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Imam Mujahid Congratulates Rabbi Saperstein

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, preaches at a Washington, D.C., service in 2002. He says the Ten Commandments continue to be featured artistically in synagogues. Photo courtesy of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions Board Chair Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid extends congratulations to Rabbi David Saperstein on his nomination by President Obama to lead the United States Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom. Saperstein who serves as Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism would become the first non-Christian to take the office now vacant for nine months.

Board Chair Mujahid welcomes the unprecedented move of the Obama Administration to advance a Jewish Rabbi to lead the office first established by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

Mujahid’s congratulatory letter highlights Saperstein’s “admirable record of touching humanity through faith-based justice,” and commends his expert leadership as an example of how progress can be achieved through engaging the guiding institutions.

In addressing the interfaith movement at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, Saperstein hosted an engagement session entitled “The State and Religious Freedom,” and was featured prolifically on panels including:

  • Poverty Must No Longer Be With Us with Huruhisa Handa, Jim Wallis, Katherine Marshall, Dr. A T Ariyaratne, Tim Costello, Sulak Sivaraksa and Sr. Joan Chittister
  • Democracy and Diversity in Global Perspective with Anwar Ibrahim, Pal Ahluwalia, Bishop Peter Elliott, Dr. M Din Syamsuddin, and Dr. Barabara McGraw
  • The Role of Religion and Spirituality in the Public Discourse with Archbishop Philip Freier

Designated in Newsweek’s 2009 list as the most influential rabbi in the country and described in a Washington Post profile as “the quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill,” Rabbi David Saperstein represents the national Reform Jewish Movement to Congress and the Administration as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The Center not only advocates on a broad range of social justice issues but provides extensive legislative and programmatic materials to synagogues nationwide, and coordinates social action education programs that train nearly 3,000 Jewish adults, youth, rabbinic and lay leaders each year.

Read more about Rabbi David Saperstein.

 

 

 

Rosh Hashana’s Sacred Bread Offers Meaning in Many Shapes and Sizes

The traditional challah for the upcoming Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashana, is round. But as this bakery demonstrates, other shapes offer symbolic meanings. Photo from Getty Images.

by Deena Prichep
from National Public Radio

Challah is a rich, eggy bread baked every week for the Jewish sabbath, or shabbat. But for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year that starts at sundown, it gets a few tweaks. There’s a little extra honey or sugar, for a sweet new year. And instead of the usual long braid, it’s round.

Mimi Wilhelm, who bakes challah for her family every week, teaches a challah-making class through Chabad Oregon. “The reason that we do the round challah, versus the braids, for Rosh Hashana, is because the year is round, it represents that idea. This looks like a crown, for crowning God as king on Rosh Hashana.”

But crowns and braids aren’t the only shapes around. Charles Levy grew up in Morocco and is now the president of Congregation Ahavath Achim, Portland’s Sephardic temple, which is largely made up of Jews of non-Eastern European descent. Growing up, he saw Rosh Hashana challahs in all sorts of forms. “Some of the people in Morocco will emulate animals, like a swan, or often you’ll have a head-like lion, lion of David. Or gdi, which is like a gazelle, a very fine and good-looking animal,” he says.

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September 24th, 2012 at 11:55 am

Protecting the Earth Through Interfaith Education and Activism

Photography credit to the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development.

The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development’s Interfaith Climate Change Forum.

by Yonatan Neril
from The Huffington Post

The Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison tells the following story: A young girl with a bird in her hands went to a wise person. The child asked the wise person, “Is the bird in my hands alive or dead?” If the answer was “dead,” she would open her hands. If the answer was “alive,” she would close her hand and kill the bird. The wise person, sensing her intention, responded, “I cannot say whether the bird is alive or dead, but I can say that the fate of the bird is in your hands.”

Today we have in our hands not one bird, and not just all birds, but all living beings on our planet, including 7 billion human beings.

I grew up on an acre of land in California with a large orchard and organic garden. In my BA and MA studies with a focus on global environmental issues, I conducted research in India on renewable energy and in Mexico on genetically modified corn. I came to see first-hand global environmental changes that humanity is effecting on this planet. Following these studies and research, I studied for a number of years in a rabbinic program. Because of my environmental background, I encountered traditional Jewish texts from a particular lens, and realized that my own tradition offers profound teachings that relate to environmental sustainability. I also came to realize that other faith traditions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and others — also speak deeply about the roots of and solutions to our environmental challenges. Based on this understanding, I founded The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development to access the collective wisdom of the world’s religions to promote co-existence and environmental sustainability through education and action.

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Bussy-Saint-Georges, the Town with Built-in Religious Harmony

Photography Credit to Philippe Wojazer/Reuters from the Guardian.

Workmen prepare the European Regional Temple in Bussy-Saint Georges.

by Stephanie Le Bars
from The Guardian Weekly

Hugues Rondeau is the Radical party mayor of Bussy-Saint-Georges, a new town in the Paris suburbs. His taste for “ordered urban space” has led to an innovation: the multi-faith district. On a plot of land just beyond the built-up area, he has authorised the construction of several places of worship.

“Here there will be two Buddhist temples, a mosque, a synagogue, a Chinese evangelical church and an Armenian cultural centre,” said the mayor, a practising Catholic who is convinced that in a secular state the government should not turn a blind eye to religious fact. “Our 30,000 inhabitants are mostly of foreign origin with 45% from Asia,” he said. “We couldn’t deprive them of their religious practice.”

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Making Room for People With Disabilities

Photo Credit to Creative Commons by Patrick Brown
from State of Formation

Each person was different and each brought with them their own challenges and gifts. Some of them had significant language challenges and behavior problems that were hard to navigate. Some were capable of a relatively normal life with a job, social life, and real community. The major aspect of the person center planning process is dreaming. This is what seemed to be the most difficult part of the institutional environment. As much as these people were cared for and even happy to some extent, they had very few dreams for themselves and the only people in their lives were paid to be there and so no one had aspirations for these people beyond the most basic care. My mom and I had to stretch ourselves to think of dreams for these people we didn’t even know. These individuals had been cut off from their families and natural relationships and put into a clinical environment that lacked the kind of creativity, which can only come from genuine relationships.

The experience has made me reflect on how important community is to human dignity and fulfillment. One of the most attractive aspects of organized religions is their capacity for community. When talking to these individuals about what they want out of life, participation is a faith community was a common desire. I’ve known many people with disabilities who have found strength and acceptance in their faith communities. My sister reads the bible more than anyone else I know. She always asks me about different characters and stories that shes been reading and I don’t always know the passages she is referring to. She is someone that takes her faith seriously and yet our home parish has no program to support her and so she attends a bible study at another church. Christian congregations generally don’t have a good grasp on how to incorporate people with disabilities. The bible study that my sister goes to is a special group, only for people with developmental delays and cognitive disabilities. There are a lot of programs out there with similar models. The problem is that they simply create a separate but equal kind of system where people with disabilities have to participate in a parallel congregation. I haven’t seen any programs that have really incorporated people with disabilities in to the main parish programming.

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Dressing With Faith, Not Heat, in Mind

Photo Credit Michael Nagle for the New York Times

A Traditional Hasidic Jewish Outfit

by Joseph Berger
from The New York Times

When the mercury passes 90, most New Yorkers start to wilt. Many resort to shorts and tank tops, even in the office. More than a few bankers and lawyers reach for their seersuckers.

Yet amid all the casual summer wear, in some neighborhoods more than others, Hasidic men wear dark three-piece suits crowned by black hats made of rabbit fur, and Hasidic women outfit themselves in long-sleeved blouses and nearly ankle-length skirts. To visibly cooler New Yorkers, they can look painfully overdressed.

Some New Yorkers who are not Hasidic surely ask themselves: How on earth do they stay cool?

The answer is a mix of the spiritual and, yes, the creatively physical. The Hasidim will tell you they have learned to live comfortably in all seasons with their daily attire.

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July 5th, 2012 at 1:54 pm

A Review of Ruth Broyde Sharone’s “Minefields & Miracles”

The book cover of Minefields & Miracles.

by Paul Chaffee
from The Interfaith Observer

…Like other readers charmed by Ruth’s TIO articles each month, I knew her ‘story’ would be fascinating. Anyone meeting her quickly learns how much she loves her Jewish tradition and how, from that posture, she has become a promotional force of nature supporting grassroots interfaith engagement around the world.

Little did I guess, though, that Minefields & Miracles would be the best interfaith book published since Acts of Faith (2007) by Eboo Patel. Ruth and Eboo both grew up in Chicago and happen to share a remarkable capacity: their compelling personal stories read like can’t-put-it-down novels, all the while leading us through spiritual, religious questions, provoking us, teaching us, time and again inciting a-ha! moments. Ruth’s odyssey is a feast of extraordinary interfaith encounters resonating long after you leave a page.

Her high-level energy is evident from the start and never lets up. Expelled from college housing when administrators discover her Jewish heritage (the first of many “minefields”), a fierce sense of justice became her spiritual bone marrow. Graduating from college, she turned to journalism, choosing, as a beginner, the daunting route of independent international correspondent. Her goal: to identify, visit, and write about Jewish communities throughout Central and South America.

Click here to read full article

 

Jewish Life in Shanghai’s Ghetto

Much of Shanghai’s Jewish Quarter has disappeared, but visitors still can see some of the buildings, like this one, where thousands of refugees lived alongside the city’s residents. Photo from NYTimes.com

by Casey Hall
from the New York Times

Shanghai–While much of the city’s Jewish Quarter has disappeared in the years since the end of World War II, the Ohel Moshe Synagogue is a constant reminder of how this Chinese city saved tens of thousands of Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

Built by Russian Jews in 1927 in the Hongkou district in northern Shanghai, the synagogue was the primary religious destination for the Jewish refugees who flooded into the city.

And while its facade has not changed, the building now is the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. It is the first stop for many visitors seeking information about what the Holocaust scholar David Kranzler called the “Miracle of Shanghai.”

About 20,000 refugees settled around the synagogue, in an area called the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees but more commonly known as the Jewish Ghetto. The 2.68 square kilometers, or about a square mile, which was cordoned off by the Japanese who controlled the city, also was home to 100,000 Shanghaiese, who were welcoming to their new neighbors, according to Jian Chen, the museum’s director.

Click here to read the full article

June 25th, 2012 at 10:55 am

Seminary Student Reflects on Religious Pluralism Class

The following article is a final synthesis paper written by Lora Burge, a seminarian at McCormick Theological Seminary. The course, Religious Pluralism and the Ministry, has been taught by Prof. Robert Cathey and CPWR Trustee Janaan Hashim since 2006.  The course developed as an off-shoot from the 2004 Parliament in Barcelona.  Over the course of the semester, students actively study five faith traditions: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Hinduism.  Students’ final reading includes Tariq Ramadan’s The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism.  Equipped with a semester of observation, research, and writing, students leave the class working on a philosophical and/or theological framework for thinking about religious pluralism in Chicago and beyond.  With Ms. Burge’s permission, Prof. Cathey and Prof. Hashim are pleased to share with you this young interfaither’s thoughts.  Enjoy.

Finding a Universal

by Lora Burge

Humility is my table, respect is my garment, empathy is my food and curiosity is my drink.  As for love, it has a thousand names and is by my side at every window.  –Tariq Ramadan  [1]

Approaching the sacred, finding the holy, listening to the divine, worshiping God within and among us.  As I reflect on the journey and experiences of this semester, I can’t help but marvel at everything I saw and observed.  On one hand, it’s hard to make comparisons between the different religions.  Friday afternoon prayers, puja, and a Shabbat service are organized different ways for different purposes.  Yet, on the other hand all these involved searching.  Looking out and watching for something bigger, something outside of themselves, something beyond human reason and quantifiable experience.  They were seeking Brahman, Allah, YHWH, God, enlightenment.

Growing up in a pluralistic, postmodernist world, I have always been taught to be suspicious of overarching truths and meta-narratives.  I’m well-steeped in the practice of criticism and always asking “Whose truth?  Whose narrative?  Who’s speaking?  And with what authority?”  I wonder if those questions don’t put more distance between myself and my neighbors.  Are these questions I was taught to ask other-izing the “other”?  It’s a lot easier to ignore, overlook, and mistreat people when central parts of their identity and belief have been objectified away.

I am such a product of my own education that I have a hard time conceptualizing what a universal truth would look like.  I was taught to be so suspicious of any universals as to make them seem an impossibility.  I will always be a child of postmodernism, understanding life in terms of social constructs, contextual truths, and lived experience.  It seems unlikely (at least now) that I will completely break out of this mold of thought that has been the result of two decades of education.  Yet now I criticize the critical mode of thought itself.  If we objectify all truth, and conceptualize of each human being as living in her or her own uniquely-constructed world, then we’ve erased the possibility of common ground and shared experience.  Anybody outside of myself will always be “other” to my reality.  Not just somewhat “other,” or different, but completely so, which will make relating and understanding each other difficult.

Here’s the crux of it: by asking so many questions and stripping things bare as social constructs and humanity-made realities, we’ve removed the common ground out from under our own feet.  Precisely by focusing on each individual’s uniqueness, we’ve lost sight of or lost altogether the universal nature of our own humanity.  We are making “other” out of our own flesh and blood.  Until we learn a new way of thinking, we will continue to push people away as irreconcilably different.

The Universal

Something then must be done to reclaim our common ground.  It is not hard to see the ways in which our world is tearing itself apart: wars, violence, poverty, economic injustice, and more.  Yet how will we put it back together with such differences?  It is imperative that we relearn how to understand our common humanity rather than focusing on differences.

If nothing else, we all share in the same humanity.  We all breathe, eat, sleep, learn, and to some extent live in community with other human beings.  Some faith traditions understand the condition of being human as the nature of being created in the image of God.  Some understand the human condition as rooted in suffering.  To others, being human is something to be mastered through rigorous spiritual disciplines.  Regardless of our personal understandings of what it means to be human, we all are, and that is one universal characteristic that we share.  Across religious, political, ethnic, racial, cultural, economic and any other constructed categories that divide us, we are all human.  So what are we to do with our universal human nature?

It is time to recognize that shared humanity in itself is enough of a foundation for shared common ground.  We must move forward understanding that we share at least one thing with the rest of the world: our being.  This shared existence is something to be honored and respected.  Tariq Ramadan notes that, “We must love human beings, with their qualities, their beauties and their difference, but also with their weaknesses, their doubts and their fears.  This means acknowledging that they, like us, are capable of the best and the worst.[…]  Our love must be resolutely universal, and eager to share.”[2]  If human nature is the universal condition, then love must become the universal action.  Each of us from personal experience knows of the human potential for good or for evil, and everything in between.  Love cannot be measured out on the basis of works and worthiness: this will only lead to constructed divisions, categories, and the naming of people as foreign “others.”

Instead, this universal love needs to be something that we have in common and something that brings us together.  The free, unconditional giving of love is not something that comes easy.  Survival instincts and greed lead to the selfish management of resources, even love.  A few millennia of stingy, particular love have left us a world full of divisions, hatred, and violence.  There must be another way.

Namaste

There is a practice within Hinduism of bowing to other people and saying “Namaste,” or “I bow to the God in you.”[3]  Hindus will bow to other Hindus and non-Hindus alike; to them, there is God in everyone.  For Hindus, this practice is based on their universal conceptualization of a sacred nature present within each human being.  It would be presumptuous to think all human beings would want to engage in the practice of Namaste bowing.  With many theological, spiritual, and anthropological understandings of what it means to be human, finding the sacred in our fellow humanity will not be a practical approach to the universal.  Yet there is something in the practice that could be a helpful model.

There is no rationale or emotion tied to the bowing.  I am not bowing to thank someone for a gift or a professor for help with an assignment.  I recognize there may be circumstances where this bowing is easier and other situations where it is really hard to see God present in others.  But regardless, the bowing happens simply to unconditionally honor the God-nature in others.  This is precisely what we must learn to do.  Regardless of any words or actions we may use, we must learn to love and respect the humanity—the human nature—of the people around us, both in the local but also the global sense.  We need to recognize that within every other there is a shared human nature, a shared life force, and in fact, he or she is not such an “other.”

This is precisely what I had a taste of this semester.  Going to a synagogue, a mosque, a gurdwara, a Buddhist center, and a Hindu temple—I was an outsider and an observer but I never felt like an “other.”  All of our speakers and hosts were eager to have us there and as equally enthusiastic to help us learn about their faith tradition.  In some instances, there were shared elements of religious heritage between us, and in other instances, none.  Yet we are all human beings, living from the same human condition, and searching for similar things.  Instead of seeing a young white liberal Christian woman from the West coast, each of them chose to see and affirm a fellow human being also searching for a life of meaning and happiness.

Moving Forward

This is what I need to take with me: there is one possible universal truth, and that is love for my fellow humanity.  Not a love that requires uniformity in belief or political systems, not a love that dissolves diversity for a false sense of unity, not love that has any conditions or requirements at all.  This universal love then is a deep, unconditional positive regard not because of how people are in the world but because they are in the world.  This love honors people simply and wholly because they have a human nature and being, which means they are like us.

This universal love is something that needs to be cultivated and practiced.  In an economic system based on achievement and merit, giving anything unconditionally is uncommon.  Universal, unconditional love for the human nature of all people is not something that will happen overnight; it will happen in many specific moments and encounters.  Tariq Ramadan explains that, “Love too is a journey.  We have to set out, get away from ourselves.  We have to take the first step, and keep our balance.  And, ultimately, it is all a question of balance.”[4]  We need to step away from our specific selves, step into our common humanity, and live from a universal love and a shared reality that we are, in fact, all human and we share in this thing called life.

Bibliography

[1] Ramadan, Tariq, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (London: Allen Lane, 2010), xii.

[2] Ibid., 25

[3] Pandit, Dr. Bansi, “Hindu Tradition.”  Lecture, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, 2 December 2011.

[4] Ramadan, Tariq, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (London: Allen Lane, 2010), 195.

The Power of Interfaith-Based Community Organizing

LA Voiceby Minister Zachary Hoover

On May 15, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed the Responsible Banking Ordinance, which requires banks seeking city contracts to disclose detailed information about their lending and foreclosure practices. This victory allows people to see which banks are investing in their community or being responsible neighbors and which ones are not. Big banks are incredibly powerful and pay millions of dollars for lobbying to write rules that benefit them. Angelenos won a rule that shifts some power back into the hands of the people. And that rule would not have been won without the power of organized religious communities under a common banner.

I am blessed to lead LA Voice, a multiethnic, federation of 25 churches, synagogues, and mosques that is striving to be something healing and striving to do something healing. The climate of racial anxiety, divisive politics that pull at our implicit biases, and the growing diversity of our country urgently call all of us to speak, listen, and struggle together for a different set of outcomes for our cities. Our organizational leaders, clergy and lay, are striving every day to shift the balance of spiritual and political power so that our great city might truly reflect its glorious name and the dignity of all—not just the dignity of those with the means and privilege to protect their opportunity and promote the future of their children, but of all those who have been left out or pushed out of the land of opportunity we claim to inhabit.

Pastors, imams, rabbis and laity from the member congregations of LA Voice have played key leadership roles in the struggle to gain leverage to end unfair foreclosures, to increase small business lending to communities of color, to end costly, unjust police impounds of immigrants’ vehicles—immigrants whom our state does not afford the opportunity to get a driver’s license; and to increase access to food in public housing in East LA. These same leaders have sent clergy to represent them with the Governor of California to influence the outcome of much needed revenue initiatives for our schools, and they have sent thousands of letters and made countless visits to state political offices to write new rules that make life fairer for suffering communities. The power of faith and interfaith struggle is alive and well in many places, including in PICO National Network organizations like LA Voice.

In acting together for justice, our leaders find their voice and voices. When sixty African American Muslims join 700 Christians of all colors and 50 Jews at a gathering to launch a campaign, and their leaders sit together onstage with political and business leaders, I see interfaith power. When Fr. Margarito goes to Shabbat services at a neighboring Jewish community to tell his community’s story and proposes going to city hall together, with translation, new ground is broken. When I, an American Baptist Minister, have the honor to sit with five respected Imams and dream about what we might change together about mass incarceration, as we speak about li ta’arafu and how knowing one another is something God desires for us, I hear interfaith dialogue. When our Jewish leaders from West LA journey to East LA to fight together for a better life for those whose migration is more recent, and they share their personal Exodus stories, and they take the power of that bond into meetings with LAPD, they live interfaith peacemaking. When 250 PICO affiliated clergy gathered in New Orleans last fall to launch an initiative to bring a bolder prophetic voice and the power of organizing to bear to bend the arc of U.S. history toward justice, and those leaders experience moments of discomfort at the different approaches of their fellow clergy, we build new life as they commit to each other despite those gut rumblings. When passersby see clergy of different colors and creed standing together at a press conference, defying what they have heard in the media about how much we all really hate each other, there is a witness to a more powerful Spirit.

I truly find God’s Spirit alive, and where we find power to change our world for the better, is in the messiness of our stories and contending for our public space together. Those same Jews and Christians and Muslims who have won real change have plenty of moments where understanding each other isn’t the first thing that happens—whether it’s a Jewish leader cringing at the “in Jesus’ name,” or a Muslim leader wondering why we haven’t thought about a space for their afternoon prayer on the agenda, or a Christian pastor explaining to a congregant why it is OK for them to be in relationship with non-Christians without aiming for their conversion, or explaining to another Christian how real the power of prayer is in his church.

Organizing is messy. And leaders are the ones who shepherd their people down a new path that leads to more abundant life and wrestles with the consequences of the status quo. We at LA Voice are interested in being with people who want to be together because it gives them the power to be transformed, to transform others, and to change our world. Transformations aren’t real if they don’t change our transactions.

I am not under the illusion that organizing is equally easy in all of the countries to which this newsletter makes its way. I cannot speak about the dangers and fears that must come with organizing right now in Northern Mexico or Syria. And I can only confess shame at the countless opportunities powerful countries like ours miss to act with our human family in other countries. But wherever we are, if we do not use our shared values, stories, and relationships to build real power to unyoke the burden of disproportionate death and suffering that we all allow to be visited upon some while protecting others, then no God can save us. As Bob Dylan says, “You’re gonna’ serve somebody, it might be the Devil, it might be the Lord, but you gonna’ serve somebody.”

Minister Zachary Hoover is Executive Director of LA Voice, an affiliate of the PICO National Network (a national network of faith-based community organizations working to create innovative solutions to problems facing urban, suburban and rural communities).