Friday, December 31, 2010

New Years: Judeo-Islamic Insights

I believe that religious Jews and Muslims have more to contribute to this culture than their taxes or their skills as doctors, lawyers and researchers. We have a (surprisingly common) set of values and world-view which can act as a healthy critique of the greater culture we live in. Many have said that the hope of America is in the revival of the Judeo-Christian traditions of this country. I would suggest that a Judeo-Islamic tradition may have more to offer, not G-d forbid, through imposition but through example and inspiration.

To be more blunt. In the next 24 hours, much of our culture is going to celebrate the New Year by getting stupidly drunk, endangering the lives of themselves and others and doing things that their inhibitions would never have allowed otherwise.
In the words of humorist P.J. O'Rourke,

“The proper behavior all through the holiday season is to be drunk. This drunkenness culminates on New Year's Eve, when you get so drunk you kiss the person you're married to. “

They will top this by making “resolutions,” commitments to improve themselves that they have little or no intention of fulfilling. People make these resolutions with no plan for fulfilling them. The gyms will have special deals tomorrow for all the suckers (and you know who we are- rubbing his belly) who will buy memberships they will never use. That brief thought of change will be dissipated in inaction.

In the words of Jay Leno,
“Now there are more overweight people in America than average-weight people. So overweight people are now average. Which means you've met your New Year's resolution. “

Americans will unreflectively drop the old year like a hot potato to embrace the new. There will be outrageous predictions for the future and virtually no reflection on the past.

"Drop the last year into the silent limbo of the past. Let it go, for it was imperfect, and thank God that it can go."
- Brooks Atkinson

As many Americans totter into the New Year on unsteady feet and addled brains, it would seem that what they most value is drunken debauchery, false promises and an absolutely unreflective attitude on the past.

Judaism has something to teach America!

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Ha Shanah is completely different. It is a day of Judgement (Yom ha Din – Muslims will recognize the term). It is already the culmination of the previous month of Elul, which is supposed to be a month of introspection, it will be followed by ten days of repentence (teshuvah / taubah), the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe. It is part of a process that begins before Rosh Hashanah and continues after it.

We spend the day in synagogue praying. We blow the Shofar, the ram’s horn, as a kind of universal alarm clock to wake ourselves up to repentance. We begin to repair our relationships with other people. We acknowledge the ways in which we have failed G-d.

Rebbe Nachman said,
“During the Days of Awe it is good to weep profusely like a child. Throw
aside all sophistication. Just cry like a child before God ,cry for the
diseases of the heart, for the anguish and confusion of the soul.”

We cry out to G-d to fix us. We make concrete plans to change ONE thing about ourselves, realizing that change is a slow and gradual process.

At the same time we celebrate with eating and drinking with our families, we wear our finest clothes.

The Talmud ( Kiddushin 40a) comments on this,

Rabbi. Hama ben. Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hoshaya: One says – which other nation is like this nation? Normally, if a person knows that he is being judged, he dresses in black and wraps himself in black and allows his beard to grow, for he doesn’t know how the judgment will turn out. But Bnai Israel is not like this, rather, they dress in white and wrap themselves in white and trim their beards and eat and drink and rejoice: For they know that God will perform miracles for them.

We are instructed by Halacha (Jewish law) to conduct ourselves with joyous dignity on the New Year..

When one leaves the synagogue one should walk quietly, at ease, happy and with a good heart, confident that Hashem has heard our prayers and our Shofar blowing in mercy. One eats and drinks fully to show G-d’s bounty, but in any event, not to eat in a gross, vulgar way, and the awe of G-d should be on him.
-Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 129:21

We combine a sense of joy and renewal with a genuine trembling before G-d in the awareness of His greatness and our shortcomings.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphal Hirsch wrote..

"It is only in serene joyousness that man as a whole blossoms forth and that those energies are liberated which man needs in order to discharge his task. But this unclouded joy is only found "biradah" ("with trembling"), in the complete disappearance of any opposition to the will of G-d, in the awareness of the fact that, without G-d, we are nothing and that our being and striving begin to have some meaning only if we permit them to be completely absorbed in G-d and His will. If we attach ourselves to the great sovereign purpose of G-d with our every achievement, great or small, then no contribution of ours, however small, shall be lost, and we may rejoice in it…"
(Commentary on the Psalms, p. 13)

The values of Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe, preceded by Elul and culminating in the fast of Yom Kippur are…

Teshuvah (taubah) returning to G-d
Self-restraint and sobreity
Yirat Shamayim (taqwa)- Fear of G-d
Commitment to real change
True Joy with dignity
Renewal of the spirit

I believe that my Muslim brothers and sisters will recognize these as the same values reflected in the observance of Ramadan.

(I hope that when Ramadan comes we will use this blog to share with Jews what that is all about. For those of you who don’t know, you are going to be amazed and impressed. Its even better that it usually coincides with Elul and Tishrei for us.)

It says in the Psalms… “flee from evil and do good.”
Flee from evil…
Do not be drawn into the impoverished ideas of the society around you. New Years is a good illustration of how dumb this society can be. Don’t buy into it. Skip the champagne and useless resolutions.

Do good..
We have an opportunity and a responsibility to teach our values to the society around us both through instruction and example. Let the world see what we do. Share our values with each other and with the folks around us.

As for me, I have a great new years planned. Shabbat with my family and good friends.
I hope to see lots and lots of you at my table soon.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Nazi" No More- Part II: Talk from the heart

To my Muslim brothers and sisters. Please hear me speaking to you from my heart.
Both Judaism and Islam teach us of the potential destructive power of speech and our responsibility to use it properly and in the pursuit of good.

Who is the man
Who desires life
Who loves all his days
To see good

Guard your tongue from evil
And your lips from speaking deceit

Turn away from bad
And do good
Seek peace
And pursue it
-Psalm 34

“It is better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to embarrass a fellow human being in public.” (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 67b).

“Not a word is said except that there is a watcher by him ready to record it.” - Surah Qaf (50):18]

“Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should speak good or keep silent.”
-Hadith [Sahih al-Bukhari and Muslim]

When you call a Jew a “Nazi” you are committing an unspeakable act of cruelty.
You need to never never do it. You need to never allow your leaders to do it. No matter how you much you disagree with Zionism, how angry you might be at Israel or its supporters, no matter what you need to say, to compare a Jew to the brutal killers who enslaved, tortured and murdered our grandparents, our family, our rabbis and humble scholars is out of bounds. We Jews live with a consciousness and awareness of those events which you may not understand. But please do understand, that comparing Jews to Nazis is not just “fighting words” or a rhetorical flourish, it is causing needless pain to another human being. There is no good in causing that kind of pain to another person with your words. To do so is haram.
The Quran teaches,
"Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction and argue with them in a way that is best! "
- Surah An-Nahl 16/125.
It seems to me that if “argue with what is best” applies to what you believe is the most important truth that a human being can know, for sure the same applies to whatever else of importance you need to communicate. Save your own souls and find other ways to say what you need to say.
I encourage you to spend a few moments contemplating the following thoughts presented by Sheikh Mokhtar Maghraoui.

The teaching concludes with the words
‘Gentleness beautifies everything; cruelty disfigures’

The world was created to express the beauty of its Creator. It is our job to further that expression through our thoughts, through our speech and through our actions.

"Nazi" No More Part 1: Tea, Cookies and Serious Talk

Nazi imagery is immensely powerful.
We have seen the images: Israeli soldiers or Palestinian militiamen caught in mid goose-step. The wall / security barrier photo-shopped with a barbed wire overlay to suggest the concentration camps. A picture of the Mufti of Jerusalem meeting with Hitler. We have heard the words too: the emails I receive warning me of the genocidal plans of the Nazi Muslims among us, The popular campus speaker Amir Abdel Malik Ali pointing his finger at a crowd of Israel-supporting Jews and saying “You are the the new Nazis!”
Let’s face it. Calling someone a Nazi is a showstopper. Simply implying it is enough to derail almost any discussion. Nothing conveys the absoluteness of evil like the Nazi example. As an accusation, it is so shocking that it allows for no real response. The best you can do is say “No YOU are the Nazi!” Is there really any other response? Its power is so great that simply implying that someone is a "Nazi" is enough to simply shut down any meaningful communication with a cloud of anger and confusion. Some people know that. Their agenda is to end discussion in favor of their own demagoguery and power-grabbing. They use the “Nazi”epithet tactically to further those ends. Shame on them and I am not talking to them. They are not going to hear me anyway. I am speaking to the others who follow their example unwittingly, who want to express the power of their convictions without realizing what it is doing to the discourse.

At some level, we do use the term "Nazi" meaningfully. When the Jew calls a Muslim a Nazi what he may mean is “Your hatred of Us is blind. It has nothing to do reality. You talk about “Yahud” as some kind of demonic class of being not as individuals with the ability to do right and wrong. Its all about baseless blind violent hate and you won’t be happy til we are gone.” When the Muslim calls the Jew a Nazi what he may mean is “Given your history of oppression, how can you Jews not sympathize with the Palestinians? How can you use military might in the way you do to control a people when you saw the dangers of totalitarianism first hand? How can you chauvinistic nationalists when it was German nationalism that nearly destroyed you? Separated, marginalized and ghettoized for centuries, how can you do that to others? You are becoming what you hate.”
Fleshed out like this, most of us will conclude that there is enough of a lie to be feel like a serious misrepresentation of our reality and enough truth to really hurt. Both sides will agree that there is something to talk about.
Is there an element of baseless hatred in Muslim attitudes towards Jews? Yes, in some quarters there is. That’s what Sheikh Hamza chose to address at the CAIR dinner. He didn’t have to call anyone a Nazi to do it. He merely had to remind them of their own stated values.
Are there voices in the Jewish world who can and do raise those crucial questions? Sure there are. No less than the great Rav Kook questioned whether Jewish values could endure being involved in the normal exercise of state force. The controversial and sometimes caustic thinker Yeshayahu Liebowitz raised precisely these kind of questions in relation to the war in 1967 and its aftermath.. There are proud committed Jews who do raise these questions not by calling each other Nazi’s but by appealing to values..

The big lie in calling folks Nazis is that not only are very few people actually genocidal and evil but maybe more importantly virtually no one sees themselves that way. Being called a Nazi is experienced universally as an enormous lie of defamation.

When you imply that someone is a Nazi, its hard ball. Maybe I just don't like hardball. Maybe I am afraid of tough talk. A commentator on this blog referred to me as “sweetly mingling” with others. I love that expression. I believe that real relationships do have a lot of sweet mingling to them. Sweet mingling is what allows for serious communication.. Building relationships allows folks to talk seriously with another. Serious talk gets business done. Tough talk derails communication.
Amir Abdel Malik Ali, who speaks annually at UCI, is fond of encouraging Muslim students to avoid social contact with “Zionist Jewish” students by saying that “You don’t sit down for tea and cookies with Nazis.” I agree. If you sit down with someone and discover that that they are absolutely evil genocidal maniacs bent on your destruction, get up and leave. I have yet to have this happen to me. Time and time again, I find myself sitting across from other human beings with whom I may sometimes vehemently disagree but whom I can understand because their concerns are my concerns; fairness, safety and security, justice, making a livelihood, dealing with relationships and figuring out the universe. This would include Amir Abdel Malik Ali. So to him and the folks who send me emails about the evil “Islamo-Nazis” and to anyone who would slime another human being with that word I say, “Please stop calling each other Nazis and pass the tea and cookies.”

Friday, December 24, 2010

The American Opportunity

I don’t really get the shivers on July 4. I forget to fly my flag on Memorial Day and Veterans Day but Christian holidays make me patriotic. On Christmas day, which is also Shabbat, I will be walking to synagogue, dressed in a long black kaftan, a wide-brimmed hat, long side curls, a big bushy beard, carrying my prayer shawl and chatting with my daughter. Generally, my gentile neighbors either ignore me or wave at me like I am a celebrity. I haven’t seen the old Sikh gentleman for a while but we used to exchange greetings in Hindi/Punjabi. I breathe deeply as I pass the Persian grocery store for a fortifying sniff of cooking kababs. Sometimes religious Christians tell me they “love my people.” Hijabbed ladies out for their morning walk are sometimes surprised when I wish them restrained appropriate salaams. Unlike my ancestors in Europe, I will not be fearing pogroms or bands of drunken peasants having yule-tide fun by bashing Jews.
I will arrive at my synagogue to be surrounded by the Orthodox congregation in Irvine. Israelis, French speakers from Morocco and Tunisia, Persians, a guy from Burma, assorted sephardi wannabees from Eastern European backgrounds like me, a family of Asians, three or four Latino families working on conversion. I will speak no less then three languages today and hear no less than five. Unlike my ancestors, I will not be walking into the dingy synagogue of my Jewish ghetto surrounded by folks who look and act just like me. I will dine on great food made from recipes from all over the world. (Sorry no gefilte fish.)
On these days, I celebrate America as what the Lubavitcher Rebbe (zl) referred to as a “medina shel chesed” a nation built on kindness. Has America always lived up to this promise? Sadly not. The promise is nonetheless there. As a proud Jew on Shabbat/ Christmas it seems clear to me that America is an opportunity to build bridges that may never have been built before. I can’t fix the discord between Muslims and Jews in Israel, I can’t fix the breach that led to millions of Jews fleeing Muslim lands that were their homes for centuries. I can’t even clone peace from the DNA of the golden age of Andalusia. But in America, we can draw on that sometimes very unsteady well of kindness to learn to appreciate one another. We can transform those basic elements of American tolerance and civility into warm appreciation for one another. With the help of the Al-mighty we can make the great American experiment into an opportunity to build peace from the ground up
Maybe here is where it all begins. I live in California. Some of the dumbest things in the world have started here (think Hollywood and mass media) maybe that same openness can allow the smartest to start here as well.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Peace 101 Shalom / Salaam: T-shirt or reality?

In this piece from Rabbi Natan of Breslov’s “Likkutei Etzot” [Advice], he uses the teachings of Rabbi Nachman to make a most simple and beautiful statement on Peace, its potential for the fulfillment of the purpose of the world- the service of G-d and its obstacles. I present it here as a kind of manifesto. I would put it on a T-shirt if only there were one big enough.

I particularly encourage my knowledgeable Muslim readers to share insights and texts that inform their strivings for peace, both in themselves and with others.

Rabbi Natan writes..
As peace spreads in the world the whole world can be drawn to serve G-d with one accord. Because when men are at peace with each other they talk to one another and together they can think about the purpose of the world and all its vanities. People then talk to each other about the realities of life that in the final analysis, when a person dies, nothing remains of him except whatever preparations he has made for the eternal world which awaits him after death. Neither silver nor gold accompany a man after his death... When people understand this they will abandon their illusions and their idols of silver and aspire only to G-d and His Torah. Their only aim will be to serve G-d and seek out the truth. But when there is no peace in the world, and even worse when there is strife and dissension, men are not open with one another and they never discuss the purpose of life. Even when somebody is open about it his words fail to enter the hearts of other people, because people are not interested in finding out the truth, all they want is to win the argument: they are aggressive and full of hatred and jealousy. When somebody wants to win an argument his ears are not open to the truth. The main reason why most people are so far from G-d is because of the divisiveness and strife which are so widespread today because of our many sins

-(Likutei Etzot [Advice] Shalom 4 based on Likutei Moharan 27: 1).

Shameless Promotion: This excellent book and others of Rebbe Nachman's teachings in English are available from - Judaism with a Heart

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why would someone do this? Part II

I am sure that most of the readers of this blog are aware of the “Anti-Israeli Apartheid Week” sponsored by the Muslim Student Union that takes place annually at UC Irvine which features speakers and activists who typically speak against Israeli treatment of Palestinians. I am not here to speak on the merit or lack of merit of such an effort or to speak to the very real issues raised by that situation. (There are those on all sides who would do a far better job than I would. I would encourage folks to seek the truth wherever it can be found. You Google at your own peril). I have evolving opinions about what has and what will go on at UCI but I prefer to dialogue directly with the folks involved in all sides of the issue. It is not my purpose to do so here.

Nevertheless, about 4 years ago I heard about these events. I was told that Muslim students staged an anti-Semitic Hate Week and that UCI was the worst of the worst. Irvine? Irvine was now the epicenter of the worldwide campus anti-Semitic jihad? Truthfully, I found it hard to imagine such a thing and so I went to see for myself. I am not sure what I expected to find. I teach high school. I am not Jewishly uneducated. I have an easy rapport with college kids (I think I may be a little immature somehow). I know a little about Islam. All of that would qualify me to go to UCI, as an adult to talk to young adults. That is where my head was at.

I went to UCI and there it was “The Wall” plastered with pictures, some of them bloody and all of them damning of Zionism and the State of Israel. There were a group of Jews from the community looking upset and uncomfortable and a few Muslim students, girls in hijab looking helpful and handing out flyers and a some young men with short hair and trimmed beards looking protective (some would say menacing, I wouldn’t) and mostly Asian students looking apathetic and/or clueless. I approached one of the young Muslim men and said, “Assalamu aleikkum, So, I heard about all this and I came to check it out. So what is this all about? I am an religious guy not a political guy, so talk to me about religious stuff.” The protectiveness melted right away and we began to talk. The boys talked about their sense responsibility for the Umma (Heb. Am), the community of Muslims. They talked about G-d’s love of justice. We talked about what I found offensive at the wall and why. We talked about the emphasis both Judaism and Islam puts on not just what you say but how you say it. They asked pretty insightful questions about Judaism and where Zionism fits into it. It wasn’t just a “let’s all be friends” event. It was honest talk between sincere people. I attended all of the events that week as I have for the last 4 years. I have also gone to other events, classes, lectures and get-togethers. I believe that I may be the only Jewish person to do so. It has been a good choice.

These past few years, I have gotten to know a remarkable group of very committed young people. Young Muslims dedicated to their own spiritual lives, struggling with a college party-culture which is not exactly conducive to piety, to creating a family-style home away from home for fellow students and to political activism. While the political activism is the most media-worthy piece of the pie, it is certainly not the biggest. I have been treated with a tremendous amount of respect. (The grey beard?) I have learned a lot about Islam from the students and they have learned about Judaism. We listen to one another. Some have joined us at the Shabbat table. A few have become family. (You know who you are!)

In the eye of the storm, in the midst of an admittedly difficult and contentious situation at UCI, I have come to see how much religious Jews and Muslims have in common. It turns out that the Muslim students at UCI are not cardboard cutouts, they are kids with different names, backgrounds and opinions. They do some great stuff. They make some colossal mistakes. And we Jews are not cardboard cutouts either. I have seen that when you humanize “the other”, the other humanizes you back. After a while, while difference persists “otherness” fades. The old man in the picture that my friend carries on his cell phone is not a generic “Muslim Cleric,” he is a beloved and much-missed grandfather and source of wisdom. To those who come to my house for Shabbat meals I am not just a Jew with a big beard, I am a person with a sense of humor who likes to sing. This blog is an invitation to that world.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Why would someone do this? Part I

Over 20 years ago, I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in South Asian Languages and Civilizations. I found myself living in the city of Chennai (then Madras) to do my dissertation research. One day I saw and ad in the newspaper for an Urs ceremony (Yahrtzeit/death anniversary of a Muslim Sufi Saint) in Georgetown, the oldest section of Madras. I made my way down the narrow streets til I found a small mosque with a dargah (tomb) attached to it. Near the tomb, a group of men gathered to perform zikr (dhikr), the chanting of spiritual formulae. The chanting and singing was awesome. It felt as if the room were filled with angels. (It wasn’t til many years later in Uman, Ukraine that I would feel that spiritual intensity again.) In the middle of the chanting, a small man stood up and began to pray out loud. There was a sincerity and beauty in his voice that I had never heard before. I found out later that he was Professor H. Habibullah Shah, a physics professor, Sufi sheikh and poet whose teacher was buried there. Every night he would sit there in quiet prayer or talk with students. I began to join him in the evenings and with numerous cups of tea and incredible patience he opened up a new world for me. He taught me the spiritual vocabulary of Islam, that would later find echoes in the Chassidic philosophy I now embrace.
It was Professor Shah who taught me “heshbon ha nefesh,” to examine my deeds daily. It was he who showed me what the sincere inner struggle looked like. He showed me how law and discipline foster devotion and joy. It was Professor Shah who revealed to me that my years of studying other religions masked a deep yearning for my own service of G-d. He respected my Jewish heritage and inspired me to come to submission to G-d as an observant Jew. This effort is an expression of my hakarat ha tov, my deepest gratitude.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sheikh Hamza's Challenge

On November 20, 2010 Sheikh Hamza, Yusuf, one of the foremost Muslim leaders in the United States spoke to an audience of over a 1000 Muslims and Non-Muslims at a CAIR dinner in Sacramento In his speech he urged the Muslim community to purge itself of anti-Jewish sentiment in its Mosques and its homes. Sheikh Hamza, one of the founders of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim University in the United States does not speak as an enthusiastic supporter of the policies of the State of Israel. He is not. He does not speak as a “moderate” Muslim. He is an enthusiastic Muslim. He speaks as one whose understanding of the normative textual traditions of Islam lead him to the inevitable conclusion that the Quran leaves no room for the baseless hatred of an entire group of people. With these words “Among the followers of Moses there are those who guide in accordance with the truth, and the truth renders them righteous,” the Quran [7:159] calls on Muslims to avoid seeing Jews as a communal mass but as free-willed individuals capable of both righteousness and unrighteousness. When I heard of Sheikh Hamza’s words, I heard not only a challenge to America’s Muslims but a challenge to its Jews. Are we too prepared to purge ourselves of Anti-Muslim sentiment in our synagogues, in the boardrooms of institutions, in the classes of our schools and in our homes? I believe that peace and the perfection of this world may well depend on our conferring dignity on one another as servants of the One true G-d. Will we rise to the challenge?