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Category: Religion In America

Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, October 10, 2014

Please Note - The Location of our Breakfast has changed!  See the flyer below for the details:

Multifaith Breakfast 10/10/2014

Our breakfast is by invitation only.  Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at JHollenbach@rrc.edu or 215.576.0800 x 135 by Tuesday, September 30, 2014.

You are invited to stay for services for the second day of the Festival of Sukkot which begin at 10 a.m.

Please note, the $10.00 suggested donation for this program may be sent to the following address: 

American Friends of Roots c/o Oakbrook Church

1700 Reston Parkway,     Reston, VA  20194

To view a clip of the JustVision documentary, please visit:  http://www.justvision.org/encounterpoint/watch/ali-wounded-youth-encounter-point

For more information about Encounter, please visit:  http://www.encounterprograms.org/

 

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Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together

Exciting news from PERL (Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders)! The leadership council proudly invites all local emerging religious leaders to their first public event Sunday, April 6. Check out the flyer below!

Funded through the generosity of the Henry Luce Foundation and the Legacy Heritage Fund, PERL is an interfaith organization by and for seminarians, rabbinical students and graduate students who gather to build relationships, learn and practice the tools of interfaith dialogue, and pursue social justice together.

Now in its second year, the student leadership core has grown to include Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Sikh emerging leaders from local seminaries and universities.

The group has been actively involved with POWER, working on social justice issues in our city together. Next month, PERL is proudly offering its first major outreach program, an Interfaith Dialogue Training to build relationships and to learn and practice tools of interfaith dialogue.

See below for the event information and forward this news to anyone whom you think would be interested. Note that an "emerging religious leader" can be defined broadly to include seminarians, rabbinical students, graduate students and professionals studying for or entering positions of leadership as clergy, teachers, academics, chaplains, counselors, faith-based professionals and lay leaders in their religious communities.

To RSVP for the event, contact: Raha Rafii, rafii@sas.upenn.edu
To contact PERL Organizer and RRC rabbinical student Josh Weisman:  joshweisman@gmail.com

Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together

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Manna to Worms: Spiritual and Political Lessons from Heavenly Bread (Beshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16)

This post was originally published on Patheos

Braided BreadEach Friday afternoon, I spread a tablecloth on my dining room table, place two braided loaves of bread on the cloth, and then cover the bread with another cloth, one of several specially designed, beautiful challah covers we have accumulated over the years. I have known since my first days of rabbinical school that the custom of blessing two loaves on Shabbat evokes the double portion of manna –the mysterious  lechem min ha shaymayim– “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4)–  that the Israelites collected on the eve of the Sabbath (Exodus 16:5) Recently,  I deepened my understanding of this symbolic act.

In the version recounted in the Book of Exodus, the manna appears under a layer of dew (Exodus 16:13). But when the Book of Numbers recounts the story, this same manna appears on top of the dew (Numbers 11:9). As Rashi explained, this discrepancy proved simple to resolve. The manna fell between two layers of dew! Our double Shabbat loaves, nestled between two pieces of cloth, can serve as a weekly reminder that our bounty –the bread we eat and much more — comes to us like “manna from heaven.”

The Torah tells us that for forty years every morning manna appeared for each individual according to his or her eating (ish l’fi ochlo) —no more, no less (Exodus 16:18). If people gathered more than they needed, the excess food bred worms and rotted. Yet everyone could start each day with enough. Why not just provide all that was needed for a week or a year? According to the text, it is so “you shall see the glory of the Lord” (Ex 15:7). The people were to anticipate and then enjoy God’s presence each and every day. This method of distribution has taught generations of Jews a spiritual lesson; it serves as a reminder to daily sense God’s kindness and to acknowledge our connection to the Source of sustenance.

But there is more to it than that.

Manna plays a role in a classic dispute between two political philosophers, John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Rawls famously argued in favor of distributive justice, suggesting why we might think of the goods of the society as a pie to be distributed as fairly as possible. Nozick disagreed, maintaining th  at society has no right to distribute what individuals produce with their own talents and efforts.   Producers of goods have a certain entitlement to what they produce. After all, Nozick wrote, it’s not as if the goods appeared like “manna from heaven.”

Perhaps not. Yet our talents are not earned, they are God-given, and they would be worth little without the nurturance of parents, teachers and society. Even within a capitalist system of incentives, much of what we have is attributable to “manna.” In the United States today, we are living with an extraordinary level of wealth inequality.  Since 2007, the wealth gap in the United States—already growing since the 1970’s —has been expanding ever more dramatically. It has now reached the highest level since before the Great Depression. As Obama put it in a speech on December 4,  “The top ten percent no longer takes in one third of our income—it now takes half.”

Share of Total Household Wealth Growth

Even more troubling, despite many Americans’ belief that we live in a land of opportunity, social mobility is not what it used to be.  Obama continued: “A child born in the top twenty per cent has about a two-in-three chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom twenty per cent has a less than one-in-twenty shot of making it to the top.”

Research by Harvard professor Robert Putnam and his colleagues explores some of the reasons for this stagnation.  Long before they have had a chance to produce or not produce goods to which they would be entitled, children in our country receive vastly different, and unequal, supports from their environment.

What would it be like to lift the challah cover each Friday night and to experience  renewed gratitude for the plentitude with which I am blessed?  And, further, what would it mean, at the same time, to remember that I live in a society growing ever further from the manna ideal, a world where there is enough for all?

Like the Jews, Muslims have preserved the memory of the manna. A solidly established hadith  (al-Bukhârî (194-256/810-870) states that “Kam’ah (truffles) is a type of manna, and its liquid is a remedy for the eyes.”  I pray that the two challot I uncover each Friday night, like “bread from heaven,” can serve as a remedy for my own eyes—to remind me not to be blind to the gap between my plenty and others’ want, between our current reality and the vision of a more just world.

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, February 14th, 2014

Our breakfast is by invitation only.  Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at JHollenbach@rrc.edu or 215.576.0800 x 252 by Tuesday, February 4th, 2014.

For more information about the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, please visit:  http://pcjcr.pardes.org/

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Interfaith Food Justice

We are thrilled to announce another exciting new learning opportunity this Spring at RRC for students and qualified community members. This Interfaith Food Justice course will examine the connection between food and our lives as well as food justice and sustainability.

The course will be co-taught by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling (RRC) and Reverend Katie Day of Lutheran Theological Seminary (LTSP).

The flyer below provides the details:

Interfaith Food Justice

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In the Depths: Prison Chaplaincy and Incarceration in America

The Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives proudly announces our newest initiative:  a workshop entitled In The Depths:  Prison Chaplaincy and Incarceration in America. For several years, students at RRC have been expressing interest in issues related to incarceration in our country. We are blessed to have in our city a unique resource, Phyllis B. Taylor, R.N, a Jewish woman who has served for over 15 years as a Correctional Chaplain in the Philadelphia Prison System. Phyllis has worked with inmates, families, and staff of all faiths. She brings to that work decades of experience as a nurse and a nationally known expert in the field of hospice, grief and bereavement.  In addition, Phyllis and has been an activist for social justice since 1961.

Phyllis will share her wealth of experience with prison work from two perspectives:  pastoral care/chaplaincy (Jewish and interfaith) and social justice advocacy. She will address issues of incarceration in light of race, gender, class, and family systems. Guest speakers will include a corrections officer, a former inmate, a crime victim, and an advocate for systemic change.

The workshop will take place at RRC on Wednesday and Thursday, January 29th and 30th from 9-4.  We welcome auditors from the community, especially rabbis and other members of the clergy.

Prison Chaplaincy Workshop

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And Now a Word from the “White Lady”

Alpha Phi AlphaI recently had the occasion to speak at a prayer breakfast organized by the Philadelphia chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African American, inter-collegiate, Greek-letter fraternity, founded in 1906. APA has become an important national organization, and this event was to honor the memory of Reverend Canon Thomas Wilson Logan Sr. the oldest serving African-American priest in the Episcopal Church, USA who died last year at the age of 100. The brothers of the Rho chapter were establishing a scholarship fund in honor of Father Logan, as APA has become a philanthropic, as well as service and activism organization.

It was my great honor to be part of the “warm up acts” that preceded the keynote speaker, the Reverend James Forbes, Jr.

Newsweek named Reverend Forbes one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English language, providing just one of many titles, prizes and honorary degrees the minister has collected over a long career. Although my expectations were high, Forbes’ sermon exceeded them. In addition to brilliance, wit and warmth, the man radiated genuine kindness and humility.

Among the pleasures of the morning was getting to hear my colleague Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney of the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia give a stirring meditation on the Biblical heroine Deborah. Wil had the good grace to post her words on her blog here and I recommend them to you. That said, you really had to hear Wil’s delivery to fully experience the power of her teaching. I am planning to avail myself of the next opportunity to hear Wil preach.

My own words for the occasion were far from notable. What was memorable for me was the experience of being in a large, very full room, and realizing I was the only white person there. (The only other interfaith invitee was an imam and he was black.) I am used to being a religious minority---the token Jew among a group of Christians---but being a racial minority was an unfamiliar experience. When the speaker before me mentioned the phrase “white lady,” I startled. In just another minute, I would be rising to deliver my words. I don’t think of myself as a “white lady,” but there it was, and there I was.

I realized then the burden of being a token in a society that is, despite claims to the contrary, very far from post-racial. I opened by saying “And now a word from the White Lady.” I added, in a phrase that I don’t believe I have ever used before, having heard it that morning from another speaker, “Lord, have mercy.” Fortunately, the audience laughed with me.

There is always so much to learn. As President Obama said in Jerusalem just last week, it is imperative to try, whenever we possibly can, to see how the world looks from someone else’s eyes.

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The Huppah and the Supreme Court: A New Year's Resolution

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page

HuppahBack in 1982, a young couple came to me with an unusual request. They wanted a Jewish wedding that included a public statement acknowledging what they referred to as their “heterosexual privilege.” They felt it was important while under the huppah to recognize that they were invoking a right denied gay people by every state in the union.

Just a few years before, I had been married with the blessing of the State of Connecticut and two Reform rabbis. Not a word was said about gays, lesbians or injustice. I knew only one person who had celebrated her same sex union with a “wedding ceremony,” but my cousin Frances Fuchswas way ahead of the curve, even for California. In fact, Frances recalls that her friends, gay and straight, thought it was “a little weird.” In those days, no movement in Judaism, including my own, knowingly ordained gay people, much less sanctioned their marriages.

I told the couple that I would marry them, and that they were free to say whatever they wanted about this issue. But I would stay out of it. The truth is: I had nothing to say. In my encounter with that couple, they were the religious leaders, I, the follower.

Today, I have something to say. Hence, my (secular) New Year’s Resolution:  to challenge others as that couple challenged me. Weddings are celebrations, not only of personal milestones, but also of communal values. I will no longer squander the opportunity to lead. Over the years, what once seemed to me an incongruous addition to the wedding ritual began to feel increasingly appropriate. At the start of 2013 it has become—for me—imperative.

Why imperative? Haven’t we come far enough already? Indeed, in some segments of our society, we have witnessed an astounding transformation. All the non- Orthodox rabbinical  seminaries now ordain men and women regardless of their sexual orientation, and many rabbis perform Jewish weddings for straight and gay couples. Even the stodgy New York Times marriage section now announces same sex weddings. A growing number of citizens live in states that recognize gay marriage. And this year, for the first time, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases involving the constitutionality of denying gay people access to the same protections and privileges accorded straight people who commit their lives to one another.

Which brings us to why establishing gay marriage as a social norm is imperative.

First, most states still do not allow gay people to marry. Where I live, my gay rabbinic colleagues routinely perform weddings by “the power vested in them by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” a state that will not recognize their own marriages. Furthermore, our federal law lags behind and takes precedence over the laws in states that have gay marriage. Significantly, this spring the justices will rule on a case in which the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) will come under scrutiny. That Act defines marriage as between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law. Until DOMA is overturned, same sex couples marrying in one of the states in which it is legal still do not have the rights of a spouse to access federal benefits ranging from social security to treatment of their children to immigration status to inheritance taxes to health insurance. The listgoes on for eight pages.

Consider the analogy to interracial marriage. In 1966, Gallup polls. showed only 20% of the U.S. population approved of interracial marriages. There were still 17 statesin which such unions were prohibited. In 1967, the Supreme Court declared those laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia. The struggle for a racially just society required the legal breakthroughs of the civil rights era. It also required—and still requires—changing hearts and minds. As we await the Supreme Court’s decision, one that may well take its place beside Loving v. Virginia as a landmark of justice, I want to move toward that landmark on the ground, one conversation at a time, one ritual at a time, until gay marriage becomes a legal right and a social norm.

My New Year’s Resolution:  Each time I plan a wedding with a heterosexual couple, I will initiate a conversation about marriage equality. To be specific, I will suggest that they include in their service a prayer for change. The particular prayer is not important, acknowledging the issue publically is. I will also challenge my rabbinic colleagues who do not already do so to include something similar in their own wedding planning routine. Here is my version, also posted on Ritualwell.org:

As we stand under the huppah today, we give thanks that we can marry with the blessings of our rabbi, our community, our state and our federal government.

At this moment, we turn our gratitude to concern. We pray for the day when our country recognizes and honors the marriages of our gay brothers and sisters just as it recognizes and honors our own.

We pledge to contribute to _______ (fill in organization) that is working toward that end.

May there soon be heard in our land the sound of gladness and joy as loving couplesall loving couplesdance and sing and celebrate.

May that time come speedily and in our day.

Amen.

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Life of Pi: Can a Movie Make You Believe in God?

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.

Life of PiWhile there are many new films in the theaters this holiday season,Life of Pi” seemed to be required viewing for me. As an interfaith educator, how could I not see a film, whose protagonist, a boy named Pi, is born a Hindu, loves Jesus and practices Islam? While Pi’s co-star is a 450-pound carnivorous Bengal Tiger and I am not a fan of animal movies, the theme of interspirituality intrigued me. And as a person of faith, how could I pass up the opportunity to see a story that claims it will “make you believe in God”?

I went with my daughter and returned a week later to see it again with my husband. I will gladly go back a third time with anyone who will come along, if only for the magnificence of Ang Lee’s visuals, the brilliance of first-time actor Suraj Sharm, and the opportunity to hear if my companion agrees with the critics. I do not.

The reviewers seem to agree that Ang Lee’s gorgeous film, based on Yann Martel’s 1991 novel, is a stunning technological achievement. No argument there. The more sophisticated ones, however, refuse to be taken in by its alleged theology. The film “invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things,” says the New York Times, but “leaves you wondering if you saw anything at all.” Or to put it as Salon did, it is “radioactive hokum.”

I think the critics are missing something. The film tells a single story in two versions, only one of which is shown on the screen. At the end, it poses a question: “Which version do you prefer?” followed by the comment: “So it goes with God.” The New Yorker reviewercalled that, “the most howlingly presumptuous and vapid line of dialogue I’ve heard in a movie this year.” If I saw that exchange as the key to the meaning of the film, I might agree. And though I would not say it so arrogantly, I might also agree with the one line Twitter comment: “Ang Lee’s Life of Pi brings you closer to God the way Skittles bring you closer to rainbows."Fortunately, I do not think that is the point.

No doubt, the film does want to contrast, as Pi puts it, “dry, yeastless factuality” with the power of the imagination. On one level, the movie is—as some critics have noted—about believing in art. It is not incidental that the overall frame of the screenplay has the adult Pi telling his story to a novelist who is in search of a new plot. But the ability of stories to create transcendent meaning is just the start. I do think the movie is about God, but not the kind of God one chooses to “believe in” or not, who is featured in lush stories with animals rather than in dryer, flatter, more prosaic accounts. It is certainly not about a God who explains why people suffer and redeems all evil. This is not a God whose story one necessarily would “prefer.”

I understood the movie to be about living in relationship with the mystery at the heart of all life. Some call that mystery God, others use different names. But as the film itself reminds us, names are a tricky business. (Due to a clerical error, the tiger, Richard Parker, has a human name.) From an early age, Pi is drawn to the mystery. He reaches out to God in every language he can find, while his father, a rationalist of the New India, tries to impress upon him the value of cold, hard science. The young Pi also wants to connect with Richard Parker, at this point still a caged animal in Pi’s father’s zoo. Pi’s father does succeed in teaching him the danger of that particular longing. In the version of the story we see on film, as a result of a shipwreck, Pi finds himself on a life boat with the very tiger he both loves and fears. In awe of what soon becomes his only companion, Pi must figure out how to survive.

Richard Parker is magnificent, terrifying and inscrutable. Often, he is hiding. Pi soon despairs of ever fully taming Richard Parker, but, as Pi puts it, he tries to at least “train him.” At one point, Pi has the option to be rid of the tiger forever, but he chooses to take him back, knowing that his struggle with Richard Parker is keeping him alive. Pi wants more than to simply triumph over his companion or even to reach a détente, to endure. Pi wants a relationship.

Later in the film, Pi narrates another version of the story, not shown on the screen, one that is quite horrifying and lacks any wondrous animals. But, as Pi says, neither version of the story explains why the boat sank in the first place; neither version is without its terror. The story with the animals, presumably the “God” story, is no sweet pie-in-the-sky theology, as the critics seem to assume. The Slate critic asks: “If the tiger isn’t just a tiger but a stand-in for God or nature or the universal Other, do we still need to worry about him chomping off Pi’s arm?” I don’t know about you, but my God takes arms, not to mention whole persons, frighteningly often. This is not a simple story of the value of enchantment, a “sugar coated revelation.”

In one of the last scenes in the movie, Richard Parker reveals that Pi’s love for him is not reciprocated. In fact, he apparently has no interest in Pi at all. It is an absolutely devastating moment, one so powerfully realized that I completely forgot the tiger was only an animal, and a computer generated image at that. I wept. In the end, it is not about preferring one version or another, of “believing” in God or not believing in God. Like Pi, some people simply can’t help but see the universe as Thou, even if that Thou— at once gorgeous and terrifying—is largely indifferent to us. Nevertheless, the effort to connect sustains us.

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