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Archive for the ‘Rethinking Religion’ Category



A Call for Love in the Face of Hatred: Rabbi Lerner’s talk at Muhammad Ali’s Memorial

Jun16

by: on June 16th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

In case you who missed it, here’s Rabbi Lerner’s talk at Muhammed Ali’s funeral.His vision is all the more relevant given the horrific killings in Orlando and the way it is being used to promote fear, hatred and Islamophobia. It has gone viral on social media and inspired over a million people already. If it inspires you as well, please read below for how to be an ally with Rabbi Lerner to help build the world he describes.

Wondering why Rabbi Lerner got invited and how to respond to the handful of naysayers who have been upset by Lerner’s powerful message? Please read below.

Muhammad Ali had known Rabbi Lerner as a friend and ally in the 1960s and early 1970s when both were indicted by the U.S. government for their roles in opposing the war in Vietnam. He then wrote Rabbi Lerner to praise his book with Cornel WestJews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin.Approximately seven years ago, he decided to invite Rabbi Lerner to represent the American Jewish community at his memorial service. Rabbi Lerner only received a phone call invitation from the Ali family four days before he got on an airplane to Louisville.

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Tikkun’s Rabbi Michael Lerner to Speak at Memorial for Social Justice Hero Muhammad Ali

Jun6

by: Ari Bloomekatz on June 6th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

Rabbi Michael Lerner, who worked with social justice hero Muhammad Ali in the peace movement against the war in Vietnam, has been invited to speak at the great boxer’s memorial service this coming Friday in Louisville, Kentucky.

While Ali earned fame for his boxing skills and as the heavyweight champion of the world, his legacy is that of a radical revolutionary who fought against the established power structures – a fact made clear when he gave up the title and refused to serve in Vietnam.

Ali’s family called Rabbi Lerner to represent the Jewish people at the memorial service and told him Ali and his wife had been fans of his for many years. There will also be Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist speakers, and former President Clinton is also expected to give an address.

The last time Rabbi Lerner heard from Ali was in 1995 when he sent Rabbi Lerner a note saying how much he enjoyed the book Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, which Rabbi Lerner co-wrote with Cornel West.

“I was very amazed to hear from him then, and all the more amazed that his family remembers me two decades later,” Rabbi Lerner said in a statement. “I never know who reads Tikkun, my articles in other social media, my books, or has seen or heard me on television or radio, and what impact, if any, my ideas have on people.”

Lerner said he was humbled and moved that Ali and his family had been following his work all of these years and impacted by them.

“I feel deeply humbled by this honor and moved to know that my ideas touched Muhammed Ali,” Lerner said. “American Jews have played an important role in the continuing fight for social justice and peace, so our presence in this memorial will be a testimony to the very many in our community who celebrated Muhammad Ali’s courageous fight for peace, social justice, and a world in which love and generosity wins out over fear, hate, militarism and domination.”

Lerner said he also wanted to use the opportunity as a way to reaffirm the Jewish people’s “solidarity with Muslims around the world who are experiencing a growing Islamophobia that blames the billion and a half Muslims for the crimes of a small fraction of Muslims-the kind of hatred that we Jews have known all too well in our history.”

CNN has asked Rabbi Lerner to speak on a show that will be aired at 9 a.m. Friday morning Eastern Daylight Time. He can be reached for other interviews by emailing Leila@tikkun.org or by calling 510-644-1200 (8 a.m.- 5 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time).

Rabbi Lerner will also talk about the experience of the memorial during his synagogue’s celebration of Shavuot (the Jewish holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai) on Sunday, June 12 (details at www.beyttikkun.org).

Muhammad Ali Was a Freedom Fighter Not an Icon or Celebrity

Jun6

by: Henry A. Giroux on June 6th, 2016 | 3 Comments »

The death of Muhammad Ali strikes at the heart of what it means to lead a life of dignity, unsurpassed skill, and the willingness to step into history and call out its most insidious injustices. I am one of many, I am sure, whose heart is broken over the death of Muhammad Ali, who was a hero for those of us raised in the sixties and for whom he modeled that poetic dialectic between the body and a notion of resistance. For my working-class generation, the body was all we had – a site of danger, hope, possibility, confusion, and dread – he elevated that understanding into the political realm by mediating those working class concerns into a brave and courageous understanding of politics as a site of resistance. He made it clear that resistance was a poetic act that was continually being written. He unsettled the racial order, protested the war, and danced in the ring like a butterfly – a master of wit, performance, and sheer courage. Resistance for Ali was not an option, but a necessity.

One of his greatest gifts was using his talent as a world-renowned fighter to flip the script, a script used by the elite of the time to define poor black and white kids by their deficits. In his speech and actions, Ali taught a generation of young kids that their deficits were actually their strengths, that is, a sense of solidarity, compassion, a merging of the mind and the body, learning, and willingness to take risks, embracing passion, connecting knowledge to power, and being attentive to the injuries of others while embracing a sense of social justice. Ali taught us how to talk back to power. Many of us learned early that what Ali was saying was THAT WE had to flip the script in order to survive and WE became acutely aware that the alleged strengths of those who oppressed us in the streets, schools, on the job, and in other spaces that our bodies inhabited were actually vicious deficits, extending from their racism to their unbridled arrogance and propensity for violence. Ali provided a language and sense of agency that provided a turning point in our being able to narrate and free ourselves from one of the most sinister forms of ideological domination – what Marie Luise Knott calls “those unexamined prejudices that keep us from thinking.”

Ali was dangerous not just as a deftly skilled boxer but also because he deeply understood that challenge, if not slow process, of unlearning the poisonous sedimented histories minority youth often have to internalize and embody in order to survive. Unlearning meant becoming attentive to the histories, traditions, daily rituals, and social relations that offered both a sense of resistance and allowed people to think beyond the inflicted misery and suffering that marked their neighborhoods and daily lives. It meant not only learning about resistance in their lost histories but also how to narrate themselves from the perspective of understanding both the toxic cultural capital that shored up racist state power and those modes of knowledge and social relations that allowed us to challenge it. It also meant unlearning those modes of oppression that too many of us had internalized, obvious examples being the rampant sexism and hyper-masculinity we had been taught were matters of common sense and reputable badges of identity. But in the END, Ali taught us to believe in and fight for our convictions.

Outside of being the greatest boxer in the world, Ali sacrificed three-and-a-half years of his career for the ideals in which he believed. He was not merely an icon of history, he helped to shape it. Ali had his flaws and his ridicule of Joe Frazier and his disowning of Malcolm X speak to those shortcomings, but Ali was not a god, he was simply flawed differently. What is most remarkable about him as a fighter for the underdog was his ability to flip the script. It will be hard to find people like Ali in the future now that self-interest and a pathological narcissism have taken over the culture in the age of casino capitalism. I will miss him and only hope his legacy will leave the traces of resistance and courage that will inspire another generation. He was a champ in the most courageous sense who showed generations of working class kids how to resist, struggle, and talk back with dignity and grace.

Photo credit: Dutch National Archives, The Hague. Vikipedija.

The New Anti-Semitism: Islamophobia

May16

by: Ron Hirschbein on May 16th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

It is acceptable to advance anti-Semitism in film – provided the Semites are Arabs. I call this habit of racial and cultural generalization “The New Anti-Semitism.” I call it “new” not because stereotypical screen Arabs are new (they aren’t) or because anti-Semitism against Jews is dead (it isn’t). I use the word “new” because many of the anti-Semitic films directed against Arabs were released . . . at a time when Hollywood was steadily and increasingly eliminating stereotypical portraits of other groups.

- Jack Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

The new anti-Semitism extends far beyond darkened movie theatres to the spotlight shining on Donald J. Trump, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. What if Trump had substituted “Jew” in his diatribe against Muslims? What if he told enraptured followers that: Jews should be banned from entering the country until we can figure out what’s going on. And imagine: He’d require Jewish-Americans to register with a government database, and mandate special identification cards. Warrantless surveillance of American Jews and their places of worship would become the new normal.

It’s possible that such blatant anti-Semitism might have derailed his candidacy – but who could say for sure in these peculiar times? In any case, I suspect that degrading Jews would evoke more outrage than the calumny visited upon Muslims. Indeed, Trump’s followers celebrate Islamophobia, but is this anti-Semitism?

Jews and Arabs are both Semites. To cite a headline from the Israeli paper Haaretz: “Jews and Palestinian Arabs share genetic roots”; they’re “blood brothers” – much to the chagrin of the Semitic-deniers. Jews and Arabs also share a history, theology, and language. Linguists readily uncover the Semitic roots of Hebrew and Arabic. No wonder our prayers for peace bear a family resemblance – shalom and as salaam. But there is no peace. And there will be no peace until Jew and Arab stop mirroring hateful stereotypes of one another.

To be sure, in theory, Islamophobia cannot be reduced to prejudice against Arabs – only about 15% of Muslims are Arabs. In practice, however, Islamophobes keep it simple. The pervasive, Islamophobia mobilized and exploited by Trump and too many others is not the product of a nuanced analysis of the demographics of the diverse Islamic world. It is not tempered by the lessons of history found in works that should be required reading in these times, studies such as Hofstadter’s Paranoia in American Politics. The Arab is the Islamophobe’s idee fixe.

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Nazi Policy and Black Victims—Before, During, and After the Holocaust—from Africa to Berlin to North Carolina

May16

by: Edwin Black on May 16th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

In recent years, too many in the African American community have expressed a disconnect to Holocaust topics, seeing the genocide of Jews as someone else’s nightmare. After all, African Americans are still struggling to achieve general recognition of the barbarity of the Middle Passage, the inhumanity of slavery, the oppression of Jim Crow, and the battle for modern civil rights. For many in that community, the murder of six million Jews and millions of other Europeans happened to other minorities in a faraway place where they had no involvement.

Surviving Herero after their escape through the arid desert of Omaheke in German Southwest Africa (modern day Namibia) circa 1907 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)

However, a deeper look shows that proto-Nazi ideology before the Third Reich, the wide net of Nazi-era policy, and Hitler’s post-war legacy deeply impacted Africans, Afro-Germans, and African Americans throughout the twentieth century. America’s Black community has a mighty stake in this topic. Understanding the German Reich and the Holocaust is important for Blacks just as it is for other communities, including Roma, eastern Europeans, people with disabilities, the gay community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many other groups in addition to Jews. The dots are well known to many scholars – but rarely connected to form a distinct historical nexus for either the Holocaust or the African American communities. This is understandable. The saga behind these connections started decades before the Third Reich came into existence, in a savage episode on another continent that targeted a completely different racial and ethnic group for death and destruction.

But the horrors visited on another defenseless group endured and became a template for the Final Solution. Students of the Holocaust are accustomed to looking backward long before the Third Reich and long after the demise of the Nazi war machine. African Americans should do the same.

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Unrighteous Anger – Queen Vashti and the Erasure of Transgender Women

May13

by: Mischa Haider and Penina Weinberg on May 13th, 2016 | 8 Comments »

Queen Vashti Refuses To Obey Ahasuerus' Command by Gustave Dore

The night after Purim the two of us sat feasting – a queer Hebrew bible scholar and a trans woman activist. The book of Esther was on our minds, as we read Esther every year on Purim, the festival when we celebrate the brave Jewish queen who saves her people from annihilation in Persia. Also on our minds was the “bathroom panic” gripping the nation over the perilous prospect of transgender women using women’s restrooms. To address the threat, state legislatures are being flooded with proposed measures to deny transgender people access to restrooms and facilities in accordance with their authentic gender identity, instead forcing them to use the restroom matching the inaccurate gender assigned to them at birth. To those who may have missed the news, the rallying cry of these bills is “no men in women’s restrooms.” Since the trope that transwomen are actually men is patently absurd, we sought to delve into the mental plumbing of the cisgender men who craft these “bathroom panic” laws. What is it that compels them to enact such draconian measures? What is the source of their unrighteous anger?

There are many parallels in the story of Queen Vashti, as related in Esther. The lesser-known Queen Vashti, who enters the story prior to Queen Esther, is a proud and determined woman. Her strong-willed independence prompts the men in power to erase her existence, much as the enactors of the bathroom bills seek to erase transgender women. Perhaps in exploring Queen Vashti’s defiance and subsequent disappearance, we may illuminate the motivations of the cisgender men legislatively erasing transgender women, and get to the root of their anger.

As Esther opens, King Ahasuerus is holding a feast for his princes and subjects – a farcical extravagance lasting six months. The narrative is replete with gold and silver divans; dyed linens and fine cottons; abundant royal wine. While the king entertains his courtiers, his queen, Vashti, banquets the women in her quarters – the women’s area of the royal house. On a certain day, the king sends his seven eunuchs – sarisim – to bring Vashti before him. Note that the word in the text, sarasim, is often translated as chamberlains, owing to their function at court. However, it is their status as eunuchs that enables them to be admitted to the women’s quarters.

Vashti defies King Ahasuerus by refusing his summons to display herself before his royal banqueters. A preliminary clue to the ideology of those who seek to obliterate transgender womanhood may be found in the reaction of the court to this insubordination. In a masterful engraving, the French artist Gustave Doré perfectly illustrates both the refusal and the reaction.

In the engraving, the figure of Vashti stands in the spotlight in an unbowed posture. The expressions and carriage of the men around her suggest fear and anger – arguably arising from their inability to control her. Visualize Doré’s interpretation as we explore the interactions between Vashti’s independence and the enactments of King Ahasuerus and his princes in the text. We will argue that the forced erasure-by-legislation, which certain cisgender men in power today enact against transgender women, is rooted in the same feelings as those illustrated by Doré: the perceived loss of ownership and domination of the women in their intimate circles.

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Why anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism – but criticising Israel isn’t

May12

by: Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah on May 12th, 2016 | 28 Comments »

The Labour Party has become embroiled in a row about anti-Semitism. Why the row? After all, the Labour Party is committed to challenging racism and anti-Semitism – which is a particular form of racism. It’s a row because the anti-Semitism in question concerns anti-Zionism – and not everybody in the Labour Party agrees that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. At the heart of the current row, a tweet re-tweeted by Labour MP Naz Shah, which suggested that Israel be relocated to the United States. For those who shared the tweet, it seemed fair comment, given the support of the United States for Israel – and the fact that the second largest Jewish population in the world resides in the United States. Of the 14.2 million Jews living in the world today, six million live in Israel and over five million live in the US.

The tweet was anti-Semitic for at least two reasons. Within living memory, the Jewish communities of Europe were made Judenfrei, ‘Jew-free’, or Judenrein, ‘clean of Jews’, as the Jews who lived in them were systematically deported to ghettos, concentration camps and death camps in Eastern Europe. The ghettos themselves, where hundreds of thousands were penned into walled areas of cities, were simply holding places, from which the Jews were sent on to the death camps. After the defeat of Hitler, those who survived became displaced persons, the majority of whom were collected into camps – most notably on Cyprus – with nowhere to go. To suggest that Israel, which became the principal place of refuge for the Jews who survived the Sho’ah, should be relocated elsewhere suggests either an inane forgetfulness or a shocking indifference to the annihilation of six million Jews – at the time, one third of the world Jewish population – which took place in the space of just six years from the onset of the violent persecution of the Jews of Europe on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.

The tweet was also anti-Semitic in the context of the way in which, again and again, regardless of the oppression of peoples across the world by numberless nations, Israel is singled out for special condemnation because of its on-going oppression of the Palestinians. Where is the protest against the murder of the Tamils by the Sri Lankan regime? Where is the protest against China’s occupation of Tibet? Why is it that these nations and others like them have not been subject to boycott and disinvestment campaigns? Of course, the anti-Palestinian policies of the Israeli government must be challenged, and support must be given to the Palestinian people, in their struggle for self-determination, and the establishment of an independent state of Palestine. Equally, the regimes of China and Sri Lanka should also be challenged, and the Tibetans and Tamils should be supported in their struggles for self-determination.

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

May2

by: George P. Fletcher on May 2nd, 2016 | 3 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 | Comments Off

(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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