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Archive for the ‘Rethinking Religion’ Category



Nine Stops on a Long Road: One Jew’s Journey

May21

by: Judith Mahoney Pasternak on May 21st, 2018 | 3 Comments »

1. The Yom Kippur Transgression 

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Religious Jews fast and pray all day, focusing on repenting the sins of the past year.

On the Yom Kippur before my sixteenth birthday, I was at the neighborhood drugstore-soda fountain, probably buying cigarettes.

I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was supposed to be at home, not to fast or think about atoning for anything, but to stand with all Jews by not publicly flouting the Yom Kippur practice.

It was in the decades after World War II. The Jewish High Holy Days were not yet school holidays even in New York State, with its large Jewish population. American Jews were still assimilating. The process had been accelerated by the war and the Holocaust, the genocide attempted and almost achieved by Germany’s Third Reich, yet those same events made us more than ever conscious of our Jewish identity. So it was that my mother, daughter of two militantly secular, even anti-religious, socialist-anarchist Russian Jews, kept her children home from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a sign of respect for, and solidarity with, observant Jews. My visit to the drugstore was behind her back, sneaking out for something I needed, which is why I think it must have been cigarettes.

Suddenly, a voice behind me said, “Judy! What are you doing here?” It was a Jewish high-school classmate, and when I said I was getting cigarettes, she added, “No, why aren’t you in school?”

“It’s Yom Kippur,” I said. If I was breaking the rules, so was she.

“But Judy,” she protested, “you look so Catholic!”

She was mixing up religion and ethnicity. She meant I looked Irish, which I did, because I am. Half Irish, also half Jewish. Standing in the aisle at the drugstore, I explained that to my classmate. Then I went home and announced that for my upcoming birthday I wanted a gold Star of David and a chain to wear it on. I got it and wore it for years afterward, wanting never again to be taken for not Jewish.

 

2. My Mother’s Hagadahs

The Hagadah is the account of the Jews’ servitude in Egypt and escape—exodus—from it, traditionally retold during the Passover dinners called seders.

To be precise, I’m half Jewish by matrilineal ancestry, if not by religion, which gets me the Right of Return under Israeli law and would have gotten me death in Nazi Germany. The other half is Irish—my father was born in County Cork—and that’s the half I more resemble. My birth name was Judith Mahoney, and I’m blue-eyed and, through my teens, was fair-haired.

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Hate Speech, Violence, and Sacred Texts

May7

by: on May 7th, 2018 | 4 Comments »

In the Winter 2017 edition of Tikkun, Rabbi Michael Lerner and Peter Gabel wrote of rising racism, sexism, and xenophobia in the current political and social face of America. Much was made of attempts to narrow today’s divisive gap between “Trump-ism” and the progressive political movements. Among the valuable suggestions made on how to achieve this goal was an emphasis on Tikkun‘s Network of Spiritual Progressives. Speaking truth to power was mentioned more than once.

However, if there is one area in which speaking truth to power is simply not acceptable, it is what the world embraces as spiritual. This is true not only of religions of which we are not a part, it is true of our own spiritual texts.

In the long history of the spiritual fracturing of these three great Biblical religions, each tradition has pointed to problematic texts in the religions of the others. But the response is not the same when criticism is leveled at our own. There are texts of hatred and racism in the sacred texts of other traditions, but that is another essay. I am interested in dealing with our sacred texts because when it comes to our own, we have all sorts of red herring excuses, dogmatic apologetics, and other evasive responses to any who would point to racism, sexism, and xenophobia in our Torah. It is easy to focus on the problems of the others, but almost impossible to do so when we are challenged about our own bits of the spiritually abhorrent.

One of the things I have admired about Tikkun and its writers is their willingness to challenge Israel when it violates the greatest of our moral teachings. Perhaps that is easy because it can be seen as a political issue rather than one rooted in parts of our spiritually foundational texts. I suggest that without an honest examination of the roots of these spiritual forms of hatred, we will accomplish little.

As Jewish children attend regular religious schools and services, Torah passages where “God” commands genocide, texts of racism, xenophobia, and sexism are judiciously avoided. They don’t learn them. Many a rabbi, including myself, don’t read them the whole meghillah; we stop the hanging of Haman, thus avoiding the rampage of our Israelite ancestors who killed tens of thousands of the evil Haman’s followers. We rush past the extermination of other tribes in our passage to the Holy Land. We teach them “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” Noah and the rainbow, Jacob’s dream, and Elijah’s chariot in the sky. The “rest of the story” gets no mention, or is rapidly glossed over.


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Israel@70: Fixing the way we pray for the State

Apr17

by: Rabbi David Seidenberg on April 17th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

The traditional prayer for the State of Israel, more literally titled “A Prayer for the Peace of the State,” tefilah lish’lom hamedinah, was written in 1948 by the chief rabbis of what had up until then been Palestine, in a time of war. The state was under direct attack by the Arab armies, and there was little distinction between peace, survival, and victory.

As we approach Israel’s 70th birthday, it is time to make such distinctions. Israel and the Jewish people live in a much more complex reality, a democratic reality. A reality where the strongest military cannot create peace on its own.

This reality is one where the triumph of one party or policy can undermine the flow of justice and reverse the outlook for peace. It is a reality where praying for Israel must include not only praying for the well-being of the Jewish people, but also praying for the well-being of the region, and the well-being of the Palestinian people, many of whom are Israeli citizens, most of whom are in some way under Israel’s control. And it is a reality where praying for the well-being of mutual enemies must include praying that people on all sides be protected from their own hatred, not just from attack.

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Stepping into Leadership: 
the Magic of Self-Acceptance

Mar16

by: on March 16th, 2018 | Comments Off

A Hassidic story tells of a rabbi Zusha who summons his students on his deathbed and tells them that when he gets to the other side, he won’t be judged for not being a good Moses; he will only be judged for not being a good Zusha.

This story captures, for me, one of the most challenging tasks of supporting people in stepping into and developing their leadership. Time and time again, I have found people comparing themselves to me, or to some other admired leader, and giving up on themselves and the path because they don’t “measure up.” Each time, I come back to the basic truth that the only leader any of us can be is based on who we each are. As we step into leadership, we are called to lead with our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses.

This truth, for me, has been both a relief and an exacting discipline. It requires a profound shift in our relationship with ourselves: from judging to observing ourselves, from minimizing to celebrating our strengths, from criticizing to tenderly accepting our limitations, from motivating ourselves with “shoulds” to connecting with purpose and choice about creating change within ourselves, and from hiding to asking for support regarding our challenges.

Each of these shifts challenges the patriarchal legacy and upbringing that almost all of us have grown up with, transcending shame, fear, and the perpetual doubt that we matter. This approach asserts, boldly and loudly, that we do matter, whoever we are.


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Prodigal God and Restorative Justice

Jan31

by: Stephen Siemens on January 31st, 2018 | 3 Comments »

Understanding parable of “The Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32) in the context of its 1st Century Middle East culture makes it one of the finest examples of restorative justice in the Scriptures.

This week is Restorative Justice Week with the theme: Diverse Needs, Unique Responses. In the parable, we see just how unique God’s paradigmatic love-in-action is for both law-keepers and law-breakers, even though their needs are very different.

In a culture where nothing was more valuable than upholding one’s honour, for a son to ask his father for his inheritance was unthinkable – synonymous with wishing for his father’s death. The father would have disinherited his son, and local villagers would have treated such a son as if he were “dead to his father and dead to us.”

Yet, in the parable, the father divides his property among his sons, turning upside down the legal customs and allowing himself to be dishonoured.

The older son remains quiet at this point. He would have been expected to do everything he could to save relationship between his father and his brother. By doing nothing, he abdicated his role as mediator and reconciler.

When the younger son had finished his wild living and found himself out of money and starving, he decided to return to his father. Imagine that walk home. He would face shame and scorn from the villagers before he could even begin to plead and grovel for his dad to take him back. But to his surprise, his father runs to him.

A scandalous response to wrongdoing! In the first century older men did not run. But here the father takes his robe in hand and exposes his legs, a vicarious exchange of shame that would prove to be transformative. Patriarchy and honour are dashed to pieces in this incredible act! The younger son was publicly liberated from his own shame by the ignominious actions of his father!

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At-One-Ment, Not Atonement

Jan23

by: Fr. Richard Rohr on January 23rd, 2018 | Comments Off

The common reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”—either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury, 1033-1109). Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) agreed with neither of these understandings.

Duns Scotus was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, or blood sacrifice (understandably used by the Gospel writers and by Paul). He was inspired by the cosmic hymns in the first chapters of Colossians and Ephesians and the Prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18) and gave a theological and philosophical base to St. Francis’ deep intuitions of God’s love. While the Church has not rejected the Franciscan position, it has been a minority view.

The many “substitutionary atonement theories”—which have dominated the last 800 years of Christianity—suggest that God demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to “atone” for our sin-drenched humanity. The terrible and un-critiqued premise is that God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and accept God’s own children! These theories are based on retributive justice rather than the restorative justice that the prophets and Jesus taught.

For Duns Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could never be a mere mop-up exercise in response to human sinfulness, but had to be the proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made” (Ephesians 1:4). Our sin could not possibly be the motive for the incarnation—or we were steering the cosmic ship! Only perfect love and divine self-revelation could inspire God to come in human form. God never merely reacts, but supremely and freely acts—out of love.

Salvation is much more about at-one-ment from God’s side than any needed atonement from our side. Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God!

God in Jesus moved people beyond the counting, weighing, and punishing model—which the ego prefers—to a world in which God’s mercy makes any economy of merit, sacrifice, reparation, or atonement both unhelpful and unnecessary. Jesus undid “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10) notions of human and animal sacrifice (common in most ancient religions) and replaced them with an economy of grace and love.

Jesus was meant to be a game-changer for the human psyche and for religion itself. But when we begin negatively, or focused on a problem, we never get off the hamster wheel of shame, separation, and violence. Rather than focusing on sin, Jesus—“the crucified One”—pointed us toward a primal solidarity with the very suffering of God and thus of all creation. This changes everything. Change the starting point, and you change the trajectory, and even the final goal! Love is the beginning, the way itself, and the final consummation.

God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. Nothing we can do will either decrease or increase God’s eternal and infinite eagerness to love!

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Fr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. For more information please visit www.cacradicalgrace.org.

Finding My Place as an Anti-Occupation Reform Jew

Dec19

by: Netanya Perluss on December 19th, 2017 | 10 Comments »

This past week at the URJ Biennial, I was blessed to celebrate social justice and my Jewish values, traditions, and songs with 6,000 Jews from across the world. As President Trump unilaterally announced the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, I was so glad to be with the two Jewish movements closest to my heart: the Reform Movement and IfNotNow.

I grew up in the Reform Movement. I was deeply involved in at my temple, found my home away from home spending summers at URJ Camp Newman, and formed deep and lasting friendships in NFTY. I spent a semester in Israel on NFTY EIE, and found my voice as a songleader at URJ Kutz Camp.

Through all these experiences, from all these communities, I learned to laugh, love, sing, and learn.  But most importantly, I was taught that Tikkun Olam, or fixing the world, was a responsibility of the Jewish people. My Jewish life encouraged me to call out injustices and work to make our world a better place. Through liturgy, songs, programs at camps, youth group events, and sermons at temple, I was called into action, often with a line from the history of our people:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?

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Why A Ramah Counselor Spoke-Out About the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters Last Week

Nov17

by: Sylvie Rosen on November 17th, 2017 | 7 Comments »

Protest of the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters
Protest of the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters. Image courtesy of author.

Anyone who knows me knows that I grew up at Ramah. Without it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Ramah is a holy community, a Kehilah Kedoshah, as we say. This summer, when a fire burned down our main building, people posted on Facebook, donated money, and reached out to me individually. I felt supported by the entire National Ramah movement.

But where is that same support, community, and strength in our conversations, actions, and education on Israel/Palestine? Although Ramah changes me and lifts me up in so many ways, it fails me every year in one way: by perpetuating lies about the Occupation.

Not once, in my combined ten years at Ramah in the Berkshires and Ramah in the Rockies, did anyone mention the Occupation. We don’t talk about it because we want to pretend it doesn’t exist every summer.

In my three summers on staff, none of our programming ever attempted to address the Occupation. Instead, on Yom Israel in 2016, staff instructed campers to build mock settlements as a fun competition that demonstrated how Jews built Israel from nothing. No one mentioned that people lived on that land before. In our dining tent, we have a map from The Nachshon Project showing where all the famous Biblical characters lived in Israel/Palestine — stealthily laying claim to the idea that only Jews have a historic right to the land. We have maps of Israel across the camp to emulate the Israel Trail, but not one of them outlines the Green Line. This past summer, during our staff training session on Israel, we talked about our feelings and relationship to Israel, but never about the Occupation. The unspoken agreement about the Occupation was: it’s complicated, difficult, and not appropriate for a summer camp.

This is an educational and moral disaster.

Rabbi Cohen responded in Haaretz to our campaign the day of the Speak-Out and Teach-In I participated in last week: “We [Ramah and IfNotNow] don’t differ on the importance of teaching our teens and staff about the difficulties of the occupation.”

But if that is true, then the attempts made have been at best inconsistent and inadequate. In the past I’ve made excuses for Ramah because I want it to be the leader in the American-Jewish community that it claims to be. I told myself that the rest of the work Ramah does outweighs these issues. I was scared to disagree with the place is so central to my identity.

But I can’t maintain this lie anymore, which is why I went to the Speak-Out and Teach-In outside the National Ramah Commission last Tuesday. I joined because I want to see systemic change, and I know our community can do better than individual private meetings that superficially deal with this issue. We have to hold Ramah accountable and we can’t do that in a private setting. We want change for this summer, and we need public support for that. This is why we have invited Rabbi Cohen, to a public forum to talk with alumni and members of the Jewish community.

When I return to Ramah this summer along with 11,000 other people, I want our work and community to truly be holy, Kedoshah, by truthfully and thoughtfully educating campers and staff about the realities of the occupation.

I also want to address how we should educate campers and staff on the Occupation this summer. We must acknowledge the reality that millions of Palestinians live under Israeli military rule. IfNotNow has compiled a list of some resources we can use to teach campers and staff how to think critically about Israel. But this is just a start, it shows that this kind of education is possible and that other Jewish educators are doing it.  We need to upend the idea that Israel education and all Jewish education cannot include discussions about the Occupation. For those at Ramah who are professional Jewish educators, addressing the Occupation is as part of their job as teaching campers how to lead shabbat services — and we must hold them responsible for that.

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Sylvie Rosen is an IfNotNow member and Ramah camp counselor.

This Week’s Torah Portion

Nov7

by: 2017-2018 T'ruah Israel Fellows on November 7th, 2017 | 5 Comments »

Note from Rabbi Lerner:

This week’s Torah portion to be read this Saturday in synagogues around the world tells of Abraham bargaining for a place to buy his wife Sarah. He finally succeeds in purchasing the spot which is now identified as the cave of machpelah in the center of Hebron. It became a holy site for Jews some 2200 years ago, and many Jews went on pilgramage to that site until the Roman imperialists forced Jews out of much of what the Romans named Palestine. When, some 1300 years ago, Muslims conquered the Holy Land, they constructed a mosque on top of this cave, and that became a holy site for Muslims as well who also believed that they, through Ishmael (Abraham’s first son, though not through his wife Sara but from her handmaiden Hagar) were descendents of Abraham. After the 1967 “Six Days War” Israel conquered the West Bank, a group called Gush Emunim, composed mostly of religious fanatics who believed that Jews had “the right” all of the West Bank and Gaza (and some even thinking that God had “given us” all the territory to the Euprhates river in Iraq) settled first nearby Hebron, then in Hebron next to the mosque where they could have immediate access to the supposed graves of our ancestors.They began displacing Arabs living near the cave and this caused friction between the over 100,000 Muslims who lived in this large West Bank city and the settlers. In 1994 a settler entered the mosque and murdered some 19 Muslims at prayer. In response, Israel sent in IDF (Israeli army) to protect the settlers from the anger of the (unarmed) Palestinians, and as more settler arrived and more Palestinians were displaced, anger grew, and so did the presence of the Israeli army, shutting down streets in central Hebron till it felt to many more like a prison than like the center of one of the biggest Palestinian cities.

Below is a note I received from a group of young people studying in Israel this year as the Truah Israel Fellows with the interdenominational organization Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights of which I am a member.  Please read it to understand better why Palestinians are so outraged at the Occupation.

– Rabbi Michael Lerner

 

A d’var Torah for Parashat Chayei Sarah by the 2017-2018 T’ruah Israel Fellows

 

Visiting Hebron, one of the first impressions that hits like a sucker-punch to the stomach is of a ghost town. Streets once bustling with thousands of Palestinians are now traversed almost exclusively by Israeli soldiers and settlers. Freedom of movement is squashed. Palestinian doors are welded shut and porches are caged in, ostensibly to protect them from the 800 settlers living in their midst. It’s hard to fathom what life is like when you cannot go out of your front door. This is occupation at its starkest.

But after this shock subsides, a more insidious, creeping form of occupation starts to draw one’s attention. Wherever we travel in the rest of Israel, we see street signs in three languages—Hebrew, Arabic, and English. It’s a recognition of Arabic’s status as an official language and a nod to the kind of coexistence that, at least in theory, Israel strives for. But here in Hebron, a lot of work has gone into painting a different picture.

Here, the street names are in Hebrew and English. No Arabic. Road signs point to Jerusalem and the settlement of Neve Samuel but not to any of the Palestinian neighborhoods or villages. It’s a pretty blatant attempt to cloak the occupation, to erase anyone’s connection to this place but the Jews’.

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Photo Series, Part III: Ramsal

Nov7

by: Emily Monforte on November 7th, 2017 | Comments Off

This series of portraits paired with interview-based articles attempts to start a conversation about how change makers think about, communicate, and embody their identities; and how this relates to the personal and spiritual motivations behind their work. The intention of the series is to explore our differences and what makes us individual so as to underline a common thread of desire for love, non-violence, generosity, peace, and caring about others that I happen to believe lies at the heart of all activist work. In particular this work attempts to focus on the idea that bringing your own story of how your identity interacts with your activism allows for those looking from the outside in to be touched on a human-to-human level, allowing them to feel compassion for you and the goal of the work at large.

Click here to read part I in the series, and here for part II. This is the final installment in the series.

Ramsal

Photo of Ramsal standing in closet wearing headphones

Photo courtesy of Ramsal

 

Ramsal grew up in New Jersey in an “Orthodox conservative insular Jewish community” as they describe it, and for a large portion of their life lived by the values they absorbed during that time. The one they focused on in our interview was the particular relationship they developed to God. “It took me up until about my last year of college to realize that I was interacting with a God that was masculine and domineering and judgmental and separate from me and the tangible accessible world. I realized that because I was viewing God as this separate other domineering judgmental entity, I was practicing my religion from a source of fear where I was scared that if I didn’t do what God asked me to do or what I believe God asked me to do that I would be punished.” This realization was the first step in their process of re-constructing their understanding of God’s relationship to themself and how God exists in the universe as a whole. Ramsal recognized the toxicity in a spiritual life driven by fear, their religion had become an obligation, they walked a careful line, doing as they thought God wanted, for they did not see God as forgiving or understanding of missteps, but as awaiting their mistakes ready to slap them on the wrists. “Finally I had this eureka moment, and I realized the entire universe is God. It’s not this separate entity that I am praying to. I think that words and the way we phrase things subconsciously end up dictating how we…interact with our world. When we constantly refer to our God as a He and as something that we are praying to, we tend to forget that we are part of God, that God is part of us and the universe as a whole, that is where the oneness of God exists… God is oneness, the universe is God. And when I started approaching religion from that space, God had a sex change for me.”

When Ramsal says God had a sex change for them, they do not mean in the way we have essentialized gender in our society today. What Ramsal means is that “God became this motherly loving figure. In Hebrew the world love translates to the word אהבה (Ah-ha-va) a four letter word, alef he et he, and the root of that word is hav, which means to give. So love to me means giving, and I received this life without having been asked for anything in return, so it’s this unconditional love and unconditional gift which I am eternally blessed and grateful to receive.” God came to embody this ever giving power which Ramsal sees as acutely akin to the type of giving that begins when a mother has a child. In many ways this association with God as feminine manifested itself for Ramsal during their time working on the floor as a nurse in a labor and delivery unit. “I was constantly surrounded by the essence of motherhood, and everyday was watching the intense love and giving that a mother gifts to her child from the moment they are born, just massive acts of giving.”

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