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My Neighbor’s Faith: Trouble Praying

Nancy Fuchs Kreimer is the Director of the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where she is Associate Professor of Religious Studies.

by Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer
from the Huffington Post

“I envy you Jews,” said the young German as he poured my morning coffee.

The year was 1980. I was the guest of a graduate student at Heidelberg University. My stay in his home was part of a month-long trip through Germany with Jews and Christians engaged in “post-Holocaust interfaith dialogue.”

My host’s statement surprised and bewildered me. I was just beginning my dissertation on the topic of anti-Judaism in Protestant “Old Testament” theology and I thought I knew a lot about the relationship between Jews and Christians. In fact, I was planning to devote my career to helping Christians see their complicity in the suffering of the Jews and to transcend the flaws in their theology. I could understand my host feeling sorry for us Jews. I could understand him apologizing to us. But I could not understand him envying us.

“Why in the world would you envy Jews?” I asked.

His reply changed my life.

“I envy you because it is easier for you to pray. You see, we young Germans carry the weight of what our parents and grandparents did — or did not do — during the war. It is hard for us to talk to God. We feel a little embarrassed.” Although the conversation took place 30 years ago, I can conjure it up in an instant: the earnestness in my fellow student’s voice, the clarity in his blue eyes.

I had thought, until then, that it was we Jews, the victims, who had trouble praying! There was something about the way he said it — perhaps the phrase “a little embarrassed” — that made it feel completely genuine. This conversation clarified for me my core belief, a very useful thing to discover at the age of 27. After that morning, I possessed an orienting idea, a place to check in regularly to see if my plans were aligned with what I believed.

I believe that we should live our lives so that our children won’t be “a little embarrassed” if they want to pray. Until that morning, I thought that meant being a good daughter, a compassionate friend and a dutiful citizen. But now I saw something new: taking responsibility for the group from which I derive my identity, the group whose actions will lead my children to be proud or embarrassed before God. For me, that group was and is the Jewish people.

The immediate result of this revelation was that I changed my dissertation topic. Rather than looking at problematic Christian texts, I would study problematic Jewish writings. I would investigate the ways in which my own tradition misunderstands others rather than point a finger at the others for misunderstanding us.

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Rabbi Brad Hirschfield and the Threat of Religious Idolatry

From The Huffington Post,

The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, which coincides this year with sundown on July 19, recalls the collapse of dome-wallancient Judaism’s central religious institution, the Jerusalem Temple. The First Temple, built by King Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians, was, according to the Talmud, destroyed because the Israelites practiced idolatry, rape, incest, and murder. According to the same source, the Second Temple, destroyed by Rome, was destroyed because of casual hatred between people.

The rabbis taught that in each case, a religious institution failed because of the failing of those who worshiped there. In that approach lies an important lesson for all people who look to those outside their own religious community to understand why the institution they love may not be doing as well as they would like.

Rather than cast blame at the feet of others, the sages of the Talmud remind their followers that even for a relatively poor and powerless people, both the roots of past failures and the keys to future success are usually found closer to home than the faithful often imagine. This is not about blaming the victim as much as it is about empowering the victim to take responsibility for their past and reminding them of their capacity to build a better future.

Whether this is a sufficient explanation or not, the rabbis’ approach is worthy of attention. Both of their answers point us toward what is essentially the same problem, one which is painfully present in virtually every religious community functioning today: the privileging of doctrine over people.

The sin cycle of idolatry/improper sex/murder, sometimes called Judaism’s “Big Three,” is defined by the three acts for which one must give up one’s life if asked to commit. In Jewish law, all other transgressions are insignificant compared to saving a life, but not these three. Why? Because in the case of the “Big Three,” transgressors imagine that nothing in the world is more important than themselves and what they want to do. God is made small, and people lose significance altogether.

According to the Sages, the First Temple collapsed because it was supported by people who had life backwards: they put themselves before others, with no limitations. The God which they worshipped was simply a reflection of themselves, never offering corrective exhortation or even an alternative view of reality, and this justified their doing to others whatever they felt like doing, including raping and murdering them. Any Temple which was central to that kind of culture should have collapsed.

When the temples in our life provide nothing but excuses for that which we already want to do, and when they fail to sensitize us to those beyond the temple’s walls, as was apparently the case in ancient Israel, the collapse of those temples is a reasonable, if tragic, result. And the same can be said for the loss of the Second Temple.

The Talmud teaches that casual hatred caused the collapse of the Second Temple, and it tells stories to illustrate what that means. The stories all boil down to the same issue: people, intoxicated with their own interpretation of events, are prepared to hurt and shame other human beings who happen not to share the same understanding of reality. I know that sounds tragically like an all-too-contemporary story.

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