Friday, October 28, 2011

The No-Kvetching Challenge!

Over the last few months I have taken a challenge on myself to fast from complaining for Shabbat. (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown). I have not always been entirely successful but even the effort is a wonderful experience. I have used twitter to invite others to join me in the fast. I invite my fellow fasters to post their non-complaining experiences here, so others can share their successes and their "failures" so we all can grow.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Five "Lunar Lessons" In Honor of the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh -Mar Heshvan)

Lunar lesson 1: We have no light of our own. At our best, we reflect the light of our Creator. At our worst, we conceal it almost completely.

Lunar lesson 2: The service of G-d depends on lots and lots of new beginnings.

Lunar lesson 3: Don't be afraid of the ups and downs, waxings and wanings. Even when your light grows dim, it is part of the process.

Lunar Lesson 4: We all look very luminous from a distance, get closer and you see the craters and wear and tear. And yet we are beautiful.

Lunar Lessons 5: There are times to be bigger and times to be smaller. It takes both great self-esteem and great humility to serve G-d.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Looking up at the Stars: Sukkot Thoughts

My sukkah, the backyard hut that I have built and decorated for the festival of sukkot, is finished. I will spend the next week eating and sleeping out here under the roof of leaves and bamboo through which I can see the stars through the darkness. The Rabbis tell us that the sukkah is a double reminder. It is a reminder of the simple dwellings our ancestors had as nomads in the desert. It is also a reminder of the supernatural clouds that surrounded the Bnai Israel during our 40 years in the desert, protecting us from harm. I love how it reflects my desire to beautify the commandment. I love the smell of fresh green leaves. When sukkot ends there is a prayer to say “farewell” to the sukkah. I always cry.

The Chassidic masters explain that 40 days from the beginning of Elul til Yom Kippur were a seminar in the art and science of personal growth and change. We learned how to repent and we applied what we learned and we emerge from Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement as new beings, spiritual babies. Like all things immature, we are delicate. We are not quite ready to carry our new insights into the “real world” not even into the drama-heavy confines of our own homes. Instead we stake out in the outside world a kind of “field of holiness” our own personal clouds to cushion us as we prepare to be our new improved selves in the same old world. That is the first lesson. We need walls. We do not accept everything about his world unconditionally. We determine who we are and who we want to be by creating boundaries. TV is outside my boundary. A good movie might be inside. I decide what is inside and what is outside. Jewish law says that the walls need to be strong enough to withstand an ordinary wind. There is no point in setting limits if they can’t stand up to ordinary temptations, to resist the fashions of the world from the outside or the promptings of the lower self from the inside.

The roof is made of temporary materials. According to kabbalistic tradition, the roof represents our level of understanding. There is no permanent ceiling to our comprehension of spiritual matters. We are meant to be keep growing. What little I grasp this year will seem like dried out waste compared to the vitality of next year’s comprehension. As the holiday proceeds the leaves wither revealing more and of the sky, that ever present reminder of a reality that transcends our physical limitations, a glimpse of the infinite in a finite world.

I look up through the leaves and I feel the love of G-d, the touchless embrace of that infinity. We call sukkot “The Season of our Joy.” Joy helps us to carry the gains of our repentance into the sukkah and then back into our home. True Joy, the rejoicing in G-d’s goodness and generosity by enjoying His world with gratitude is the elixir that ultimately transforms our delicate new state of being into a solid new servant of G-d who can now serve in the real world.

Of all of our holidays, feasts and fasts, Sukkot is perhaps the most accessible to our neighbors both Jews and non-Jews. The power of gratitude and joy reflected in outdoor living is virtually infectious. To my Jewish friends, I encourage you to use this as an opportunity to invite others, particularly your Muslim neighbors. Break out the tea and cake and enjoy the embrace of the sukkah together. Perhaps find a little peace together.
Our sukkah is finally ready and waiting. See you in its shade!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Spiritual Harvest of Ramadan

On my Twitter account, @jihadijew, I asked my Muslim friends to share with me what they had gained from their experience of Ramadan. Here are their answers in the order in which I received them. I have edited them a little to fill in words left out for twitteresque brevity or corrected grammar for a few non-English speakers. I didn’t edit the content at all.

I asked the question to encourage people to inspire each other but also as a way of helping me think about the Jewish month of reflection (Elul) which begins this week. I can only hope that in a month’s time, with the help of God, I will be able to report a few wonderful gains myself.

Here is what folks said:

I learned to have more patience

I learned that praying in the House of God and listening to beautiful recitation, brings peace to your heart like nothing else can!

I learned to to remember Allah every moment of my life, and be patient enough til I meet Him.

I learned that taking out one or two hours just to focus on your spirit (whether through reading/meditation/prayer) is really rejuvenating.

I learned about “unity.” We rarely see this atmosphere in our daily life. Everyone is busy with their own life but in this month you feel the difference

I learned that God is always on your side, so be on His

I learned that fasting is not just about depriving your body of food and drink but more significantly about reaching the state taqwa (piety)

I learned to take my time in doing things that I would like to achieve. I am trying to persevere with patience.

I learned that faith isn’t a physical destination but a spiritual state that transcends and emanates from wherever you travel.

I learned to appreciate waking up each day. Life is really short so we have to take advantage of every little minute we can breath without difficulties.

I learned to learned help family first and to train our selves to remember Allah so that the soul feel happy and the nafs (lower self) doesn't go astray

I learned more patience and spiritual insight! Also the need for loving all humans.

Allah says be merciful to my creation and I will show you mercy!

I learned to praise Allah for every blessing even if it was little because there are people fasting but they don't have anything to break their fast

When we abstain from the bounties that Allah provides us during Ramadan, Makes us realise how merciful Allah actually is!

For me Ramadan represents the act of attaining contentment through the exhibition of gratitude to Allah for all that we have

In Ramadan I focused on the equality aspect in Islam.We all stand side by side in prayer humbling ourselves to God

Im starting to go to the mosque more this Ramadhan. Hearing the azan and not showing up on time makes me feel bad.

that my community in Toronto is flawed and united; which is, in fact, a beautiful thing.

I learned to talk to Him again and I realised that nothing is possible without His help and guidance. That fact made me happier

I noticed our ability for sself control,people around the world sit in front of food and don't touch it until the maghrib prayer .

I learned that fasting for a month in summer is no joke! More importantly I learned to filter bad thoughts and actions by fasting.

I learned patience, not sweating over the petty things

I have been thinking bout what I've gained in this holy month. I definitely learned a lot but its challenging to keep it up for the other 11 months. Inshallah, G-d give us the strength!

I increased my love for the Qur'an as well as my daily adkhaar (remembrance of Allah) in the morning and evening.

I learned that my desires can be controlled.

That the Path leads to the Oasis. Our sights must be set on the Oasis - not the dust on the Path. (a paraphrase of Shams Tabrizi)

I spent more time and money for the cause of Somalia. The satisfaction and closeness to G-d I felt, will make me do it all year long.

In Ramadan I decided I won't enter into endless arguments whether I was right or not.. Time is better spent trying to get close to G-D!

I began writing a diary. When I looked back at how hard times passed (during some days of the revolution in Egypt) I thanked G-d.

We need to forgive and set things aright with others around us. Helping others as much as we can, we take this spirit along with us . And there is hope in every human being to change for the better. If they choose to do it, there's no stopping them!

I have been taking care of every single word I say, making sure that it won't harm anyone's feelings.

I learned, strangely enough, the importance of sleeping in the night as opposed to during the day. I used to stay up eating and then sleep because I wasn't working but I was tired all the time. I realized that the night was made for rest.

I learned that you should give your heart to God instead of people

We're all hungry- for love, for peace, for contentment. Keeping away from food curbs unchecked hunger for lesser priorities. Just as Ramadan ends so will the blessing of Life. Stop procrastination with regards to giving Life, every bit of energy we have.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

In the Mood of Mourning

[According to Jewish tradition, the month of Av is a month of morning and serious reflection particularly on the destruction of Yerushalayim / Jerusalem. The 9th of Av is a 25-hour fast commemorating the ultimate destruction of our Holy Temple and many other disasters of the Jewish people. This is a reflection on my experience of Av]

I sometimes imagine Al-Quds and Yerushalayim as transparencies projected on the same blank piece of land. They are different worlds inhabiting the same time and the same space originating in two realities. I know that I don’t fully appreciate either. I am very much an outsider to both. Al-Quds, I see from a distance, the dots of worshippers at Al-Aqsa seen from a “safe” distance, Arab children puzzled as I slip by the gate few Jews slip by, or the gold dome overhead as I pray by the ruin of the wall.

Yerushalayim, I know a little better. “Yerushalayims” I should say, the tourist center, home of the fancy institute I attended for a few summers, the somewhat dour religious neighborhood where I stayed, the synagogues tucked into corners pumping out prayer services, places to shop and look cool and be kosher in an outdoor cafĂ©.

There is the Yerushalayim of Zionist triumphalism that I don’t know so well. When I saw the videos of the Jerusalem Day parade this year, I was acutely aware that I did not understand the pride of ownership and entitlement to G-d’s city.

Right or wrong, my Yerushalayim is the Yerushalayim of the month of Av. It is the Yerushalayim of the old time Jew of the Diaspora. My Yerushalayim is an orphan. My Yerushalayim embodies the brokenness of the world. Like the homeless beggar who has found a fancy fur coat, the external beauties of Yerushalayim only make it look more pathetic. Each new luxury high rise offering the wealthy the authentic Jerusalem experience seems to me, in the mindset of the month of Av, to thinly veil the fragile spiritual city wasting away beneath the fancy garments. The squabbles over Jewish land grabs, the violence that simmers barely beneath the surface where Yerushalayim and Al-Quds inevitably rub shoulders, speaks to me. It reminds me again and again. “This is not it.”

The Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred.
-Talmud Bavli (Yoma 9b)

Mourning is a strange mode of service of G-d. Mourning Yerushalayim means projecting the transparency of our ancient destroyed city over its modern successor. More importantly, it means piercing through all the transparencies and laying bare the human reality that in Yerushalayim, the center or our world, we are still ruled by baseless hatred. That hatred was the force of destruction that marred our connection to G-d, that destroyed our Holy Temple and sent us to the ends of the earth, as if shoved from the table of our Father. That hatred still corrodes the heart of the world. The channels that once conveyed the light of Yerushalayim to the rest of the world convey a darkness and entropy that is felt in every corner of the world. The un-rectified Yerushalayim is not just a Jewish tragedy it is a universal, even cosmic, tragedy

There will be those who will see “baseless hatred” in narrow national terms. Hatred between fellow Jews caused the destruction. As they say, “you have what to depend on.” It’s true that is certainly how most commentators have probably understood it for most of our history. We have been very inward looking. That has made us very introspective and in many ways extraordinarily attentive to each other’s needs. It has also made us myopic. It is time to consider that maybe baseless hatred is a bigger problem.

Rabbi Yehoshua said: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of others (lit. of the creations) remove a person from the world.
-Pirkei Avot 2:16

Rashi glosses hatred here as “sinat chinam” – baseless hatred. The very same baseless hatred mentioned in the Talmud, not just of fellow Jews but also of all others.

As Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out here, the term for “others” is simply “briyot” creations. It’s a word that points to the lowest common denominator in mankind, our being creatures. Our respect for human beings originates in the creation of man by G-d as the pinnacle of His creation. We need no other reason not to hate and beyond that no other reason to love.

If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam.

-Rav Kook (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324)

Ribbono shel Olam,
Please give us more than vain tears. Let us really feel the brokeness of Av and help us transform that pain into a drive to repair, to really believe that we can repair what is destroyed. May confronting the rule of hatred in ourselves and in our world motivate us to initiate and cultivate the rule of love.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Why should a Jew care about Ramadan?

[and before you ask... Why should a Muslim care about Elul and the Jewish Days of Awe? is on the way]

I grew up as a Jewish boy on the edge of a Christian neighborhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia and I was one of the few Jewish kids to go to my public school. Christmas was a BIG deal. I know all the words to “Silent Night” and I can sing “Come All Ye Faithful” in Latin. For many years my own father, with his full beard, was the Santa Claus in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia (worked his way from an elf, I am not kidding.) Christmas was a BIG deal when I was growing up. There was something to that lovey-dovey Peanuts Special version of Christmas which featured “peace and good will towards all mankind.” I loved going to New York in the season, not just because the shops were so beautifully decorated but because it seemed then that even New Yorkers were somehow more human and humane to one another during the “Holiday Season.” Imagine something that can penetrate the hearts of New Yorkers! And yet, I just cannot squeeze out a greeting of “Merry Christmas!” I still cannot.

I feel like my reasons make sense. The truth is that the religious core of the holiday, the celebration of the incarnation of deity in human flesh is anathema (to use the New Testament Greek word) to my Jewish faith. The crass materialism that now marks the observance for even not-so-religious folks violates both my sense of spirituality and my remaining hippie “simple-living, high-thinking” sensibilities. Christmas is just not for me. Never was. Never will be. My Christian friends make do with an incoherent “Happy something-or-other “squeak instead of an enthusiastic “Ho ho ho!” and I appreciate their patience and forbearance.

I have no such qualms about saying “Ramadan Mubarak!” On the contrary, I hunt down nifty e-cards on the internet. I even include personalized messages. In person, I give handshakes, hugs (or for women- a decorous nod) and those words come easily, “Ramadan Mubarak” a Blessed Ramadan! I keep a mental Ramadan countdown. I get enthusiastic. It is admittedly very weird for a Jewish guy. It is even weirder for an observant Jewish guy. I get that. Some, including those close to me have asked me what this is all about, sometimes politely and sometimes less politely. So as we begin another Ramadan and as my enthusiasm revs up again, I decided to sit down and examine the question for myself and share my answers. I look forward to your comments on my thoughts and I encourage you (as always) to be kind and respectful in responding to them.

I have to begin with the Halacha (Jewish law). The Torah warns us to avoid “chukkat ha goyim” the “statutes of the nations.” As a holy nation, separated by the unique discipline of the Torah we are sternly warned to avoid gentile practices. The law is complicated and this is just meant to be a quick review to expose my thinking. If you want to explore it further I will be happy to provide texts to help you. In any cases, the biblical verses seem clear enough.

You shall not follow the customs of the nation which I am expelling before you. For they have done all these above mentioned sins [This follows a list of sexual sins] and I became disgusted with them.
- Vayikra /Leviticus 20:23

After the practice of the Land of Egypt in which you have lived, you shall not do, and the practice of the Land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do and you shall not follow their statutes [customs].
- Vayikra/Leviticus 18: 3:

The medieval commentator Rashi comments on the latter verse.

This tells [us] that the practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites were the most corrupt of all the nations, and that place in which the Israelites settled was the most corrupt of all.

This verse refers to their customs, matters which are [social] obligations for them, such as [attending] theaters and stadiums. Rabbi Meir says: These are the "ways of the Amorites" which the Sages enumerated. [Refers to a list of superstitious practices]

So the prohibition, says Rashi, applies particularly to Non-Jewish practices that reflect corruption, idolatrous superstitions or such things as attending “theaters or stadiums.” We are told elsewhere that the prohibition is on attending theaters and stadiums is one of the first and few laws that a potential convert must be taught. This refers to the Roman stadiums which were the site of violent gladiator games. Jews were and are forbidden to enjoy entertainments which focus on degrading human beings and torturing animals. (Skip extreme fighting on TV and most reality shows)
In general, these prohibitions distance Jews from things that are not in keeping with Jewish values.

By contrast, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah), the most authoritative code of Jewish law concludes that if the custom does not promote idolatrous behavior and/or is viewed as a "dignified act", then no such prohibition of "chukat HaGoy" exists. While there may yet be other halachic prohibitions that would restrain a Jew from taking up such a practice for themselves, there is surely no reason why we should discourage others from following it. On the contrary, I believe the obligations of Jewish spiritual citizenship may demand that we encourage it. That is where my thoughts begin.

Ramadan is very “Jewish.” In Ramadan, we have a practice that promotes monotheistic worship in the world while employing practices that are specifically endorsed by Jewish tradition (prayer, fasting, charity and ethical restraint). The continuity of Ramadan with previous Jewish practice is actually acknowledged by the Qur’an itself. Even the Qur’an says it’s very “Jewish.”

O you who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God.
- 2:183 (Muhummad Asad trans.)

“Those before you.” That would be US. Indeed there are obvious parallels to specific and well-known Jewish practices. The dedication of the month of Elul as a period of repentance and spiritual focus and the standard Sephardic practice of doing special early morning selichot (“forgiveness”) prayers for the 40 day period from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kipppur is a clear parallel to the Muslim practice. That this period corresponds to the period in which Moses received the Torah is paralleled by Ramadan’s commemoration of the receiving of the Qur’an. Similarly there are fasting practices associated with this period in the Jewish year for the 10 days of repentance. There is even a kabalistic custom quoted in Yedid Nefesh by Rav Yechiel Bar
Lev to refrain from food during the daytime for the entire 40-day period (Shabbat and Rosh Hashana exempted). The Qur’an’s comment that the practice of Ramadan is based on previous practice can and should be taken at face value. Ramadan has Jewish roots.

Ramadan also supports Jewish values. Perhaps most important is the intention of Ramadan as laid out in the Qur’an “the awareness of G-d.” It is precisely the awareness of G-d which the Tur explains is the absolute purpose of the entirety of Jewish practice. There is no worthier goal for a human being and it makes sense that we would support others in their attempts to achieve it through prayer and fasting, means which are so clearly approved by our own tradition.

Ramadan also has a deeper ethical dimension. A hadith relates this as follows.

Abu Huraira related that the Prophet said: If a person does not avoid false talk and false conduct during the fast, then Allah does not care if he abstains from food and drink (Bukhari, Muslim).

Indeed the great Muslim theologian Imam al-Ghazali divides fasting into two dimensions: ordinary and special fasting.

Ordinary fasting means abstaining from food, drink and sexual satisfaction.
Special Fasting means keeping one's ears, eyes, tongue, hands and feet -- and all other organs -- free from sin.

Ramadan is a time for developing emotional and impulse control. In accordance with this, Muslims use this time to focus on all their behaviors as well as increasing charity to the poor and caring for others. In education we have an adage “Catch them doing good!” Criticizing someone when they are doing wrong is not nearly as effective as encouraging them when they are doing good. The same goes with our society. Being a critic of the evils of our society is not nearly as effective as encouraging those as they genuinely strive for the good. Could there be a better opportunity than Ramadan?

Ultimately, Ramadan is part of a process of repentance (taubah / teshuvah) of facing oneself, altering ones behavior and facing G-d to ask for forgiveness of sins from G-d in His infinite mercy. It is all about returning to G-d after our own self-imposed alienation knowing that he will accept us if we are sincere.

In a well-known hadith relates G-d's address to mankind,

O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.
Hadith Qudsi 34 (Tirmidhi , Sahih)

The message of the greatnesses and far-reaching consequences of this return to G-d is again familiar enough to Jews. The Talmud (Yoma 86b) in a beautiful litany of the greatness of repentance writes:

Rav Meir used to say Great is repentance, that because of an individual who repents, the entire world is forgiven, as the verse says (Hoshea 14:5) I will rectify their waywardness, I will love them gratuitously, for My anger has turned away from them.

In a broken world, desperately in need of redemption, I don’t know whose repentance is going to tip the scales. If my warm “Ramadan Kareem!” or my warm “Ramadan Mubarak!” or my little e-card encourages a moment of genuine return to G-d, if it inspires a Muslim friend to be good and to do good, I make myself into a partner in their holy endeavor. As a result, all of us, Jews and Muslims reap the benefits of a more peaceful world that better reflects the glory of the One true G-d.

In a few weeks, Elul will begin and I will write another piece entitled “Why Muslims should care about Elul and the Jewish Days of Awe.” I hope some of them will choose to encourage me, and the rest of us, as well.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Those who are astray and lead astray

There are days when my Facebook page and email are flooded with clips from The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) of Muslim preachers saying outrageous and violent things as Friday afternoon crowds or studio audiences seem to cheer them on with nods of appreciation or shouts of “Allah hu Akhbar.” Many Muslim friends have told me that the translations are sometimes inaccurate. It is clear that the clips are cut carefully and deliberately in order to highlight the negative. Those criticisms are reasonable. Nevertheless, even to someone whose Arabic, Urdu, Pashto or Farsi is weak, the messages of Jew hatred and contempt for the West seem to ring loud and clear. These leaders do exist. They do say the kinds of things we see on these clips and they do have audiences that buy their messages. For some, this is ample and sufficient evidence of the corrosive nature of Islam itself. These, we are told again and again, are the REAL spokesmen for Islam.

My own explorations have lead me in very different directions. I have been lead to scholars who are not “moderates” within Islam but see Islam as inherently moderate. I have been lead to scholars who welcome engagement to the outside world. I have been lead to scholars who reject anti-Semitism as anti-Islamic.

That’s all very nice but then there are the others, the fire and brimstone preachers of hate and intolerance captured by MEMRI, posted in Facebook pages and deposited in our emails. I ask myself, what does the existence of these leaders really mean? Is this a Muslim problem or is it a human problem.? Is it fixable and if so, whose job is it to fix it?

I can begin with the teachings of my own guide, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. (Its typically where I begin with everything)

It is a hard and onerous task for the Angel of Death to kill everyone in the world physically and spiritually all on his own. That is why he has helpers everywhere: the doctors to kill physically and the false leaders to kill spiritually.
-Avaneha Barzel

One likes to think that the 18th century doctor with his leeches and death-dealing poor hygiene are gone. False leaders are not. The flock is, by definition, susceptible to being fleeced. Wolves in sheep’s clothing are never far away to lead them over the cliff if greed or politics demand. This was true in the time of Rebbe Nachman and its true today.

A normal acronym for Rabbi is "rosh beis yisroel": the head of the house of Israel. That Rebbe Nachman teaches us refers to true and faithful spiritual leaders. Those leaders who are in it for themselves are "ra b'einei Hashem": evil in the eyes of G-d. Rabbi Nachman’s language was harsh indeed, going so far as to call them “Jewish scholar demons.”

This same sentiment is expressed in a hadith stated in relation to the end of days.

Truly G-d does not remove knowledge by extracting it from [His] servants. Rather, He removes knowledge by removing the scholars, until when no scholar remains the people take ignoramuses as their leaders. Then they are consulted and give fatwas [legal rulings] without knowledge. So they are astray and lead others astray.
-Al-Bukhari no. 7307

Quoted in Joseph E.B. Lumbard, Submission, Faith and Beauty: The Religion of Islam, p. 59

I believe that the preachers featured in many of these films are none other than those ignoramuses who are “astray and lead others astray.” Following Rebbe Nachman’s example, perhaps Imam could be an acronym for “Inspiring Muslims and Mankind” for good Imams and for the bad ones “Ignoramuses Masquerading as Moral.” In this “The End of Time”, what Jews call the “birth pangs of the Messiah,” ever further from the reality of revelation and prophecy, we are weak-willed and susceptible to the wiles of false leadership.

In the time of Rebbe Nachman, as today, when false religious teachers abound, he reminded us that WE give these teachers their power. By supporting them in any way we lend our energy to their misguided and sometimes evil purposes. The masses that cheer on these preachers are evidence of the weakness and ignorance of the generation. But we can choose to distance ourselves from such teachers. Muslims are often called upon to denounce these men and their messages. I imagine there are Muslim organizations with virtually full-time “Denunciation Departments.” There is a place for that. There is a time to speak up, Rebbe Nachman himself was not shy about denouncing the false teachers of his day. We need to be brave.

The path of denunciation is also fraught with dangers. Islam and Judaism share a powerful distaste for speaking ill of others. An error in this area is spiritually deadly. Made public it becomes an error that is virtually unrepairable. That might explain why some of us (and I am one) are very timid sometimes about denouncing religious leaders who we may believe are “astray and lead others astray.”
The more positive approach perhaps is to work at strengthening and supporting those teachers and build those institutions which teach a wholesome and authentic way of life that encourages us both to observe the law and to appreciate the spirit behind it.

For those of us seeking taqwa / devekus / a genuine intimacy with G-d, Rebbe Nachman emphasizes the importance of true teachers and leaders.

Everyone must search very hard in order to find a true teacher who can help him attain great wisdom and G-dly perception. This requires an outstandingly great teacher who has the power to explain this deep wisdom in terms comprehensible to the simplest people.
The lower a person's level and the further away he is from G-d, the greater the teacher he needs. Thus when the Jewish people were on the lowest of levels in Egypt, sunk in the forty-nine gates of impurity, they needed the greatest rabbi and teacher of all: Moshe Rabbenu. [Musa] For the lower down and further away from G-d a person is, the greater the teacher he needs. He needs a master craftsman who has the ability to bring the supreme wisdom of G-dly perception within the grasp of one as lowly and far away from G-d as himself. The sicker the patient, the greater the doctor he needs. (Likutey Moharan I, 30)

In these days, when any ignoramus with a computer can publish their own books, when politics creates religious “truth” and hatred passes for spiritual zeal, we need real leadership and that real leadership desperately needs us. Not only do these teachers strengthen us but we strengthen them as well. Our support, material, moral, and prayerful empowers them to reach wider audiences and encourages them to refine and perfect their messages. They are the antidote to the ignorance and violence that is framed by the MEMRI videos.

In the words of Reb Natan of Breslov, a prayer…

Please protect me, and save me, so that I don’t attach or affiliate myself with the wrong kind of religious leader, one whose behavior isn’t 100% what it should be, who talks the talk more than walking the walk. Help me to avoid his teachings, to not add his confusion to mine. In addition to everything else, following his advice sucks holiness out of my income which can lead to who-knows-what!
Better to help me any and all tzaddikim[righteous people] whose teachings are 100% unadulterated holiness, whose teachings stem from good ruach (spirit), the ruach of prophecy holy ruach.
(Likutey Tefilot I, #54)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Facing Up to Anger

A week ago, I witnessed a protest in Yorba Linda, California. Church groups, Tea-partiers and the members of some Jewish congregations had been called on to protest the charity fundraising dinner of the Islamic Circle of North America at which two controversial Muslim leaders were speaking. The protesters had gathered to protest both the speakers and the aims of the organization which they see as having a “radical Islamicist agenda.” I will let the reader do their own research to judge the merits of the protest, the organization and its speakers.

The protest itself was a mob scene in which the assembled crowd armed with signs and American Flags hurled insults at the Muslim families who were rushing into the hall or rushing out. They were told to “Go home!” and called “Terrorist.” Women in hijab were special targets. All men were addressed as “Ahmed” and one piously Christian adult made it a point to yell at little children that “Mohammed was a pedophile” others in the crowd followed this with “Jesus loves you!” It was bizarre and it was a disgrace.

As the crowd was yelling, I looked around at the faces of those screaming their insults and I was reminded of a teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.
He taught the following

When a person gives way to anger, it stirs up the great accuser, Esau, or Edom. The accuser in the upper world is the source of a flurry of accusers and enemies who come down and take charge of this angry man. His anger puts his wisdom to flight, and the image of G-d disappears from his face. He no longer has the face of a man. This is why he is in the power of his enemies. Because he has the appearance of a beast they are not afraid of him (Likutei Moharan 57:6).

It is true. What I saw around me were not the faces of human beings but the faces of wild animals. I no longer saw the beautiful reflection of divinity that is the essence of a human being’s soul. That soul had been so defiled by anger, so twisted by blind rage that it was gone.

Strangely seeing that brought me an unusual calm and a strength. My own anger at them retreated, and for a few moments, instead of enraged human beings, I saw cornered frightened snarling animals. Perhaps their fears are not real, but their response was. It was not a human response, certainly not a G-dly response, it was a response from their animal being.

A few days ago, I encountered this teaching of Imam Al-Ghazali in his discussion of the causes of anger and its cure. One of the cures is as follows:

Another kind of medicine based on knowledge is to think about the
ugly face of the angry man, which is just like that of the ferocious
beast. He who appeases anger looks like a sober and learned man.

Unwittingly, I had done Imam al-Ghazali's exercise and it had worked. In the face of the ferocious beast within another I found, at least for some moments, the humanity in myself. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, taught that every experience in our lives has the potential of giving us instruction in our service of G-d. Here it seems very clear. When we are surrounded with hostility we just need to look at the faces around us. We can look into the face that is staring us down and see that inner animal, see the tangible evidence that for that moment, our “enemy” has lost the struggle within and let that experience heal us, to allow the humanity within us to be victorious.

Note on the picture:
To find out more about that picture above from Little Rock, Arkansa in 1957 check out this article. Its quite a story.¤tPage=all

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The World is full of Strife

I have been pretty quiet for these last few weeks as the world has been caught up and continues to be caught up in strife and conflict. The events of these days show us that strife can be as creative as it can be destructive. The struggle both within and without can produce both tremendous good and tremendous evil. This is true not only of strife on a grand scale but for strife at every level. Indeed, as this piece from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov illustrates, all strife bears a common nature, from the conflict of nations to the struggles of the individual with their own multiple selves. I have come back again and again to this piece from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov on the nature of strife and on the nature of struggle. I offer it as a kind of poetic meditation. Please let me know what you think. (As always I love to see parallel texts from the Muslim tradition as well.)

The World is Full of Strife

The entire world is full of strife, between nations of the world, between one city and another. And so in every house, and with the neighbors, between husband and wife and between parents and children.
And yet, no one turns their heart to the ultimate end of life, that people die every day and the day that has past will never be again, that every day brings us closer to death.

Know that each and every form of strife, even that between husband and wife is in reality the same as the struggle between nations. Each member of the family is their own country, and their quarrels are their wars. The qualities of each nation are also reflected in these individuals. Some nations are known for anger, others for blood-thirstiness. Each one has its particular quality. These same traits are found in each household.

Even if you don’t want to fight and you want to live in peace and calm, you are forced into struggle. So it is with nations. A nation may desire peace and make many concessions to achieve it. But no matter how much it tries to remain neutral, it can still be caught up in war. Two opposing sides can demand its allegiance until it is drawn into war against its will.

The same is true in a household. Man is a miniature world. His essence contains the world and everything in it. A man and his family contain the nations of the world, and all their battles.

Thus a man living alone can sometimes go crazy. Right there within him are all the warring nations. His personality is that of the victorious nation. Each time a different nation is victorious, he must change completely and this can drive him insane. He is alone and can’t express the war within him. But when one lives with others, these battles are expressed toward his family and friends…

When the Messiah comes all wars will be abolished. The world will have eternal peace, as it is written, "They will neither hurt nor destroy…" (Isaiah 11:9).

- Sichot HaRan

Thursday, January 27, 2011

An Open Letter to My Friends at Hillel

[IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: The following open letter is not meant in any way as a critique of the Hillel organization or its students. The issues raised are certainly not unique to the students of Hillel, they are part of what goes on in our community generally. As the title and closing suggest, it is a note to friends from a friend. I shared it because I trust that we (Jew, Muslim, Christian or Atheist)are a community who is ultimately concerned about values. In the Jewish community, there has been a lot of public criticism lately and making federal cases rather than opening discussion. This isn't that. This is asking for a change of heart not a change of policy. If you have any comments or questions please direct them to me.]

Shalom Aleichem,

I really enjoyed seeing you all the other night, sharing my one Chassidic joke (the "Mental Floss" picture should remind you) and a Rebbe Nachman story. I love being around college kids. Its energizing and alive and I like that. It was hard though hearing some of your “comedy.” I am not exactly sure why prefixing any concept with the “f” word is supposed to make it more funny. But, ok, maybe that’s just generational. What got me was the denigrating humor. You pretty much hit everyone, blacks, gays, the “f*****g” Latina maid, even the Asians. Then there was the joke about the Jewish guy who refuses to commit to Judaism because he just wants to ***** Muslim girls. Did the joker happen to notice who was sitting next to me? Did you see the young lady in the hijab who dipped her toe into your world only to have it scalded? What do you think she might of thought at that moment? How do you think she might have felt? I suspect she struggled with herself to be generous. I, however, was mortified and ashamed for us.
Now, you know I am close with lots of folks at the MSU. I imagined myself at one of their gatherings, and honestly, I can’t imagine anyone saying anything like that. Publicly denigrating others just would not be acceptable. And if someone had said something that was offensive, I would feel perfectly comfortable walking up to him afterwards and saying, “Ok, that is totally against your values and mine. Its not right and its not ok.” I am confident that I would be heard with respect. It saddens me that didn’t feel that I could do that with you. I don’t feel like we share a common set of values. I don’t feel like I can count on the deeply Jewish sense of respect that I wish you had. I don’t feel like I can appeal to your desire for Jews or Judaism or Hillel to stand for something of ethical or spiritual value because I am not sure that in your eyes it is meant to stand for anything at all. The Tribal gathering is enough. Our institutions are simply grateful that you call yourself Jews and that you choose to socialize with other Jews. We, the elders of the Tribe, are afraid to ask you for more. I was afraid even to tell you, as fundamental as it is to who we are, that denigration of others is not what our tribe is about. I didn’t think you would get it. I thought you would push me away.
I hope you won’t see in this letter an old bearded dude waving his finger at you. I don’t mean to do that. Please see it as my expression of confidence in you in your ability to connect to a Jewishness rooted not just in genetics but in values.
King Solomon in the book of Mishlei (Proverbs 9:8) taught,

Correct a wise person, and they will love you.

This letter is meant to express my trust both in your wisdom and in your respect. I look forward to our continuing friendship.
Shabbat dinner at the Weissman household is really pretty special. I hope you will join us sometime soon. Just email me for a date at or find me on facebook.

Kol tuv (All the best!)
Lee Weissman

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Elephant in The Room: A Fresh Approach

Clearly in any discussion between Jews and Muslims, Israel /Palestine, “Zionism” vs. “Anti-Zionism” is the veritable elephant in the room. I have been contemplating how to approach that subject in a way that is going to be helpful, interesting and promote discussion rather than push everyone to their respective corners. Let me continue with that analogy for a second, the analogy of a room. Most rooms have 4 corners, so you are stuck with 4 possible positions to which to retreat. Imagine however an ever expanding geodesic dome (if you don’t know what that is, you should look it up) in which there are lots and lots of corners, representing a wide variety of potential opinions. If I can create that “space” (I am such a hippy huh?) then maybe we can avoid the solution-stifling rhetoric of “stand with us!” and “whose side are you on anyway?”

So here is the simple plan. Let me know what you think of “Zionism” (Whether you generally identify yourself as a "Zionist" or an "Anti-Zionist” or a "Non-Zionist" (even if you have some discomfort with those labels)in a paragraph in which you do three things.

1) Give your tightest most clear definition of what you mean by the term “Zionism”
2) Explain in personal terms, as if talking to a friend who actually cares what you think and feel, why you think or feel the way you do. How and why do you choose to identify yourself.
3) Give me a short demographic description of yourself - whatever you think folks need to know.
So I might say about myself, “50 years old married Jewish teacher, Interested in Breslov chassidus, living in the United States with grand children in Israel.”

I will then post your responses. Postings will be anonymous and will include only the demographics you provide.

Please invite others to send them to me as well. The more I have the better.

I think it will be a great exercise and a chance to see what real people really think.

Please post directly into the comments or send your comments to me at to repost for you.

Monday, January 17, 2011

To Destroy a Life is to Destroy a World

My continuing meditation on these verses which I presented last week…

For this reason was Adam created alone, to teach us that whosoever destroys a single soul, the Torah regards as guilty as though he had destroyed an entire world; and whosoever preserves a single soul the Torah ascribes merit to him as though he had preserved an entire world.
-Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37a

Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land - it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind. And indeed, there came to them Our Messengers with clear proofs, evidences, and signs, even then after that many of them continued to exceed the limits (e.g. by doing oppression unjustly and exceeding beyond the limits set by Allah by committing the major sins) in the land!.
-Qur’an 5:32 (The Noble Qur'an)

In Jewish thought, we distinguish between two kinds of religious knowledge, aggadata, stories and narratives which convey a moral or spiritual message, and Halacha, law. The verse above is clearly aggadata, a broad moral directive. Its lesson is clear. It teaches us that all killing is the spiritual equivalent of genocide.
Halacha (Law) is much more practical. The Torah’s justice sometimes demands a death sentence (albeit very rarely meted out). That is legal killing. War can also be legal killing. The law is that after a call to peace (which often simply means surrender) a defensive war is sometimes justified. Once justified, there is a recognition in the Halacha that it is a condition of war that both combatants and non-combatants will be killed.
There would seem then to be a kind of disconnect between the aggadata and the Halacha, between the moral ideal of Torah and the its embodiment in law.
It seems to me that the same situation exists in Sharia. The general principal is that all killing is the moral equivalent of genocide. The verse in the Qur’an even references the Jewish teaching. And again, justice sometimes demands a death sentence. And again, war is sometimes justified after an offer of peace. Sharia then limits attacks on non-combatants but again recognizes that sometimes civilian casualties are inevitable.
(This is a quick summary of the Halacha and Sharia. I would be happy to do a more in depth comparative study of the texts that relate to this, if anyone is interested. Please correct me in detail if I am mistaken.)

There would seem to be the same disconnect between the Sharia which allows forms of legal killing and the spiritual direction that all killing is equivalent to genocide.

One way to bridge the gap perhaps is offered by the medieval Jewish scholar, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (the Ramban) writing in 13th century Spain on the verse..

G-d spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to the entire congregation [of] Bnei Yisroel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your G-d, am holy. (holy=qodesh = quds)
-Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:1-2

Ramban comments..

“You shall be holy” Just as I keep away from worldy pleasure so you should keep away from wordly pleasure. According to my opinion this is not just referring to keeping away from inappropriate sexuality as suggested by Rashi. That kind of separation is mentioned many times in scripture with the word “separation”. The fact is that the Torah warns us about forbidden relationships and foods but permits us to have relations with our wives and to eat meat and wine. So we find that a person of a lusty nature has room to engage in licentious behavior with his wife and to guzzle wine and be a glutton with meat. He can do as he pleases in all the areas of foolishness which the Torah otherwise forbids. Observe, that one can be a boor within the bounds of Torah (or with the permission of the Torah) Naval b’ reshut ha Torah..

In other words, a legal system, even a Divine one, in order to be livable by real people in real societies needs to take into account the basic sometimes base drives of human beings . It must be able to accommodate special cases and circumstances. We believe that G-d knows his creatures. It will have loopholes and allowances they may allow people to act pretty badly and still be “within the letter of the law.”

To kill one human being is to destroy a world. It seems to me that these verses are reminders to us that compelling and disturbing spiritual reality to inspire believers to restrict ourselves from the allowances of the law, to be strict with ourselves in our respect for human life. In a generation where so many demonstrate their piety by strictness in ritual observance, this is a call to express our piety in the observance of morality, to choose to refrain from violence against one another.
It also calls us to think very differently about when we do choose to use violence. For example, in western Just War theory, there is as the “doctrine of proportionality.” Here is a scholarly description.

According to the doctrine, a state is legally allowed to unilaterally defend itself and right a wrong provided the response is proportional to the injury suffered. The response must also be immediate and necessary, refrain from targeting civilians, and require only enough force to reinstate the status quo ante. That said, experts say the proportionality principle is open to interpretation and depends on the context. "It's always a subjective test," says Michael Newton, associate clinical professor of law at Vanderbilt University Law School. "But if someone punches you in the nose, you don't burn their house down."

This is a profoundly civilized concept and it makes perfect sense that when it comes to killing more is worse, that a violent response even in self-defense should not be excessive. This is a big part of how we talk about the use and abuse of violence. It is a big part of how we justify violence and for why we decry violence. We weigh the numbers. These verses come to challenge our thinking. They tell us that, in relation to the act of killing, the core of the concept of proportionality is ultimately spiritually obscene. There are no formulas for the weighing of human life. You cannot put infinity on two sides of an equation in any meaningful way. The deeper reality is that human life is infinitely precious. Anyone who has lost anyone they love knows this and yet its so easy to overlook and so easy to forget.

Baruch Hashem, Alhamdulilah - G-d sends us reminders.

Ribbono shel Olam / Rab ul Alameen, help us to be mindful always of the absolute value of each and every one of us. In the acknowledgement of that reality, please help us set the highest standards for ourselves and to encourage others around us to sanctify ourselves even in what is permitted to us for the preservation of every human life, for the preservation of Your world.

The Man on the Bike Goes Into Advertising

From the moment that our common father Avraham / Ibrahim opened his four-sided tent to the world (so says an ancient Jewish source) and demonstrated the power of the One True G-d and practice of kindness, we have been taught to be extraordinarily careful about the welfare of others, both others of our own people (and hopefully its clear by now) those who are not "US." Knowing what others need and providing it is all about the details. Its not about sound bites, its about those who know a situation well, those who have a stake finding out what folks need and providing it. The recipe is simple in concept and extraordinarily difficult in execution.
I read the following article yesterday.

I thought to myself, "So this is what happens when the man on the bike meets Madison Ave." Organizations are competing for our support with slogans and images, some more benign than others, but all meant to convince us without teaching us, to persuade us rather than help us to really understand. Some of them are meant to make us afraid of one another, to make us keep our distance, to close our ears and close our hearts. Even worse, they expect the fate of millions of Palestinians and Israelis to depend on what we come to believe from their advertising. The battle cry for the Jihad of communication is "We can do better!"

My suggestion, close your eyes to the billboards (but keep your eye on the road) and open the flaps to your tent!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

An Open Letter to the Anonymous Man on the Bike

To the anonymous bike rider,
Greetings of Peace!

You may remember us from Saturday morning. I was the Jewish guy in the round hat and the long coat. I was walking with my daughter, the one with the curly reddish hair. We were just over the bridge headed toward the lake when we met you, well kind of met you. Its our Sabbath and we were on the way to synagogue. We don’t drive so it gives us time to talk and solve all the world’s problems. A whole bunch of bicycles passed us in a big group. I think you were just about the last in the pack. As you turned the corner and rode past us you shouted “Free Palestine!” (I found out later that you have done that before to other religious Jews on other Saturday mornings in the same neighborhood.) I joked to my daughter, that to give you the benefit of the doubt, maybe you believe that either my daughter or I are superheros (my daughter could be, I for sure am not) and you figured that we could free Palestine with our superpowers right then and there. Ok, sadly its not so simple but at least your heart would be in the right place. But, as generous as it is, its an unlikely hypothesis.

Lets face it, what you really wanted was to piss me off. Granted, maybe it’s a fair bet. A lot of Jews probably would be upset at the message itself. (Though, you might want to get a field guide to Jews because guys with round black hats and long shiny coats don’t tend to be real political and are often not Zionists at all.) So you were pretty sure this was going to make the Jewish guy angry. Well, you were right but for the wrong reason. Having never met me or spoken to me in our lives, you simply assume that I am a rabid nationalist (I am not) or that I do not want peace and freedom for Palestinians (I do.) Instead of seeing my daughter and I walking and enjoying each others company on their way to pray to G-d, you see a cardboard cutout of your favorite villain at which you can feel free to toss your bumper sticker message like a verbal grenade and run away on your bike. Yeah, I am angry at you, not because you support the cause of Palestine but because in the way you communicate to me you demonstrate that you don’t see ME at all. You don’t see my daughter at all. You are interested in scoring points and not in communication. That makes you part of the problem instead of part of the solution. How much longer do you think we can afford the luxury of talking past one another? How much longer do want to keep dehumanizing each other? Next time, do us both a favor and get off your bike and talk to me. It’s the courageous thing to do. Had you talked to me you might have seen that I am not your enemy, you might have seen that my daughter is one the kindest people you will ever meet and you might have had a forum on this blog to communicate your thoughts with all sorts of people, people who might actually be able to hear you.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that everything one experiences in life has a positive lesson for the service of G-d. I did learn something from you. You were working pretty hard on riding that bike, and yet as busy as your body was peddling, the cause was on your mind and the very moment you saw me the words leaped from your lips.

Ribbono Shel Olam (Rab ul Alameen), no matter how hard I work in this world, no matter how hard I spin my wheels, let my thoughts never stray far from You and may Your great Name always be on my lips. May Your praise leap from my mouth the moment I see the beauty of Your creation. Give peace and purity of heart to my new teacher, the anonymous man on the bike.

Kol tuv (all the best)
I hope we talk soon
-Lee Weissman

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Value of a Life Part I: The texts

For the next two weeks or so, with the help of G-d, and with your assistance, I want to explore some of the implications of these two texts, one from the Talmud and one from the Qur’an. I think they contain very fundamental insights into how we should regard and value human life, including our own. For the moment, let me put them out there for your contemplation and comment. In a few days, I will try to share some thoughts about them.
I am especially counting on my Muslim friends to point me to appropriate tafseers and related Hadiths to help me understand. Please don’t be shy.

Here are the texts…

For this reason was Adam created alone, to teach us that whosoever destroys a single soul * , the Torah regards as guilty as though he had destroyed an entire world; and whosoever preserves a single soul the Torah ascribes merit to him as though he had preserved an entire world.

Furthermore, [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among men,
That one might not say to his fellow, ‘my father was greater than
yours, and that heretics might not say, there are many ruling powers
in heaven.
Again, [we are taught that we descend from one man] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He: for if a man strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be
He, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one
of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged
to say: the world was created for my sake.

-Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37a

[* In many versions, the term “of Israel” will appear here, narrowing the application only to Jews. In the context though, given that it is talking about Adam as the progenitor of all mankind the more narrow wording just doesn’t make sense to me. I am certainly open to hear other’s insights.]

Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land - it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind. And indeed, there came to them Our Messengers with clear proofs, evidences, and signs, even then after that many of them continued to exceed the limits (e.g. by doing oppression unjustly and exceeding beyond the limits set by Allah by committing the major sins) in the land!.

-Qur’an 5:32 (The Noble Qur'an)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An American in Palestine

We are bombarded by voices from the Middle East. Certainly when it comes to the Palestine and Israel, we have become used to one sided, often less than compassionate sources on all sides. It is hard for most of us to get any real sense of what life is like for either Israelis or Palestinians. The following link is to the journal of an American woman, about 23 years old currently living and studying in the Palestinian territories. It describes her experience of both Palestinian, and to some extent Israeli, society with a lot of heart and insight. (Look especially at August and September entries) I would generally say that its best to let people speak for themselves in their own voices. Nevertheless there is a lot to learn from an American eye and an American mindset discovering the situation on her own and talking to us in our own language. I think you will get a lot out of reading this and I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

Brain Storm on the Blog: Truth and its Consequences

The following is a guest posting from Robert H. baseball player, poet, lawyer, former legislative aide on Capitol Hill , community renewal worker, devoted husband, dog owner and dedicated do-gooder. In it he discusses some of the consequences of this blog and the kind of relationships it seeks to create. I would, of course, welcome your comments and thoughts on where this blog can and should go. Should I change the name? Any suggestions?

This blog can change the world. Finding common philosophical-religious ground can foment change, especially if it reaches the emotional roots that govern how we behave. As individuals we continually change one another through our interact...ions (or failure to act). I spent years working to help people form bonds of mutual support. We called these efforts building mutually enhancing relationships. Put more simply, when posited that when we befriend another, their friend can become our friend. Social networks formed. Building networks based upon caring relationships (embracing the notion expressed here of "protection") cuts against the cultural grain and can be heavy lifting. Forming networks that actually support and protect people who live in communities across the socio-economic spectrum depends upon an intentional consistency of concerted action. In practice, this means overcoming barriers of ingrained attitude and unbearable pain. When you seek to reverse the tide of death and vengeance in places like Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Iraq...and the list goes on and on, reaching out to protect another group subject to the wages of violence takes both a network and a strategy that addresses the needs of those who have suffered terrible wrongs. My advice, build this human network as quickly as possible, but also recognize that such efforts, if effective, will attract a strong response from groups dedicated to violence and terror. In other words, this work places people of good will at risk. That's part of the "Struggle" and it takes genuine courage to provide actual security to those you seek to help. As a first step, a core group, if one should form from this effort should begin to formulate a plan of action for those who want to participate locally and from that experience go forward. I wish you all the best in this worthy endeavor, but caution that words are unpredictable agents of change.

footnote: with the use of "Jihadi Jew" you have invited scrutiny from NSA's ubiquitous internet screening. (They will look to find codes and whether the real bad guys can use this group to cloak their efforts). Since this is a medium difficult to control, if not impossible to censor, you may have to live with that. Conceptually, Jihadi Jew as a title and rallying cry seems uneven, one-sided, and somewhat a paternalistic approach of jewish networks to protect muslim brethren and create dialogue. Creating networks that encourage Muslims to protect Jews reciprocally seems to me more consistent with the stated aim. This, in turn, places all Muslims who act in behalf of Jewish friends in the sights of "anti-zionist" extremists. For those serious about genuine change, there's really no choice but to accept a very real peril. Yet who among us willingly paints a target on their backs or the backs of their children? These are very tough questions. At the outset, they must be addressed, and then put aside, because the strength to deal with them takes years of constant to building to address.

Anyway, as an "outsider" that's my take.

- Robert H.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Meditation on the "Golden Rule"

It happened that a certain Non-Jew came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a convert to Judaism, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the carpenter’s yardstick which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, [and said the same thing. Hillel responded, ] ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary; go and learn it.
- Talmud Bavli – Shabbat 31a

[Hillel and Shammai were Rabbis of the 1st century BCE. They were famous for disagreeing with other other while maintaining peaceful relations.]

A man came to Tawus and said, “Advise me."
Tawus said:

I advise you to love God so deeply that nothing is more beloved to you than Him; that you fear Him until there is nothing more feared by you than Him; that you long for His mercy so intensely that it prevents that fear from overwhelming you; and that you love for other people what you love for yourself. Now stand up and leave for I have summarized for you the knowledge of the Torah, the Gospels, the Psalms and the Qur’an.”

Quoted in Zaid Shakir, Treatise for The Seekers of Guidance. P. 223

[I assume this is Tawus Ibn Kaysan (8th cent C.E) was one of the narrators of hadith]

The similarity between these two texts is obvious. Relatively attentive public-school educated Americans of my age will recognize them as variants on the “Golden Rule”

“Do unto others what you would have them do unto you!”

This is really a paraphrase of line from the Gospels. (which of course they failed to mention)
"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Matthew 7:12) [ I couldn’t resist the King James English forgive me.]

I have often wondered why Hillel’s phrasing is negative “what is hateful to you don’t do to others.” My best guess is that it is more practical. I may not know what I want but I do know what I don’t want. My desires may be a jumble of conflicting motives but I know with painful certainty what hurts me. Neurobiologists have come to the conclusion that positive and negative stimuli are processed by two side-by- side systems. The Negative system is far more sensitive and acute. [That’s why criticisms so often sting way far more intensely than compliments tickle the ego. The glow of a compliment may last for moments. The pain of sharp critique can last forever.] So even if this won’t necessarily lead me to do overwhelming good, it will at least lead me to immediately do no harm. That is progress.

I will add that doing for other people what you would want them to do for you is risky business. Think of all those gifts that you got for someone else because YOU liked them. I suspect we are much more alike in what we find aversive than in what we find attractive.

In addition to introductory call to love and fear of G-d which is as kosher as it is beautiful, Tawus’ version adds a passion to the concept. LOVE for others what you love for yourself. Its not only about what you do. Its about really caring and investing yourself which, of course, will lead to doing for others.

And both sources agree, this is the BIG THING. This is the ultimate piece of advice.
The key to using this advice effectively and perhaps the most amazing similarity between these two texts is at the end.
Hillel says “Go and learn!”
Tawus tells his student “Stand up and leave!”
Now get up and do something about it. Go learn more. Go do what I said. You got the message. This is not information to sit on. You got the advice and now its yours and its up to you to decide what you do with it.
That Greek boy standing precariously balanced on one foot and Tawus’ anonymous seeker, who are they really? They are everyone and they are all of us. And the message to us is clear. We have been reminded that amidst the complexity of all that we do to serve G-d there is an inner simplicity. We are in amazing training programs designed to make us wonderful people who love and fear their Creator but the ultimate mission is the furthering of kindness in the world. Learning how to do that in the real world. is our job.
“Go!” says Hillel
“Stand up and leave!” says Tawus.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Raising the perfect grapes: The religious significance of the Land of Israel

I was recently asked by a Muslim student about the religious significance of the Land of Israel to Jews. This is of course a huge and important question. I am a little daunted. Rather than try to give an answer. (The truth as always is that there are multiple answers) let me offer something to stimulate our thought. This material is from a famous Judeo-Arabic book the Kitab –Al Khazari by Rabbi Yehudah haLevi, written in the 11th century.

The book is framed as a dialogue between the King of the Khazars (a Turkic tribe in search of a religion) and a Rabbi. In the course of their discussions, the king asks the Rabbi ”Just how important is the Land of Israel?” The king is genuinely perplexed by the whole concept of a “Holy Land.” Land is land? So what is the "holy" all about. I think a lot of us share his question.

[A note on terminology .The 19th century translation of the Kuzari uses “Palestine” as the then current geo-political designation which I preserved. The Hebrew translation of the original Arabic text uses “Eretz Yisrael” “the Land of Israel”. Many religious Jews, including myself, may avoid the use of the simple term “Israel” to distinguish between “Medinat Yisrael” the “State of Israel” “Eretz Yisrael” the “Land of Israel.” The latter has clear religious significance as the land given to our ancestors for the particular service of G-d. The former may or may not. That itself is a great subject of debate within contemporary Judaism.]

Here is what the Rabbi responds on the importance of Palestine/Land of Israel…

“The Rabbi: Here is how important it is in our scriptures. It says: All roads lead up to Palestine [The Land of Israel], but none from it. Concerning a woman who refuses to go there with her husband, they decreed that she is divorced, and forfeits her marriage settlement. On the other hand, if the husband refuses to accompany his wife to Palestine, he is bound to divorce her and pay her settlement. They further say: It is better to dwell in the Holy Land, even in a town mostly inhabited by idolaters than abroad in a town chiefly peopled by Jews; for he who dwells in the Holy Land is compared to him who has a G-d, whilst he who dwells abroad is compared to him who has no G-d. Thus says David: 'For they have driven me out this day from abiding in the inheritance of the Lord, saying, Go, serve other gods' (1 Sam. xxvi. 19), which means that he who dwells abroad is as if he served strange gods. They praise him who is in the land more than him who is carried there after death. This is expressed thus: He who embraces it when alive is not like him who does so after his death. They say concerning him who could live there, but did not do so, and only ordered his body to be carried thither after his death:. Other sayings are: Fines can only be imposed in the land itself; no slave must be transported abroad, and many similar regulations. Further, the atmosphere of the Holy Land makes one wise. They expressed their love of the land as follows: He who walks four yards in the land is assured of happiness in the world to come.”

This paragraph expresses nicely just how important the Land of Israel is to Jews.
Still it doesn't really answer the why.

Later in the book, The Kitab al-Khuzari addresses the "Why?" question an analogy or parable (a mashal) which beautifully describes the relationship between the Jewish people and the land. He compares to Jewish people to a grape vine and the land of Israel to a hillside which is perfect for growing grapes. Other plants could grow there but its perfect for grapes. Similarly, the grapes could grow somewhere else but they would never be quite as sweet. This hill has just the right kind of soil and just the right exposure to sun for growing grape vines. Now, if you planted these grapes on that perfect land but failed to water and fertilize them them, they might survive but they would be stunted and bitter.. Rabbi Yehudah haLevi compares the commandments of the Torah to the watering and nurturing of the plants. So when you take the grape vine of the Jewish people [just the right people] and put them in that land [just the right land] and nourish them with the commandments of the Torah [just the right treatment], they flourish and produce the perfect fruit. So the flourishing of the Jewish people depends both on being rooted in the Land of Israel and on the nourishment of G-d's commandments.

It is a beautiful parable and I have often contemplated it. It raises some interesting questions.

What does it say about the diaspora experience? (Grapes planted on foreign soil)
What does it say about non-Jews in the land? (Other plants)
What does it say about the secular state? (a vineyard without cultivation)

I invite others to share their thoughts. These posts are really meant only to stimulate thought and discussion.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Is support of Israel the religion of American Jews?

I do not want to be accused of avoiding the elephant in the room, or better, in the closet. I think of this blog as a little like my Shabbat table. It’s a place for different kinds of people to come together, sing, talk about G-d and spiritual stuff and share wisdom. Now imagine you are at my home for Shabbat and you hear a polite but insistent trumpeting from the closet. You might want to open the closet and check it out. If you are smart you are not going to swing that door too wide. Just enough to peek and formulate a plan for getting a closer look at that elephant. That elephant is “Israel” and this post is my first attempt to crack open that closet door.

Let me begin by saying that figuring out what Israel means to Jews is really complicated because what it means to Jews is really complicated . Its also very diverse. In my experience, that diversity is not well understood either inside the Jewish community and worse outside it. I hope that my Jewish brothers and sisters will step up and contribute their perspectives so we can see them. They range, as you will see, from an religious almost mystical connection to the Land of Israel as a holy land to purely secular and often very pragmatic views of the State of Israel.

In America, support of Israel (emotionally, financially and politically) has become for many their primary expression of Jewish identity. The following is an excerpt from an opinion piece by Eric Alterman from Moment Magazine “The New Religion for America’s Jews: Israel” (Noveember/December 1010) p. 19. I found it provocative and I thought it might make a good launch point for discussion.

When memory is the primary content of one’s Jewish identity, the identity fades as the distance from the remembered experience (like the memory of the Holocaust) grows. And yet in an ethnically defined America in which everybody is something, Jews need a way to feel themselves Jewish—to connect with that part of their identities—in the absence of any knowledge or much interaction with the texts and community that have sustained Jews for centuries.
Without these, many have turned to the defense of Israel as a kind of religious precept and the result, too often, is a repetition of political talking points as if they were the Amidah. [the main standing whispered prayer at the heart of all Jewish prayer services] They are not and will not sustain generation after generation with what is, after all, vicarious experience, and one that is based less on a genuine attachment to Israel than to a mythic version of it. And therein lies the still unsolved dilemma.

see the full article at

This raises some powerful questions:

Has the support of Israel replaced Judaism as the religion of many American Jews?

Is the Israel they support the Israel of reality or the Israel of mythic idealization?

If support of Israel becomes a point of “piety” does it prevent us from thinking about it critically and force us into denouncing those who do as “heretics”?

Where does support of Israel (or even critique) fit into the viewpoints of those who are Observant Jews and do have strong connections to Jewish learning and practice?

How might understanding this quasi-religious force help Muslims and Jews communicate more effectively? Does misunderstanding now act as a barrier?

I look forward to your sharing your thoughts

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Manners of the Righteous

I learned the following this morning with my students in the Talmud Bavli, Taanit 5b. I was touched by its simplicity and beauty. For a moment I was able to envision a world in which people practiced derech eretz/adab in the most casual interactions. The English word "etiquette" fails to capture the delicacy and depth of a mode of behavior that proceeds so naturally from inner sweetness and righteousness. May G-d help us learn from this example and find these qualities in ourselves.

When they were about to part, Rav Nahman said to Rav Yitzchak: Please Master, bless me. He replied: Let me tell you a parable — To what may this be compared? To a man who was journeying in the desert; he was hungry, weary and thirsty and he came upon a tree the fruits of which were sweet, its shade pleasant, and a stream of fresh water was flowing beneath it; he ate of its fruits, drank of the water, and rested under its shade. When he was about to continue his journey, he said: Tree, O Tree, with what shall I bless you? Shall I say to you, ‘May your fruits be sweet’? They are sweet already; that your shade be pleasant? It is already pleasant; that a stream of water may flow beneath you? Behold, a stream of water flows already beneath you; therefore I say, ‘May it be G-d’s will that all the shoots that grow from you should be just like you.’. So also with you. With what shall I bless you? With the knowledge of the Torah? You already possess it. With riches? You have riches already. With children? You have children already. Hence I say to you, ‘May it be G-d’s will that your offspring be just like you’.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ending the Cult of Condemnation

One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies. Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties. For the offender, they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore. The result of the apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.
- Aaron Lazarre On Apology, p.1

I like apologies and the expressing of condolence. There is something beautiful and peace-making about expressing pain when others are harmed and taking responsibility when I am guilty. I can apologize not just for myself. As a Jew, I believe that all Jews are mystically intertwined and I can’t and shouldn’t distance myself from responsibility for the action of fellow Jews. I can apologize for them too.

For the modern Believer it is not the condolence or the apology which is called for but the “condemnation.” One is called on on again and again to condemn the beliefs and behavior of co-religionists. In the aftermath of the tragic attack on a Coptic Church in Egypt, Muslim leaders have rushed to condemn the action. I imagine that for public-minded leaders in the Muslim community this has become a major part of their job.
On a decidedly smaller scale and in relation to different issues, Jews and Christians face the same need to condemn the behavior of others.

Here are two examples so we don’t feel left out.

I find the condemnations sterile and formulaic. Even worse, I find them totally ineffective. With all the condemnations by all the religious leaders, things are a still a mess. Condemnations do not change behavior.

When dealing with the largely legal traditions of Islam and Judaism, it seems to me that the reason for that failure is clear.

My thinking on this has been shaped by an interview I heard with Tariq Ramadan a well- known Swiss intellectual, philosopher and Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Orienal Studies at Oxford University.

French Prime Minister Sarkozy accused Ramadan of defending the stoning of adulterers. When asked about the practice Ramadan said that he favored “a moratorium” on such practices but he refused to condemn the law outright. Many were outraged. Here is how Ramadan explains his position.

“Personally,” he said, “I’m against capital punishment, not only in Muslim countries, but also in the U.S. But when you want to be heard in Muslim countries, when you are addressing religious issues, you can’t just say it has to stop. I think it has to stop. But you have to discuss it within the religious context. There are texts involved. I am not just talking to Muslims in Europe, but addressing the implementation of huddud [this punishment] everywhere, in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Middle East. And I’m speaking from the inside to Muslims. Speaking as an outsider would be counterproductive..”

His point, I believe is a powerful one. No believing Muslim or Halachic Jew cares what I think. My personal condemnation based on my personal views and scruples is simply not of interest. In the post-enlightenment West where individualism rules supreme perhaps the condemnation of an individual has some teeth, but for religious folks ruled by text and interpretation of text, they mean little. The words of someone outside the tradition are simply in the wrong language. For those of us outside, before entering the discussion we need to learn the language.
Even from inside the tradition, the critique needs to come from an accurate and educated exposition of text. The morality of an act is not determined by personal opinion but by a normative tradition of textual interpretation. Both for religious Jews and for religious Muslims, morality is determined by law. Of course, there are larger broad values, protection of human life, kindness, peace, fairness, concern for property, but those are acted upon through law. Legal decision can work where condemnation fails.
It is through appeals to a real grounded morality with centuries of tradition behind it that real change be made.
Clearly however the traditional formats of communicating these decisions may not work. The legal pronunciation (fatwa for Muslims, psak or teshuvah for Jews) in its traditional form was made for a different kind of world. It was made for small, localized communities of believers. To use the American idiom it was all about “preaching to the choir.” The powers of persuasion were left to sermonizers whose job was to stir the heart and not necessarily the mind. In these tight insular communities this works pretty well. Scholars make decisions, post them on walls and the masses comply. Competing opinions are posted on other walls, there is a scuffle here and there, pamphlets are published and codified into books and somehow it all works out in the end. In the Global Village, this is not going to work. Scholars need to use new media and new forms of mass communication that convey the beauty of their message while speaking to people in the information saturated grit in which they may they now live. Sermonizing without education almost invariably leads to bad behavior. Morally, religiously uneducated masses are dangerous. Morally educated masses could be world transforming.
There are those who have begun to do this. They are creating the alternative to the condemnation.

The following is a piece by Imam Zaid Shakir, co founder of Zaytuna College in Northern California. I present it as a model of how to address a pressing topic without simply issuing a “condemnation.” I applaud Iman Zaid for his creativity, his pragmatic earthiness and his commitment to the sound principles of his religion.

I sincerely hope his estimation of the IDF is wrong.

[a whispered note to my fellow non-Muslims…
It may seem to you that all of a sudden there are these “moderate” good Muslims out there and I am performing some slight-of-hand by quoting them while ignoring “radical” opinions. I do not believe there is anything “moderate” about the message beyond the moderation that may be part of Islam itself. That moderation is in my estimation completely authentic and grounded in a normative textual tradition. The existence of less grounded understandings with loud and violent adherents doesn’t change that. What you hear in scholars like Imam Zaid is a fresh and authentic voice from which we can learn.]

Letter to a Would-be Mujahid
14 December 2010

Recent developments have forced me to put some things on hold to write you this letter. You might ask how I know you. I have met you at student events, in mosques, and at conferences. I have listened to your arguments and I have made my counter arguments. Oftentimes, my arguments have been somewhat formal. I figured I would write you a letter, since that is a lot more personal and less formal. Perhaps this way you will be more inclined to listen.

To begin with, whenever you are criticized for your bloody, anarchistic ideology, you point to the bloody abuses of the American war machine or their Zionist accomplices. This diversionary tactic on your part does not impress serious and thoughtful people. It is simply an abdication of your moral responsibility. It is as if you are saying you reserve the right to violate established Islamic principles, such as those guaranteeing the protection of innocent life, because the American military or the IDF do no respect innocent Muslim life. That would be a credible argument if the American military or the IDF claimed to be operating on the basis of Islamic principles. They don’t, but you do. I hope, without further elaboration, you can immediately sense the moral dilemma you are creating for yourself.

Along those lines, please allow me to remind you of something else. Your misguided attempts to kill and maim innocent Americans only make it easier for the American military to kill more Muslims with greater impunity. Your actions help to create a political climate that removes any moral restraint from the actions of the American military, the IDF and soon the forces of India’s increasingly Hindu nationalist armed forces. You see, fear is a very potent emotion and when it is carefully manipulated it can lead to very irrational politics. That most extreme form of those politics is called genocide.

Fear can be especially dangerous when it is combined with another emotion, insecurity. You are so divorced from reality that you probably haven’t noticed that a lot of Americans are extremely insecure right now. Especially, the white middle class or what is left of it. They don’t know if they will soon lose their homes, if they will have a job tomorrow, if their money will be in the bank next week, if they will be able to send their children to college or if their retirement funds will be stolen or totally devalued. Those insecurities combined with the spectre of the “Muslim terrorist next door” are a lethal combination that a group of people called demagogues is exploiting to justify an all out war on Muslims.

Those demagogues use the fear of you to prevent people from building the kind of grassroots, popular, movements that are necessary to challenge the corporate rape of our society and from challenging the destructive logic of permanent war. For example, remember the growing movement to challenge the new invasive TSA screening procedures at airports? Did you notice how it disappeared after the would-be mujahid in Portland allowed himself to be trapped into the scheme to blow up the Christmas tree ceremony? Do you think the timing was accidental? It is a shame that you and your ilk are so mindlessly complicit in such schemes.

Now you think the mujahideen can win an all out war against the Americans. Look at what the mujahideen are doing to them in Afghanistan. Sorry, but Afghanistan is not what all out war looks like. I’ll give you a clue what all out war looks like. Remember a couple years ago when the Israelis were bombarding the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Muslims, for all of their courage, couldn’t do anything except appeal to outside powers to stop the carnage? Or a few years before that when Jenin was flattened? Think of the scale of that devastation expanded to encompass all of the major cities of the Muslim world. Imagine America unleashing a new generation of “tactical” nuclear weapons being designed to be used specifically against Muslims targets raining down on Muslim capitals and there is no Muslim strategic deterrent available to stop it. AK-47s and RPGs will be of no avail. Imagine the calls to human rights organizations to stop the slaughter finding no ears to hear them because the neo-fascist forces your stupidity has helped to unleash have swept those organizations away in its maddening torrent.

I have heard you counter that such an argument is a manifestation of a lack of faith. God has promised the believers victory. Indeed, He has. However, it is very pretentious of you to assume that someone who murders women, children and innocents with blazon impunity in the Name of God are the believers that victory has been promised to. He has promised the believers victory, but that promise is not unconditional. God is not going to give victory to people who murder in His Holy Name.

I applaud your courage, but how it manifests itself puzzles me. You have the courage to fly halfway around to world to engage in an armed struggle, but you do not have the courage to knock on your neighbor’s door to explain Islam to him or to give him your take on world affairs. I am also baffled at how you can smile in his face, but are ready to blow him up if he happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. What calculus do you use to assume he would not be amenable to your message? What has he done to you to be the target of your bloodlust?

You claim a refined understanding of Islam, so refined that you can make grave decisions concerning life and death, decisions with huge strategic implications –yet you seem to perceive nothing of the divine wisdom of your being in this country. You have an opportunity to be an educator at a time people are looking for a new way. You have an opportunity to be a guide at a time people are looking for a new direction. You have an opportunity to provide a source of spiritual solace at a time people are confused, angry and afraid. You have an opportunity to be a fierce advocate for truth at a time when lies are transforming the image of your religion and the direction of your country. You have the skills, the command of the language, the knowledge of the people to do all of that and more, but you choose to run away from this battle to join one you do not even know who the commander is.

Did I say that? “To join a battle you do not even know who the commander is.” No! I didn’t say that. Do you think that if the FBI can send fake mujahids into mosques all around America to find confused, vulnerable Muslims, develop fake bomb plots, with fake bombs, for very real political objectives, the CIA couldn’t do the same thing abroad? No, wait a minute. Didn’t the CIA build the Afghan mujahideen network? Didn’t what’s his name, Zbigniew Brzezinski, describe the Afghan operation as the CIA’s finest hour?

They would never use fake mujahids, operating through fake websites, to recruit confused and desperate Muslim youth to engage in operations that keep the climate of fear alive, would they? They wouldn’t do that to keep support for bloodsucking, treasury-draining wars alive at a time when there is no money for the poor, the elderly, health-care, education, infrastructure or investment in the green economy. No! It’s preposterous. Those would be psychological operations (psych ops) and that would be cheating. America never cheats, we’re the good guys!

I apologize, I’m tripping. On a serious note, I hope you don’t one day end up feeling as stupid and abused as young Antonio Martinez or Mahomed Osman Mohamud, the Somali kid in Oregon, are probably feeling right now. They have been tricked, deceived, used, and abused by fake mujahids and then thrown in a dungeon to rot for the rest of their lives. Do you think your fate will be any different? Don’t be a fool.


Imam Zaid Shakir