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Archive for the ‘Rethinking Religion’ Category

A Hindu Call to Action in Fighting Climate Change


by: Murali Balaji on November 25th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Editor’s Note: A version of this piece first appeared on the Huffington Post.

At the end of this month, leaders from around the globe will convene in Paris for the latest round of talks to combat climate change and global warming.

For the first time, Hindu teachings will take a prominent role in this effort, as a growing coalition of Hindu organizations, leaders, and interfaith allies are ramping up efforts to protect Matru Bhumi through the Bhumi Devi ki Jai! A Hindu Declaration on Climate Change.

The declaration, first signed six years ago, is now back on the frontlines as the majority of world leaders are finally acknowledging the reality of climate change and the urgency of fighting it.

The declaration, authored by the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies and the Bhumi Project, with support from the Hindu American Foundation, is a call to action for the world’s approximately 900 million Hindus to take the lead in combating global warming. As Hindu leaders note, the effort highlights the natural leadership of Hindu scriptures in calling for action.

The declaration, in part, reads:

“Today, with the 2015 Paris Climate Conference nearly upon us, members of the global Hindu community again urge strong, meaningful action be taken, at both the international and national level, to slow and prevent climate change. Such action must be scientifically credible and historically fair, based on deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through a transition away from polluting technologies, especially away from fossil fuels. A transition towards using 100-percent clean energy is desperately needed, as rapidly as is possible in every nation. Doing so provides the only basis for sustainable, continued human development. It is the best hope for the billions of people without electricity or clean cooking facilities to live better lives and reduce poverty.”


Torah Commentary: Perashat Vayetze- Dreams of a Refugee


by: on November 20th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

When I reached manhood, I saw rising and growing upon the wall shared between life and death, a ladder barer all the time, invested with an unique power of evulsion: this was the dream….Now see darkness draw away, and LIVING become, in the form of a harsh allegorical asceticism, the conquest of extraordinary powers by which we feel ourselves confusedly crossed, but which we only express incompletely, lacking loyalty, cruel perception, and perseverance…. Rene Char, Fureur et Mystere

In the traditional literature, the patriarch most symbolic of the Jewish people is Jacob (Yaakov in Hebrew), who comes into his own in this week’s Torah reading. While more of a passive player in the previous episode, Jacob comes to life- as he is forced into exile. This essay will deal with dreams, the dreams of a refugee. It is not accidental that the first dream recorded in the Torah is associated with a man on the run, who has placed a stone from the road under his head in order to sleep. That dream is the lyrical dream of the ladder which ascends to heaven in which Jacob sees angels alighting and descending, which the Midrash suggests may be read as allegorical for Israel in exile, subject to the rise and fall of nations and circumstances over which they have no control. It is thus fitting that this week we contemplate dreams and exile, and the plight of the refugee. Sympathy for the refugee is a biblical sentiment from the very earliest passages, and that must not be forgotten in these troubled times.

The commentators from the earliest days noted the relationship between place/circumstance and the appearance of the dream. The Midrash latches on to an extraneous word in the verse- “and he chanced upon the place and rested there”. The Midrash explains the word vayifga, “and he chanced upon”, as meaning “he prayed there”, using as a proof text the use of the same term in the Jeremiah 7:16 and 27:18. The Midrash states that there, in that place where Yaakov rested, Yaakov created the evening prayer, the Arvit service, described by R. Shmuel bar Nahman as embodying “May it be Thy will that You remove me from darkness to light”. Exile as night.

A second curious midrash is found on verse 28:16, which reads “and Yaakov awoke from his sleep, mishenato“. The Midrash alters it to miMIshnato, from his studies, from his “learning”. At first glance, one might suspect a surprising anti-study, anti-intellectual message, likening study to sleep, in that Midrashic reading. Why is study like sleep?

The Maor V’Shemesh understands the emptiness of study without dreams. He says that the “Torah spiritual life” is made up of two intertwined elements- study and prayer (compare the Maharal in Netivot Olam A, chapter 7). Neither approach, neither study alone, nor prayer alone, is adequate on its own. This is the lesson of Yaakov’s development as narrated by the midrashic readings. The Midrash narrates that Yaakov spent 14 years in the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever”, yet he never had a heirophany, a divine revelation, until this episode, which takes place not in a study hall- but on the road, alone, uncertain of the direction his life might take, a refugee, with only stones under his head for comfort. This situation, which moved Yaakov to beseech God for his very survival, is what “awoke his learning” as well, infusing his years of study with the urgency of dreams, transforming study into yearning and a route for redemption.

It is the encounter with the dark silence of reality that is transformative. A refugee sees the world collapsing around them and dreams, urgently, that there must be a better reality where normal life can proceed.


Islamic Environmentalism


by: Stephen Wollaston on November 8th, 2015 | 6 Comments »

Editor’s Note: This piece was adapted from the author’s book, entitled “Pathways of Green Wisdom: Discovering Earth Centred Teachings in Spiritual and Religious Traditions,” published by Greenspirit: http://www.greenspirit.org.uk/

For all Muslims, the whole of Earth, which has been entrusted to humans by God to protect and preserve, is seen as a divine gift and blessing from God. Earth itself is looked upon as an expression of beauty. Beauty being an attribute of God, and ‘the beautiful’ being one of God’s ninety-nine divine names in Islam. In the book Sufi Light, Ahmad Javid points out that, “The universe reflects the stunning beauty of its supreme Creator and displays His qualities constantly in every moment … Not only [do] all things come from God but in a way they also manifest God”.

In an essay on Islam, humankind and Nature, Mohammad Aslam Parvaiz informs us that, “As we learn about nature, it becomes abundantly clear that the entirety of nature is an integrated whole”. The Qur’an itself mentions both environmental and cosmic harmony created by God, how the sun and moon, plants and trees all submit to God’s design and balance. (55:5-9). Because of such mystical insights it can be seen that the whole Earth offers profound and constant opportunities for Muslims to be aware of God’s presence. A famous passage in the Qur’an in fact tells us that God is closer than our jugular vein (50:16).




The Qur’an calls for all Muslims to “walk humbly on the earth” and promote “peace” to “the foolish” (25:63). From an Islamic perspective, because God has created all things and species, all forms of life ultimately need to be cherished and preserved. The Qur’anic saying advocating “no compulsion in religion” (2:256) reminds Islam’s followers and others that the Muslim tradition, in its purest form, is about unity, harmony, peace-making actions and nonviolence, which applies not only to humans but to the world at large. The idea of unity (tawhid) in particular, which is traditionally seen to be about God’s oneness, Muslim environmentalists also consider to be about all-inclusiveness, Richard C Foltz informs us.

Verses from the Qur’an also invite Muslims to “remember God’s blessings” (7:74), to “not corrupt the earth after it has been set right” (7:55), and to “not seek to spread corruption in the land” (28:77). Although some may interpret these passages to be only concerned with blessings God has bestowed on humans and human justice and nonviolence, it is accepted amongst green conscious Muslims that they can be expanded to include wider issues of environmental awareness, care, corruption and damage. In his masterful collection of teachings Spiritual Gems of Islam, Imam Jamal Rahman beautifully expresses the fact that, “Once we have begun to see ourselves as manifestations of the Creator, the next step along the spiritual path is to view our fellow beings with the same compassionate eyes”.

Foltz also informs us how, “It is often argued by Muslim environmentalists today that the Islamic legal tradition (sharia), in both its Sunni and Shi’i variants, if applied to the letter, contain adequate restrictions to ensure a use of natural resources that is both sustainable and just”. In the excellent book Green Dean, Ibrahim Abdul-Matin mentions how mosques themselves, as centres of religious community, are perfect places for promoting and being examples of green awareness, such as considering how much energy is used to light and heat mosques, and using better alternatives to plastic and paper cups and plates for any mosque based activities. At the holy mosques of Medina and Makkah in Saudi Arabia, the water used for ritual bathing (wudu) is recycled. In India, some mosques have huge tanks/pools for large crowds to use for ritual ablutions for the purpose of saving and reusing water.

Living at a time when people would have naturally recycled, the Prophet Mohammed himself would have wasted little. According to his wife Aisha, he recycled things when they could be fixed and repaired his own shoes and mended his own clothes, even though he would have had people around him who could have done these things for him.



Torah Commentary- Noah: Transcending Deluge-Era Consciousness


by: on October 16th, 2015 | No Comments »

The story of Noah is on the surface rather straight forward. The people are bad, Noah is good, God decides to wipe out the Earth but saves Noah and a large number of representative animals in a big wooden boat. After bringing down rain for 40 days and nights, the rain stops, and Noah sends out two animal emissaries, when the second finds dry land, they disembark. Makes for a great children’s book, cartoon, or sci-fi movie. Versions of this tale are found throughout the ancient world, and much literature is dedicated to the roots of this story. Ultimately, though, in any version of this, it is a horrible story, so much death and destruction, and it doesn’t even end well for Noah.

My interest is less in the ancient near eastern roots of this narrative, nor about its authenticity. What moves us in this series of essays on Tikkun is what meaning or sense could be derived from the text we have by the serious spiritual thinkers who have encountered these passages over the generations. Is there a meaning beyond “be good or be a good swimmer”?

Much of the Rabbinic writings focus on Noah, why was Noah saved, what merit did he earn that can be emulated? Much like in the contemporary presidential debates, the ‘media’ as it were seeks a winner. If one compares Abraham, Moses, and Noah, among the great religious figures of crisis, who did the right thing and who committed ‘gaffes’? My interest, however, and for which there seems to be no strongly held position, was what did humanity do that was so terrible that a collective punishment of this scale was warranted, and what lessons does it have for us today?


Why Did the Pope Choose Francis as His Name?


by: Stephen S. Bowman on October 15th, 2015 | No Comments »

Watching Pope Francis cast his spell over America last week I found myself recalling the words of Shakespeare’s Juliet asking “What is in a name?”, or more precisely, why did Pope choose Francis to be his new name upon his ascendancy?  The common answer is that he was told by a friend to remember the poor, but that seems too superficial.   And perhaps equally curious, why have no other pontiffs in the past 800 years taken the name before?  It seems that Francis of Assisi, though the most beloved of all Catholic saints, was seen as just too revolutionary in the past, but that zeal is precisely why this pope chose the name, and it is in that spirit that he is leading us today.

To understand our Pope’s mission, one must review the often overlooked facts of the life of St. Francis, which are often obscured by hagiography and superstition.   Today he is often only remembered for taming wild beasts with a blessing and preaching to larks and sparrows.  But this narrow view does both the saint and ourselves a great disservice and diminishes his radical vision.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To understand St. Francis, we must put him in his proper context of the 12th century.  In the Middle Ages, Europe was a highly structured feudal hierarchy, largely illiterate, and struggling in subsistence poverty.   And the Catholic Church, was dominated by a monastic system that kept many priests and brothers locked behind the walls of their monasteries serving their God thru prayer.  The church orthodoxy was colored by St. Augustine who offered a bleak view of both human nature, and the world in which we live.   It was an otherworldly institution.


Stephen Colbert is America’s Holy Fool


by: Ed Simon on October 4th, 2015 | No Comments »

In the semiotician Umberto Eco’s unlikely 1980 best-seller The Name of the Rose a medieval Franciscan monk investigating a series of murders at an Italian monastery discovers that the victims have been targeted by the abbot for reading a forbidden book – the only copy of an apocryphal work on comedy by Aristotle. The abbot reasons that if such a distinguished thinker whose work is the very basis for scholasticism was known to have argued that comedy was the equal of drama, then the power of religious authorities such as himself would be questioned, for humor can be used as a tool for not just challenging hierarchy, but for enduring one’s own life without the teachings of hierarchy as well.

William of Baskerville, the fourteenth-century protagonist of Eco’s novel, does not agree with the abbot. He believes that simply because Christ is not depicted as laughing in the gospels does not mean that he didn’t in life. For Baskerville humor and spirituality are inseparable, it is precisely the radical, upending, disruptive nature of joyful comedy that allows for evil and sin to be resisted. It’s worth considering what exactly the relationship is between Christianity and comedy, especially since the popular stereotype (among the secular, but sometimes among the pious as well) sees these two categories as somehow being antithetical. And yet a great tradition exists within Christianity of being a “fool for Christ.”

Stephen Colbert in Iraq

Credit: Creative Commons

Stephen Colbert, formerly of the brilliant Colbert Report which satirically skewered right-wing blowhards like Bill O’Reilly and now David Letterman’s replacement on The Late Show is a devout Roman Catholic. He has made no secret of his faith (in fact the comedian once taught catechism class), but for some viewers confused about how to separate Colbert from his performance the intensity of the host’s religion can seem disorienting. And yet Colbert himself sees absolutely no conflict between his humor and his faith. In an interview with Colbert posted on September 9th, Father Thomas Rosica of the Canadian based and Vatican-affiliated Salt and Light Television asked what one question would be that he would ask Pope Francis. The performer replied “I would ask him about being a fool for Christ… to be a fool for Christ is to love, because we are made, we are here to dig our brief moment in time.” A “fool for Christ” – it’s a seemingly counter-intuitive concept, but one that is threaded throughout orthodoxy.


Justice for Mohammad Akhlaq


by: Sunita Viswanath on October 2nd, 2015 | 1 Comment »

On this auspicious day – Gandhi Jayanti (Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday) and International Day of Non-Violence – my colleagues and I at Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus are heartbroken to read the news that a Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched and murdered by a Hindu mob in Northern India because it was rumored that he killed and cow and consumed the meat. News reports claim that a mob of Hindus wielding bricks, batons, and swords came to the man’s house to hunt him down, beat him to death and severely injure his son and mother.


Rosh Hashana, 2015


by: JVP Rabbinic Council on September 26th, 2015 | 3 Comments »

Almost four years ago, the Rabbis of Jewish Voice for Peace called on President Obama to resist the call to go to war with Iran and choose instead a peaceful resolution. We said: “As Jewish leaders, we believe that the path of wisdom towards achieving peace and stability in the region is through dialog and engagement and not through acts of war.” Today, along with rest of the world, we congratulate President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for bringing us the Iran nuclear deal. We believe that peace, not war, serves best the people of the United States, Iran, Israel and all the people of the region.

In the coming days, in synagogues and homes across the country, Jews welcome Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Jews greet each other with the blessing: “may you be inscribed in the Book of Life.” This year we extend our blessings to the 35,000 Jews in Iran, the millions of Iranians, our fellow Jews in Israel and the American people for whom this peace treaty offers the best hope for being inscribed in the Book of Life.

President Obama has given us hope this Rosh Hashana. Hope that international conflict can be resolved through diplomacy; hope that engaging in the highest self-interest of other nations can serve our own national self-interest; hope that peace, not war, be our first choice, not the choice of last resort; hope that Iranians can live and thrive in peace; hope that the Middle East can be a region of peace; hope that we can live in a world with less, not more, nuclear arms.




by: Shari Motro on September 17th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Rosholushion (ˌro-shə-ˈlü-shən) n. 1. Rosh Hashanah resolution 2. a resolution arising out of a restorative justice-type process that includes an intention to make amends, to forgive and be forgiven.

Why a new word? To distinguish it from the seemingly similar but actually quite different New Year’s resolution.

New Year’s Eve – fireworks, champagne, the requisite kiss or awkward lack of one – might be fun or it might be underwhelming, but the central idea is joy. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the ten days in between are a different animal.

As Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer at the service I tune into put it, instead of dancing, Jews usher in the New Year by swimming in a river of tears. Yes, Rosh Hashanah includes celebration too, but from the start it weaves the sweet with the bitter. On the first day of the holiday, we read about a jealous wife who, after the miracle of her own late conception and childbirth, demands that another mother and son be banished to the desert, something that would result in their near certain death. On the second day, we read about a father who nearly kills his beloved son, even marshalling him to carry the wood for the altar on which he is to be slaughtered and burned.


Repentance & Reparations by Kate Poole


by: Arif Qazi on September 16th, 2015 | Comments Off

With the High Holidays here. Kate Poole has published a new comic commenting on some of our concerns today regarding wealth, race and consumerism. Explore more of Kate’s work here.