Interfaith Work, JuBu style?

Craftsman, Aleppo souk, Syria

It’s not the first year I spoke from the bima (platform) during High Holy Days, but it was my first time leading a meditation, JuBu style! Happy! I stole it from the JuBu Institute for Jewish Spirituality* . I don’t think they’ll mind.

I led 3 services for older kids, on Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, and people didn’t end up hating me. They didn’t yell anti-Arab insults, or pelt me with hate-mail, as after my earlier experiences on the bima. It all didn’t contribute to my leaving the synagogue eventually. So this was big. And I trace it to China. In a roundabout way…

We talk about the akeda these holidays–the binding of Isaac, the famous/awful Biblical tale of Abraham taking his precious boy to a mountaintop prepared to sacrifice him. Religious violence supreme (at least potentially; he never does it), a topic never more relevant, more potent, more begging to be talked about than that very week, when Islamist fanatics killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and two other young men working there. The temptation, irresistible to many on the Jewish-supremicist end of things, is to say, ‘Well, clearly our God spares Isaac. Our religion values life. We don’t kill innocents.’

My take has long been very different. Let’s look within. Let’s look at our tribe. Today especially, at what our long-prayed-for homeland has become. And how amazing I finally found a rabbi, my rabbi, who explained that there is a way to say this from the bima without making everyone hate you. Step one, be generic.

“Say ‘We know every religious community at times has engaged in inexcusable political violence,’ ” he said. The only reason we don’t do it ourselves these days, perhaps, is that “we’re not deeply religious enough to be seduced by this.” But we still have to watch out. We’re capable of it ourselves, for sure. And we have to recognize we’re capable of it–that, in  his words, “hatred and violence is not one-directional. Rosh Hashanah is that saving grace that reminds us, is the necessary cleansing process telling us, not to think that killing is what god wants.”

Step two is, paraphrasing the Pirkei Avot: “It’s not a mitzvah or to say things that won’t be heard.”

It’s just ego to be up there pushing buttons.

We get to riff on the Torah portion, this is expected. I’d wanted to talk about settler violence against Palestinians, now officially “terrorism” to the U.S. State department. Many died in these rampages last year; about 200 were wounded. Just a week before, a roving gang of young Jewish settler terrorists left a boy in critical condition.

Rabbi said no. To be heard, change the victim this time. Start slow. Talk about the recent spate of ultra-Orthodox Jewish attacks on Israeli girls and women–spitting on an 8-year-old girl for not dressing modestly enough. Move the listener closer to introspection, to understanding, instead of getting up their hackles. Instead of moving them (and myself) farther away. Even if it’s not making exactly my precious (ego’s) point.

And then involve everyone in constructive interfaith work. In November, we’re doing a Jummah (Friday prayers)-Shabbat joint week-end I’m working on, with a mosque here.

I think I could hear this because of China. Lecturing in Xinjiang, spending two days with two Muslim women who were forbidden from going to the mosque, whose kids couldn’t learn their language in Chinese schools, yet who decried the violence there, and who are determined to translate key Turkic texts into Chinese, into English, from their base in big Chinese universities, to preserve what’s being lost. Watching a few of my students dip their toes into an indigenous Buddhism hardly seen since their great-grandparents’ generation. There’s no battle line drawn (any more) between faith and atheism. What would be the point?

Where would I get generating more hostility? It doesn’t end up moving anyone.

*I learned about the Institute for Jewish Spirituality from my friend, “Sisterhood” blogger Debra Nussbaum Cohen around the time of this post.

This week’s tragic destruction of the ancient souk of Aleppo has wrenched me. I took these photos there in 1991.

Aleppo souk, 1991


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