This is a guest post by Chava Shervington. A passionate and committed Jewish diversity advocate, Chava co-founded an organization which created opportunities for Jews of Color to connect in safe spaces across the East Coast. Currently, Chava is honored to serve as president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, an organizational leader in a movement to make Jewish racial/ethnic diversity fully embraced in American Jewish life.
In recent years there have been a rash of documentaries of Muslim converts (or reverts as they are called in Islam), as there seems to be a particular fascination with white Westerners who decide to take on Islam. Most of these documentaries focus on the motivation of the convert, the reactions of their families and communities, as well as their adjustment to adopting Muslim law and social customs. ”Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim” is both a unique story and a missed opportunity. While there have been many stories of converts to Islam, this one had the potential to explore an entire range of issues besides the usual family tension and personal struggle, but it barely scratches the surface of the story of Maor, a young Jewish woman in Israel who converts to Islam.
While there is definitely focus on Maor’s family (a hodge podge of characters, including an anti-religious brother, a Kahane supporting father, an increasingly observant mother and younger brother, a confused younger sister, and feisty grandmother), we only seem to get half of the story. Everyone outside of her grandmother seems to be supportive of her religious choice and allows her to exist on the periphery of their traditional Jewish lives. For the most part they seem to express apathy with her choice, but support her out of love. Her grandmother is the only one who ever vocalizes strong opposition to Maor’s new religious conviction, although even though her mother vocalizes her support, under the surface their seems to be a genuine hope that this is only a phase. There seems to be a concerted effort not to ostracize her for her conversion. While her family makes Kiddush and hamotzi for Shabbat dinner, Maor sits silent at the table in her hijab, at a Yom Hazikaron ceremony she stands silently while her family and others proudly sing Hatikvah, she’s obviously strongly connected to her family members, but at the same time completely disconnected from their Jewish identities.
Unfortunately, that disconnection is never truly explored. Maybe it’s because as with many converts (to any religion) she finds the motivations for her conversion difficult to express. When asked by her younger sister, the answer is couched in a metaphor of white roses, but essentially boils down to “because that’s what I think G-d wants from me”. But for us as an audience it feels like we a) came into the story halfway and b) only get half of the story.
As a Jewish watcher I was left with so many questions: What was Maor’s Jewish background prior to her conversion?; Did she ever explore Judaism further? How are the things that appeal to her about Islam-modesty and interactions between women and men-different from traditional Judaism? How does she relate to her Jewish identity? Did she experience any emotional conflict with changing her identity? Has her conversion affected her relationship to the state of Israel? We learn of her strong connection with Arab Muslim classmates from an early age, and the death of one in particular seemed to affect her strongly, but because we know so little about her interaction with the Jewish community all we’re left with are questions.
There are so many topics introduced and barely covered, particularly those things that make this such a unique conversion story. As a Jewish Muslim convert in Israel, Maor, must do more than take the shahada (Islamic creed declaring the oneness of Gd), she must undergo a formal conversion with the government so that she will be allowed to marry a fellow Muslim. We learn absolutely nothing about what that involves, how long it takes, or what she must undergo. When she changes the nationality on her identity card, does she experience hesitation or only relief? (Spoiler—she does find a Muslim husband, but we learn absolutely nothing about the process and/or how her unique circumstances factor into her decision.) One minute she’s talking about starting to look for a husband, the next she’s looking at his picture online, two minutes later she refers to him as her fiancée. It’s a completely unexplored whirlwind.
One thing we do understand throughout this film is how incredibly lonely Maor’s journey is. When not at home or running an errand with her family, she’s shown walking and sitting alone. No one in her community speaks to her; she is the constant subject of stares and is questioned by both Arab Muslim and Jewish communities. The story flows from one scene in a restaurant when she’s questioned by Muslim customers and workers: “Is she Arab, is someone in her family Arab, where does she live, is she married” to a Yom Hazikaron ceremony where she faces the same questions from Jews, along with assumptions such as that she must have grown up not surrounded by Jews, she must have no connection/relationship with her family, etc. It isn’t until almost three quarters through the film that we meet a friend outside of her family, Lital, another Jewish convert to Islam.
As the film ended, I was left with so many mixed emotions; I could only wish her happiness in her journey, yet feel sadness about her path, and continue to wonder how she got there. I’m not sure it’s a story I as a committed Jew could ever feel completely comfortable with, but still wish I could appreciate her story and motivations, but this film left so many topics unexplored, I’m not sure we as the audience can get there.
A once in a century holiday is upon us. The menurkey will soon sit at the table with the pumpkin pie and the latkes. Let us not underestimate this moment for the American Jewish community. Thanksgivukkah is here.
Jews have always loved Thanksgiving. Now that their favorite American holiday finds itself face to face with America’s favorite Jewish holiday – Hanukkah – the encounter can say an enormous amount about the American Jewish collective story. In other words, Thanksgivukkah tells us something important about what Jews are doing in America.
It starts with good timing. When Hanukkah falls on Christmas, it highlights Judaism as a religion, a fair contender on the scene of American denominations. But Thanksgivukkah yanks the carpet from under the convenient Christmas-Hanukkah dichotomy.
The Thanksgiving of today grew out of its religious roots. The same could be said of the Judaism of many Americans. Thanksgiving is about America, but not in a celebration of patriotic triumphalism. It’s about America as a promise, an idea, a project. If, any other year, most American Jews sideline Judaism and celebrate Thanksgiving simply as Americans, this year’s calendar demands owning up to the Jewish take on the American story. More »
Guest-post by Ben Greenfield, a rabbinical student (YCT) and writer based in New York City. His writing on Jewish-Muslim architecture, medieval Hebrew art, and Rabbinic romance have been featured on Jewish Ideas Daily.
5 Tips for Leading High Holiday Services in Prison
Last week, a colleague and I led Rosh Hashana services at Rikers Island, the massive East River prison complex in which New Yorkers house some 14,000 of their more suspect neighbors. We slept on the floor of a jail classroom, from which we withdrew to chat about the season, share kosher airplane meals, and attempt to serve some 60 Jewish and non-Jewish congregants.
1. Don’t bring glass bottles of Kedem grape juice.
A rookie mistake, quickly confiscated. And while hardcover siddurim are OK for the chapel, don’t think that makes them safe enough for the cells.
One inmate requested I put in a good word about him receiving a pair of Tefillin. While they’re usually permitted, he let me know why he is an exception. A few inches below the tail ends of his payos, two sunset pink scars slash across his neck. The state is worried that he’ll hang himself with the holy black straps.
For Jews at Rikers, the sacred is in constant residence with the darkly violent. Tefillin is a noose, kiddush wine a shiv. One inmate seamlessly wove memories of studying in Old City yeshivot with troubled (hallucinatory?) visions of kidnappings in broad daylight and his desire to start a new life in Iran. At Rikers, comfortable symbols of Jewish life become morbid reminders of the new reality. No glass bottles here.
Short of a J-Street conference or a Limmud event, you’d be hard-pressed to find an annual gathering that attracts as many Jewschool writers as the National Havurah’s Summer Institute. This, my friends, should be reason enough to register right this moment.
But a little context always helps, so here is some more description to further entice you:
Now in its 35th year of empowering local do-it-yourself, community-based Judaism, the National
Havurah Committee is gearing up for what promises to be an incredible Summer Institute. With
over two dozen courses, a social justice fellow, two extraordinary artists-in-residents, and
dozens of local havurah communities represented, the National Havurah Summer Institute guarantees you an unparalleled experience which is equal parts spiritually, intellectually, and culturally fulfilling.
Whether you enjoy midnight walks in the woods, guided meditations, heated (but respectful!)
theological debates, hands-on crafts, in-depth chevruta text study, late-night sing-alongs and
spontaneous jam sessions, alternative prayer experiences, early-morning hikes, community
discussions about social justice, or just meeting some of the most thoughtful and creative
individuals you will ever meet–all against the idyllic backdrop of breathtaking rolling green mountains and a sparkling lake in Southern New Hampshire–the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute promises to deliver an experience that will both uplift and inspire.
As if this alone were not exciting enough—there’s more!
If you are a college student, we invite you to participate in our special college program, where
you will work together with your peers, guided by two talented facilitators, to cultivate new
leadership skills. The College Leadership Program is specially designed to empower current college students to build and sustain Jewish communities on their campuses.
For recent college graduates between the ages of 22 and 32, the National Havurah Summer Institute offers the NHC Fellows Program (formerly, the Everett Program). This program offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with fellow young Jewish leaders in order to share and build your skills together. All NHC fellows will receive free tuition and room-and-board and will participate in additional programming geared particularly to the specific interests and needs of participants in this group.
As a former participant in the Fellows Program, I can personally attest to the extraordinary impact that it has had on my life. In addition to introducing me to a cohort of wonderful new friends, the then-Everett Program helped me think critically and creatively about building vibrant, relevant local Jewish community and inspired me to return home (then Minneapolis) to start a new Havurah. Incidentally, one of this year’s institute’s planners met her now-fiancée when she was an Everett Fellow. So apply now, and who knows where this simple act may lead you??
The deadline for the NHC fellows is May 1, so if any of the above speaks to you, apply right away! General registration can be found here.
I know what you’re thinking – you want to refer to the 4 worlds in your Tu Bishvat seder but they’re confusing and…oh, if there were only a song that allowed you to sing through the four worlds (like we sing the order of the Passover seder) so folks could remember the order of the Tu Bishvat seder.
30 years ago my father died suddenly, shortly before Rosh Hashanah. He was 54 years old. I remember being unable to sit through services that year, refusing to hear the words of the u’netaneh tokef prayer; the ones proclaiming that who shall live and who shall die is all signed, sealed, and delivered. My father was an exemplar of teshuvah and tsedakah: his life’s work was about reconciling people who were hurt and angry at one another, and he believed, fiercely, in justice. And although as a self-defined agnostic, tefila, prayer, had not been a major part of his life, he went to shul every day to say the mourner’s Kaddish after his parents died. And then, because he saw how vital it was to have a minyan for those saying Kaddish, he continued to attend the morning service as often as possible so that others could recite it in a minyan. That is the kind of person he was, and I was devastated and furious that he died so young.
That year I also stopped sending New Year’s greetings wishing my friends to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life. What did that superstition matter?
The Book of Life had no meaning for me for several years after that. Then I encountered a teaching by the renowned mystic Rabbi Judah Leib Alter of Gur, known as the Sfat Emet (or Sfas Emes, meaning The Language of Truth), after the title of his signature book. This lesson was filtered through the eloquent translation of my teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green:
The human heart is the tablet on which God writes. Each of us has the word life engraved in our hearts by God’s own hand. Over the course of the year that engraving comes to be covered with grit. Our sins, our neglect of prayer and Torah study, the very pace at which we live all conspire to blot out the life that life written deep within our hearts. On Rosh Hashanah we come before God having cleansed ourselves as best we can and ask God to write that word once again and to seal it up on Yom Kippur, so that the sensation of being truly alive may not depart from us through the entire year.
I understand this to mean that, regardless of how we understand God—or whether we believe in such a Being at all—we have the opportunity to cleanse our hearts of the grit that stems from guilt or grief and interferes with us feeling truly alive.
Perhaps the traditional Jewish spiritual practices of teshuvah, tefila, and tsedakah, when translated as “repentance, prayer, and charity”, do not sound life altering. Today, I understand this text to mean that we have the opportunity to return our truest selves; to find a path to prayer, meditation, or reflection that makes us mindful of life’s myriad gifts; and of using our own gifts to make the world a more just place.
This is what allows us to clean our own hearts and stand open and ready to have the word life engraved upon them once again.
In the year to come, may our hearts be open to the “life” that is written deep within our hearts.
Ever wonder about the peace, love and hate Palestinians folks? Well, Shaul Magid has an interesting piece at The Times of Israel about the phenomenon which goes way beyond snark. Using Radio Free Nachlaot as a case study he writes:
The station’s founders sport long hair and long beards, colorful head scarves, flowing dresses, and tye-dye T-shirts. Many of the announcers and guests reminisce about the good old days of the student protests, peace marches, and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Some even talk about the Civil Rights movement. But when they talk about Israel they are almost exclusively right wing, defending the settlements and Israel’s right to the land, and repeating the rhetoric heard among many settlers. When they’re playing music, they sound like WBAI from 1970 (the famous radical leftist radio station in New York); when they’re talking politics, they sound like Arutz Sheva (the settler news network in Israel). All this is done seamlessly, as if playing Bob Dylan’s 1963 protest song “Masters of War” and defending Greater Israel are somehow congruous. Although my integration of counter-cultural values may differ from theirs — and I was once very much a part of their sub-culture in Israel — I only use them here as an example to ask a larger question: How does a progressive ideology devoted to fairness, equality, and justice became an ideology that defends what appears to me to be its opposite?
His answer is just as interesting. Read it here and then come back and discuss.
I could probably just about build a raft and sail around the world with all the books advocating for Jewish Social Justice that have come out in the last couple of years. Several of them are very good. I particularly like Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ first book, which is both thorough and excellent.
But I want to recommend a book that’s a little bit different.
Rabbi Shmuly Yankelowitz, the founder of the Orthodox social justice movement Uri L’Tzedek, has just come out with a book very simply titled Jewish Ethics and Social Justice (Derusha Publishing). Unlike most of the the other books in this burgeoning genre, Rabbi Y’s book is a collection of essays previously published in newspapers journals and blogs. This is both a strength and a weakness, which I will touch on later. More »
Scholars of religion have a term for the common practice of adherents to a religious tradition that do not always perfectly fit into the doctrinal teachings of that religion — folk religion. This is in contrast to the normative doctrinal teachings of a religion often dubbed “state religion.” This is most often noted in Jewish history as the drive by the ancient Jewish monarchy of the 6th century BCE to centralize worship in Jerusalem with an organized Temple worship and priesthood. The ‘folk religion’ of the time, however, preferred a sort of blending of local pagan customs and the normative priestly cult. If people were not worshiping idols or eating non-kosher food there would have been no need for the Torah to repeatedly warn against worshiping idols or eating non-kosher food. It’s as the old adage goes, society does not develop laws people are already following.
Since becoming an ordained rabbi, I have rarely been faced with needing to fulfill the role of mar d’atra (Aramaic for, literally, “master of the place”). In that role a rabbi acts as a posek (Hebrew for, literally, “arbiter”) and makes halakhic decisions for her or his community. However there is one topic about which I have been asked repeatedly by numerous people in my congregation — Mourners’ Kaddish. To contextualize this, let me say a few words about my congregation.
The average age in my community is probably around 65-70. I have regular attendees who are in their 90s and older. Needless to say, it is an aging congregation. To give you an idea, I recently buried three people in one week. My congregation is made up of many transplants — people who moved to this community from somewhere else. However, many of my congregants are 4th or 5th generation in this community. That being the case, almost everybody who is actually born and raised in this community is related to everybody else even if just as distant cousins. Even though halakhah dictates that people only say Kaddish for one one of the seven relatives whom they must mourn for — parents, children, siblings and spouses — people in my community will often come to shul to say Kaddish for their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Kaddish has become so important in this community that during daily prayer services the names of those who left the world that day throughout the 120+ year history of the synagogue are read aloud and if someone knows who the person was and their story, that story is shared. On Shabbat, the names of those for the entire coming week are read aloud. Most days, although we try, we do not make a minyan — unless someone is observing a yahrzeit. Kaddish is truly the ‘folk religion’ of this little community. More »
Thanksgiving celebrators around the country, here ye. Amidst all your holiday planning and travel, and your decisions on how to spend “Black Friday,” please consider how you might conclude this festive weekend. On Saturday evening, Rosh Chodesh will be upon us. On Sunday morning it is traditional to give praise to the Most High. One way to do this is by Occupying Rosh Chodesh, as some of us are doing this Sunday at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. All are invited. For more information see below:
What is Rosh Chodesh? This Sunday November 27th we are entering into the darkest month of the year, Kislev. However, during the month of Kislev, we celebrate Hanukkah, the festival of light.
Why be Occupied with it? It’s easy to celebrate when life is pleasant, when victory has been achieved and when the weather is warm. Rosh Chodesh is a monthly celebration fueled by a historical memory of enslavement. No matter where we are in the struggle for freedom and justice, Jewish tradition commands us to find ways to join forces and sing together – to experience the feeling of what redemption will truly taste like.
How will we celebrate it? On the Thanksgiving Sunday, two days after Black Friday, we will welcome the Hebrew month of Kislev with song and praise. In contrast to the melodies used to urge us toward the season of ‘holiday shopping’ we will sing the traditional Hallel / songs of praise sung on Rosh Chodesh. As part of the service, there will also be a chance for some learning and reflection on how Rosh Chodesh connects to the wider Occupy movement. The whole service should last no longer than one hour.
Who is invited? We welcome people of all backgrounds, races, gender identities and religious/faith affiliations.
What do Yom Kippur and the Occupy Wall Street movement have in common? Both are about imagination. On Yom Kippur we imagine that a better self is possible. At Occupy Boston, we imagine that a better country, a better world, is possible. And although these are individual imaginings, we come together in community to make them collectively realized. By moving Yom Kippur from a sequestered, individualized experience in a synagogue out into the public square (literally!), we transform the purpose of the holiday from simply imagining a better self to imagining an whole better world.
Undeniably, one of the most exciting things about this movement is how democratic and collective it is. This rang especially true as we recited the Sh’ma together at our Kol Nidre service, proclaiming oneness – of our voices, of our values, of our aspirations, of Hashem, all one and the same, unified. My emotional climax occurred during the Al Chet – we invited folks to call out sins, personal, political, economic, social, all repeated through “the people’s mic,” adding even greater resonance: “Racism. Turning our backs on the old. Turning our backs on the young. Climate change. Defunding women’s health programs. Putting profits before people (aka capitalism). Citizen’s United. Private health care. Eroding the social safety net. Blaming victims. Katrina. Sexism. Homophobia. Anti-Semitism. Islamophobia. High interest rates. Student loans. Unemployment. Not taking responsibility sooner. Not speaking out sooner. Not showing up sooner.”
We concluded with the same reading as our sibling minyan at the Occupy Wall Street, and I felt the deepest sense of truly crying out to God, wailing for forgiveness, supplicating and begging – I burst into tears and saw that many in the crowd were similarly moved. Such immense sins, such huge problems – how can we ever forgive and move on and build something better?
We all said the Mourners’ Kaddish together for the values and virtues we’ve lost, for the American dream that now seems dead, for the lost livelihoods, safety nets, and security. For the victims who have been crushed by this oppressive and unjust system. For all that we’ve lost, individually and as a society. Adding on this additional level to the already solemn prayer further increased the deep meaning and significance. Yet with all the despair, the service left me with a distinct feeling of hope at what is possible. None of this existed before 30 hours prior, when a few of us starting getting in touch to organize the event. In such a short time, we convened a congregation and created a sacred space of prayer, repentance, imagination, passion, emotion, mourning, idealism, and hope. More »
Jewschool founder Daniel Sieradski is organizing a Kol Nidrei minyan in at Zuccotti Park, home base of the Occupy Wall Street folks, at 7 p.m. this Friday night.
I don’t believe it’s set in stone yet, but Rabbi Arthur Waskow may be delivering a devar and or leading the service. Sieradski is looking for knowledgeable service leaders. If you can help and you’re interested, get in touch with him on Facebook or twitter.
This will be a service, not to mention a Kol Nidrei, of once-in-a-lifetime coolness. Let me know if you’re coming so I can make sure we say get the chance to wish each other a Gemar Chatimah Tovah.
Both of these articles have a familiar tone: “What a bunch of whiners Jews today are!” And to some extent, there’s something to be said for that. In the shabbat meals article, towards the end, Rabbi Rebecca Joseph comments, “This is a problem of an affluent society and an affluent group within that society.” Again, true. Indeed, homeless Jews, poor Jews and Jews struggling to make ends meet aren’t going to be picky about what is served to them at a shabbat meal – or any other (I was reminded of recently rereading the book Rachel Calof’s Story about a Jewish woman who emigrated from Russia to be a pioneer bride, and while they certainly cared about kashrut, which is demonstrated throughout the book in various ways, when her husband comes home with a tin labeled herring and it turns out to be pickled pigs feet.. well, she doesn’t say that they ate, but she certainly hints at it. When there’s no other food, you eat what there is).
Nevertheless, there’s a certain oddity about these two articles. For example, let’s take the shabbat meals article: The title is, “With increasingly particular eaters, Shabbat meals get tough.” And yet, that isn’t actually the sense I get at all from the actual content of the article – let alone from my personal experiences. More »
Those who are familiar with the oddities of the Jewish calendar may be aware that a largish holiday begins tomorrow night (called Passover). Fewer people may be aware that on the second night of Passover begins… well, it’s not a holiday exactly, but it is a holy period, called the Omer.
Beginning the second night of Passover, every adult Jew is supposed to count off the 49 days (seven times seven weeks) that make up the period between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. I have to say, it’s a bit of a pain. Not he counting, which is fine, but remembering to count properly, keeping track of which day it is, and so on. It’s enough of a difficulty that the Jewish legal code has instructions about what to do if you forget to count at the right time, or for a full day. You’ve got to count every day, or you lose your obligation to say the full blessing as you count.
The counting itself is a lovely tradition: each of the weeks represents one of seven traits of God, as does each day, so one develops a spiral of thoughts throughout the counting period (for example the trait of strength during the week of mercy… consider what that might mean as we approach the giving of the Torah… etc.)
Well, I decided that the best way to do this would be a sort of advent calendar, with little treats each day as you opened up the proper box to say the blessing for that day (hey, why should Christians get all the calendar fun?). At one time, I thoght the best way to do this would be through carpentry, but it’s been some time since I had any access to the proper tools,a dn I just didn’t want to wait anymore this year, so for pretty cheap I made one out of things that one could glue together – namely cardboard, cardboard, and , uh, some glue and glitter paper.
Almost everything came from the container store, and it took me about three days to make (including some glue drying time. Not labor intensive, but pretty sturdy anyway).
I’m happy to share instructions with anyone who wants to build one. I used a hard cardboard ornament storage box and three by three folded gift boxes (seven of which fit perfectly across, although you need two ornament boxes cut to size and glued together to get the height as only five rows tall fit, if you pop open the top edge of the ornament box).
The numbers for the days (written out in blue in Hebrew letters) as well as the blessing on the inside (which has the blessing, the day and date – in other words, everything you need for each day… no looking anything up!) are printed on clear sticky labels cut to size.
For your delectation:
(Not sure why the blessing box is shown on its side, just ignore that, it opens upwards (although you can make yours open any direction you want, of course)
I don’t think I”m quite done decorating it – obviously this is pretty simple, but the plus is that the boxes make it so that magic marker will write on them perfectly nicely, so if I go for color, that’s probably the way I’ll go. Stickers work fine too, but I’ll probably eventually go for a large picture that covers the entire front face of the Omer Counter. Happy counting!
Over the past several years, we have seen quite a number of Jewish or pseudo-Jewish practices picked up by non-Jews. While this isn’t exactly a novel occurrence – Christians sort of invented it with the creation of their new religion not quite two millenia ago, and Christian “Passover seders” of various sorts have been going on for some number of decades- it’s worth considering how Jews should react to the “democratization” of Jewish practices.
Whether it’s the pseudo-Jewish kabbalah center (whose practices misrepresent kabbalah quite a huge amount) and its superstitious practices, or Justin Bieber saying the Shema before concerts, we can expect to see more of this kind of thing.
To a certain extent, a certain amount of syncretism is inevitable. More »
As we’ve posted before, R. Art Green and R. Danny Landes have been having quite an intense back-and-forth debate about theology and other things over the last few months.
To recap: Last year, R. Art Green published a book, and R. Daniel Landes wrote a critical review of it in the Jewish Review of books. Green then responded to the review, and Landes responded to the response (on the same link). Green’s next response appeared here in Jewschool, and Landes responded on his own blog.
This is rumored to be the last installment, by Green:
I think we are still far from understanding each other. You just don’t get me. Identifying me with Mordecai Kaplan and Richard Rubenstein is way off the mark in terms of how I see myself or self-identify, whom I read, or my relationship with either God or tradition. Kaplan was never an influence on me; I came to JTS the year after he retired and never had the privilege of studying with him. I read Heschel’s God in Search of Man for the first time when I was fifteen, and fell in love. I tried Kaplan a bit later, but found him dry and boring, too prosaic, too American and pragmatist, not the soaring spirit I needed. I did indeed try to align my neo-Heschelian mysticism with aspects of Kaplan’s legacy during my RRC years. That attempt did not succeed very well; just ask the Kaplanians. Yes, of course I share some concerns with Kaplan and greatly respect his honesty in raising them, but our framework for responding to them is quite different. We both want to respond out of the most contemporary and profound understanding of religion. But for him that is the rationalism of Dewey and Durkheim. For me it is the phenomenology and post-critical religiosity of Otto, Eliade, and Peter Berger.
Along with most of the intellectually-oriented JTS students at the time, I was excited when Rubenstein published After Auschwitz in 1966. He had dared to say what many of us were thinking. But I soon realized that his net result was the demise of traditional Judaism, reducing it to nothing more than a psychological tool. My move toward a neo-Hasidic reading of tradition was precisely a response to Rubenstein, not an alliance with him. I needed a Judaism that expressed a spiritual truth, not just religion serving as a crutch with which to get through this absurd life.
It took me many years to say out loud that I am a mystic. In Jewish circles it sounds a bit like proclaiming oneself a tsaddik, which is the farthest thing from my mind. But it is true that as a thinker and as a religious personality, it is only the mystical tradition that has saved Judaism for me. Scholem quotes R. Pinhas of Korzec as thanking God that He created him after the Zohar was revealed, “because the Zohar kept me a Jew.” That is true for me too, regarding both the Zohar and the teachings of the Hasidic masters themselves.
I would love to be able to explain this to you, but find it subtle and difficult. More »
Update: videos are now embedded in the post. Enjoy!
As I mentioned in my brief first-day J Street conference round up post, I secured interviews with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative (best known for the Ground Zero Mosque, which is neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque), and Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian journalist and activist who rocked the socks off the J Street conference. Those videos are now online; the YouTube playlist is here. There are three videos – Mona Eltahawy on social media in the Jasmine Revolution and its potential in the future of the Arab and Muslim world, my question for Imam Rauf on the religious justification for his work, and footage of a few other press-folk asking him questions. Check them out!
Mona did a superb job of addressing the straw man argument made by most of the prominent critics of the social-media-as-organizing-tool theory (Malcolm Gladwell, Evgeny Morozov, etc.). That is, she made a strong case for how Twitter and Facebook were essential in helping garner support for a mass meeting and demonstration of a kind that was quite rare under Mubarak. Notably, she doesn’t claim that it was Twitter or Facebook that toppled the regime. No, that distinction belongs to the brave Egyptians who risked their lives to claim their basic human rights of freedom of speech and assembly. But if you look closely, most of us arguing for social media’s importance in democratic movements aren’t saying that it’s the Internet itself that overthrows regimes, just that it’s a tool for those who desire to do so. The key to any organized resistance movement, especially one that aspires to nonviolence, is organization. Today, the Internet is often one of the last places where free exchange of ideas can take place. Its fast pace and adaptability mean that dedicated users can often stay one step ahead of those trying to shut down the flow of information. This is what makes it important and in some ways game-changing.
Imam Rauf, who’s been one of my personal heroes for a long time, spoke beautifully about the religious underpinnings of his peace work. I hadn’t planned to ask him about this – the question came about as a result of a topic of discussion on the panel on Jewish-Muslim community relations on which he’d just spoken. One Jewish community leader explained a program called “Iftar in the Sukkah,” in which local Muslims and Jews gathered at an Orthodox shul to share the evening break-fast meal during Ramadan, which for the past few years has overlapped with Sukkot. The image of Muslims and Jews taking part in this ritual together was, for me, amazing, and reminded me of the phrase “ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha” – “spread over us your sukkah of peace.” This is pretty much one of my favorite liturgical lines ever, and I felt that I just had to ask Imam Rauf about it. So I mentioned that connection, and asked him what scriptural or Islamic theological justification he found for his work. His answer, that it’s rooted in the very word “Islam,” coming from “Salaam,” was completely in line with his messages of peace and mutual understanding.
I continue to be inspired by the work that both of these courageous activists do every day. Mona Eltahawy speaks truth to power, and Imam Rauf (and the Park 51 project overall) has handled himself with incredible grace in the face of one of the worst smear campaigns I’ve ever seen, and more generally in a climate of increasing American Islamophobia. May they both continue their work and dedication, and may their efforts be rewarded.
First of all, let’s just set aside for a moment the ridiculousness of mentioning Islamic extremists in every other breath – really, I have to say (I never thought I’d defend Beck in any way whatsoever) that really, his comments weren’t about Reform Jews being terrorists. While his comments were completely inane, his point was that Reform Jews are primarily a political organization rather than a religious one. How many ways this is a stupid comment leaves me gasping, but it’s not what most people seem to have taken it as – i.e. a claim that Reform Jews are terrorists.
However, the level of stupidity remains pretty high: More »