Monthly Archives: September 2011

Jay Michaelson on the Elephant in the Room: “Belief in God” is not a Jewish Value

Judaism would be better off without the phrase “belief in God.”  First, it is a Christian phrase, not a Jewish one, and it suggests that the essence of religion is faith – a Christian value.  Second, the phrase implies a certain kind of God – a God in which one either does or does not believe, probably an anthropomorphic God, a cosmic puppetmaster who sorts the bad people from the good, and makes the rain fall.

This naïve God-concept may be popular in the media, but it is not the God of reflective Judaism.  Rabbi Moses Cordovero, a great theologian and Kabbalist, called anthropomorphic ideas of God “foolish,” and insisted that we think of God not as some Big Man in the Sky but as filling every atom of creation itself.  Rabbi Moses Maimonides, Judaism’s foremost philosopher, saw traditional God-language as a mere entryway toward more sophisticated philosophical reflection on unity and morality.

For these and generations of other Jewish theologians, God does not exist – God is existence itself.  “God” is the world personalized, addressed not as It but as You.  It is how we humans relate to the inexpressible mystery of being alive, which reveals itself not just in religion but in art, love, and delight as well.  “Belief in God” is a phrase we should consign to the lexicographic graveyard.  “Experience of wonder” (Heschel) is better.  So is Love.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism, which conveyed some of these rarified philosophical and mystical notions in a contemporary idiom.  Most readers I’ve met have expressed gratitude and appreciation for the book.  Some, though, seemed to feel as though something had been taken away.  One newspaper asked “Is Jay Michaelson’s God too mushy?”  Another wondered whether the Ein Sof, the Infinite, the All, was enough of a father-figure to inspire morality.

But the contrary is true.  It’s not mushy to think seriously about God and let go of cherished myths.  Grown-up people need a grown-up God concept.  Imagine if you stopped reading at the age of thirteen – would you have any appreciation for literature?  Yet this is exactly what most American Jews experience in their religious education.  Just when they’re ready to start asking serious questions, the bar mitzvah is over and so is Jewish thought.

This has consequences.  In my new book, God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, I talk about how my naïve God-concept kept me from coming out until late in my twenties.  I thought God would hate me for being gay, and it was only after coming out that I realized that what brings me closer to the experience of “God” is honesty, openness, and intimacy.  It took a while for me to let go of stories I’d been told since childhood, but doing so helped me open to authentic spirituality and meaningful religious life.  Judaism without a naïve “belief in God” is stronger, healthier, and more open to the possibility of holiness than a Judaism which clings to it.  So am I.

Jay Michaelson is a writer, scholar, and actvist whose work focuses on the intersections of religion, spirituality, sexuality, and law.

Yury Kanzburg: Reflections on the Invisible


Gennady Mesh,  editor of  the  web magazine “Russian Globe” reviews new works by Yury Kanzburg.  

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Jane Ziegelman on Food and the American Story

97 Orchard, by Jane Ziegelman, tells the story of five immigrant families living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century. The stories of these Irish, Italian, German and Jewish families emerge through the food they cooked and the struggles they faced. Ziegelman chatted with Moment about American food, Jewish food and the place of immigrants in the American story.

What was the inspiration for 97 Orchard?

The inspiration was the tenement itself. A while back, when I was a graduate student at NYU studying urban anthropology, I heard that this new museum was opening on the Lower East Side devoted to America’s urban pioneers, immigrants who settled in tenement districts on the Lower East Side. I worked as a volunteer collecting oral histories from former tenement dwellers. They needed people to go around and collect histories of people that had once lived at 97 Orchard Street. One of the people that I met during that time was Josephine Baldizzi, [one of the women featured in 97 Orchard].

Anyone who’s been in that building feels its history and the sense of all of these people having lived there moving through the building. It’s a kind of haunted place in the best sense of the word.

Why did you choose these families specifically?

I chose the particular families because of the ethnic diversity that they represented.

Did you feel a special bond or closeness with any family or character in the book?

I really identified with the women. It seems to me that the men kind of check out in some of the stories in this book, and the women are the heroes of the story. In the Gumpert story, the father essentially abandons his family under the pressures of keeping his family housed during a particularly bad economic period. He buckles under the pressure and leaves the responsibility of caring for the kids to his wife, and she does what has to be done. That’s the story of these immigrants, that they take care of business. They find a way to do what has to be done, particularly in the interest of their children. These were people who had the ability to defer their own dreams and put aside their own needs in the interest of the next generation. And to me, that is really heroic behavior.

How did you decide that food was going to be the way through which you told these stories?

I’ve seen food as a really useful tool for interpreting culture and also as a way to enter the everyday lives of people who are not exactly like us. That’s part of the appeal of food. On one hand, food is something we all need. It’s a biological necessity. On the other hand, it’s tied up with all kinds of really profound human aspirations. It’s tied up with family and God and nature and our relationships to our community, so it stands at this really interesting point between heart and biology. It’s also just so incredibly concrete. I’ve always been interested in the way people lived and the texture and the tastes and the smells of everyday life, and I think food is a great way to get at that.

Is there such a thing as American food?

American food is defined by its diversity. It’s a direct reflection of the American people. This wasn’t always the case, but the immigrants who came to this country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries really changed the way we eat.

What about Jewish food?

There is no one Jewish cuisine—there are many Jewish cuisines. Jewish food is the food that’s important to us. That changes with geography and with time, so the category of Jewish food is this ever-shifting concept, but when you say Jewish food, I know what it is to me, and I think other Jews know what it is to them.

What is it to you?

To me, Jewish food is the food made by my grandmother. It’s chicken soup with kreplach, and it’s honey cake. It’s vegetable barley soup. It’s chopped liver. When I just got out of college and I got back to New York I’d meet my grandmother for lunch in the city, and we had to go someplace kosher, and our favorite place was Ratner’s. So everything on the Ratner’s menu—that’s Jewish food. The borscht, the blintzes, the kasha varnishkes and the knishes.

What was the most surprising thing you learned when researching the book?

The big surprise was how much farming went on in New York City, in the tenement district. There was this whole tradition of animal husbandry on the Lower East Side. The Jews raised geese and other kinds of poultry, the Italians raised goats and the Irish kept pigs. This was shocking to me. The life of children on the Lower East Side was also a real wake-up call, the fact that kids went to work at eleven or twelve years of age and that ten-and eleven-year-old girls were called ‘little mothers’ and bore the responsibilities of grown women.

Which immigrant groups are having the same kind of culinary influence on America today?

In New York, it’s people from Thailand, Vietnam, China—East Asians and Southeast Asians; Latin Americans and Mexicans; people from the Caribbean. Those are the three groups that are making their presence felt in New York. Caribbeans and Latin Americans are really active as street food vendors, so we’re seeing this kind of food on the streets. New York’s Chinatowns—and there’s more than one—are just extremely vibrant places, and Western people are discovering them and trying their food.

 

 

The Long and Winding Road to Interfaith Dialogue

by Steven Philp
While the media spent the morning of September 11 replaying footage of the terrorist attacks of that day in 2001, small groups of people gathered across the country to show that wounds can heal with faith and conviction, if not time. These gatherings on that day brought together Jews, Christians and Muslims to remember those who lost their lives in the attacks, and to show a renewed commitment to developing bonds between our different faith communities. According to Haaretz, approximately 15 interfaith memorial services were planned for New York City alone, with others taking place in major cities across the United States – including Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Washington, DC. The first official interfaith gathering occurred on Friday, September 9, when more than 2,000 individuals crowded into a mosque in uptown Manhattan; the service was officiated by head imam Ali Shamsi, two rabbis and two priests. Raymond Kelly, Commissioner of the New York City Police Department was also in attendance.

Although the event was held in remembrance of those who lost their lives on September 11, the memorial service also focused on the need for coexistence between American religious communities. “We’ve defeated the terrorists,” explained Imam Shamsi in an interview with Haaretz. “The terrorists who acted on September 11 sought not only to kill innocent people, but also to divide the public and sow hate among us, to incite man against his fellow man. But they failed.” Shamsi participated in a total of eight interfaith services, taking place in churches, mosques and synagogues across Queens. He explained the need for people of different religious communities to enter each other’s places of worship, to get to know their neighbors first hand. “The attackers wanted and still want the believers of different religions to hate one another,” Shamsi said. “But in the wake of the attacks, we’ve become closer.”

Unfortunately, not all American religious communities share Shamsi’s positive outlook. Only last year several Christian and Jewish organizations–including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Zionist Organization of America–mounted demonstrations against Park51, a proposed Muslim community center breaking ground two blocks away from the World Trade Center Memorial in downtown Manhattan. Although containing a large Muslim prayer space, proponents have been quick to point out that Park51 is not a mosque–in fact, the majority of its facilities will be open for use by the general public, including a small memorial to the victims of September 11.

It is a testament to the perseverance of individuals like Imam Shamsi that such a large number of interfaith memorial events occurred.  Perhaps in our shared grief it has become apparent that internal divisions need to be considered and–with a building of mutual respect and understanding–be placed aside. “The relationships between American Jews and Muslims have become tightly knit, and evermore significant,” said Shamsi.

This hopeful sentiment was echoed by Rabbi Marc Schneier, head of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Speaking to Haaretz, he explained, “Ten years ago there were no ties between Jews and Muslims in the United States. Today they exist, and are experiencing a blossoming of cooperation.”

A Boy Named David

by Symi Rom-Rymer

David, the recently released feature film directed by Joel Fendelman and written by Fendelman and Patrick Daly, sets out to tell one story, but ends up telling two. The first is about the accidental meeting of two boys, Daud and Yoav, one Muslim, and one Jewish, from the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn who manage to break out of their religious bubbles and form an unlikely friendship. The second is the story of the accidental meeting of the same two boys, one the son of immigrant parents and the other of American parents.

In the first story, religion plays a complex role: at once uniting and dividing the protagonists. Initially, it is the reason Daud and Yoav meet. Eleven year-old Yoav forgets his prayer book on a park bench after studying with his friends.  Watching from afar, Daud, a somber and often lonely child, is curious about the boy who seems as intent on his religious studies as he is on his. Noticing the forgotten book, Daud tries to return it. Unfortunately, Yoav is too far away to hear him. Daud follows him to his yeshiva only to find the door locked. When he returns the following day, he is mistaken for a lost pupil and shepherded into a class.

Now calling himself David, he suddenly finds friendships in the yeshiva classroom that had previously eluded him. Soon, his life is full of basketball and splashing in the waves at Coney Island. As euphoric as he is with his new friendship, Daud is still insecure, driving a wedge into the boys’ otherwise genuine friendship. Daud is fearful to admit the truth about his religion. He remembers his father’s admonition that “Jews don’t like Arabs” and does not believe that his new friends would accept him if they knew who he really was.

That fear is present throughout the film. Indeed, one could come away from the film thinking of Muslims as dour and Jews as joyful. The main Muslim characters seem to have little happiness with their lives, grappling as they are with seemingly insurmountable obstacles: traditional parents, feelings of exile and heavy spiritual responsibilities (Daud’s father is the Imam for their community). Daud’s interactions with his parents are serious and reserved. By contrast, the Jewish characters seem to be the picture of confidence. Yoav jokes easily with his family and friends and laughingly drags Daud on various adventures around New York City.

What saves the film from falling into simplistic clichés is that there is a larger context for these behaviors. The boys are not only of different religious backgrounds, but also have vastly different connections to the United States.  Daud’s immigrant fammily and the serious atmosphere of his home life underscores the struggles newcomers to America often face. How will religious and other traditions be passed on from one generation to the next in a country that prides itself on its plurality? Will family ties be broken if one member leaves home to go to college? What is the best way to keep a family together in the face of an unfamiliar culture?

Yoav and his parents, on the other hand, appear to face few, if any, of these existential concerns.  Instead, they exude instead a more light-hearted demeanor that suggests a sense of security and well-being in the United States.

According to the filmmakers, they set out to tell the story of what happens when two boys from Muslim and Jewish backgrounds become friends in the absence of political and historical baggage—building from the premise that the power of basketball is stronger than that of religious stereotypes. Yet as they show it, while a love of sports and a case of mistaken identity may mask the boys’ overt differences, they cannot escape their backgrounds. Daud’s struggles with internal doubt over who he is casts a pall over his growing friendship with Yoav, who cannot understand his friend’s personal turmoil.

The filmmakers may have missed the target of their original conceit, but they have succeeded in presenting a heartfelt coming-of-age story about a young boy searching for what it means to live in the United States as the child of immigrants and as a Muslim. Hopefully one day, he will figure it out.

How has secularism in America changed since 9/11?

As part of the Elephant in the Room, we asked Dr. Christopher Brittain how the discussion on secularism has changed over the past ten years:

I would not say it has progressed very well in America. Many who subscribe to the notion of secularism assume that religion is outdated, belongs in the ancient world, is slowly ebbing away, and will inevitably disappear. What 9/11 brought to the fore is religion hasn’t gone away. There are a lot of religious people; some of them seem to be disgruntled. Why is that?

There has been some helpful discussion, particularly about Muslims, and some public education that developed a greater appreciation for why some citizens feel alienated from American society, but it seems that much of the rhetoric in popular media has gone in one of two directions. First, there’s been an association of religion with violence: “Look what these murderers did, and they were religious, right? So religion is therefore dangerous.” In Britain that’s very much on the agenda with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens’s “New Atheism”. In the United States it moves more in the other direction; there’s a reassertion of religious identity, usually Christian, which says “in a world without religion – or without the correct religion – violence happens! So we need to reassert the prominence of Christianity in American society.” As a Christian myself, I’m not against the promotion of Christianity, but the tone it has taken is “Christianity versus the World”; this does not foster a greater discussion.

All these tensions surrounding this debate have made it very difficult to have a civil discussion between religious adherents and those who choose not to be religious. It’s become quite oppositional. Secularism is presented as either the savior from the violence that religion causes, or secularism as the symptom of a valueless world that needs to be changed by advocating a particular religion. And sometimes that means not only “my religion is the one we need”, but “other religions are as bad or worse than secularism”. That doesn’t generate a very helpful cultural debate.

In the midst of this emerges the idea of being Jewish but not believing in God; how do you engage in the discussion when those are the poles one has to choose from? Either being militant and full of conviction, or being without belief and viewing religion as dangerous. The concept of a secular Jew is neither of those. It is, to some extent, valuing the heritage of Judaism even if one doesn’t believe in it or parts of it; there’s still something there to be valued, even as one still identifies as secular.

Christopher Brittain is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He is interested in the philosophy of religion, the nature of secularism, and political theology.His most recent publication is “Religion at Ground Zero” (Continuum, 2011).

Kosher Hip-Hop

By Adina Rosenthal

There’s a new, up-and-coming Hasidic hip-hop artist on the block. Nosson Zand is a Boston-born musician who takes pride in the positive and hopeful lyrics that are inspired by his Hasidic beliefs. “I’m throwing a life preserver out into the cold, dark waters of hip-hop and pop music…I’m here to provide a window into a holier place,” he tells me.

Zand, who has toured with Matisyahu throughout the United States and Canada, is currently in the final stages of completing his new full-length album, which includes the single Believers, featuring Matisyahu. In a recent Shalom TV interview, Matisyahu singled out Zand and his musical promise: “Nosson would be the one artist I really believe in…he’s coming from a religious place. Nosson [is] infusing the music with depth and meaning from the Torah perspective, and he’s a really talented rapper, and writer, and singer. I really believe in him and think he can do good things.” Zand met Matisyahu by “chance” on a street corner, where he subsequently rapped for him and was told, “Hey…Nosson, you’re good!”

Zand explains how he was first exposed to rap by his friends in the projects. “There were a lot of rough characters involved…a big mix of people. I have the most diverse group of friends of all Jewish people I know in this world. I was very into other cultures. It’s very easy to blend in and I did for many years in cultures that were far from anything Jewish.”

Zand is a Baal Teshuva, someone who does not grow up religious and “returns” to it later in life. “I grew up going to Hebrew School…I was connected in some respect to Judaism, but wasn’t really taught in a way that made me feel that was relevant to my life. I was proud of being Jewish, but couldn’t articulate it. I was into rap way before I was into Judaism.”

Zand feels confident that as a result of his background, everyone—not just the religious Jewish crowd—can relate to his music. “I’ve been through so much that the average American has gone through…sneaking into movies, going to nightclubs, getting in cars and getting in trouble, but I can relate to my audience….my heart writes the lyrics…I put my heart on the page because I have been through it all. I want to save people from finding the realization through pain and instead through pleasure, education, and logic. That’s what Hasidim is all about.”

Zand’s Hasidic beliefs allow him to share a universal, positive message that transcends the focus on the sensationalism of promiscuous sex and violence. “[Inspirational music] doesn’t mean you can’t be cool and can’t have fun; it’s just a holier version that promotes good values…. It’s something that can be embraced. It’s Torah in the skies. The influence of Torah is nicely woven in a positive influence that hopefully everyone can absorb. This [upcoming] album is aggressively beautiful. It has attitude, swagger, and an opinion on things, but also is woven into what is melodic and hypnotic at the same time.”

While music is clearly his passion, Zand credits his deep love of Hasidism as the driving force behind his music and his life. Zand explains that his inspiration comes from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Chabad, and the general Hasidic approach to Judaism and the world. “It’s a very beautiful thing that inspires me a lot…Torah and trying to be the best Jew and person I can be—the best Hasid I can be—is the main course. Everything else is a side order. The Lubavitcher Rebbe said, ‘Music is the pen of the soul.’ We run a risky business listening to any old thing because it defines people. That was the same with me. I identified more with hip-hop growing up than Judaism…music was the main course and Judaism was a side order.”

And how does Zand’s Hasidic community feel about his music? “My rabbi is my biggest advocate. Baal Teshuvas are supposed to incorporate their talents and turn them into something positive. My approach to Judaism is working on yourself to be a light in a dark world, turn others into a light, and thereby illuminate the world.  That’s what my music is all about.  Acknowledging that there is a mission ahead of us and eventually bring heaven down to Earth.”

As the lyrics from the teacher for Zand’s single, “Believers,” says, “Yes, we’re all believers/Through the dark don’t leave us.” Zand clearly uses his Hasidic beliefs to spread a universal message of hope and inspiration with powerful lyrics and a great beat.