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Archive for the ‘Rethinking Religion’ Category



Monotheism as a Moral Issue, Part Four: Borrowing Reason from Hellenism

May2

by: George P. Fletcher on May 2nd, 2016 | No Comments »

Genesis 1:26.

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

Part IV: Borrowing Reason from Hellenism.

There is a romantic story implicit in the way the words s’vara and its related grammatical forms came to be adopted in modern Hebrew.  The tale highlights another ray of influence of God’s Image in contemporary thought.  It is well known that ‘reason’ is a Hellenistic idea – generally absent from Hebrew thought.  This was evident in the drafting of the first criminal code ordinance in Israel/Palestine under the British mandate.  The drafts took a code developed by the nineteenth century scholar Fitzjames Stephen for all the British colonies. When it was translated into Hebrew, the drafters had particular difficulty the word omnipresent in English legal discourse – reasonableness.

The drafter opted for a different idiom in very context.  One of my favorites was: mitkabel al ha-daat – “It presents itself to the mind.”  When I presented a paper at the Hebrew University in the early 1970′s, I focused on this problem of translation.  I was aware that it was difficult to translate Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into Hebrew, largely because of the same divide between Hellenism and Hebraism.  The translators choose the word tvunah which was apparently too sophisticated for use in drafting statutes.

After I presented the paper, my old friend and colleague Shalev Ginossar took me aside and told me of a meeting in the ministry of justice in which they discussed the problem of translation.  They decided at that time to take a word from the Talmud s’vara and introduce it into modern Hebrew.  The word does not exactly mean ‘reason’ but it is as close as you can get.  This is the word that subsequent drafters invoked to capture the English conception of reasonableness.

There was an implication for my own future work.  Fifteen years later, in cooperation between Columbia and the Hartman

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Passover, Parenting and Pardons

May2

by: Kathryn Frey-Balter on May 2nd, 2016 | 1 Comment »

This year, I have exhausted Passover’s eight days writing love letters to President Obama.  My letters all close with the same refrain:  “Let my clients GO!”   Is it a prophecy that Passover’s final day – April 30 – coincides with our clemency deadline?

In 2014 the Justice Department announced an Obama initiative to invite inmates with no significant criminal history, a record of good prison conduct, no history of violence before or during the term of incarceration, who have served over ten years on a federal sentence for a non-violent offense to apply for clemency.

Obama’s clemency project seeks to right the wrong.  Some days it feels more like he’s hiding than seeking.

The more the clemency love is withheld, the more singularly determined we become to part the Red Sea of the Pardon Committee.  It started innocently enough – laws in the 1990s aimed at ending the war on drugs.   The inevitable result however, was the mass incarceration of a generation of young people, mostly of color, and not too many degrees of separation from Egypt’s enslaved Jews.  True, Israelites hadn’t profited from kilo quantities of cocaine, but they also hadn’t been born into slavery: the slavery of being in utero addicted to crack, the slavery of poverty, the slavery of, well, a history of slavery and oppression. 

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New Lessons from the Four Children

May2

by: Jeremy Sher on May 2nd, 2016 | No Comments »

(Source: Arthur Szyk, "The Four Sons")

Let’s turn back to the mysterious, riveting story of the Four Children, which we read every year at the Seder. The four children, or four kinds of children, approach Passover in four different ways, and we are told to respond to them differently, each in their own way: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask a question.

Whereas the most common interpretation may be that the wise child is the favorite, the Rabbinic authors buried a few treasures within this text that call that view into question. The Rabbis cared about people’s feelings and would not typically advocate, for example, cutting someone off from the people without at least processing the likely outcome of that. I don’t think any of the children is a favorite; I think they all have their strengths and flaws. Some of them are surprising.

We all know kids like these: the wise one with all the answers, the wicked one who disrupts everything, the simple one who isn’t sure what’s going on, and the one who is either too little or too simple indeed to form a question. The first point is that these are children — our children. Even when they act out, the Rabbis could not possibly have meant that we are to cut one of them off while smothering another with praise. All four of them are our future. If we want 100% of a future, instead of 75% or less, then we’d better figure out how to reach each one of them, so that when they grow into adults each of them too will be able to say, “This is what the Eternal God did for me, when I went forth from Egypt.”

The Wise Child

The Wise Child asks: “What are all the rituals, laws and customs which the Eternal One, our God, has commanded you?” You shall respond to him with the rules of Passover, down to the last detail, which is: There is no further eating after the Afikoman.

I always used to assume that the Wise Child was the favorite, the exemplar of how everybody else should ask. That does seem to be the p’shat, the literal meaning of the text. The child is called wise, which is a compliment, and shows interest in a correct observance.

The Wise Child’s question is a quotation from Torah (Deut. 6:20). Oddly, the recommended response to the Wise Child does not match the commandment given in Deut. 6:21-25 as to what to say. Are we to assume that the Wise Child already knows that “God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand”? Are the Torah’s words too elementary for the Wise Child? Or does the mismatch signal that something deeper is going on?

I am not convinced that the Wise Child is the rabbis’ favorite. (I’ve already tipped my hand; I don’t believe any of the children are favored or disfavored.) The Wise Child is praised for being interested in the laws. But the point of the Seder, as we are told repeatedly, is not what we do or don’t eat after the Afikoman, but that God redeemed us from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. In this way, the Wise Child has somewhat missed the point. The rabbinic authors answer in kind, giving an overly specific answer to the Wise Child’s overly specific question.

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How the latest Bernie Sanders Israel Controversy Over Simone Zimmerman Misses the Point

Apr21

by: Liza Behrendt on April 21st, 2016 | 5 Comments »

In the war to silence criticism of Israel, the Palestinian voice is the ultimate target.

Last week, progressives celebrated Senator Bernie Sanders’ appointment of Simone Zimmerman, an activist opposing Israeli occupation, as the Jewish Outreach Coordinator of his presidential campaign. Their celebration would be short.

Right-wing blogs scoured her Facebook page for incriminating information, and institutions purporting to represent the Jewish community demanded she be fired. Just two days later, the Sanders campaign suspended her.

Celebration became outrage. The hashtag #IStandWithSimone trended on social media and thousands signed a petition demanding Zimmerman’s reinstatement. Articles and op-eds condemned Sanders and the Jewish institutions that pressured him, rightfully pointing out that Zimmerman’s politics on Israel represent a generational shift in the U.S. Jewish community. But most of the conversation failed to link Zimmerman with a broader Palestinian-led movement that is systematically silenced, especially those engaging in Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel.


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Passover and Earth Day: 10 Plagues of Fossil Fuels

Apr18

by: Dan Brook on April 18th, 2016 | No Comments »

(Source: Eric Kounce)

Creation is being replaced with destruction. As Jews, we are tasked with remembering, conserving, pursuing peace and justice. On this first night of Passover 5776, which is also Earth Day 47, we recount 10 of the plagues of fossil fuels, which are negatively affecting all countries and most species.

1. oil drilling and coal mining
2. fracking
3. gas guzzling
4. subsidizing fossil fuels and oil corporations
5. overuse of plastics
6. wasting energy
7. using a finite resource as if it’s infinite
8. not putting a price on carbon
9. not boldly transitioning to safe, clean, renewable energies
10. condemning our children and their children and future generations to a world of climate chaos

We can no longer be fossil fools for cheap energy with high eco-costs to satisfy greed and the idolatry of profit. We should no longer be enslaved by the pharaohs of environmental destruction and their doomsday cult.

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Wrestling with God: Church Shootings and Gay Wedding Cakes

Apr15

by: Reverend Max Lynn on April 15th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Transcribed from the sermon preached July 12, 2015
Scripture Readings: Genesis 32:22-32, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1865 painting by Alexander Louis Leloir)

The story of Jacob’s wrestling match with God falls between the stories of Jacob’s tricking his brother Esau out of his inheritance and their reconciliation. You may remember that Jacob, the younger son, conspired with his mother to trick his father into giving him both the first born birthright and blessing. Gypped twice by his brother, Esau was fuming, and promised to kill his brother after his father died. Now Esau did alright for himself despite Jacob and is coming with an army. Jacob, hoping for forgiveness and reconciliation, sends out a sequence of offerings to soften his brother’s anger.

Awaiting the actual meeting with his brother, Jacob is camped along a river. As it becomes night, Jacob runs into a man who seems to be the guardian of the river crossing. They wrestle all night. Eventually, Jacob decides this guy is related to the divine and asks for a blessing. Jacob won’t give up so the guy injures Jacobs’s groin. But Jacob still won’t give up and demands a blessing. Finally, the guy blesses Jacob with the new name Israel, because he has struggled with God face to face.

If all goes according the convention in the culture, Jacob is not someone who gets to be primary protagonist in scripture. “Bless me, make me a cake,” he might say, and his father would say, “no, that is not the way it goes. You don’t get the blessing. The established order says your brother gets the blessing.” On the one hand Jacob is a bit of a snake. On the other hand, who came up with the conventional order anyway? This bucking of the conventional culture is going to reverberate in the story of David, the young brother who makes his way from musician to giant killer and then king. This theme runs through scripture: don’t give up, be faithful to God, wrestle with him enough, and you just may get a blessing.

The other night I went over to St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church to hear Cornel West. Now one might be tempted to look at the ongoing struggle of the African American Community and just say, the heck with God. Certainly more and more people have decided God is not making much of a difference. God is not preventing racist lunatics from shooting down church folks. God has not ended racism. God has not ended poverty and violence and discrimination. Meanwhile Central America is turning into a present day Sodom and Gomorrah, where society is disintegrating before the raw violence, corruption and disrespect of human life to such a degree one might be tempted to just erase everything and start over.

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Fiddler on My Mind

Apr5

by: Roslyn Bernstein on April 5th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Theatre Marquis. Photo: Shael Shapiro

Fiddler on the Roof has been on my mind these days, the plaintive strains of the violinist leading me uptown to the New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), then midtown to experience the current revival of the musical on Broadway starring Danny Burstein, and finally back to the MCNY on March 28th to hear a lively panel on Reimagining Fiddler.

The lights dimmed and the actors who play Tevye’s rebellious daughters, Chava, Tzeitel and Hudel, appeared on stage, belting out Matchmaker, as the warm-up act for a panel moderated by the exhibit’s guest curator, Edna Nahshon, a Professor of Jewish Theater and Drama at The Jewish Theological Seminary. The lyrics were perfect, Sheldon Harnick at his best, with clever rhymes—”I’ll bring the veil, you bring the groom, slender and pale”—and puns at the end. The audience smiled when the sisters delivered the line: “Playing with matches a girl can get hurt.”

My memory flashed back to 1965 when I saw the original musical, one year after it opened in 1964, with Zero Mostel commanding the stage. Fiddler broke records and ran for over 3,000 performances.

The big question of the evening: Why was Fiddler such a sensation?

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You are Invited to Beyt Tikkun’s Liberation Seder Saturday eve April 23rd

Mar30

by: Renna Ulvang on March 30th, 2016 | No Comments »

This is Renna Ulvang, a therapist and spiritual counselor, and member of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls since 1999, inviting you to join us for an absolutely remarkable Passover experience (in Berkeley, Ca. Saturday April 23rd from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Our potluck seder at Beyt Tikkun is an incredible experience!

I love it because we not only observe the beautiful rituals of the traditional Passover seder, we go beyond the Haggadah’s invitation to imagine we were slaves in Egypt. We not only identify areas of enslavement within our own selves and lives but also in the lives of all the other human beings in our world.

Our Seder is not only a Jewish story, it is a human story of the possiblity of liberation from oppression. But it cannot happen without our mutual celebration as a community of world-changers, which we are, and which U are. So we are delighted to be able to reach out to you and to ask you to come and share this amazing evening with us.

I love this seder because there is wonderful food, music, readings, rituals, inter-connection, sharing, dancing, and having fun! So say goodbye to boring seders that do not seem relevant, this one IS relevant, today more than ever as the world sometimes seems hopelessly stuck. I love hearing and experiencing the way Rabbi Michael Lerner weaves together our familiar and treasured traditions with a vital, always new and refreshing sense that the world can be changed and transformed.

We welcome non-Jews and first time seder Jews as well!! This is a wonderful, non threatening way to “get into” the energy, meaning and spirituality of Passover!

For more important information (e.g. address, kosher for Passover foods to brings, etc.) please go to: www.tikkun.org/passover5777 ). Please tell your friends who may have never been to a seder or never been to one that spoke to their souls that they too should register and come!!

I hope to see you there!

Empire and the Cross: Sowing the Seeds of Hope

Mar30

by: Rev. Deborah Lee on March 30th, 2016 | No Comments »

Exactly 3 weeks ago at on March 4, I arrived in Honduras. It was 36 hours after Berta Cáceres had been brutally murdered while sleeping in her bed in the middle of the night. One arm and one leg were broken as she fought her attackers, then she was shot in the forehead, death squad style. It was ironic that they had broken her arm, as she was referred to by the BBC as “the woman who twisted the arm of the World Bank and China,” referring to the year-long protest she organized of the indigenous Lenca community of Rio Blanco against the building of one of the largest hydroelectric dams (without the community’s prior consent) on the Rio Gualcarque, causing China and the World bank to pull financing of the illegal dam construction. This dam would have been used to divert water to gold mining projects and to be part of a regional energy network to take transfer the power of the river to richer countries further north. Her killers shot her and (Mexican environmental activist Gustavo Castro) to make sure she would be doing no more arm-twisting of international financiers and foreign investors, threatening the profits of the richest 10 families in Honduras.

I had not met Berta, not even known her name, but I decided- the very day the world heard about her murder, to go to her funeral – to be with those with whom we have been accompanying in Honduras. Fr. Ismael ‘Melo’ Coto, SJ, Fr. Cesar, Osman, Pedro Landa, Jennifer, faith activists who had launched a campaign called “Mother Earth – Defending Our Common Home,” bringing people of faith in partnership with the struggle to protect indigenous lands and the natural resources of Honduras. In doing so, they were putting their own lives at risk. Father Cesar, whom I met last August when I traveled to Honduras with 16 faith leaders on a Root Causes Pilgrimage to investigate the root causes and root solutions to the forced migration of thousands of children and families, driven from their homes to seek protection and survival. Fr. Cesar and others spoke to us about the steady displacement of communities and threats to activists, defenders of the land and human rights, opposing efforts to appropriate land for mining and hydroelectric projects. “It’s a miracle that we are alive to talk to you,” they told us.

So when I heard Berta had been killed, my mind immediately went to our friends as they would be absorbing this tragic news. Berta had been their sister in the struggle. She was young, tireless, fearless, a force of intelligence and inspiration. My friend Jose Artiga who had helped me co-lead the pilgrimage said, “We should go accompany them for the funeral.” Yes, we could send a card, or email message. But if you lose a close family member, wouldn’t you rather your friend come in person to accompany you?

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Monotheism as a Moral Issue, Part Three: Loyalty and the Limits of Equality

Mar29

by: George P. Fletcher on March 29th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Genesis 1:26.

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

Part III: Loyalty and the Limits of Equality.

The principle of equality has become the template of philosophical debate since the early 1970′s. The debate has largely taken place at Harvard, but with an intriguing Zionist influence. It began with John Rawls’ paradigm-shattering book, A Theory of Justice (1971). Almost two centuries after the writing of Immanuel Kant, the same humanistic theory burst on the scene but with an economic twist, namely the non-ethical concept of incentive or self-interested action. As is often the case, the fusion of independent physical or mental elements can produce a sudden spurt of energy – in this case, of Kantian moral thought merged with an economic version of self-interest.

Rawls’ book changed the face of American moral and legal thinking. Yet it undoubtedly has its roots in Genesis 1:26, the creation of Adam in God’s image, and the evolution of that idea in the work of Immanuel Kant. Rawls assumes that the principles of justice* binding on all humanity* should be based on the choice rational* people would make behind a veil of ignorance. All three asterisk indicate problematic terms – justice, humanity, and rational choice.

First, the concept of justice represents a middle point between Kant’s theory of morality (1785) and his theory of law or Right (1797). The theory of morality is based on the ability of a human being to prescribe a universal law for himself and for humanity, as I have discussed in earlier posts. This law is generally called the categorical imperative or the principle of treating human beings as ends in themselves, and never as a means to an end.

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