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Archive for the ‘Rethinking Religion’ Category



Torah Commentary: Perashat Vayikra- Who is Ritual For?

Mar6

by: on March 6th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

There is a lot of discussion these days in religious circles about “protecting halacha”, protecting the law, that if certain positions are taken by communities (usually issues related to the role of women, or modern scholarship these days), then “halacha” will be in “danger”.  I find this a curious new position. Is the role of Torah law to protect /elevate the people or is it some independent divine phenomenon that requires “protection”? Perhaps discussion of a more neutral set of Torah laws, those of sacrifice, neutral because they are no longer operative (itself an interesting development, and not without controversy at the time animal sacrifice was transmuted into prayer and other allegorical motifs). So how do we understand the purpose and function of the Temple rites and sacrifices?

My initial temptation was to play the phenomenologist, to compare our conceptions of sacrifice with those of other cultures, the use of language in Indian ritual, etc., but I was wary of the danger of explaining “away”, that is trying to give a good “excuse” for all this talk of korbanot, sacrifices. Rather than attempting to justify practices out of practice for two thousand years, and keeping in mind the suggestions of R. Kook that we may never sacrifice animals again, I would like to transform the question into one about the meaning of ritual in the human experience. So let us ask the central question of these questions, as does the Mei HaShiloach directly:

How can it be that if a person sins, he or she gets absolved from the sin by killing an animal?

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Happy Sabbath to You Too

Mar6

by: Zehra Bapir on March 6th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

It all started six months ago when my husband and I first moved to Brooklyn. We had been living in South-East Turkey surrounded by family members and friends in the same complex. I wanted to bring that sense of “neighborliness” with me when we moved to the U.S. and I also wanted the neighbors to know that even though I covered and looked like a terrorist from the desert, at least I was clean and friendly.

cookies

Credit: Creative Commons/rottnapples.

The first week we moved in, I made chocolate chip cookies. I know Americans — every one of them loves home-made chocolate chip cookies. That’s like a given. Every culture has a deep love and appreciation for something – English love chips. Turks love tea. Irish love…etcetera.

I was probably the first person to do this in the 21st century but that’s okay. I was going to be assertive in being a neighbor. My new neighbors were going to like me AND my chocolate chip cookies.

The first few doors I knocked on in the building gave me surprised but polite responses “What a nice idea, but I’m on a diet.” “Thank you so much, I’ll give these to my sons.” “This was so thoughtful! Unfortunately I have to watch my sugar intake you know because…” I had a feeling this would happen. I knew from movies a lot of New Yorkers were on diets, especially if they were old.

It wasn’t until I knocked on the last door that I realized most of them weren’t actually on diets.

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Ash Wednesday Worship and Arrests at Beale

Mar5

by: on March 5th, 2014 | No Comments »

Ash Wednesday Arrestees at Beale

Today, on Ash Wednesday, I participated in a deeply meaningful worship service and nonviolent direct action against drones at the gate of Beale Air Force Base. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “My body is tired but my soul is rested.” Actions of faith and conscience are good for the soul. You can see KCRA’s coverage here and a video of the arrests here.

The worship service was exquisite. Although today is a Christian holy day and we used traditional Christian symbols in worship, the service was unique in that it was open to and inclusive of people of all faiths and philosophies. It included a prayer in the four directions based on Indigenous spirituality, the World Peace Prayer (from the Hindu religion), and a Hebrew song introduced by Rabbi Seth Castleman. I was reminded of the passover we celebrated in the same spot outside the same Beale gate last year.

Today’s Ash Wednesday service included both personal and national repentance, particularly related to U.S. militarism and drone warfare. We celebrated Holy Communion and used ashes as a sign of repentance and mortality. The “passing of the peace” included some people carrying the message of peace to the TV crew and Beale officers. Several participants told me that it was the most meaningful Ash Wednesday service they had ever attended.

Following the service, five of us, including two other ordained ministers, walked across the boundary line onto base property. We sprinkled ashes that represented the ashes of children killed by U.S. drones. Some of us carried crosses with artistic renditions of some of these children, with their names, ages, and countries of origin.

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Why Everyone Should Care about NYPD’s Surveillance of Muslims

Mar4

by: on March 4th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

Last week the U.S. District Court dismissed a long-standing case against the NYPD for their secret surveillance of Muslims in New York and New Jersey in the years after 9/11. Yet few Americans outside of the American Muslim community spoke out against the judgment, and not all newspapers carried the news. For the average American of a different faith, this wasn’t really too newsworthy. Here’s why they are wrong.


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Rabbis Defend Colleagues Against AIPAC

Mar1

by: on March 1st, 2014 | 3 Comments »

One of the first acts taken by New York’s Mayor Bill De Blasio was to convene a secret meeting with AIPAC to tell the lobby that he will always do whatever it wants. This is, of course, typical behavior for New York politicians but rather surprising coming from a progressive like De Blasio rather than the likes of Ed Koch, Al D’Amato or Chuck Schumer. The only indication that De Blasio knew that what he was doing was wrong was his insistence that the meeting be kept secret. This is also an indication of how toxic AIPAC has become for liberals. (Read the full story of the secret AIPAC meeting here)

Shortly after the meeting, the senior rabbis at Congregation Bnai Jeshurun In Manhattan, Rolando Matalon and Felicia Sol, signed a letter to De Blasio which stated that AIPAC does not speak for them. Within hours, a few of the congregational big shots (big money, AIPAC members) condemned the two rabbis and began organizing the congregation against them. This is, of course, what AIPAC types do. Prohibit free thinking on Israel. (They, of course, are all for free speech on all matters relating to the United States.)

The point of the AIPAC efforts is to make the rabbis fear for their jobs. (More than most, I know how that works.) And if the rabbis don’t back down, their jobs could indeed be in jeopardy, in theory at least.

But here’s the thing. Bnai Jeshurun is perfectly suited to its community and so are its rabbis. Located in the heart of Bella Abzug/Ted Weiss country, the congregation is known nationally as one of the safest places to be ethical, spiritual and Jewish especially for young people. I say safe because young people avoid synagogues in general because you never know when the rabbi will start ranting about Iran or reading from AIPAC talking points. That won’t happen at Bnai Jeshurun, which is why, unlike pretty much any other synagogue in America, it is actually a cool place to be on Friday nights. (My younger son lives right nearby so I’ve see the crowds of kids filling the place.)

In short, the rabbis not only did the moral thing in speaking out against AIPAC, it did the right thing for their business: keeping Bnai Jeshurun viable and appealing to Jews (especially the young) who simply cannot stand AIPAC or Netanyahu, if they think about them at all. In other words, the Jews of their community.

Nonetheless, AIPAC now has it in for the rabbis. But, happily, hundreds of other rabbis and Jewish lay leaders are pushing back. Read the letter below. Look at those names. (Hey, where are Rabbis David Saperstein and Eric Yoffie? Oh yeah, they are at the AIPAC conference.) And be hopeful about the future of Jews, at least at Bnai Jeshurun where Judaism trumps politics. Hang in there, rabbis. Judaism’s future depends on people like you. And Israel’s too.

Do not miss the best line in the letter which sums up how the organized “mainstream” Jewish community operates:

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Celebrating Black (Muslim) History Month

Feb24

by: on February 24th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

A brand new year, another February drawing to a close. We all know this month is Black History Month, and the overall impression I’ve got from people who are not black is that nobody truly cares about black history except for African Americans. Granted, PBS airs some specials, and our kids learn about important African American figures in school, mostly the high-profile ones such as Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and a few other prominent black activists. for the average American, that’s the extent of our understanding of or participation in Black History Month. Other than that, we defer to the African American community and allow them to claim this “celebration” as their own.


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The Language of Cancer

Feb21

by: Allen B. Saxe on February 21st, 2014 | 11 Comments »

Open any local paper and you are likely to read the following headline: “Survivor Loses Battle with Cancer.”

We have adopted the language of war. Those with the disease are described as heroes. Finding a cure is a war. Our medical community leads our forces. Everyone must join the fight.

I challenge this metaphor. My former wife, Barbara, died from cancer, and my current wife, Jessica, has faced her second form of cancer.

Barbara was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer at the age of 34. She wanted to fully understand her disease, and she undertook every medical advance available.

The problem with the warrior metaphor is that it focuses less on life than death. The “courageous warrior” suggests toughness, certainty, and strength.

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Female Rabbis at the Tent of Meeting?

Feb21

by: Rabbi Galina Trefil on February 21st, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Credit: Creative Commons

The female rabbinate is a progressive sign of equality between the sexes; a bold, new stroke written out in the history of Judaism, whose pages have always been male-dominated…or so it is frequently assumed. As the old adage goes though: there is nothing new under the sun. While, at one point, a female rabbinate was unthinkable, its ever-growing numbers are giving rise to the question if the position is indeed new or if, instead, modern Judaism has decided to come full-circle. Is there evidence that professional female spiritual leadership ever existed in the Torah?

“He made the basin of bronze and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the ministering women who ministered in the entrance of the tent of meeting.”–Exodus 38:8

It is a sentence that packs a spiritual punch so subtle that it seems many don’t even notice its potential revelation. Once attention is drawn to it, one might then question what the position of these women entailed; expect some immediate follow-up giving details. However, this is where such curiosity will meet with strict disappointment, as this mention stands alone. Not only was this particular passage vague, but the Tannakh as a whole remains so. Only once more are these women ever referred to at all, in Samuel 2:22, where it states: “Now Eli was very old and heard all that his sons did unto all Israel and how they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.”

Analysis of the simple math shows that, if they existed from the time of the Exodus to the time of Eli, the position the women played in relation to the holy sanctuary stood steady for several hundred years.

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We Want to Have a Common Language: Carolina Jews for Justice Stand Out in the Moral Mondays Crowd

Feb21

by: Amy B. Dean on February 21st, 2014 | Comments Off

Credit: Carolina Jews for Justice

It can be isolating to be a progressive Jew in North Carolina. In a state where just 1% of the population identifies as Jewish, it can be tough just to find a religious community, let alone a politically active one. Although older Jews who may have been activists in the civil rights movement of the 20th century still live there, it appears their coordinated work for justice ended along with that era. There is no sustaining, Jewish-identified organizational infrastructure that today’s generation of younger North Carolina Jews could revive and harness for today’s fights.

But recently one Raleigh-based Jewish group has tapped into a wellspring of political passion among Jews, and is mobilizing them across the state to challenge the Republican takeover of the legislature. Through building coalitions with other faith and community-based groups, turning Jews out to the Moral Mondays rallies at the state capitol, and organizing laypeople and rabbis to take action, the members of Carolina Jews for Justice (CJJ) are speaking up for the political changes they want to see in North Carolina.

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Leaving Auschwitz

Feb20

by: Jerome Richard on February 20th, 2014 | 7 Comments »

A statue of Dimitar Peshev, who saved 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from deportation during WWII. Credit: Creative Commons

On November 14, 2013, a street in Washington D.C. was renamed Dimitar Peshev Plaza in honor of a man credited with saving the lives of 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from deportation during World War II. Peshev had been recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial so the honor appeared to be, if anything, overdue.

Bulgaria has long been lauded for saving its Jewish population, but the U.S. Holocaust Museum used the Peshev memorial proposal to point out that while no Bulgarian Jews were deported, over 11,000 Jews from Macedonia and part of Greece, then occupied by Bulgaria, were sent to the camps.

Radu Ioanid, a director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, said “The callous and devious attempts to distort the history of Bulgarian Jewry is insulting to the victims of the Holocaust and is damaging to the image of Bulgaria…”

It was like interrupting a memorial service to announce that while the deceased was a splendid fellow his brother was once arrested for manslaughter.

Bulgaria’s ambassador to the United States, Elena Poptodorova, was insulted by what she called the museum’s “very rude” response.

There are thirty-six Holocaust museums in the United States, including the major one in Washington D.C. There are five in New York State, four just in Los Angeles. There are Holocaust museums in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Terre Haute, Indiana. Many more in other countries. Isn’t that excessive, even to commemorate such a monstrous crime as the Holocaust?

Of course, a full and accurate account is essential for an understanding of history, but there seems to be something else going on here. The proposal, after all, was to honor one individual. Why use that to tarnish the whole country’s reputation? It smacks of what someone said when asked if another Holocaust museum was needed. “Yes,” he replied. “We should rub their noses in it.” By they he meant the whole non-Jewish world.

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