Monday, December 27, 2010

Shabbos Christmas

For a number of years, now, my husband and I have been davening with our beloved Jewish community at the Hebrew Center on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings and attending worship services at our little United Methodist Church on Sundays. This year was my first experience of Christmas falling on Shabbat. There were some interesting internal gymnastics about how all this would play out – mostly about how to manage family Christmas rituals and traditions while maintaining my own spiritual commitments - - and of course, asking myself what would it be like to be celebrating Shabbat on Christmas Eve? What would it be like to be studying Torah and chanting morning blessings on Christmas Day?

We entered the synagogue on Christmas Eve to greetings of “Merry Christmas!” and “Good Shabbos!” and “Shabbat Shalom!” - - warm verbal embraces coupled with equally warm hugs. The service began with the lighting of the Shabbos candles and the singing of a beautiful song of the birth of Abraham. The leader drew an analogy to the birth of Jesus. My heart was near to bursting with love and gratitude for the sweetness of the affection and understanding I felt, flowing around and within, given and received. To the vibrant melodies and rhythms of the Yemenite and Sephardic Jewish traditions we welcomed the Shabbat Queen as a beautiful bride. We shared in kiddush following the service and then made our way across the island to the Old Whaling Church where the Methodists were preparing to welcome the Christ Child with Nine Lessons and Carols, telling and singing and celebrating the story of The Birth. I came home feeling as though something inside me were being knitted together.

On Christmas Day, we ate our traditional early breakfast with our family and enjoyed watching our grandkids “ooooh!” and “ahhhh!” as they opened their Christmas gifts. Then made our way back to the Hebrew Center for morning prayers and Torah service. Christmas Day has its own poignancy for Jews - - the world seems to stop in so many ways for the observance of the ostensibly Christian holiday, as secularized as it is, and the Jewish community is left to deal with how to be Jewish in the midst of all the Christmas frenzy.

We entered the peace of the sanctuary a few minutes late and the service had already begun with the chanting of “Eyeh Asher Eyeh” (I Will Be What I Will Be) to a sweet, haunting melody. (The words are The Holy One’s response to Moses’ question “When I come to the Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me what is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”) I settled into the meditation and felt my body begin to make the shift from the energy of Christmas morning to the energy of Shabbos morning. We chanted and prayed together and prepared for studying Torah with a meditation on the words “Sh’mot” (“Names” – the title given to the text for the day) and “Exodus”. In my meditation there was much swirling, richly colored energy, red and blue and gold and silver paisley shaped galaxies filling every corner of consciousness - - awareness of God-Who- Will-Not –Be –Named; God who admits of no separation; God-Who-Is. The inner knitting together continued.

As we began to look at the great saga that both continues and begins in the first chapters of Exodus, the leader took a few moments to draw our attention to some similarities between the birth narratives of Moses and Jesus - both infants the targets of fear and hatred as soon as they were born - Moses, born a Jew in Pharoah’s Egypt - Jesus born a Jew in Herod’s Judea - - both a threat to the existing political structures; both men who spent time in the wilderness - shaping and being shaped – by The Holy One whose power resided in them; both men who saw Life and injustice and acted in behalf of Life. The leader’s intention for the meditation and for our study was that there might be in our island mini- microcosm the reality of cultural and spiritual healing of the wounds and the pain and doubt and suspicion that exists historically between Jews and Christians - - and, with time, healing between Jews and Christians and Muslims. She closed the meditation inviting us to honor both Moshe Rabbinu and Jesus Rabbinu – our historical and ever present teachers.

As I sat in our small circle, a minyan (of 10 Jews) and my husband and I, I had an amazing Grinch experience of feeling my heart (which is fairly capacious on any given day), balloon up into three times its normal size filled to overflowing capacity with gratitude and healing and insight into the possibilities for this human endeavor on earth.

Richness of life comes into being, understanding and compassion have a chance, reconciliation and shared journey are possible when human beings are willing to sit together and name what has separated them - - sit together in what can sometimes be a squirming discomfort - - hear one another about what the pain has been like. It seems so simple.

The snow flies this morning. The wind blows vigorously in 50 MPH gusts. I sit in the warmth of our cabin feeling the swirling of the colorful, cosmic energy of the Shekinah, the Christ power, the unity of The Holy One - - all finite names for The One Who Will Not Be Named. And I am grateful for at least a visionary glimpse of life reconciled and whole – knitted together again. Truly a Shabbos Christmas!

Vicki Hanjian

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Faith & Fear

A recent Christmas letter we received asked what happened to the Christmas wish for PEACE? Why aren't people thinking peace, praying for peace, working for peace, cultivating peace? Why are we ignoring the promise of peace present in the season?

One response might be that the American people have been hoodwinked into a world view that makes peace a fantasy and perpetual war a necessity. How else can we explain an accepted doctrine of "preventive war;" of preemptive strikes (more truthfully described as assassination of "suspected" enemies); of bombing of civilians by unmanned drones; of thousands of military dead and wounded and millions of civilians dead, displaced or made poorer; of 800+ military bases all over the world; of a war budget that escalates the national debt and plunders the economy; and of disappearing civil liberties, as a climate of fear and suspicion claims our shoes, our privacy and our first amendment privileges.

Each new day (especially this time of year) reveals one more threat prevented, terrorist arrested, and community secured. We are fed a steady diet of "be afraid."

I'm thinking this Christmas about that passage in the Christian scriptures, in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, where an angel appears to the shepherds tending their sheep in the fields. My text says the shepherds were "terror stricken" and the first words from the angel were "do not be afraid."

The angel goes on to say, "I have good news for you; there is great joy coming to the whole people." And when the single angel is joined by many more they sing praises of "peace" for all people. It's instructive that the shepherds have to get past their fear before they can hear the message of peace.

Gandhi said much the same. "Where there is fear, there is no religion." (Young India: September 2, 1926.)

Gandhi continues, "Fearlessness does not mean arrogance or aggressiveness. That in itself is a sign of fear. Fearlessness presupposes calmness and peace of mind. For that, it is necessary to have a living faith in God." (Harijan: Nov. 3, 1946.)

So here we have it! You need to be a believer to reject fear! You need to believe in God (mind you, Gandhi was a Hindu, but a respecter of all the great religious traditions and their conceptions of a supreme being). So we're back to the key divide with respect to world views.

The war makers, the terrorists, the fear mongers, are all committed to the necessity of using physical force against the enemy. Their mantra is "be afraid." To believe you can talk to a terrorist, or educate him, or love him (for God's sake), is the height of human folly. They say angels don't appear to shepherds anymore and if there is a God, he is not impartial but takes sides. Peace is a fantasy.

It's difficult to be faith full in a culture of fear. Still, it's a prelude to fearlessness and peace in our time. Hear the angels ... their song still echoes for those with ears to hear.

Carl Kline

Friday, December 17, 2010

That We May Know Each Other

That We May Know Each Other, the Neighbor I am to Love

There is a Sura, a chapter, in the Qur’an in which God speaks to humankind in regard to our own creation, the purpose of our own being, We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other…. A Muslim colleague pointed to the first part of that verse, and, speaking primarily of immigrant Muslims, said with a weary smile, “I have so much trouble getting them to look at the second part of the verse, that you may know each other. They look at the first part and say, ‘you see, we have to stay together, to be a tribe.’” I am struck by the beauty of the verse, a beauty that depends on both parts being taken together as two parts of a whole. In relation to each other, the two parts of the verse illustrate the dynamic tension between the universal and the particular. We are indeed meant to celebrate our own uniqueness, whether as individuals, nations, tribes, religions…, but we are not meant to stay there, only among ourselves. God calls us to reach out, to share, to celebrate each other’s uniqueness, creating the wholeness among people that God can only envision and encourage. Making it our own and fulfilling God’s vision depends on us.

There is a similar tension that emerges from one of the most beautiful and familiar verses in the Torah, And you shall love your neighbor as yourself/v’ahavta l’rey’a’cha ka’mocha. As with the above Sura from the Qur’an, it seems amazing that anyone would not see the beauty and the wholeness of that verse, or in the manner of their reading it, eviscerate the simple words of their power and fullness. Inhering in the three Hebrew words of the verse is the entire tension between the universal and the particular. The importance of the particular, whether of individual or group, is rooted in the third word, ka’mocha/as yourself, which is understood to mean, as you love yourself. I cannot truly love another if I don’t love myself. I cannot love all people if I don’t love and attach to my own people. A key question emerges from the same word, “who is the neighbor I am to love?” Our answer to that question determines whether we are in tune or out of tune with all of the players in God’s symphony, whether our way of being in relation to others produces dissonance or harmony.

The hope and the challenge, the questions and the tensions that emerge from these verses and others from Torah and Qur’an were the subject of discussions among Jews and Muslims, imams and rabbis gathered for the fourth such program of “Building Bridges through Learning.” Coming together in common study of each other’s sacred texts, the theme for this gathering was “Love of Neighbor.” The topic had grown out of the tensions that flared between our communities once again last spring and summer, fomented by some who fear the challenge of dialogue with the Muslim community, and who have not tasted the sweetness of its fruit. It was a powerful program, blessed by a palpable sense of ease that has begun to emerge through growing familiarity. That ease allowed us for the first time to explore some of the more difficult questions that are an inevitable part of the equation when considering self in relation to others, the tension in real terms between the universal and the particular.

In the Torah portion read during the week of our gathering, Parashat Vayigash, that tension plays out in the seeking of a separate neighborhood, as it were, by Yosef’s family when they come down into Egypt. Reflected in their choosing to dwell apart in the land of Goshen, the vulnerability of the stranger impels them to seek safety among their own, to emphasize the “tribal,” the particular, even as it is emphasized by the Muslim immigrants of whom my colleague spoke. From the first word of the Torah portion, from which its name derives, Vayigash/and he approached, a vision is offered that looks beyond fear. Confident of our own identity, we are able to approach and embrace the other in the fullness of their identity.

It had been a week of swirling interplay for me between the universal and the particular. On Saturday night, immediately following Shabbos, taking the first hopeful steps into a new week, I spoke as part of a panel with a priest and an imam in regard to a play that churned with the human drama in the tormented relationship of Israelis and Palestinians. On Sunday, we enjoyed a wonderful synagogue Chanukkah party, the holiday whose essence is often forgotten, that everyone has a right to be who they are. On Tuesday, we celebrated a b’ris in our community, welcoming a baby boy into the Covenant of the Jewish people, praying that he will reach out to all people with pride and sensitivity as a Jew. On Wednesday was the “Building Bridges” gathering, bringing Jews and Muslims together.

On Friday afternoon, the week wending home to Shabbos, I attended the Masjid Yusuf, a mosque in Brighton where I had gone at the invitation of my dear friend and co-coordinator of the “Bridges” planning committee. Of holy days at week’s end, Ismail had invited me to come to hear his Friday sermon. It was an extremely moving experience, sitting at the back of the humble room filled with Muslims at prayer. Ismail spoke passionately of the essential link between means and ends, whether in our personal or collective lives, emphasizing that all of our ways in life must be “unblemished and legal.” At the end of the prayers, he welcomed me so warmly, asking worshippers to be sure to say hello. Quite a number of people came up to me, exchanging greetings, inviting me to come again, salaam aleikum, aleikum salaam. Among those who greeted me was a young man who startled me, asking in Hebrew if I spoke Hebrew. When I responded yes, he told me in excellent Hebrew that he was from Saudi Arabia and had learned Hebrew at Brandeis. Our hands clasped, he said, l’hitra’ot/see you again.

The string of connection finely tuned, hearing myself in the voice of the other, nations and tribes that we may know each other, the neighbor I am to love.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, December 10, 2010

Afghan Youth Open Letter

Published on Thursday, December 2, 2010 by

Open Letter to Our World Leaders

by Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers

Dear Mr Obama, Mrs Clinton, Mr Petraeus, Mr Rasmussen, and all our world leaders,

We are Afghans and we ask the world to listen.

Like yourselves, we couldn't live without the love of our family and friends.

We were hurt by your criticism of Mr Karzai for voicing the people's anguished pleas, “Stop your night raids.”

Please, stop your night raids.

If you could listen, you would have heard 29 NGOs in Afghanistan describe how we now have “Nowhere to Turn”.

If you could listen, you would also have heard Mr Karzai and the 29 NGOs express concern over your Afghan Local Police plan; the world will henceforth watch our militia killing the people, your people and our people, with your weapons and your money.

If you could listen, you would have heard the sound of your drones crystallizing the nights of hatred among the Afghan, Pakistani and global masses.

Instead, we hear your determination to “awe, shock and firepower us with Abrams tanks. We hear distant excitement over your new smart XM25 toy, a weapon you proudly proclaim will leave us with “nowhere to hide.

Nowhere to turn and nowhere to hide.

Your actions have unfortunately dimmed our hopes that we the people could turn to you. Along with our Afghan war-makers, you are making the people cry.

Yet, we understand. You are in the same trap we're in, in a corrupt, militarized mania. Love is how we're asking for peace, a love that listens, and reconciles.

And so, we invite you to listen to the people of Afghanistan and to world public opinion on the Global Day of Listening to Afghans, to be internet-broadcast from Kabul this December.

It is time to listen broadly and deeply to both local and overseas Afghan civil groups and the numerous alternative solutions they have proposed for building a better socio-political, economic and religious/ideological future for Afghanistan.

We have shared the pain of our American friends who lost loved ones on September 11, by speaking with and listening to them.

Though, if the world could listen like these American friends did, the world would know that few Afghans have even heard about September 11 and that no Afghans were among the 19 hijackers. The world would have heard our yearnings as we were punished over the past 9 years.

If the world could listen, they would know how much we detest the violence of the Taliban, our warlords, any warlord, or any bullet-digging finger-trophy troops.

And now, for at least another four more years, we will grieve over souls who you are unwilling to “count and we are unwilling to lose.

It is extra painful to us and to your troops because clearly, there are non-violent and just alternatives.

We understand the pain of financial hardships but try telling an Afghan mother about to lose her child or a soldier about to take his life that the only way their illiterate and angry voices can ruffle the posh feathers of our world leaders is when it disturbs not their human or truth deficit, but their trillion dollar economic deficits. How do we explain that without denuding ourselves of human love and dignity?

What more can we say?

How else can we and our loved ones survive?

How can we survive with hearts panicking in disappointment while perpetually fleeing and facing a “total global war, a war that wouldn't be questioned even in the crude face of a thousand leaks?

We would survive in poverty, we may survive in hunger, but how can we survive without the hope that Man is capable of something better?

We sincerely wish you the best in your lives.

We are Afghans and we ask the world to listen.

!‫سالمت باشین‬

Salamat bAsheen!
Be at peace!

Meekly with respect,
The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers

Saturday, December 4, 2010

What Are You Doing with What You've Got?

Back in the 1980s, Scotland-born singer-songwriter Eddi Reader was a British pop star with her band Fairground Attraction. Today, as a solo artist, her sound has matured: quiet acoustic arrangements and gentle harmonies put her lush voice front and center. The content of her songs has evolved as well. Especially moving are her wistful songs of love, longing and loss, and also her "message songs", as they're sometimes called, which invite us to think about such subjects as war and peace, the Earth and our place in it.

In the video below (from 2003), Reader joins with pianist Thomas Dolby and an unnamed guitarist to perform "What You Do With What You've Got," her rendering of a song composed by Si Kahn. It's a beautiful meditation on the theme of how we might use our talents and gifts to make a difference in the world. The lyrics have been provided for your convenience.

Notice that before Reader sings, she removes her shoes. The reason why is anybody's guess. In the world of my imaginings, she's preparing herself to do sacred work.

What she does with what she's got is holy indeed.


You must know someone like him -- he was tall and strong and lean
With a body like a greyhound and a mind so sharp and keen
But his heart just like a laurel grew twisted round itself
Till almost everything he did brought pain to someone else

It's not just what you're born with
It's what you choose to bear
It's not how big your share is
It's how much you can share
It's not the fights you dreamed of
It's those you really fought
It's not what you've been given
It's what you do with what you've got

What's the use of two strong legs if you only run away
And what's the use of the finest voice if you've nothing good to say
What's the use in strength and muscle if you only push and shove
And what's the use of two good ears if you can't hear those you love

Between those who use their neighbours and those who use the cane
Between those in constant power and those in constant pain
Between those who run to glory and those who cannot run
Tell me which ones are the cripples and which ones touch the sun

Which ones touch the sun...

Note: If for some reason you can't see the viewer above, click here to watch Reader's performance.