuing to prevent released felons from voting in many states (a factor, by the way, that enabled George W. Bush to win the 2000 election in Florida and the nation).

The only argument I have ever found to support our intuitive commitment to equality is the biblical premise. Abraham Lincoln revealed his commitment to the Bible when he interpreted the Declaration of Independence in the Gettysburg Address. There is no moral claim in any other legal system as powerful as: All Men are Created Equal. Of course, we understand this now to mean all persons (with many disputes about when personhood begins and ends). No other legal system even comes close to using this religious language. The typical European legal provision reads: All persons are equal before the law. As we know from the history of slavery, the law can not be distrusted as the ultimate arbiter of our values.

Anchoring human value in God’s image generates an argument for Lincoln’s commitment to equality. If God is the infinite value, and we are created in God’s image, then we must be equal. And you might say: well how does equality fare for atheists? Immanuel Kant secularized the argument in his Foundations of Morality by distinguishing human beings and things. Things have value, human beings are ‘beyond price’. Kant generated this argument by building on the insight that human beings have the capacity to universalize the premises of their actions into universal laws of nature.

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The Everything, The Nothing, and Justice

Mar1

by: Jay Michaelson on March 1st, 2016 | 2 Comments »

In various mystical perspectives, there are two aspects to reality as we experience it: something and nothing. In Hasidic traditions, this is sometimes expressed as yesh (something) and ayin (nothing).

Since most of human experience is of yesh, there can be a certain mysterious allure to the ayin. Everything is empty! Sunyata! All is illusion! All is God! Indeed, any non-ordinary experience – a good drug trip, a beautiful view – can easily be associated with some verbiage about the numinous, the luminous emptiness, or whatever. The great rock critic Lester Bangs nailed it when he titled one review “I Saw God And/Or Tangerine Dream.”

I’m mocking the idolatry of ayin, but the truth is that transformative peak experiences are achingly beautiful, and do seem to give a glimpse – either of some non-thing transcending all that is, or at least of another way of being. I wouldn’t trade mine for anything.

Yet most every contemplative path also posits a return to the marketplace, a return to yesh. Many also insist, paradoxically, that the everything is the nothing; that everything is both empty and not-empty. Both-and is the coin of the mystical realm.

The forgotten Hasidic master Rabbi Aharon of Staroselse calls ordinary consciousness of love, sadness, pain, and shopping malls, simply “our point of view.” All of these things are experienced in the soul, mind, heart, and body, and are as real as anything we know. Our perspective is defined by a thousand cultural constructions, genetic accidents, and history. This perspective sees the world as yesh, as something.

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Monotheism as a Moral Issue

Feb24

by: George P. Fletcher on February 24th, 2016 | Comments Off

Source: r the Providence Lithograph Company

Part I. Domination Over Nature

And God said, let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness and they shall dominate the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and the cattle and every moving thing on the Earth. – Genesis 1:26

In this installment, the first of four, I will concentrate on the moral imperative of monotheism; in the next, on the implication of this passage for the principle of equality; in the third, on the moral limitations on equality that inhere in the principle of loyalty; and finally, in the fourth, on the implications of God’s Image for the concept of reason, an innate human characteristic.

Monotheism is taken for granted in the Abrahamic faiths and indeed in many other religions, even though the commitment to a single God is inconsistent with the use of the plural to refer to God, not only in the beginning but in the second clause this passage. We do not receive a singular reference to God until the tetragrammaton (Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh) is introduced in Genesis 2.

True, we are not bound by the text as some American constitutional lawyers think they are committed to the words written down on parchment one hot summer in Philadelphia. It would seem inevitable that not only the language changes over time but the moral grid that we bring to interpretation changes as well. Therefore, it is entirely plausible to read this text through the grid of accepted monotheism.

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Calling Secular Voters to Make Ourselves Known to the Politicians

Feb18

by: Annie Laurie Gaylor on February 18th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

A button from the "I'm Secular and I Vote" campaign via FFRF.org

Secular voters are tired of being ignored during elections. That’s why the Freedom From Religion Foundation has launched the “I’m Secular and I Vote” campaign.

During election years, we atheists and agnostics have to pinch ourselves to remember we exist. Candidates have been so schooled in pandering to Bible Belters and the evangelical right has thrown its king-making power around so long that popular portrayals of the influence of religious voters are vastly exaggerated.

More the pity then that no one is wooing the “Nones,” the one-quarter of the adult U.S. population and one-third of all Millennials who identify as “nonreligious.” Political campaigns and parties haven’t caught up with the changing demographic that secular voters are the fastest-growing segment of the population by religious identification.

Pew Research Center recently reported that the Nones outnumber Roman Catholics today and technically form the largest single “denomination.” That should be big news to any campaign interested in reaching voters.

A major survey of FFRF membership (with 8,000 of our 23,500 dues-paying members participating) found that nonbelievers are highly educated and independent-minded. A quarter are veterans, a third are volunteers and 97 percent are registered voters (20 percent higher than the general population).

A full 70 percent decline to affiliate themselves with one of the major political parties, and more than 20 percent identify as independent voters. Thirty-six percent describe themselves as progressive or liberal.

So why aren’t seculars courted and treated as election-year VIPs?

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For Hindu Americans, Long-Term Hopes for Pluralism About More Than Just Days Off

Feb10

by: Murali Balaji on February 10th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Tulsi Gabbard, America's first Hindu member of Congress. Creative Commons/AFGE

At a time when our struggle for civil and human rights seems daunting given the vitriolic political climate, one of the most striking lessons from history is that movements for social change never go smoothly.

In fact, one of the lessons many of us fail to appreciate from the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is how many internal struggles there was among the various groups and leaders that were calling for change. Ava DuVernay’s masterful Selma captured some of these struggles from the perspective of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., but there were many ideological, geographical, cultural, and religious fault-lines that hindered attempts to articulate a unified message for full equality and suffrage.

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, some of those tensions remained, even as groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and NAACP continued to try to impact long-lasting change.

Today, new battlefronts in the call for civil rights have emerged, most notably for recognizing the rights of religious minorities in a rapidly diversifying country. Religious pluralism is no longer just an ideal, but a reality that cities and communities across America are coming to grips with.

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Night and Day

Feb9

by: George P. Fletcher on February 9th, 2016 | Comments Off

Genesis 1:5
AND GOD CALLED THE LIGHT DAY, AND THE DARKNESS, NIGHT. EVENING AND THE MORNING: ONE DAY.

Source: Flickr (John Dill)

Reading this passage, we can incline toward pessimism or optimism. The down side is that the text literally says one day, not the first day. This one day could have been all there was – the source of the Mel Brook’s famous line – “That’s all there is, folks.” This one day — – first without light, then with light – could have been the creation. Are there hints in the text that there will be more? Yes, the very act of naming carries an optimistic message that there will eventually come a being who understands the names given. Only human beings understand not only their own names but thousands of others.

One day, then, but how long is this day? All units of time – except those that have specific astronomic references – are notoriously indeterminate. The week – a foundational concept in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic life – is our invention. Its value is that it generates the idea of the sabbath in all three Abrahamic faiths. Indeed we might say that the purpose of the creation story is to introduce the notions of work and rest into human culture. Without the notion of a limited day, however, we could never progress beyond creation to a time of rest.

Underlying this rhythm of the week is a deeper philosophical distinction between actions and omissions. We are responsible for the consequences but not necessarily those of our omissions. One of my favorite Talmudic stories explaining this point is the tale of the two travelers with the canteen in the desert. If there is enough water for one, does the possessor have to share with the other one who will otherwise die. The answer is no. This is poignant as compared to the treatment of killing one to save another in the same pages of Sanhedrin. That is not permitted: Is your blood redder than his?

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A Second Scientific Revolution Reveals the Mortality of the Modern World

Feb5

by: David W. Noble on February 5th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

In this essay I explain how I moved from a critique of a metaphor of two worlds, America and Europe, to a critique of a metaphor of two worlds, modern and traditional. I also now see America and the modern as symbolic representations of a limitless frontier. I see Europe and the traditional as symbolic representations of a limited home. Once I saw Europeans leaving home to come to an American frontier; now I see modern people leaving traditional homes to come to a universal frontier/marketplace. And I see this powerful modern prophecy of an exodus from a limited old world to a limitless new world as the major cause of our dangerous environmental crisis. We do not nurture our earthly home because we believe we are going to a frontier of unlimited resources.

During the summer of 1944 I became self-conscious of the fact that irony is a significant aspect of human experience. I had graduated from high school into the army in June 1943. Throughout my childhood and youth I was told that my German grandparents had left a European old world of economic scarcity and war and came to an American new world of plenty and peace. But now in an army hospital I began to question this metaphor of two worlds and the concept of a redemptive exodus to a new world. Before being injured in an accidental explosion I had experienced severe poverty from 1940, when our farm was foreclosed, to 1943, when I entered the army. Our home for my father, mother, and me during those years was a small barn that had electricity and running water. We could not afford morphine to ease my father’s pain as he was dying from stomach cancer.

My sense of irony was compounded, therefore, by my financial ability as a disabled veteran to enroll at Princeton University in 1945. Working with my older brother in the 1930s to deliver milk in Princeton, I had learned that Princeton University was a school for the sons of rich men. I was not grateful, however, that I could now sit in classes with young men who came from wealthy backgrounds. But I was grateful that I could begin to prepare for a career in teaching. I wanted to inform my fellow citizens that the metaphor of two worlds and an exodus narrative were not true. They were not an accurate description of human experience.


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View from the Ladder

Dec3

by: Irwin Keller on December 3rd, 2015 | 5 Comments »

Eighty years ago, the United States debated whether it would open its doors to Jewish refugees fleeing the terror of the Nazis. It did not. And this historical echo was not lost on me, as I’m sure it was not lost on Jews throughout this country.

These have been weeks of significant gravity. Serious things have happened. We have been weighed down in their aftermath, by sadness, fear, and anger. What happened on a Friday evening – the Shabbos! – in mid-November in Paris captures our imagination and won’t let go. And the attacks last week on the tourists in Mali just add to our fear and helplessness.

All of this would be enough to burden us heavily. But then comes a second wave of injury, as we watch politicians turn tragedy into cheap rhetoric. Two dozen American governors saying they would close their borders to Syrian refugees: the very people who are fleeing ISIS. Offering terrorists their victims back. And knowing that the public is insular and racist enough to believe that we couldn’t possibly tell refugees and terrorists apart.

So what can we do? What course do we take? Maybe a first thing is to climb out of this morass for a higher view. But how do we climb, when the drama and trauma hold us so tight, when gravity weighs so strong?

We dream a ladder. That’s what we do. It’s what Jacob did, in last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayetzei. He was fleeing danger too, running scared. He was escaping his brother, but in the world of Torah, violence between siblings is meant to point also to violence between nations. So Jacob’s moment was not so dissimilar to ours.

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