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Archive for the ‘Rethinking Religion’ Category



Merry Christmas – John Lennon

Dec22

by: on December 22nd, 2014 | 1 Comment »

John Lennon

Jesus was not a Christian and Buddha was not a Buddhist but their religion was love. Can it really be this simple? That the ultimate religion is love! Perhaps we all need to see what we have settled for in order to fully realize that there is another choice besides war and injustice as well as understanding the full meaning of Lennon’s Merry Christmas (War is Over), which was recorded in 1971 – nine years before Lennon was shot down and killed in December, 1980.


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Churches of America Stand Up

Dec22

by: Rick Herrick on December 22nd, 2014 | 1 Comment »

church congregation

Credit: Creative Commons / tpsdave

There’s a new threat on the climate change front, and it’s a big one. The recent midterm elections not only put Republicans in charge of the Congress, but the party of science deniers made dramatic gains at the state and local levels. This impressive victory was made possible by huge infusions of cash from oil, coal, and natural gas interests.

The problem is these interests do not donate money. They invest it. With victory in hand, they are already seeking a return on their investment. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, fossil fuel industry lobbyists are looking for ways to delay implementation of the Obama administration’s plan to place limits on coal-fired power plant emissions. Their hope is that with a Republican president in the White House in 2017 they can then reverse the policy. They are also demonizing the EPA as an out of control government agency in an attempt to weaken its authority.

How do you fight these people? Environmental groups are well aware of this new threat and will do everything in their power to combat it. But these groups need our help. The best way to defeat narrow vested interests is in the arena of public opinion. This is a difficult task, however, because public opinion is often uninformed and not much interested in national political issues.

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Beyond a Religion: Vodou Connects Haitians to their African Roots

Dec19

by: Rachael Bongiorno on December 19th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

Haitian Vodou ceremony

An altar at a Haitian Vodou ceremony in Passaic, New Jersey. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

(From Feet in 2 Worlds)

On a Saturday night around thirty people gather in the basement of a suburban New Jersey home. Friends and family greet each other and the scent of grilled fish lingers in the musty air.

This is not your typical weekend barbeque. It’s Fèt Gede, a ceremony to honor the Haitian Vodou spiritual force or Lwa, named Gede. An altar in the center of the room is laden with gifts for the Lwa including libation bottles filled with the Lwa’s favorite drinks and covered in colorful sequins. There are baskets of sweets, musical instruments, perfume, candles, and raw goat meat.

Everyone is wearing black and purple, colors associated with the dead and with Gede.

“Much like how Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead, on Fèt Gede, we connect with those ancestors who have passed,” explains Dòwòti Désir, a Manbo Asogwe, or female high priest in Haitian Vodou who has come to lead the ceremony.

At one end of the room a group of drummers begins warming up with intermittent rhythmic tapping of their congas, sometimes adding a playful, yet startling bang to wake up the crowd.

Drummers at Haitian Vodou ceremony

Drummers at a Vodou ceremony. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

“Vodou integrates all the senses,” explains Désir. “The scents, rhythm and vibrations of the songs and drums all connect to help call down the spirits.”

Désir is a passionate advocate of Vodou and dedicates much of her time to fostering a greater understanding of Vodou’s religious and cultural practices. Her work aims to dispel the myths that plague the Vodou religion including the Hollywood-invented stereotypes of zombies and ‘pins in dolls’ that were popularized throughout the twentieth century.

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Kavanah (Intention) for Candle Lighting: Third Night of Hanukkah

Dec18

by: Aryeh Cohen on December 18th, 2014 | No Comments »

lighting the menorah

Credit: Creative Commons / Elvert Barnes

The Talmud reports that the reason for adding a candle to the menorah every night of Hanukkah is that “one may raise up within holiness but one may not lower within holiness.” This principle usually governs an action that may or may not be taken with regard to vessels, materials, and foodstuffs that are dedicated to the Temple. In one example, a priest’s worn clothes may be used for wicks in the Temple candelabra but not for more mundane purposes. How might we understand this in relation to our more modest candelabra?

We are moved to the deeper meaning of the candlelight. Just as with each added candle there is more light, we must constantly add to the quantity of holiness in the world. How does one expand holiness in the world? The Torah (Leviticus 19) commands “you shall be holy, for I God, your God, am holy.” This general statement is followed by a list of specific actions, including this: “You shall do no iniquity in justice. You shall not favor the wretched and you shall not defer to the rich. In righteousness you shall judge your fellow … You shall not stand over the blood of your fellow. I am God.”

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The Cries of a Hundred Mothers

Dec16

by: on December 16th, 2014 | 4 Comments »

This morning I woke up unaware of the ordeal hundreds had endured overnight while I slept. Terrorists had entered a school in Peshawar and killed more than a hundred innocent children while my own safely dreamed in their soft beds. My Twitter feed alerted me to the calamity that had befallen the land of my birth, and the rest of the day was spent in a strange kind of agony. How many of us sleep safely in our beds without a thought for those who are killing and being killed in other parts of the world? Perhaps we have become immune to the suffering of others because that’s the only way to survive the mental and emotional stress of living in a violent and cruel world.

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Jews Across America are Standing Against Police Violence This Hanukkah

Dec16

by: on December 16th, 2014 | 7 Comments »

As Jews throughout the world light candles this evening, many across America are simultaneously shining a light upon police violence and affirming that black lives matter in protests and social action efforts in over seventeen cities.

From Boston to San Francisco and Albany to Durham, Jews are committing themselves over the next eight days during Hanukkah to not just mark a historical moment in which the shackles of occupation and oppression were overthrown by ancient Jews, but to illuminate the racism and state oppression ripping America apart.

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Hundreds of Jews and allies in Boston block traffic and affirm that Black Lives Matter. Image via Michelle Weiser.


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Modern Maccabee

Dec16

by: Mitchel Davidovitz on December 16th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

hanukkah menorah

Credit: Creative Commons / Robert Couse-Baker

Despite having nearly no religious significance, not appearing in the Tanakh, and only warranting a few passing references in the Mishna, Hanukkah seems to stand out as an important cultural event for American Jewry and is largely viewed as the quintessential Jewish holiday to non-Jews in America. This is largely due to its calendar proximity to Christmas and inclusion on television programs which provides illusions of multicultural inclusion. Jewish symbols featured in advertisements are used to latch the Jewish population into participating in “holiday season” consumerism. This is a part of television’s much broader role in assimilating Jews and other minority/immigrant groups into America’s capitalist culture. It is a great irony because the premise of Hanukkah stems from a revolt against those attempting to acculturate the Jewish people. 

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Osmosis: A Jew Searches for Silence During Christmas

Dec15

by: Y. A. Shir on December 15th, 2014 | 4 Comments »

Christmas decorations

Credit: Creative Commons / Ian Wilson

I spent last Christmas at a Jewish meditation retreat. Stepping into the lobby of the Jewish summer camp where it was held was crossing over from one world into another. There were no poinsettias, no mistletoe, none of the amped-up holiday cheer. This was Jewish space: mezuzahs on every doorpost, Hebrew letters on the bulletin board, kosher everything, faces of people I’d never met but somehow already knew—their gait, the furrows on their brows, the occasional clothing item we Israelis recognize immediately as coming from over there.

Much of the retreat was spent in silence. One of the things that silence can do is wake us up to the noise inside our own mind. On this particular retreat, the silence made me realize that it took two days for the Christmas carols to stop playing in my head.

During Shabbat and as part of the morning blessings, we broke the silence and sang other songs, songs that for fleeting intervals made me understand what people mean when they talk about raising the roof.

Ozi vezimrat ya, vayehi li lishua.

God is my strength and my song, and will be my salvation.

It was as if the room—like my body after a good session of yoga—had discovered more space between its vertebrae.

For the remainder of the retreat it was these melodies that reverberated through me. On my drive back, instead of turning on the radio or plugging in my iPod, I stayed in silence and I sang. When I arrived at my house I parked, dropped off my bags, and walked to the river, where I sang some more. Then I went home.

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The Little Candle That Wouldn’t

Dec13

by: Bonnie L. Gracer on December 13th, 2014 | No Comments »

“I ask you,” fumed Red. “Was that any way to live a life? Squished in a red tin container– above the kitty litter, no less — just waiting for our turn to burn to death? Well I won’t do it.”

A photograph of the candles that inspired this playful piece of writing. Credit: Bonnie Gracer.

“You mean our turn to shine, Red — to declare the miracle of Chanukah,” said Shamash.

“Shut up Shamash. Just because you were picked to be the Shamash you think you are so high and mighty, elevated above everybody else. Don’t forget your roots. You are made out of wax just like the rest of us – red wax, just like me — and you too are being extinguished as we speak.”

“Hey, I worked hard for that promotion,” said Shamash. It’s taken me years to get noticed.”

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“Open Dialogue” on Israel/Palestine Is Not Enough

Dec12

by: Henry Rosen on December 12th, 2014 | 18 Comments »

open hillel

Vassar College professor Hua Hsu wrote in the New Yorker recently that “There should be nothing controversial about everyday kindness; civility as a kind of individual moral compass should remain a virtue. But civility as a type of discourse – as a high road that nobody ever actually walks – is the opposite. It is bullshit.”

Open dialogue, very much like civility, exists as both a venerable ideal and a carrot-on-a-stick style tool of discipline. When it comes to critiquing Israel, particularly from a non-Zionist or anti-Zionist approach, open dialogue becomes a mechanism that avoids the acknowledgement of underlying power imbalances and the foundational inequality of our respective ideologies.

The idea of “open dialogue” sets up a framework that requires balancing ideologies of Zionism with anti-Zionism. However, anti-Zionist and Zionist ideologies are not on an even playing field. To be clear, anti-Zionism carries with it no semblance of the same amount of institutional power as Zionism. Particularly as articulated by Palestinians, whose voices ought to be considered with primacy, anti-Zionism has historically been (and remains) the target of political repression and disenfranchisement. Trying to gain a balanced view from both an anti-Zionist and a Zionist perspective would imply those two ways of seeing the world having the same kind of organizational backing; this is simply not the case.

Moreover, conversations between anti-Zionists and Zionists, even liberal Zionists, never play out on equal ground. The fact that Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, states it “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that have explicitly non-Zionist politics provides one very important instance in which an institution represses challenges to Zionism. Unsurprisingly, Hillel invokes Hsu’s concept of civility in prohibiting those that “foster an atmosphere of incivility” in campus Hillels. With such exclusive rules in place, an anti-Zionist student pursuing an open dialogue is only ever entering a Hillel house on the prescriptive terms of the institutional power. How open is that dialogue, then? Not at all. As soon as any one part of a conversation refuses to acknowledge the power differentials that exist between itself and the other parts, open dialogue becomes chimerical.

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