Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Blind Men and the Elephant

 The Blind Men and the Elephant

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a WALL!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!"
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!"
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he:
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!"
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!"
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!"
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

~John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Courage is a Verb

Those of us blessed to have friends in faith traditions other than our own are finding some comfort in our solidarity. We are reaping what we’ve sowed and are coming together to share thoughts, voice fears, and pour out our grief.

Those of us who work in interfaith relations acknowledged through our tears that much of the heartbreak is rooted in senseless ignorance of The Other.

One response to these tragedies can be a re-dedication to our work:  the work of listening to those with whom we differ in order to obtain greater clarity and empathy; the work of learning from colleagues how to better engage in interfaith understanding; and the work of looking within ourselves for greater compassion and wisdom. 

A second response is to join with others who are on the front line of this work. 

Several weeks ago, I shared a blog from a Muslim leader who is participating in a program designed to build some understanding between Muslim and Jewish leaders in the US. In an appalling turn of events, Rabia Chaudry’s article entitled What a Muslim American Learned from Zionists generated hateful condemnation, vile blog comments, and worse from Muslims around the world. Jewish participants, too, encountered loathsome professional and personal attacks from within their own communities.

Ms Chaudry writes, “It [the program] was...kept under wraps for the most part because it was risky for all involved. Hartman lost funding, donors, and board members over this program. One of the organizers, Yossi Klein Halevi, lost credibility, friends, and supporters when he wrote this piece along with Imam Abdullah. Rabbi Sharon Brous, one of our lecturers, was destroyed in the Israeli media when she wrote a piece sympathetic to Gazans. Hartman is being accused of hosting terrorist sympathizers and we are being accused of being Occupation sympathizers. This is the cost of trying to work in gray spaces, I knew it, and I accepted it."

She knew it and she accepted it. 

If we believe in this work, if we are committed to building bridges of understanding between different faith communities, we must know and understand the cost, too. 

Rabia, Yossi, Sharon, Abdullah, and others are putting their money where our mouth is. Their currency is courage. They're taking the risks and making the sacrifices that we who sit in the comfort of our living room dialogue groups and institutional interfaith committees are unwilling to do. 

Where are the Jewish voices standing with the Hartman Institute? Where are the Muslims defending and supporting the courage of Imam Antepli's leadership?

Are we only willing to support interfaith engagement when the results are kumbaya and sanitized, or is there courage behind our convictions?

Chaudry writes in a later blog, “This fellowship proves that building relationships between people who fundamentally disagree can uncover empathy and mutual recognition that despite differences, everyone deserves dignity, security, prosperity and self-determination.”

Children are dying. We mourn. 

We watch the news. We wring our hands. 

We want an end to the violence. What more can we do?

We can support individuals and organizations who are on the leading edge in a profoundly brave way. Just as a fundraising challenge grant doubles the impact of a donor's gift, our support of these leaders increases the impact of their work. And ours.

Last month, Pope Francis said, "Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare. It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict."

Let us pray for the courage to say yes to the encounter. And, if we cannot find the courage to say yes to the encounter, let us pray for the courage to support those who can.

שלום עכשיו 
Peace now

Friday, March 7, 2014

Proper Behavior when Encountering Jewish Diversity in a Muslim Gymnasium

Tonight I attended a Muslim interfaith event and, rather than meeting new Muslim friends, I encountered Jewish diversity like I’d never seen before.


We Jews talk about Jewish diversity a lot. 

We have our standard Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. We have the relative newcomers—the Reconstructionist Jews and the Jewish Renewal Jews. 

We also have our cultural Jews. Those are the Jews who like bagels with a schmear but don’t hold much with the God-thing.

We even have secular Jews. That’s a Jew who doesn’t believe in God, which is not as strange as it sounds once you understand Judaism is a peoplehood as well as a religion. Babies are born Jewish [in some denominations it’s only the mother’s Jewish-ness that determines the Jewish-ness of the baby. In other denominations it’s the mother or the father.] As that baby grows up, s/he remains Jewish even without a spiritual belief in God.  

A few years ago, Tablet Magazine ran an article about a non-Jew who wanted to convert to secular Judaism. He asks his Jewish friend, “Is it possible to convert to secular Judaism?” to which his friend replies, “No. You have to convert the usual way and then have a fight with your rabbi.” To my non-Jewish readers, that’s a joke.

In my interfaith work I’m often asked, “What do Jews think about so-and-so?” I’m careful to preface any statement with the caveat, “I can’t speak for all Jews, but…” followed by a recital of  “Conservative Judaism holds…”, then, “Some Reform Jews…”, and finally, “Most Orthodox Jews…” Mind you, I often have to do a lot of research, particularly for my Qur’an class, when I’m asked to share a Jewish perspective.

The truth is: Jews are as diverse as any other religion/people/culture/group.

Tonight I learned just how diverse our diversity can be.

Tonight I met the Neturei Karta: the ultra-ultra-Orthodox [if that's what they can be called] Jews who pray for the “dismantling” of Israel.

I won’t go into this group’s practices or beliefs. This blog is not a place for political discussion but rather is a forum for sharing positive interfaith experiences and religious commonality and insight.

Yet what I found so disconcerting sitting at tonight’s interfaith encounter surrounded by well-meaning Muslims and Love Thy Neighbor banners was that the person chosen to speak on behalf of the Jewish community was one of the rabbis from this fringe group.

For sure I, as a Jew, am not aligned with the views of left-wing BDS-supporters [that's Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions] who denounce Israel with every breath. Nor am I in step with the right-wing Islamophobes who bash Islam in the name of Israel’s security. While both these groups make a lot of noise and attract a lot of attention, they do not represent mainstream American Jewry. 

They do not represent me.

Neither does the black-hatted, religious Jew—who tonight spouted [not-so-subtle] anti-Israel rhetoric in front of a room of well-meaning interfaith activists—represent me.

How does one—a Jew—deal with such a situation? Should I ignore it, confront it, be offended by it, or leave the proceedings? What's the proper interfaith protocol?

At the end of the evening, I approached one of the event organizers and whispered in her ear, “You know, your speaker is not representative of mainstream Jewry. It’s rather like asking a Muslim extremist to speak on behalf of Islam. Perhaps you and I can work together to create more meaningful partnerships and encounters in the community.”

We’re having coffee next week.

If you’ve ever received a personal email from me, you’ve seen the following tag in my signature line: 

“Never attribute to malice that which can just as easily be attributed to ignorance.”

It’s not my quote, but I believe in the sentiment 100%.

One of our responsibilities as interfaith activists is to give the Other Guy the benefit of the doubt.

Both Islam and Judaism are diverse. Both contain outliers or people who are far from the spiritual and cultural center of our traditions.

We are at our best when we don’t accept these fringe groups as typical of the larger community.

For the most part, most Jews of different denominations can agree mostly on two things: there is One God and our holy book is the Torah. [Noted exception: secular and cultural Jews, maybe.]

With close to14 million Jews in the world, that’s a pretty big continuum of differences. With 1.6 billion Muslims, the continuum of differences in Islam is staggering.

What do you say we cut each other some slack and agree that the few odd ducks in our flock are not indicative of the whole?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

On Becoming a Fig

     It’s a year to the day since my home was filled with standing-room-only Jewish and Muslim friends celebrating the Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shevat.

   Even though the Jews didn’t know the Muslims and the Muslims didn’t know the Jews, all the guests were my friends. And all my friends are extraordinary.

     Sitting knee to knee in my crowded living room, this amalgam of Strangers and Friends soon became a circle of Friends. We shared stories, ate, and prayed together. It was fabulous.

     For most of the Jews (me included) and all of my Muslim friends, this was our first Tu b’Shevat seder.
   Yes, the observance of Tu b’Shevat revolves around a seder. You may automatically think of Passover when you hear the word seder, but the word seder simply means order. And there’s an order to a Tu b’Shevat celebration (just as there’s an order to a Passover celebration.)

     Today, January 15-16, 2014, is Tu b’Shevat. It's the New Year of the Trees and one of four new years in the Jewish calendar. Think of it as a Jewish Arbor Day. Tu b’Shevat acknowledges the wonders and abundance of the natural world and recognizes—and recreates through the seder—seasonal transitions.

     It’s a time to reflect, also, on personal transitions.

    A Tu b’Shevat seder traditionally includes three courses of fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

     The first course entails an assortment of items that have a hard outer shell and contain an edible interior. On small plates, I served almonds, walnuts, and pomegranates.

     The next course is made up of fruits and vegetables that are soft and edible on the outside but have a seed or pit inside. We ate olives, apricots, and dates.

     The final course included items that were consumable in their entirety. Berries, grapes, and figs.

     Four cups of wine are also consumed during the seder.

    The first cup of wine is white wine. It symbolizes winter. The second cup is white wine with a little red wine added. Now we’re starting to see the changing seasons. The third cup of wine is half red and half white, a continuation of the passage of time. The fourth cup of wine is all red marking the arrival of autumn, the fire of the Universe, and that spark of the Divine in each of us. [Since our celebration included Muslims, I substituted white and red grape juice for wine.]

     Tu b’Shevat is loaded with symbolism. In fact, I’ve only scratched the surface of the meaning and practices surrounding this holiday. (I expect I’ll be chastised for omitting the seven species, references to the Garden of Eden, or neglecting the blessings and other teachings that accompany the holiday.)

     But I want to stay with the courses. That’s what resonates.

   For me, the first course of nuts and pomegranates reflects our day-to-day humanity. We’re hard on the outside. Protecting ourselves. Not letting anything in. Our exterior is tough, but, ironically, only the vulnerable need armor. When we crack open that defense, however difficult that might be, when we peel away the outer layer of protection, we find the delightful essence of who we are.

     Seasons pass. We become softer on the outside. We’re more trusting. More malleable. But inside, we’re still hard. Like the olive and date, we hold onto an unbreakable center. Nothing’s getting all the way through. We harden ourselves at our very core. Our squishy exterior belies a reinforced, often cynical, interior.

     More time passes. Winter becomes spring. Spring turns into summer. We mature. It's autumn.

     Life experiences, our own determination, and, for some, the grace of God, bring about a long-awaited confidence and ease. Eventually faith or self-reliance help us open up to a full experience of life. We're on the third course. No pretense. We're authentic through and through.

     We're figs.

     Our faith traditions embrace figs.

     Figs were in the Garden of Eden.

     Figs are in the Qur’an. Surah [chapter] 95 is called The Fig.

   Buddha was sitting under a Bodhi, a sacred fig tree, when he achieved enlightenment.

     At this time of year, as we celebrate Tu b'Shevat, I'm jubilant. I'm reflective. And I'm a grateful fig.

Monday, January 13, 2014

8 Reasons I Love My Muslim Friends

           If you've ever thought about stepping into a community seemingly not like your own, let me tell you how I've benefited by becoming friends with Muslims.
           When I wrote my graduate thesis on Jewish-Muslim commonality, I had to find a mosque and a research pool of subjects for interviews. Those interviews turned into opportunities for relationships and those relationships turned into friendships.

Beyond camaraderie and a whole lot of giggles, beyond Torah study and Qur’an study, and beyond exciting interfaith programming, I’ve gained insights over the past five years that I never could have imagined.

Here’s a list of unanticipated advantages I get by hanging with Muslims. Keep in mind, I live in the 'burbs of New York. I’m not chilling with Muslims in Afghanistan. (I did, however, meet a fabulous young woman online who lives in Tehran who shattered my perceptions of Iranian Muslims!) 

Most of my Muslim friends are women. They are all observant.They are doctors, engineers, civic leaders, business folk, and artists. Most of them are parents. And while my friends are not representative of all Muslims around the world, I would guess they’re pretty representative of mainstream Muslim communities across the United States.

Here’s why I love having Muslim friends.

8.         As a Jew, I don't eat pork or shellfish. For Muslims, pork and shellfish are not hallal (that’s Arabic for not kosher.) That makes it a breeze for me to enjoy a potluck meal with my Muslim friends compared to my would-you-like-that-cheesecake-wrapped-in-bacon friends. (Although, in the interest of accuracy, some Muslims do eat shrimp and prawns.)

7.         Since Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, I have someone to hang with on December 25 besides other Jews and a Chinese waiter.

6.         When we go out, I always have a designated driver.    
5.         I get the straight scoop on Islam without having to rely on third party translators or non-Islamic resources. Sitting with my friends and asking direct questions like, “So you’re in an arranged marriage. What’s that about?” is easy. As easy, say, as asking a Jewish friend for his or her favorite blintz recipe. Probably easier.

4.         My friends can provide better make-up tips than any cosmetics counter at Saks or Neiman’s. (Have you seen the gorgeous smoky eyes?) 

3.         I speak with some authority now when I say Muslims don’t spend their entire day fixated on Israel. My friends are more focused on Muslim relations in the United States and other parts of the world than they are on the problems of Israelis and Palestinians. We share heartfelt compassion for those searching to find peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. But with only 15% of the world's Muslim population in that part of the world, other matters occupy my friends' attention more acutely.

2.         It's easier to talk about potentially thorny issues when you're talking with a friend. Friendship enables us to hear another point of view more easily.

And finally,

1.        Did I mention I always have a designated driver?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Islamophobia, Strange Bedfellows, and Missed Opportunities

”Islamophobia is an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims...” [Fear Inc., Center for American Progress, 2011]

Why is it so hard for us to work together when it comes to dealing with Islamophobia?

Another round of Muslim-hate ads appeared along the metro train line in Westchester County, New York, this week. Within days community groups mobilized to respond to the ads.
In an attempt to neutralize this latest round of anti-Islam propaganda, local social action groups discussed various responses including public vigils, counter ad campaigns, and speaking engagements.

Also speculated upon by some groups were the reasons behind these latest anti-Islam ads.  

This recent campaign, which is paid for by Pam Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative, appears to be in response to anti-Israel ads that ran on buses in San Francisco, paid for by a group called Muslims for Palestine.

But it’s not as if Islamophobe poster child Geller needs a reason to spew lies or demonstrate her viciousness. We've seen that almost anything is fodder for her twisted agenda.

Less understandable, though, are local organizations' responses that purport to challenge Geller's hate message. I was alarmed, although sadly not surprised, to find a bullet point from one group’s meeting notes that read, “The role of Israel/Palestine.”


Islamophobia isn’t about the Middle East. If a peace agreement was signed in the Middle East tomorrow, would anti-Muslim sentiment stop?

Why do we respond to bigotry with the same tactics used by the bigot? Since when do we let an extremist like Geller define our responses to anything?

With the best of intentions, local social action groups are climbing the ladder of inference to an unhelpful conclusion: anti-Islamic activity is connected to geo-political events in the Middle East. Never mind contributory factors of fear of the Other and ignorance about the religion of Islam. Geller taps into our deepest emotions (and her supporters' checkbooks) when she connects Islam to Israel and Palestine. We plug into her agenda when we make Islamophobia about anything other than bigotry and intolerance.

Unfortunately, the negative endgame, and this works well for Geller and her ilk, is that grassroots peace and co-existence efforts become fragmented when they should be jointly coordinated. When we focus on Palestinians and Israelis, instead of on educating people about Islam, our efforts become undermined by extraneous topics like BDS and foreign aid.

I’m a liberal Jew, often critical of my own community’s reluctance to step forward and denounce anti-Islam rhetoric. But I sympathize with the dilemma that confronts Jews and Jewish agencies when social action groups approach anti-Islam incidents from an Israeli/Palestinian lens that is, for many, a thinly veiled attempt to criticize Israel.

Whenever I can, I express solidarity with American Muslims. For the most part, I have done this individually even though I would prefer to stand with others, combining forces to maximize the impact of our collective outrage.

In fact, I would join with Jewish Voice for Peace, WESPAC [a local activist organization], and other left-leaning groups with whom I have serious differences of opinion on matters of the Middle East, if it meant our working together would increase the chances of delivering a blow to anti-Muslim bigotry.

But so far I have found it unproductive, to say nothing of uncomfortable, to work with groups that insist on bringing Israel and Palestine into the conversation.

Islamophobia is hateful discrimination.

Islamophobia is stereotyping. Scapegoating. Ignorance.

It separates neighbor from neighbor and creates fear and suspicion.

Islamophobia diminishes all of us because it offends our core values of compassion, justice, and fairness.

I urge community leaders to take the Middle East out of these conversations. We don’t need to make Islamophobia any tougher to deal with than it already is.