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Archive for the ‘Rethinking Religion’ Category



“In Every Generation…” How Mainstream Approaches to Passover Lock Shut the Jewish Imagination

Apr11

by: Robert Cohen on April 11th, 2014 | No Comments »

For our Passover meal this year (Monday 14 April) I have a fifth question and answer to add to the traditional quartet of the Ma Nishtanah.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

seder plate

A seder plate. Credit: Creative Commons/Gwen Harlow.

Because on this night we make a meal, literally and metaphorically, of our unique story. Via mouthfuls of bitter herbs, salt water, nuts and raisins mixed with wine, and unleavened bread, we promote the damaging mindset that tells us that we are the world’s eternal victims.

I expect an immediate challenge to my liturgical liberties.

“Enough already with your iconoclastic itch! How can you say such things? Surely, Passover is the quintessential expression of our physical and spiritual liberation. Hasn’t the escape of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery become the biblical paradigm of freedom from oppression that has brought hope to countless peoples across the centuries?”

I know, I know. But my fifth question and answer is true none the less. This is the night when we are most at risk from locking shut the Jewish capacity for empathy and blinding ourselves to the suffering of others – most notably, the Palestinians.

There will be some around the Seder table who will resent me wanting to recount the woes of another people (“the Palestinians for heaven’s sake!”) rather than those of my own kith and kin.

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The Last Temptation of Noah

Apr9

by: Rabbi Howard Cooper on April 9th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Credit: Creative Commons

I once gave a sermon, at the Jewish New Year, during which a thunderstorm broke out and water started to pour through the synagogue roof. I’d like to claim that this was a cleverly-orchestrated special effects stunt that I’d managed to engineer; or even an example of my special relationship with what our tradition, anthropomorphically, calls ‘Our God in Heaven’. (Alas, it was just a leaking roof).

The title of the sermon was pinched – or ‘adapted’, as we writers say – from Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ which had come out that year (1988). In view of the release of  Darren Aronofsky’ s quasi-biblical epic ‘Noah’ with Russell Crowe as the eponymous hero – presumably not timed to coincide with the publication this week of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which relates what we already know in our guts, that global warming has already left its mark “on all continents and across the oceans”, creating havoc with our global weather including extreme heat waves and floods, as well as endangering food supplies; and that we are on the brink of “abrupt and irreversible changes” – I would like to share with you the text of this story-sermon, which has, sadly, frighteningly, stood the test of time…

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews Draw the Line

Apr4

by: Ronnie Barkan and Joshua Tartakovsky on April 4th, 2014 | 28 Comments »

A recent law obligating military service on religious Yeshiva students reveals the inherent flaw in Israel’s claim to be Jewish

An earlier version of this article has appeared on AlterNet

Prime Minister David Cameron got more than he expected at the Israeli Knesset in his last visit, receiving a cold shoulder from ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian legislators who share common interests, being the state’s most oppressed communities. Cameron’s visit to the Knesset took place on the same day that two controversial laws, the Conscription Law and the Governability Law, were finally approved following a prolonged legislative battle. As Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomed the guest of honour the ultra-Orthodox parliamentariansleft the plenary session in protest while their colleagues, Palestinian Members of the Knesset, refused to attend the event altogether. This was the culmination point of several months of heated protest over the Conscription Law which brought to the surface contradictions between Zionism and Judaism.

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim) of all denominations took to the streets of Jerusalem to oppose the draft law several days before its legislation. In a mass prayer, the worshippers-protesters declared their faithfulness to Torah study rather than to the military. United under the banner declaring that “the State of Israel is fighting against the Kingdom of Heaven” they held signs stating that military draft is a spiritual suicide. The event was not merely an opposition to the law but nothing short of a battle cry against the very legitimacy of a state that encroaches upon their spiritual autonomy and poses a danger to their religious liberty.

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Shifting Sands

Apr1

by: Peter Birkenhead on April 1st, 2014 | 2 Comments »

Credit: Creative Commons

Passover is the only holiday I’ve ever felt affection for. A seder was the kind of ritual I recognized instantly as a child, from my own haunted house initiations and flashlight-in-the-basement spiels. With its serving bowls of mud, roots and tears, its affirmations of specialness, war stories, ghost stories, dirges and anthems, oaths and blood-rites, it was like deep woods camping with my grandmother’s good silver.

Our half-Jewish, half-Anglican, all-agnostic family celebrated Easter, Christmas and Hanukah, none of them with conviction. But unlike those holidays, or at least their modern, Americanized incarnations, with their generalized insistence on FUN! SOMEHOW! NOW!, Passover was a holiday we did, a physicalized story. It didn’t put the kids at a card table – it asked for our questions, made room for our mischief and spoke our language. And it was hosted by my mother’s parents, who did everything with conviction.

A story told as a meal, the seder was a project of dramatic progression, told in a familiar, child-friendly style of Biblico-magical realism, in part to help the kinder at the table digest its leaden, bitter core. It would not be easy to find a modern, non-Orthodox Jew who believes that Moses literally parted the Red Sea, but the central fact of the story, that the Jews were slaves in Egypt, is offered as a hard pit of truth, the source of an earthy gravity at the center of the evening, around which spin the fantastic stories of water turning into blood and staffs becoming snakes.

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Is There Finally Hope for Challenging Orientalism in Hollywood?

Mar31

by: on March 31st, 2014 | 11 Comments »

Last week the world of American Muslim social media (if there is such a thing) was rocked by an unexpected victory. A proposed ABCFamily show provocatively entitled Alice in Arabia was cancelled after a protest by American Muslims. The reason: this tale of an American girl kidnapped by Saudi relatives and held, veiled against her will in Saudi Arabia was all too familiar as stereotypical orientalism. The question then becomes, with films and television shows preceding it rife with the racist prejudices of our American consciousness, why was Alice in Arabia different?


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How Jews Brought America to the Tipping Point on Marriage Equality: Lessons for the Next Social Justice Issues

Mar27

by: Amy Dean on March 27th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

In a few short years, same-sex marriage went from being an untouchable political hot potato to a broadly accepted civil right in eighteen states and the District of Columbia. Jews, and their social justice organizations, helped make that happen. In fact, this magazine was a prophetic voice of marriage equality, supporting same-sex unions in the early 1990s and helping to lay the groundwork for the current wave of victories.

Bend The Arc members participate in the SF Gay Pride Parade. Credit: Bend The Arc.

The story of Jews’ contributions has continuing political relevance. The campaign for marriage equality offers valuable lessons for how to break through public resistance on other issues that Jewish groups are now addressing, including economic justice initiatives like paid sick leave, rights for domestic workers, and raising the minimum wage.

A forward-thinking strategy, combined with local and regional organizing, could be key to helping Jewish activists win victories on other issues that may seem unwinnable today, either because of intransigence in Congress or because they don’t yet have popular support. For example, Congress is nowhere near passing the $15 minimum wage that has become the clarion call of several campaigns for workers’ rights. It may seem equally farfetched to imagine that all workers could earn and receive paid sick time, or paid family leave, or that domestic workers such as nannies and housekeepers could enjoy the same rights to livable wages and safe workplaces that workers in other industries receive.

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The Language of Love

Mar19

by: Allen B. Saxe on March 19th, 2014 | 16 Comments »

Credit: Creative Commons/ abon

American culture needs to develop a new language to describe relationships of love and commitment. Husband and wife are too narrow. Partner too broad. Boyfriend and girlfriend focus on young unmarried people.

For gays and lesbians they have had to rely on the use of “partners” or if gay, “husband,” or if lesbian, “wife.” I feel these are temporary terms as we struggle to find more fitting terms.

This is not just an issue for same sex couples. It is also an issue for heterosexual couples in committed relationships that are not traditional marriages.

My sister-in-law Jacquie and Srulik are in a committed relationship. However they have not married in a religious ceremony or civil ceremony.

When my sister-in-law once referred to Srulik as her partner, she saw either puzzlement or astonishment in the reactions of others. Was Jacquie now a lesbian? To use husband and wife might confuse people who might respond, “So when was the wedding?” or “So why were we not invited to the wedding?” We need to do better.

“Partner” has never reflected the love and commitment that these relationships deserve.

I suggest that we turn to the Jewish tradition of Song of Songs.

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Moving Ahead on Mideast Peace with Land Purchases for Israel and Palestine

Mar19

by: on March 19th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

In one of his “Early Addresses” titled “Judaism and Mankind,” Martin Buber said:

Every man whose soul attains unity, who decides, within his own self, for the pure and against the impure, for the free and against the unfree, for the creative and against the uncreative, every man who drives the moneylenders out of his temple, participates in the great process of Judaism.

Though I’m Catholic, these words resonate with me and, like much of Martin Buber’s accessible discourse, serves as a reminder of the sheer idiocy of any form of supersessionism: the belief that Christian faith yields a holier heart and mind than what is contained in Judaism. Indeed, Martin Buber delivered those words over a hundred years ago, between 1909 and 1911; just this week, a glaring headline in the National Catholic Reporter read “Vatican office calls religious sisters, priests to live poorly, reject capitalism.”

Perhaps many of the holy rollers of my church, the Roman Catholic Church – the very ones whose high on the hog living is now the subject of Pope Francis’s reforms – would have done well to read some Martin Buber before making bank off the name of a poor first-century Jew who was killed at 33-years-old by Pontius Pilate. But isn’t a slow learning curve better than none at all?

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The Future of Jewish-Muslim Relations on College Campuses

Mar16

by: Imam Abdullah T. Antepli on March 16th, 2014 | No Comments »

I’m one of only 11 full-time Muslim chaplains on a U.S. university campus, serving at Duke University. It’s the only place I know where it’s kosher and halal to pray for “the Devils.” If one looks for an overarching identity where political, sectarian and religious differences disappear, look toward college basketball. Israeli-Palestinian conflicts are a piece of cake. But the Duke-UNC rivalry, there is no hope.

imam

Abdullah Antepli (right), Duke's first Muslim chaplain, talks with Ahmad Mikell (left) after a worship service held on campus. Credit: islamophobiatoday.com.

Unfortunately, the future of Judaism and Islam on American college campuses is not a sports rivalry where it’s trophies that are at stake. I see urgency around Jewish-Muslim relations in general, and in particular on college campuses in the United States.

I have great admiration for leaders like Pope John Paul II and John XXIII – these men moved mountains in repairing Christian-Jewish relations. Christian anti-Semitism took its theological strength from core teachings of Christianity. Unlike Christian anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism in the Muslim world isn’t rooted in Islamic theology and was never fed through core Islamic teachings.

But as anti-Semitism grows in the Muslim world, fueled by political problems in the Middle East, Muslim anti-Semitism is taking root as people turn to Muslim theology to try to find scripture and history that provides religious legitimacy for despicable hate messages.

I know, because I am one of the victims of that anti-Semitism. I’m often asked, “Why are you so obsessed with Jews? Why are you so tirelessly trying to improve Jewish-Muslim relations?”

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Torah Commentary: Purim- ‘New Dawn’ of Revolutionary Consciousness

Mar12

by: on March 12th, 2014 | No Comments »

1. Dawn of a New Age- The Book of Esther

I will admit that I’ve always had a certain hesitation when it came to Purim. It wasn’t that I was so influenced by Bible criticism or historical scholarship, it was my own sense that the Book of Esther, the focus of the holiday of Purim, read more like a novel than a book of prophecy. It is probably for this reason that if you ask many people which came first, Hanukka or Purim, they would say that Purim was later- there is something more modern about Purim and the Megilla than about the Hanukka story. The Hanukka story feels more biblical than does the Esther story for a number of reasons- it takes place in the land of Israel, there’s a Temple with sacrifices and ritual purity, but most of all, there’s a miracle at the core of the story, whereas with Purim, there is no miracle, it takes place in exile, the Jews are a persecuted minority, and a lot of political intrigue with all the attendant violence is involved. So, despite its being hundreds of years earlier, the Purim story feels more modern, more contemporary. More importantly, the book of Esther, the “megilla”, reads more like a novel than any other sacred Hebrew text, though it is included among the books of the “bible”. I would like to argue now that this novelistic quality, seemingly a detraction from the sanctity of the holiday, may be, in fact, literally, its redeeming quality.

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