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Category: Religion In America

New Interfaith E-Journal Publishes Symposium on "Meaning"

The Interfaith Observer"Can you tell us how you find meaning in 1,000 words or less? You are welcome to include a picture or two."

The invitation came to me from Reverend Paul Chaffee, the editor of The Interfaith Observer, a new electronic journal launched this past September. TIO, as it is casually known, is “a monthly e-journal telling new stories, exploring new issues, identifying exemplary resources, and connecting us to each other." Reverend Chaffee comes to this work after decades of interfaith leadership. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, he was the founding executive director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, where he served for 17 years. His vision for this new publication makes good sense.

As he put it, “Interfaith, multireligious, multifaith – we hear these words in the news, in hundreds of new interreligious websites and blogs, and in a multitude of responses to the new religious diversity in our midst. For a novice, this can feel overwhelming. Even those who’ve labored in the interfaith vineyard for decades tend to underestimate the scope of interfaith bridge-building going on in neighborhoods around the world. For anyone wanting to learn more about the interfaith movement, its history and its role in the 21st century, its protocols and foundational documents, there is little to provide a context or identify the cream of the crop among the proliferating resources at our disposal."

I first learned about TIO when Reverend Chaffee asked my permission to include a HuffingtonPost piece I wrote in the second issue of the journal (October, 2011). I agreed, and was glad to meet Paul in November at the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco. Now I had the opportunity to write about "meaning," in 1,000 words. (If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, I guess you could say 2,000 words.)

Like all smart networkers, Paul Chaffee not only developed a symposium, he also hooked up with another electronic publication, State of Formation, whose authors are "emerging religious and ethical leaders." An "intergenerational" conversation resulted with parallel symposia on the same topic, published on both sites.

I enjoyed writing my piece and reading all of the contributions. Since I can recall the days of Protestant/Catholic/Jew, I continue to marvel at the wide range of voices included from Humanist to Mayan to Seikah.

A common thread: several of the images accompanying the articles including both the one shown above and my own pictured the author in an interfaith group protesting injustice.

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RRC "Hands on Christianity" Course - Out of the Classroom and into the Neighborhood

RRC "Hands on Christianity" Reality TourThoreau went to the woods because he wished to “live deliberately.” Fourteen years ago, Shane Claiborne and some friends moved into Kensington, an area of Philadelphia with abandoned factories and high unemployment, because they wanted to live Christianity. When asked if the intentional Christian community they created is “evangelical,” Shane responds affirmatively. “We want to spread the Kingdom of God like crazy!” Most important, the members of The Simple Way, want to do what God did. God did not save humanity from on high. Jesus moved into the neighborhood.

Students from RRC came to Kensington to learn about Christianity. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, the traditional time of Advent in the Christian calendar, seven rabbinical students are participating in a half credit course entitled “Hands on Christianity.” They have toured Kensington in a van with Shane Claiborne. They will study the four Gospels with Will O’Brien (a Simple Way ally who works for Project H.O.M.E) and Christians in the Alternative Seminary (also a local ally of the Simple Way) and they will spend a day joining the community for prayer and helping out with their Christmas store. In between, the students are organizing a new toy collection, hoping to engage the rest of the RRC community in a small way in their involvement with The Simple Way.

Hands on Christianity Students at The Simple WayDuring our tour, Shane showed us the landscape of a post-industrial slum:  the hospital where half the staff has been laid off, the challenges of accessing fresh food, the problem – of personal relevance to us after a few hours – of no public bathrooms. He also showed us the places where co-conspirators of The Simple Way were reclaiming the blighted landscape with sculpture gardens and murals, running a free medical clinic, working with people battling drug addiction. Throughout, he told his story without self aggrandizement. It was always about community, and it was not about big, splashy victories. Shane and his friends first came to Kensington as part of a dramatic take over by homeless people of an abandoned Catholic Church. The story made the newspapers. Since then, however, it has been a quieter kind of religious testimony:  rehabbing houses after a fire, creating a summer camp by closing down a street to traffic and playing with the kids, creating a collective health insurance pool with neighbors.

John Dominic Crossan, a world famous scholar of the New Testament, in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Harper, San Francisco, 1995) tells about a dream he once had in which Jesus comes to him and says, “I have read your book and it is quite good. Are you ready to join me and my vision?” Shane Claiborne tells how he had dinner with Crossan once. “As we shared with him our feeble attempts to follow after the peasant revolutionary he wrote about, his eyes gleamed with excitement.”

As we embarked on this hands-on learning experience with Christians who take a hands-on approach to their faith, our eyes, too, were gleaming.

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A Tale of One Mosque and Two News Stories

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

Islamic Center of Murfreesboro

This is the tale of one city, one Islamic Center and two news stories. An iconic photo, taken a year and a half ago, represents the first story: a plywood sign announcing "Future Site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro," spray painted over with the words, "Not Welcome." That story put the town on the map. CNN produced a 43-minute documentary that aired this past April. The Daily Show featured it in a segment "Tennessee No Evil." Faiz Zhakir, vice president of the Center for American Progress and one of the researchers behind Fear, Inc., called it "ground zero of Muslim bashing in America."

The second story, garnering almost no national attention, is represented by a picture taken last week of 10 individuals with shovels, a classic American groundbreaking scene. Even CNN gave only a brief notice to The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's breaking of ground on Sept. 29. The stories belong together and they deserve to be widely told.

In the spring of 2008, Imam Ossama Bahloul, Ph.D., a graduate of the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, chose to turn down a bigger job offer and opt for a quiet life in the city of Murfreesboro, Tenn., 35 miles south of Nashville. With a population of 100,000, Murfreesboro, according to its website, is the fastest growing city in the state, as well as the most livable. The 250 Muslim families, some having lived there for almost 30 years, were outgrowing their small meeting space; Friday prayers were spilling into the parking lot. In 2009 the group purchased a 15-acre plot and in May, 2010 Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission approved plans for an Islamic Center whose eventual size might reach 52,960 square feet.

As soon as the sign announcing the future site of the Islamic Center went up, spray paint defaced it. Vandals tore down a second sign. In July, several hundred residents marched in protest against the mosque. In August, things got worse. Police deemed a fire on the site as arson, and gunshots were heard nearby. The same month, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, then running for governor, spoke against the mosque. "You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, a cult, whatever you want to call it."

In September, 17 land owners sued Rutherford County, claiming that the county should have investigated the substantive beliefs of the Islamic Center before approving its plans. During the trial, plaintiffs called to the stand Frank Gaffney, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan, as an expert on sharia. "I don't hold myself out as an expert on sharia law," Gaffney told the court. "But I have talked a lot about that as a threat." Gaffney testified that "Sharia is the enemy-threat doctrine we face today." They asked the court to consider Islam as a political system or ideology, not just a religion.

The U.S. Justice Department disagreed. It filed a friend of the court brief in which it explained that "every U.S. court addressing the question has treated Islam as a religion for purposes of the First Amendment and other federal laws. ... Islam falls plainly within the understanding of a religion for constitutional and other federal legal purposes, and qualifies as a religion under the various tests courts have developed." The brief even quoted a dissenting opinion by Justice Scalia (joined by Justices Relmquist, Thomas and Kennedy) in favor of a public display of the Ten Commandments that noted that Islam, along with Christianity and Judaism, is one of "the three most popular religions in the United States," and that "these three monotheistic faiths account for 97.7% of all believers."

The Justice Department also argued that the county would be in danger of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that Congress passed in 2000 in response to findings that "religious institutions in general, and minority faiths in particular, frequently face overt and subtle discrimination in the application of land use and zoning regulations."

In May of this year, after the CNN documentary was aired, the judge ruled against the plaintiffs and on Aug. 30, the judge upheld his decision: "Those who are adherents to Islam are entitled to pursue their worship in the United States just as are those who are adherents to more universally established faiths (in our community)" the judge wrote. He continued, "The plaintiffs have established that there may be extremist members within the group of worshipers even here in Rutherford County, but that does not change the fact that Islam exists as a religion apart from the extremist philosophies."

Last month, I visited Murfreesboro as part of Clergy Beyond Borders' caravan that included two imams, an evangelical minister and another rabbi. We were invited to speak at Middle Tennessee State University, the largest undergraduate institution in the state, by the Muslim Students Association, the Jewish Student Union and the Wesley Student Association. The local NBC news carried a two-minute segment about the event. We were heartened that the friendly audience we met considered themselves the mainstream of their community. The protestors who had made the news, they told us, were a small, if vocal, minority.

Despite initial difficulty finding a contractor and a recent bomb threat, the Muslims we met in Murfreesboro seemed confident and optimistic. Lema Sbenaty, a 20-year-old pre-med student at MTSU who grew up in the town, was featured in the CNN documentary. Articulate, self possessed and beautiful, Lema organized our visit with her fellow students. She told us that she attended every day of the six week trial, eventually laughing at the absurdity of some of the attacks. Lema was happy with the court's decision, but not surprised, having received hundreds of emails from non-Muslims she never met, telling her they were her allies. She was looking forward to celebrating the ground breaking.

Like Lema, Imam Bahloul also looked to the future with hope. He too received messages of solidarity from around the country. Many included contributions for the proposed Islamic Center, sometimes in the form of a $10 bill. One well-meaning Christian in Texas offered the imam land on his ranch to build the mosque. "I had to explain to him that we could not accept his generous offer. The families in our congregation live here in Murfreesboro. And we are not planning to move."

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Taking Interfaith on the Road

Clergy Beyond Borders Caravan for Reconciliation

It was like living in a joke. “There was a rabbi, an imam and a minister…“ – But we did not walk into any bars. Instead, we walked into churches, synagogues and mosques, all part of a 15 day tour from Washington D.C. through the southern states, up to Michigan and back through Ohio and Pennsylvania organized by Clergy Beyond Borders. I joined the caravan in Atlanta and flew home from Nashville, participating in programs in two churches, three mosques, one synagogue and a university, all in four days. We also met with legislators in the Tennessee House of Representatives and with a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. Our audiences included those who eagerly anticipated our visit to their town and others who, like the gentleman in the mosque in Nashville, had just “come for morning prayers, smelled coffee, and stayed to learn.”

The trip was the brainchild of Imam Yahya Hendi, a Palestinian American, the founder of the Washington DC based national group that sponsored the trip. We called ourselves a Caravan of Reconciliationand presented a program titled, From Fear to Faith.In every place we spoke, we found those for whom our message was welcome support, others for whom it was novel but exciting, and still others who challenged us with hard questions. We also found open hearts and much evidence to inspire hope. Indeed, the narrative that emerged was neither all rosy, nor all grim. Many Americans are suffering and confused; fear is a factor in our country, one that can easily be manipulated and turned into darker emotions. Religion, we saw vividly, can certainly be part of the problem. Our message:  our religious communities can be part of the solution.

Imam Yahya would begin each talk by warning his audience that he had learned to preach from a Southern Baptist. This always brought a big laugh, as did his comment, "You may have noticed that I have an accent." He would then go on. "When they hear my accent, people ask me where I am from. So I tell them. I am from dust." Long pause. "I am a dustonian." Laughter. "From dust you come and to dust you will return. It is in the Bible and in the Qur'an. We share that belief." Hushed silence. Later, toward the end of his talk, the imam would sometimes circle back to the idea that we are all fellow dustonians. "That is my politics, that is my theology." Simple? Perhaps. But very effective, and a good place to begin to connect. Rabbi Gerry Serottawould also stress, each and every stop, that we were clergy beyond borders, not clergy without borders. We treasure our differences and the borders that circumscribe our unique faith communities.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg who travelled with the group for the first week, spoke powerfully to an audience at Masjeed AlFarooq, the largest mosque in Atlanta. She reported having spoken earlier that day at a synagogue where her message had been that she did not consider Jews the most victimized of people in America. “That dubious distinction goes to Muslims.” During the question period, a young Muslim man challenged her a bit angrily, “How could Jews possibly think they are oppressed?” Instead of responding that she agreed with him, she asked him, in the most loving way possible, not to assume he knows how the world looks to a Jew, just as she would not question the reality a Muslim experiences, nor would she credit the view of a non Muslim who presumed to do so. Heads nodded all around and the questioner himself seemed visibly moved. (The entire program is available on video here.)

Reverend Steve Martin, an evangelical preacher and a life long resident of Tennessee, the executive director of the New Evangelical Partnernship for the Common Good told audience about his ministry as a documentary film maker.  He spoke of the friends he made making a film about Muslims in Appalaachia and how he worried, after the attacks of September 11th, how the people he had grown to love would fare in this new moment in history. He also talked about another film he had made, one about theologians in Nazi Germany. The analogy was subtle and gentle, but important. “As a Christian,” he would say, “I am concerned when my religious tradition causes damage.” In Chattanooga, 800 church goers, many of whom came that morning as part of their Sunday routine, rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation to Imam Yahya. That experience was theirs only because the pastor of the church was an old friend of Reverend Steve. Later, a much smaller but still significant group returned for two hours of intense questions and answers. Over coffee, I asked as many people as I could, “Do you have Muslims in this city?” Most said they were not sure. A few had heard that there was a small group and that they were planning to build a mosque.

The issue of Muslim integration into society plays itself out these days through zoning battles over construction or expansion of mosques. I asked the pastor of the church if he had heard anything about the plans for a mosque in Chattanooga. He responded, “I am looking into it. I plan to try to contact them and see what I can do to support the community. Some of my colleagues and I want to let people know that if anyone has a problem with Muslims’ plans to workship, they should take it up with us.” In Chattanooga, that will count for a lot.

In my next post, I will talk about our visits to two communities that have faced zoning battles over mosques, Alpharetta, Georgia and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. (For a preview of that program, watch here:  Panel Promotes Religious Diversity)

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The Good News About American Islamophobia

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

While meeting to prepare my taxes, my accountant asked me, "What's new and good in your line of work?" She knows that I am a long time interfaith educator and that in the last few years I have been working in coalitions with members of other faith communities to combat religious prejudice against Muslims in this country.

Vaccine for Islamophobia

Despite much to deplore and enormous challenges ahead, I could answer that there is some good news about Islamophobia. Obviously, the good news needs to be heard in the context of the bad news, bad both for Muslims and for the rest of us who care about America. Recent reports by the Pew Research Center (August), the Center for American Progress (August) and the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research institute (September) all document the bad news. More than half of all Muslims under the age of 30 report being the victims of religious intolerance in the last year (Pew). In the last decade, seven foundations have poured more than $40 million into efforts to drum up fear of Muslims in America (CAP). Forty-seven percent of Americans believe Islam is incompatible with American values (Brookings). Clearly, religious prejudice against Muslims continues to be a concern -- a serious concern. At the same time, each report also includes the seeds of some good news.

First, the Brookings study, "What It Means to be an American: Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years after 9/11," reveals that most Americans have very little direct experience of Muslims. The majority have no opportunity to speak to a Muslim, even occasionally. What's good about that? In fact, it helps explain findings such as the Gallup Poll that placed Muslims as the most disliked religious group in America. We tend to dislike what we do not know. Robert Putnam describes the opposite situation as the "Aunt Susan effect." In his book "American Grace," Putnam observes how positive feelings develop as people get to know the "other" as friends and eventually family members.

With the exception of African American Muslims, Muslims are part of a recent immigrant community. The Pew study, "Muslim Americans: No Sign of Growth in Alienation or Extremism," reports that 63 percent of Muslim Americans are first-generation immigrants to the U.S., with 45 percent having arrived since 1990. (Strikingly, 81 percent of Muslim Americans are citizens of the U.S., including 70 percent of those born outside the U.S., a higher percentage than most other immigrant groups.) Muslims simply have not had the time to integrate into American society, but there is evidence, also in that study, that the process is well under way.

The Brookings report broke down responses by age of the informants. Americans ages 18-29 were twice as likely as those ages 65 and older to know Muslims personally. In each category, the young are moving in the direction Robert Putnam would predict will lead to better news. The future looks more promising than the past.

Second, most Americans do not know much about Islam. Once again, this can be the good news. In the Brookings study, people were asked how much they believe they know about Islam. Fourteen percent said they know a lot about the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims, 57 percent said they know a little, and 29 percent said they know nothing at all. The group that was most likely to say they know a lot about Muslims was, interestingly, Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement (21 percent).

What they know, unfortunately, was provided by a small cadre of well funded scholars, bloggers and media personalities, in particular, those on Fox News. The Center for American Progress recently documented the effort to shape the perception of Americans about Islam through an "echo chamber" of recycled information and misinformation. "Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America," shows how movements like the one to ban so-called "Sharia law" are created. A "solution in search of a problem," state legislation proposing to keep Islamic law from superseding American law did not emerge out of spontaneous grassroots concern. In fact, according to a recent article in the New York Times, one of the chief authors of this legislation confessed that "if this law passed in every state it would not have served its purpose." The purpose is to stir up suspicion and controversy, not to actually pass legislation that the author himself knows is unconstitutional as well as unnecessary.

As people learn more about the work of this small group and their funders, we will be in a better position to offer a counter narrative. The good news lies in the more than 80 percent of Americans who know little or nothing about Islam and know that they know little or nothing about it. Americans are evenly divided over the question of whether Islam and democracy are congenial, but the question is flawed. It presumes a static entity called "Islam." Like other great religious traditions, Islam is evolving and multidimensional. Neither Roman Catholicism nor Judaism were, in essence, "democratic," but American versions of both of those traditions became part of the fabric of American religious life, as will American Islam. Again, this has already begun to happen.

This brings us to the third piece of good news, the outpouring of support for Muslims by their sisters and brothers in other religious communities in America. On Sept. 8, I stood proudly, shoulder-to-shoulder, with representatives of 26 national religious organizations, organized by the Islamic Society of North America. We said we refused to allow our communities to be victims of campaigns of misinformation. We can also use the Internet. Around the country, people commemorated 9/11 with formal programs and through simple acts of friendship.

Could I tell a darker story today? Of course. Should we be complacent? Far from it. The bad news is that there are people waking up early in the morning to take advantage of Americans' ignorance about Islam and to fill the void with fear. The good news is that others are determined to wake up earlier still and help Americans live the best of our country's values.

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Jewish “Heresies” Then and Now

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

What is a rabbi to do?

My inbox this morning includes a petition from my local Jewish Community Relations Council opposing the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, a request from a Jewish lobby that supports a two state solution and a message from a colleague asking me to endorse a Jewish organization that promotes “democracy, equality and self determination” for both peoples. My husband suggests that I ignore all my emails and write about some topic other than Israel.

I am reminded of my earliest encounters within the Jewish world. In 1974, a year after the Yom Kippur War, I joined a newly founded group called Breira (Alternative). It was the first organization in the Jewish community to publicly criticize Israel’s continued occupation of land captured in the Six Day War—the first to question the claim that circumstances left Israel no alternative (“ain breira”). At a time when there were between 10,000 and 20,000 Jewish settlers living in the territories, Breira was committed to the safety and security of the Jewish state but also supported self-determination of the Palestinian people, talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and, later, a Palestinian state. Although I was just out of college at the time, I found myself serving on the first governing board.

In the beginning, a number of prominent Jewish leaders signed on to Breira’s larger “advisory board,” only to drop off within the next year or two. Some of the departing members feared for their jobs. Ira Eisenstein, then the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, had other reasons for leaving. While he had joined to support a challenge to “Israel right or wrong” thinking, Rabbi Eisenstein had come to feel that Breira extended “greater sympathy to the Palestinians than to the Israelis,” as he explained in an editorial in the movement’s periodical in February 1977.

The next month, he followed up with another editorial, “Needed:  An Alternative to Breira.” If Israel did not want to talk to the PLO and America was prepared to support them, Eisenstein wrote, who were we as Diaspora Jews to disagree?

As an applicant to RRC, I read those editorials with some trepidation. Would my career be over before it began?

But while Rabbi Eisenstein opposed Breira’s positions, he defended its members’ right to hold them.  He saw the importance of level-headed discussion among those who wanted to “establish Zion with justice.” His second editorial deplored the attacks against the organization’s leaders, specifically Hillel directors whose jobs were threatened. He added that “punitive measures… are wrong, propelled by panic.”

Fortunately for me, the rabbinical school reflected its president’s principles: Just a few weeks after those editorials appeared, I was admitted. During my years at RRC, Rabbi Eisenstein and I continued to disagree strongly on that issue, among others, but always with respect. Other parts of the organized Jewish world were not so open minded, and Breira folded within five years of its founding.

Today, according to the petition from the JCRC, I should oppose the unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood because the official position of the Jewish community is “two states based on negotiations”—the very position considered outside the pale by Breira’s opponents. But now there are close to half a million Jews living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Rabbi Eisenstein’s hope for establishing “Zion with justice” looks increasingly shaky.

In retrospect, perhaps Breira’s position was sympathetic to both Palestinians and Israelis.

The current “heresy” involves questioning whether two states are still possible. Some Jews recall Zionist visions from the years before 1948 that included skepticism and even opposition to a Jewish state, positions advocated by leading Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber and Rabbi Judah Magnes. Some who care deeply about being Jewish no longer define themselves as Zionist.

I can understand why Rabbi Eisenstein worried about Breira in 1977. But my experience reminds me that ideas considered unacceptable then look sensible, if not timid, now.  As I listen to Jews discuss which positions on Israel are now kosher or treif, I realize how quickly those borders can and do change, and I admire even more Rabbi Eisenstein’s visionary commitment to keep the conversation open.

Rabbi Eisenstein understood that the philosophical pragmatism at the base of his Reconstructionist approach to Judaism required humility. Writing about pragmatism, Louis Menand said, “Beliefs are just bets on the future… There is always the possibility that some other set of truths might be the case. In the end, we have to act on what we believe…but the moral justification for our actions comes from the tolerance we have shown for other ways of being in the world, other ways of considering the case.”

I am grateful to be part of a Jewish movement that values respectful and compassionate Jewish peoplehood, that understands beliefs as bets on the future, and that welcomes new voices, even those that make others uncomfortable, perhaps especially those.

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Preparing for September 10-11, 2011

The following "sample sermon" by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer appears on the website of Rabbis for Human Rights along with other resources for that weekend. The link is http://www.rhr-na.org/issuescampaigns/standtogether/standtogetherresources/184-teaching9112011.html

“If you are Jewish and have ever been present when a Jew said something negative about Islam or Muslims, please take one step forward. Same for you Muslims. If you ever heard Judaism or Jews disparaged by fellow Muslims, take a step.”

The ten Jews and ten Muslims participating in this exercise were not surprised by what they saw. Almost everyone in the line stepped forward. As emerging religious leaders, these men and women were spending four days together sharing their stories—sacred, communal and personal –at a retreat organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “Now,” the facilitator of the session continued, “If you spoke up every single time that happened, please take another step.”

Almost everyone stayed exactly where they were. They had chosen to attend this gathering because they knew their communities had trouble speaking about each other. They wanted to learn more so that they could become better leaders. And they all agreed that there was much work to be done, beginning with themselves.

That scene came back to me as I sat down to prepare for the fall high holidays, arriving this year on the heels of the anniversary of Sept 11, 2001. As in years past, I reviewed the catalogue of sins that the traditional prayerbook provides to help us recall specific instances of transgression. Once again, I was struck by how many of the sins involve speech. By one count, 17 of the 44 acts enumerated are explicitly performed by speaking. “For the wrong we have done before You…. with the speaking of our mouths… we have defamed… we have lied…we have shamed…we have gossiped and slandered…we have spoken ill. “ This last phrase in Hebrew is lashon hara.

The Jewish tradition has made much of those last two words. The teachings on lashon hara are astonishingly thorough in their concern for every nuance and detail of how a Jew might harm his neighbor through words. It is not hard to stretch those teachings to apply to individuals who are not Jewish. It is more of a stretch, but an important one, to think about lashon hara in terms of group defamation.

Contemplating the anniversary this weekend, I recalled some of the hateful speech that I heard in the last decade. Particularly this past year, Americans have witnessed a disturbing growth in uncharitable, negative speech about Islam and about Muslims as a group. I have heard Jews speak on these topics in ways that are ignorant stereotypes, at best. At worst, they are toxic rhetoric. When these Jews are not people who defame “liberals,” “illegals,” and the other groups often attacked along with “the Muslims,” it is particularly disturbing. From neo-con scholars to activist bloggers, certain Jews have been vocal participants in the anti-Muslim rhetoric. Their harsh words have found receptive ears in some places in the Jewish community. I am not alone in worrying that the anniversary of 9/11 will serve as an occasion to stir up more fear and hate.

The Jewish traditions around lashon hara developed in a time when monitoring speech about those of other faiths was not the norm. Different religious groups formed very different communities of moral concern, and ignorant or hostile opinions about the religious “other” were unremarkable. Of course, Jews know this well, having been the victims of malicious speech about our own group. Although we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as the victims of hate, our relative power and security in America challenges us to push our tradition into somewhat new territory. If we take seriously what Judaism teaches about the power of words (“they create worlds”) we want to look carefully at how others, in this case Muslims, can be hurt by the words spoken about them, including words spoken by Jews.

That brings us to the second part of the exercise at our Muslim-Jewish retreat. Our Jewish participants confessed to having sat quietly by while family members, friends or congregants repeated opinions about Muslims that had the power to hurt. I have done so myself. Last month, I reconnected with a Jewish friend from my youth. When I told him that I was working on issues of Jewish-Muslim relations he said, “I am Islamophobic and will not apologize for it! Their religion tells them they will be rewarded in heaven if they kill me. Why wouldn’t I be afraid of them?”

I did not know where to begin, so I did not start at all. I remembered the important teaching about tochecha (rebuke), the famous line in Leviticus 19:17. “You will surely rebuke your fellow; you will not bear a sin on his account.” While the plain sense seems to be that you will be responsible for your fellow’s sin if you do not speak up, Rashi reminds us it may also be saying that in rebuking you may incur your own sin, that of shaming your fellow in public. Luzatto, with a different spin, points out that if you rebuke in the wrong way, you will only intensify the sinner’s attachment to his actions, and you will then be responsible for the sin increasing. With all the potential down sides, it seemed best to remain silent. I remember, however, how we Jews felt about those who were silent when we wish they had spoken on our behalf.

Perhaps focusing on the moral obligation of tochecha, rebuke, may be misdirecting our energies. Paired with a concern for lashon hara is another important Jewish value, hakarat hatov, acknowledging the good. The Jewish tradition offers us the concept of speech that is healing (“a healing tongue, marpeh lashon, is a tree of life.” Proverbs 15:4). What if we spent more time thinking about the potential of speech to reconcile, to elicit from people what is best inside them, to promote the good? I incline toward a vision of lashon marpeh, speech that heals.

In her commentary in Rabbi David Teutsch’s newly published A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living, Rabbi Vivie Mayer recalls the midrash in which Aaron, the first high priest, reconciled people to each other by telling each of two disputing parties that the other one was ready to make up. On first reading, this story sounds like Aaron told untruths. That would bring us right back to the litany of sins on Yom Kippur, “our lips speaking lies.” But Mayer sees it differently. She suggests that Aaron was telling the truth, the deeper truth that can be seen by the eyes of someone who is looking for the good. By speaking that truth, Aaron brought it to fruition.

In closing, I return to my friend who wears his Islamophobia with pride. What would lashon marpeh mean in that situation? First, it would mean acknowledging vulnerability, the assumption that we always have and will be victims, an assumption that is all too real for many Jews. Then, it would involve seizing opportunities to fill the information vacuums that leave us open to manipulation by those who would divide us. Finally, it would require speaking early and often about the positive interactions and promising practices in the world of emerging Jewish and Muslim leaders. My own resolution for this new year is to step forward every chance I get to repeat words of kindness, to offer people positive stories to replace negative ones, to use my words to create worlds of respect and hope.

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Muslims and Jews in America: A Valuable New Resource

Muslims and Jews in AmericaThis month, Palgrave Macmillan published a wonderful new resource, Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions and Complexities, co-edited by Reza Aslan and Aaron J. Hahn Tapper. The editors have gathered an array of articles by scholars, communal professionals and activists that explore the engagement of Jews and Muslims in America. Together they provide a comprehensive review of the well publicized flashpoints of tension and conflict between Jews and Muslims and also the emerging dialogues, encounters and educational programs designed to enhance relationships. In the end, the book left me surprisingly optimistic about our communities’ prospects for a shared future.

Many of the flashpoints of recent years will be familiar to readers of this volume. Keith Ellison reminds us of the uproar in 2007 around his choosing to take his ceremonial Oath of Office with his hand on a Qur’an. Debbie Almontaser revisits the episode in 2008 that deprived her of her job as principal and New York City of its first Arabic language charter school. Omid Safi provides a careful study of the propaganda film, Obsession, and explores how in 2008 this diatribe against Muslims and Islam, disguised as a documentary, was distributed to 28 million people. And Aaron Hahn Tapper tells of the 2010 disruption of a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren by members of the Muslim Student Union, an event that was followed by pressure from Jewish organizations such as Hillel and ZOA to ensure the students were punished.

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Yona Shem-Tov: A Young Leader to Watch

Yona Shem-TovYona Shem-Tov, the newly appointed executive director of Encounter Programs brings to this position a remarkable set of experiences as a multifaith educator and activist. Last night I learned more about Yona while attending a Gala to honor the outgoing director of Encounter, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub.

Yona was educated in Toronto in a Jewish day school, so she comes to this work with a strong grounding in her own identity and tradition. At the same time, Yona has always appreciated national and cultural diversity. Her mother survived the Holocaust as a child in Europe; her father was born in Iraq and was part of the first airlift of Jews from that country to Israel in 1951.

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