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Archive for April, 2009

city-college-of-nyNext  spring, if all goes as planned, I will teach a course in the  Jewish Studies Department at City College of New York.  My rabbinical  and graduate school classmate, Rabbi Roy Mittelman, chairs this extraordinary department, and he has offered me an opportunity to see what is going on there first hand.

City College of New York, founded in 1847,  was the first free public institution of higher learning in the United States.  Known as the “poor man’s Harvard,” at the height of its popularity among Jews, the school was over 75 % Jewish.  Many of these Jews were the children of recent immigrants; City College was their ticket out of the proletariat.

Today, CCNY still draws the children of immigrants, but the Jewish population of the school is tiny. The immigrants now come from all over the world, creating an exciting multifaith mix.

Of the 500 students enrolled in Jewish studies classes each semester at City College,  95 percent are not Jewish. Even more remarkable, there are now 70 Jewish Studies majors at CCNY, only a small fraction of whom are Jews.

Why are non Jews not only enrolling in Jewish Studies classes but also majoring in the field?  This article from the Times documents the phenomenon and suggests some reasons for it.

I hope to teach a course on Muslim-Jewish Relations in the United States.

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yehezkel landau

yehezkel landau

Sometimes the most contentious conversations are not interfaith but rather intrafaith. Even within a self-selected small community like a congregation, we sometimes find it hard to talk with one another in a respectful, dialogical manner.

That is why this past weekend at Congregation Mishkan Shalom(JRF) in Philadelphia was so wonderful. Mishkan Shalom was founded 21 years ago out of a vision, in part, of creating a safe place for alternative views on Israel. Over the years, people whose views  deviate from the mainstream  have indeed found a home at Mishkan,  alongside many others with a full range of positions.

The community  has worked hard  to overcome the challenge of listening and learning across differences and this weekend was a stunning testimony to the potential for success.

Professor Landau, a faculty associate at Hartford Seminary and the director of a unique program, Building Abrahamic Partnerships, is a gifted teacher and an inspiring speaker.  Landau captivated the congregation by his vision of the conflict as one between two traumatized peoples. While some speakers on this topic give lip service to the pain on “both sides,” they usually seem emotionally convinced only of the pain of the group they are championing. Thus, their message is  polarizing.

In contrast, Landau truly “got” both stories. People appreciated his Judaic learning, his humility,  his psychological awareness and his unique story and perspective. As one congregant put it, “When else have I heard someone who describes himself as a religious Zionist talk with such feeling about Al Naqba?”

The weekend was the brainchild of  Lillian Sigal, a religion professor who chairs   the synagogue’s   Library Committee.  Joining forces with the Israel committe, Lil worked to launch  a  year long project:  One Book Mishkan.  Throughout the year, the community was encouraged to read and discuss the book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East.

The book grew out of a prize winning  1998  NPR documentary(38 minutes)  by journalist Sandy Tolan that you can listen to here. (RRC graduate Brant Rosen wrote a beautiful Rosh Hashana sermon based on the book that you can read here.)

The book tells the parallel narratives of Bashir,  a Palestinian exiled from his home  in Ramle when he was six and Dalia, a Bulgarian Jew whose family comes to own that home. Many years later, Dalia and her then husband Yehezkel, use the home to create Open House, a project of cooperation between Arabs and Jews in a house with two histories.

Dalia and Bashir

Dalia and Bashir

Reading The Lemon Tree or having Professor Yehezkel Landau as a guest speaker are excellent ways to promote conversation on this difficult topic. Doing both is even more powerful!

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adibrainFive years ago, Adi Flesher began teaching campers at Tel Yehudah  about their brains.

Today at RRC we had the privilege of learning from Adi, a longtime Jewish educator who believes that educating  teens about the brain can be a  doorway for them to explore the spiritual dimensions of their lives.

adiAdi grew up in a family with strong Jewish connections and he spent his college years studying Judaism. Yet, it was only as a young adult  living in a Buddhist monastary in the Rocky Mountains that Adi found a connection to the world of prayer and spirituality.

In recent years, Adi has worked with Paul Grobstein of Bryn Mawr College whose amazing website  Serendip is as good a place as any to begin learning about the recent explosion in knowledge in the field of neuroscience and its potential implications for understanding human beings. (Adi has his own website  http://aspiritualbrain.com/ –also an excellent resource.)

In the very short time alloted to him, Adi  convinced us of his thesis: people who care about spirituality should learn more about brain science. Moreover, his dynamic powerpoint presentation(only a portion of which we had time to view) left us inspired to find new and better ways to open the hearts and minds of teenagers.

I was struck with how well Adi knows adolescents and how thoughtfully he shapes the material to reflect their interests. For example, Adi uses the illuminating metaphor of the “muscle, ” nothing that religious  practices can  be understood as exercises(muscle builders) to cultivate spiritual emotions such as gratitude, compassion and awe.

Adi stresses the empowering idea that we can shape our brains and actually change the way they work. Only recently have neuroscientists learned the extent of neuroplasticity, and Adi is excited to share the wealth of new research demonstrating, for example, the effect that meditation can have on the structure of the brain.

Rather than asking teens the non-starter question “Do you believe in God,” Adi  prefers to guide students to an awareness of their own brains as meaning makers, creating stories from the raw, ambiguous data of  experience. (Adi shows slides to illustrate this point—although the classic picture on the right  is not one of those he includes.)

In the fall  Adi  will be studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the Mind, Brain and Education program.

This surely will  not be the last time Adi Flesher teaches at RRC !

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christiansunitedforisraellogoThe most recent issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies(Winter, 2009) is devoted to a symposium entitled, “Evangelical-Jewish Relations: Politics, Policy and Theology.” (unfortunately, this journal does not publish its articles on line, but you can purchase a copy from their website.)

As usual, the clearest and most helpful piece, in my view, was by the phenomenally prolific historian of American Christianity, Martin E. Marty.

Marty explains the origins of  what we now know as “evangelical Christianity”(a category that describes somewhere between 25% and 45% of American Christians) and  its relationship to fundamentalism, in particular to a brand of fundamentalism called premillenial dispensationalism. Marty just spent twenty years directing a huge project involving hundreds of experts studying fundamentalist groups –Christian Jewish and Muslim.  He is able to view this topic in the  context both of American history and  of religious fundamentalism worldwide.

First, Marty identifies the obvious focus of this conversation. “It is likely that there would not be Evangelical-Jewish conferences at all were it not for interests in Israel that are common to both.” As he notes, “Jews who find support of Israel on the part of some other Protestants to be marked by vagueness, criticism, or half-heartedness, tend to regard Protestant fundamentalists as potential allies….Jews would never have had”

He then traces the emergence of Christian Zionism within fundamentalist Christianity to the late 19th century, long before most Jews were committed to creating a Jewish state in Palestine.  Marty sees it as a “novel”  idea,  a case of “selective retrieval.” He argues that the biblical texts cited by Christian Zionists are  either extremely rare or  “subject to amillenial, postmillenial, and alternative… interpretations.” The dispensational interpretation that linked the establishment of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel to the second coming was, in Marty’s words, “anything but literal.”

The irony, ofcourse, is that evangelical Christian supporters of Israel often are “more insistent than most Jews, including many Zionists, that a certain set of boundaries of the “holy Land” were set by God.”

Marty ends  his piece on  a note of  bemusement, wondering along with many others how Jews can “wholeheartedly accept and honor groups whose vision of the outcome of history inclues either[their} conversion or destruction(even in hell).

Richard L. Rubenstein, a distinguished Jewish theologian and scholar of the Nazi Holocaust, writes a response to Marty that concludes the issue. He makes it clear that he does not believe in a God who acts in history, so he does not share the theological assumptions, either Jewish or Christian, that would see Jewish sovereignty as part of God’s plan.

Nevertheless, he believes that many in the mainline Protestant denominations are “unwilling to confront the true complexity,” that  there are those in the Muslim world working toward “a second Shoa.” Facing a battle for our very survival, Jews should welcome allies such as Pastor John Hagee whom he quotes approvingly as saying “let’s walk together in support of Israel and defense of the Jewish people.”

Not one of the articles in this journal issue grapples seriously with what appears to be a basic unexamined assumption of the entire conversation, i.e. that uncritical support for Jewish governance of the historic Land of Israel(usually understood as comprising the expansive post-67 boundaries) is actually in the best interests of the Jewish people.

There exists  a lively conversation amongst some Jews–in Israel and the diaspora–debating that very question.  What is the best way  to insure a future for the Jewish people?  This conversation is absent from the current volume. Also missing is a recognition of how closely linked this brand of Christian Zionism often is to a kind of Islamaphobia. (For more on that concern, see Chapter Five of Stephen Spector’s new book, Evangelicals and Israel: The Story of American Christian Zionism from Oxford University Press.)

That said, I commend the issue of JES,  in particular the informative and thoughtful article by Martin Marty. (If you want to learn more about this topic, there is also a 2007  anthology edited by Alan Mittleman, Nancy Isserman and Byron Johnson, Uneasy Allies? Evangelical and Jewish Relations.)

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amos_oz_

You may be seeing Amos Oz,  perhaps  Israel’s most esteemed novelist,  mentioned often these days. The celebration of his seventieth birthday this year is providing an occassion for reflection on his life’s work as novelist and  public intellectual.

In a recent New York Times’s article, Oz is quoted as relating both of his callings to the same source: empathy for the “other.” Since that source is at the heart of the work of multifaith engagement(and hence of this blog), I thought it worth quoting the article directly.

“‘I never mix them up,’ he says {of the political essays and the novels}. “One is to tell the government to go to hell. The other is to tell stories…’ Both usher from the same source, he says — empathy. Both are about imagining the other…. ‘I get up in the morning, I drink a cup of coffee, I sit down at my desk and I start to ask myself: ‘What if I were him? What if I were her? How would I feel? What would I say? How would I react?’ ”

May Oz continue to exercise his powerful gifts of empathy –as storyteller and political visionary–for many years to come!

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