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Archive for the ‘Rethinking Religion’ Category



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 | No Comments »

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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A challenge to JNF on Tu B’shvat Planting Trees in Israel

Jan25

by: Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb on January 25th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

JNF trees in the Negev Desert. Man-made dunes (here a liman) help keep in rainwater, creating an oasis. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) is offering a special deal for Tu B’Shevat on its website:  “Help celebrate TuBishvat by planting a tree in Israel…and you will be automatically entered to win a trip! Prizes include roundtrip airfare and two nights at the Carlton Hotel Tel Aviv for two.”

Meanwhile, since 1967, over 800,000 Palestinian olive trees have been destroyed by the state of Israel. In addition, tens of thousands of fruit trees, fields, wells and gardens have also been destroyed to make room for Jewish settlement. Having just received this year’s report from Palestinian farmer Daoud Nasser who’s family  suffered the Israeli Defense Force’s destruction of 1500 fruit bearing trees last year, I feel deeply disconnected to JNF’s rendering of its mission and its version of history.

The narrative on the JNF website resembles the United States’ narrative related to the historic site known as Colonial Williamsburg: an example of national distortions and lies that hide brutal histories.  Williamsburg was literally segregated throughout much of its history.  And, neither the genocidal histories of the massacre of Indigenous peoples, nor enslavement of Africans or their contributions to Colonial societies were anywhere evident.  Just as African American and Indigenous presence and contributions are erased in white America’s Disneyland like portrayals of the past at so-called historic sites, so, too are Palestinians completely erased from Israel’s historic narrative, as are Bedouins, and Mizrachi and African Jews.

The terrible dislocations, massacres and massive destruction of Palestinian and pre-1948 material culture and land has been swallowed up and regurgitated in ways that completely distort what actually happened, and is still happening. Jews on free trips to Israel, whether with birthright, or rabbinic school, or the JNF, will feel good about planting the obligatory tree, while pretending that Israel was a barren land before Jews got there and made the desert bloom.

They will be given to recite the biblical verse, “It is against Jewish halachic law to uproot fruit bearing trees”, give feel good talks about green Judaism, while completely ignoring a reality that contradicts these claims:  the ongoing destruction of Palestinian land, trees, fields, houses, wells, vineyards, and cultural institutions accompanied by Israeli killing fields in Gaza, the West Bank and other areas of Israel.  That is the reality which the JNF wants to bury in the ground.

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And God Saw the Light: That it Was as Good. Genesis 1:4

Jan25

by: George P. Fletcher on January 25th, 2016 | No Comments »

These four Hebrew words – vyar Elohim ki​tov. – reveal a deep and engaging paradox.The passage could be rendred as: God saw the lights and therefore it was good, or the opposite: God recognized that the light was inherently good.In the first, God is the exclusive actor and source of reality. The key to this structural ambiguity lies in the connective ‘ki’ which could be translated as “like’ or as ‘because.’ A parallel ambiguity arises in the famous line in Deuteronomy, repeated many times in Christian texts: Love your neighbor like (ki) your self. Does this mean “Love your neighbor as (ki) you love yourself” or rather “Love your neighbor because (ki) she is like you.” The beauty of this phrase is that it packs a powerful message in three Hebrew words, like the four words in our passage. The price of brevity is the resulting ambiguity. Of course, the ambiguity produced in both cases by the connective ki might simply be the way of inducing us to think about the alternative messages.

We have revealed the paradox in Genesis but not resolved it. The first prong is thatGod’s seeing – the gaze itself – makes the light good? This, appealingly, concentrates all power of creation in a single source: nothing exists independently of the Creator’s power. But should we acknow​ledge that God’s mere focusing ‘His’ (‘Her’ ‘Its’)eyes has a creative force? This would run​ afoul of Rambam’s admonition not to take seriously metaphoric references to God’s body. Thinking that God has eyes and actually looks at the light would be – in Rambam’s terms – a form of idolatry. Yet it is hard for human beings to resist suggestive representations – witness the explosion of symbolic statutory images in Catholicism.

How is it possible for God to act in the world without a corporal presence? Learnado’s vision of God’s touching of Adam, as depicted in the Sistine Chapel, makes good sense as art but not as theology.The reliance on speech as the medium of creation offers a solution to how creation might occur without – or with minimal divine presence. Speech, like God, is a fleeting as the wind. The creation of light was, in John Searle’s vocabulary, a classic speech act.God said it and eo ipso it happened. The problem, which will become more intense in a later passage, is whether God is talking to anyone.

If we want to avoid to avoid the problem of idolatry, we could take Genesis 1:4 as a metaphor and reason that God sees without eyes. The idea would be that God recognizes the nature of light as good.

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Scholarship and Provocation: A Response to Arthur Green’s Review of Hasidism Incarnate

Jan15

by: Shaul Magid on January 15th, 2016 | No Comments »

Arthur Green recently published a review of my recent book Hasidism Incarnate in Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations. The review raises some important issues in regards to the study of Hasidism and Hasidic literature more generally, and the nature of comparison in the study of religion. It also gestures toward the complex relationship between scholarship and theology that many of us, both in Jewish Studies more generally, and Jewish mysticism in particular, traverse in our work. I begin my discussion of the larger questions raised in the review with Green’s claim of omission. In his review Green notes that it is surprising that I chose not to invoke Psalm 90:1 A prayer to Moses, man of God (ish ha- Elohim) in my study as it would ostensibly support my basic contention about incarnational thinking. He is certainly correct that this verse stands out as significant to my argument. In fact, on page 18 in the first chapter I invoke this very verse, and a comment on it by the pre-Hasidic pietist Yaakov Koppel of Mezritch (d. 1786) to introduce the entire project. Whether or not Green’s comment about the absence of Psalm 90:1 was an oversight, I think the way he may understand the verse, and the way in which I discuss it using Koppel’s comment, illustrates  the differences between us, both in our reading of Hasidism and in our theological vision more generally.

Midrash Tehillim to Psalm 90:1 offers various readings of calling Moses “a man of God.” One such reading is as follows: “If he is a man he is not God, and if he is God, then he is not a man…When Moses went up on high he was a man. In the presence of God, how bright is a candle? How bright is even a Torah in the presence of God? When a mortal goes up to the Holy One, blessed be He, who is pure fire, and whose ministers are fire – and Moses did go up to God – he is a man, But after he comes down, he is called ’God’”. Yaakov Koppel reads Moses as a “man of God” quite differently. He writes, “If he is a man he is not God, and if he is God, then he is not a man? Rather, above he is called God (Elohim) and below he is called man (ish). Koppel (intentionally, I assume) reverses the order of the midrash. The midrash states that the divine status of Moses is only on earth, that is, in his vocation as a lawgiver. It is a divinely granted divine status not unlike an emissary of a king who speaks for the monarch. It does nothing to compromise the absolute transcendence of God. Koppel, however, suggests that the status of Moses as divine is precisely when he is in the presence of God. It is not a God-granted status as much as a state of being. One can understand the difference between Midrash Tehillim and Yaakov Koppel as a move from non-incarnational to incarnational thinking. The midrash explains Moses’s divine status as a vocation while protecting divine transcendence. Koppel problematizes that by granting Moses’ divine status with, or in the very presence of, God. When Moses comes back down to earth he is a man (ish) but a man who already is a God (Elohim). This is the precise reason I introduce Hasidism’s incarnational thinking with Koppel’s comment; I suggest Koppel introduces an incarnational motif that becomes indicative of Hasidism. Green may prefer the midrashic reading whereby Moses’ divine status is as a lawgiver, a much more conventional notion. This may also speak to Green’s insistence that we retain categorical boundaries between Judaism and Christianity. Judaism is the religion that retains the utter transcendence of God (the midrashic position) whereas Christianity deconstructs that transcendence through the incarnation (gesturing toward Koppel’s position). Green articulates this in his claim that the incarnational component of Christianity may be imported from Hellenism rather than endemic to Judaism.

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A Multicultural Immigrant Christmas

Dec25

by: on December 25th, 2015 | 4 Comments »

Decades ago, nudged by subterranean wishes and memories, I hesitantly stepped into the nave of a Protestant church in my neighborhood. Like many of its kind, this congregation was small, old, and white. The only diversity it expressed, pretty much, was diversity of sexual orientation – and some diversity of opinion about diversity of sexual orientation. It was in many ways, an activist church, and for a time, gradually gathered to itself more young folk like me, gay and straight, and overwhelmingly white, who raised funds for AIDS programs, protested nuclear weapons, and pressed for inclusion of gays in the ministry.

A different church, but similar

For financial reasons, the church shared space with renters, a robust Asian congregation, far more conservative in theology, overflowing with young families who sat through a loud, hour-and-a-half sermon without blinking an eye. Despite our proclamations of diversity and multiculturalism, I’m sorry to report the two congregations remained quite separate, and some in our social justice-oriented church commented quite vehemently on diapers left in the nursery, heating bills, and I don’t remember what. We lived in two different worlds without a lot of warmth and welcome on our side. Eventually, divisions yawned even within our group, and I stopped attending.

I moved to another city. Decades passed. A friend began attending that church again. Reluctant and ambivalent, but curious, I agreed to visit one Sunday. The physical side of the church was little changed, same clay roof, dark pews, stained glass. But, mercy, how the constituency had changed! Now, the minister of the “white” church was a Korean-American immigrant. A South Asian guy led music, and the choir featured Koreans, Chinese, Latinos, and just a sprinkling of old white women and men. The children’s minister was African-American, and a family of African immigrants took up an entire pew. Suddenly, the congregation was as multicultural as a community college.

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Torah Commentary- Perashat Vayigash: Confronting Societal Injustice, Confronting Ourselves

Dec18

by: on December 18th, 2015 | No Comments »

 

In these troubled times, when we see societal tolerance of speech approaching that of fascism, when open hate speech about anything or anyone approximating an “enemy”, where even the victims of oppression are treated with hostility and suspicion, one feels helpless in attempting to maintain a sense of justice and decency. How does one respond to what appears to be a situation of crisis? What kind of discourse is appropriate as a response?

This week’s perasha (Torah portion) begins at a similar moment of crisis- All seems lost. An innocent descent to Egypt to purchase food has ended up with youngest brother Benyamin imprisoned by the enemy authorities. To the brothers, it would seem that their own actions have put the children of Rachel at risk of total decimation (with Yosef believed dead and his only brother Binyamin in a place worse than death), an outcome which would compound their father’s already unrelieved grief to beyond mortal tolerance. The family appears helpless in a Kafkaesque trial situation which caught them entirely unawares.

In an act of desperation, Yehudah steps forward and begins to plead with the enemy leader for his brother’s life. The text uses some unusual language- the text reads:  Vayigash Elav Yehudah, literally Yehudah “encountered” him. The use of the term vayigash, from the root hagasha, (to come close, also to prepare) is somewhat unusual, both linguistically and even in terms of the action, given that they were in the same room. And to whom is the second word in the phrase,Elav, “to him”, referring to?

In fact, why does the text need to quote Yehuda’s speech at such length? This speech does not reveal anything new towards the linear development of the plot; we are given no new facts about the brothers’ history, and no new personal revelations. Yet this speech is clearly central to the story and thus extensively analyzed by the Midrashim. The Midrash choreographs entire dialogues lurking behind the words of Yehudah, referring to all sorts of hidden meanings within his every word, both conciliatory and threatening words; the prelude in the Midrash Rabbah (BR 93:3) insists that the words of Yehudah “can be interpreted from every angle”. We will find that the words of Yehuda teach us several useful lessons on mindfulness in the moment of apparent crisis.

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“Ba’nu Choshekh L’kadesh: Sanctifying darkness, seeding the light”

Dec10

by: Rabbi David Seidenberg on December 10th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

Every year at my boy’s school there’s a Chanukah concert that includes rap songs and other talent. A few years ago, it included the song the popular song, “Ba’nu Choshekh L’garesh“. I’m not so connected to modern Israeli culture, though, so it was my first time hearing it. Here’s a translation:

We come, the darkness to expel -
In our hands, light and fire.
Each one is a small light,
And all of us together – an immense light!
Flee darkness! Be gone black!
Flee before the light!

The school, Lander Grinspoon Academy in western Massachusetts, teaches great midot – moral qualities – and it’s also multiracial. (I shouldn’t need to say that because Jews are all races, but our prejudices can make us forgetful about who we are.) So the words “Be gone black/Hal’ah sh’chor” really struck me as the wrong thing to be singing, even though I know that no one who loves the song today or in the past – certainly not the Yemenite composer, Sara Levi-Tanai – would have intended any such thing. “Ba’nu Choshekh” probably represented pretty well what a lot of people imagine when they think about Chanukah – we are celebrating the triumph of light over darkness.

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The Quran Speaks: ISIS and Islam are Opposites

Dec10

by: Delilah Leval on December 10th, 2015 | 4 Comments »

They have names like ISIL, Al Qaeda, Taliban, and so on. We Americans are being told by mainstream media sources that they belong to one religion: “Radical Islam.” The terrorists insist on calling themselves “Islamic,” and the media repeats this claim, but this label is a false equivalence and a very harmful false association we should be quick to avoid. Let the public not be fooled — the peace-loving, pious adherents of a beautiful faith that translates to “Submission” do not share a faith, values, or philosophy with terrorists, homicidal maniacs. The ultimate measurement of who or what is Islamic is universally accepted to be the Quran. It is by the Quran that one can determine who/what is really and truly Islamic, and whom/what is wearing a stolen name. The first “I” in ISIS is an affront to Muslims around the world, and we prefer to call these rampant killers “Daesh” which means “to crush.” Empowered with solid information, Progressives can refute the stolen name, and the frightening attacks by politicians like presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Breaking, disobeying, and doing the opposite of every major moral requirement of the Holy Quran means ISIS are certainly not Islamic. Not one iota.Terrorists are criminals, and their crimes are crimes against all of humanity. The perfectly-honorable and pure faith, based on a Holy Quran that encapsulates the words of Almighty God himself,preaches only peace. So what is today dubbed “Extreme Islam” in the mainstream media is in actuality, Anti-Islam. ISIS is Anti-Islamic, the polar opposite of Islam.

“Islam” is Arabic short-hand for “Submission to the Will of the Creator.” That means accepting everyone and everything in the world — just the way they are. Terrorist groups are not members any form of “Islam,” extreme or otherwise; they have invented their own religion. ISIS and their kind operate against the sacred core tentants of the Holy Quran, and to disobey the Quran or choose another source besides makes one’s actions patently un-Islamic.The Holy Quran is an unchanged, consistent sacred manual to religious life for all Muslims, and the timeless Arabic text is the same today as it was 1400 years ago at revelation to the Prophet Mohammad. Actions taken against the commandments of the Quran are unauthorized by God, rejected by Muslims, and denounced by our community. Terrorists are rightfully called “extreme” — extremely sinful, extremely wicked, and extremely deplorable. In their sinful, depraved acts, ISIS represent only themselves, not Islam. And Muslims decry the association of their destructive activities with the Muslims, Islam, and the God of Abraham, Most Gracious, Most Merciful God.

The Quran commands God’s followers specifically and unequivocally to reject violence against others, reject harm against the self, and to get along with people of various faiths (or no faith at all).

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