Tablet Magazine's e-cards for the High Holy Days are the best kind of irreverence. You don't have to be a Jew to send one of these gems. Click on any image to see more.
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In the past few months several news agencies have reported on a new publication of Judah Halevi's Kuzari, a classic of Jewish thought written in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew characters).
Completed in 1140, the Kuzari is an apologetic defense of "the despised faith" framed as a dialogue about the conversion of the Kazar kingdom to Judaism. The king of the Kazars, tormented by a recurring dream which tells him his thoughts are pleasing but his actions are not, interviews in succession a philosopher, a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew, the latter converting him — along with his entire kingdom — to Judaism. Much of the book is focused on the dialogue between the King and the Jew, including an argument for the superiority of the Hebrew language written in fine classical Arabic! The dialogue ends with the Jew's departure from the Jewish kingdom for the Holy Land — reflecting Halevi's own migration East from Islamic Spain.
Not often does the publication of a medieval work of Judaeo-Arabic thought receive attention in the press, even if it is a classic. This publication, however, is different. It is an Arabic-script version of the work published in Beirut by an Arab-Israeli doctoral student, Nabih Bashir, for a Muslim readership. What's more: the author's copies of his new book, sent from Beirut, were prevented entry into Israel, since imports from an enemy country of Israel are illegal. The irony was certainly not lost on the reporters: a classic of Jewish thought and foundational work of Zionism was prevented entry into Israel; a work on dialogue between philosophy and the three Abrahamic religions was not allowed free distribution.
Nabih Bashir's work (which has since made it to Israel; I just bought a copy in Jerusalem), however, is more than sensation. What he accomplished is quite remarkable. Although the Kuzari has been published several times — in the original Judaeo-Arabic, in Hebrew translation, and in European languages — this is the first Arabic-script version.
And he did much more than transcription: He translated biblical and rabbinic citations into Arabic, provided a lengthy Arabic introduction setting the work in its intellectual context, and added copious annotation. The result is an impressive 727-page tome which immediately makes a foundational work of medieval Judaism, still studied avidly by Jews today, easily accessible to millions of Arabic-speaking Muslims (and Christians) who do not know Hebrew.
To be sure, this is not the first Judaeo-Arabic work published in Arabic characters. Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed circulated in Arabic characters during the Middle Ages, and an Arabic version was published in 1972 by the Turkish scholar Huseyin Atay; his version — now available online — is (I've been told by students) intensely studied by Muslims at al-Azhar in Cairo.
Saadia Gaon's theological Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Bahya ibn Paquda's sufistic Duties of the Heart, Solomon ibn Gabirol's ethical treatise Improvement of the Moral Qualities, and Moses ibn Ezra's work of poetics Book of Conversation and Discussion have also appeared in Arabic characters. Moreover, the Karaites, a non-rabbinic, often anti-rabbinic sect of Judaism, wrote many of their Arabic works in Arabic characters during the tenth and eleventh centuries — they even transcribed the Hebrew Bible into Arabic script! — and, more and more frequently, in recent years their works have been appearing in the original script.
With the exception of Huseyin Atay's Guide, however, the others were produced by scholars for scholars. In contrast, Nabih Bashir's Kuzari is self-consciously directed at a popular non-Jewish audience in the Middle East.
In a region where the Jews, Christians, and Muslims have a shared religious and intellectual history, yet remain so divided politically and socially, the significance of Bashir's work should not be underestimated. One might even hope it is the beginning of a trend.
As mentioned, Maimonides' (Ibn Maymun's) Guide is studied intensely in the Muslim world, as are works by Abu al-Barakat al-Baghdadi and Ibn Kammuna, two important Jewish influences on the development of Ishraqi philosophy (Illuminationism). The Talmud has recently been translated into Arabic by a team of scholars in Amman. And, in the other direction, Arabic texts are being put into Hebrew. A new rendition of the Qur'an has recently appeared, along with Hebrew translations of Sufi and philosophical texts, including writings by al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Tufayl.
One can only hope that the work of dedicated scholars and translators like Nabih Bashir in the literary and cultural sphere will gradually break down the artificial borders that separate the communities of the Middle East, which have so much in common and so many ideas to share.
James T. Robinson is Associate Professor of the History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His latest book is Asceticism, Eschatology, Opposition to Philosophy, and he is currently constructing a website devoted to the Jews of the Medieval Muslim world.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Every week for the past five months, a group of Arab and Jewish women from neighboring towns near Haifa, Israel have come together to cook. Each week, they meet in a different woman’s home, discovering their commonalities and differences by sharing recipes, culinary traditions, and childhood memories.
These weekly meetings take place through an initiative called Cooking for Peace, one of many projects initiated by the Givat Haviva Education Center. Cooking for Peace is part of its new holistic model for peace education called Shared Communities, which was developed in response to profound changes within Jewish and Arab societies in Israel in the past decade and has provided a new way to bridge deep divides.
Since the second intifada began in 2000, Arab Israelis have experienced a rise in national sentiment, motivated by the struggle for statehood by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Concurrently, a new political and intellectual leadership which advocates a “state for all citizens” in Israel has emerged. Among Jewish Israelis there has also been a sharp rise in nationalist feeling, due in part to the failure of the Oslo peace process.
The rise in nationalism on both sides has made the traditional models for peace education that brought together groups in conflict to discuss their differing historical and political narratives too difficult to implement, and often rendered them ineffective. This reality has forced peace activists to identify a different approach to finding common ground and develop new practices and terminologies.
The new model for peace education shifts the focus from dialogue focusing on narratives to actively discovering common values, daily needs, and shared goals. Participants are then encouraged to create cooperative frameworks to be used toward realizing these goals.
The Givat Haviva model aims to engage all potential partners in the effort to bridge divides. It builds on the idea that the active involvement of ever-growing social circles contributes to sustainable cooperation between communities. Therefore, the idea of Shared Communities may apply not only to Arab-Jewish relations, but may also address other social schisms between secular and religious Jews, long-time citizens and new immigrants, and rich and poor.
Givat Haviva has become a leading establishment in the field of Jewish-Arab dialogue inside Israel since it founded the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace in 1964. Tens of thousands of participants have taken part in its programs and encounters. In 2001 Givat Haviva won the UNESCO prize for Peace Education.
Cooking for Peace was part of a major pilot for the Shared Communities initiative. The project brought together participants from the neighboring towns of Pardes Hanna-Karkur (a Jewish town) and Kfar Kara (an Arab town), both of which are in the Haifa district. The program was launched in January 2011 with an agreement that pledged inter-communal projects and was signed by the council heads of Pardes Hanna-Karkur and Kfar Kara, who wrote in the agreement: “We are aware that geographical proximity is not sufficient…and what is called for is collaborative work in order to turn geographical proximity into human closeness, trust-building and mutual appreciation.”
Local Stories is another ongoing initiative within Shared Communities that has drawn residents of Pardes Hanna-Karkur and Kfar Kara to meet on a regular basis. In this videography course, Jewish and Arab senior citizens meet weekly to learn scriptwriting, editing, and how to use a video camera. Participants will collaboratively produce short personal videos illustrating the unique history and character of both communities.
Another program targets sixth grade children. Together for the Environment has brought together 50 Arab and Jewish children in an innovative learning program to promote environmental awareness. Children and educators engage in a series of workshops where they work with recyclable materials to create practical and artistic products — while indirectly acquiring a new set of tools for dialogue. United by the shared goal of protecting the environment, the children continually find creative ways to straddle language and cultural barriers.
Other cross-community initiatives include youth theater, a women’s hiking club, a course in first aide, and programmes to empower municipal teams. These multigenerational and cross-cultural initiatives have a holistic, sustainable impact on every aspect of the two communities.
Learning from the Pardes Hanna-Karkur and Kfar Kara pilot, Givat Haviva is now expanding the holistic model for Shared Communities so that it can be used to heal ruptures between many types of divided communities, both in Israel and elsewhere. We hope that the positive impact will bring the needed resources in order to turn the program into a serious catalyst for change in Israeli society and contribute to the struggle for social justice.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on September 4, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Jewish law requires that all synagogues have windows. We’re not supposed to pray in separation from the world; we’re supposed to pray with the world, conscious of its cycles, in a space that invites connection with them. Unfortunately, most authorities interpret this rule as permitting synagogues to have windows that never open — windows that seal congregants in an air-conditioned bubble, even on days when outdoor temperatures are moderate.
Synagogues, like other houses of worship, are no different from the majority of our secular spaces. Our default building methods presume round-the-clock mechanical air circulation — windows do not open, and natural cooling designs like cross-ventilation, high ceilings, porches, and recessed doors and windows are quaint rarities. The official guided tour of Washington DC’s National Building Museum, built in 1887 and inspired by Michelangelo’s church architecture, features the building’s ventilation system literally as a museum piece. Visitors are informed that the building’s great hall was designed to “create a healthful building with plenty of fresh air” — but in step with the times, the days of natural airflow there too are gone.
Like many Jews, my only visits to synagogue are during the High Holy Days, which begin next week with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This is also one of the periods when the ubiquity of air conditioning saddens me most. It saddens me because of the sheer waste. It saddens me because I like to wear white linen to usher in the holiday and walk to services carrying nothing, rather than packing layers fit for the tundra as I do when I go to the office, the megaplex, or the airport. And it saddens me because sealed windows separate me from the signs and wonders with which nature beckons me to contemplate the very same lessons that are at the heart of what Rosh Hashanah is all about.
For me, this is a holiday that is centrally about the cycles of life. On eve of Rosh Hashanah, we eat round rather than braided challah bread. We pray to be written in the book of life, recognizing that we are only passing through on this earth, that the length of our stay is out of our hands. We offer gratitude for each of the gifts with which we have been graced, apologize for taking them for granted and for any harm we may have caused, and promise to do our best to take better care.
Is there a season that more aptly reminds us of these most universal of teachings? The smell of crushed leaves. The shortening of days. The air that doesn’t know what it wants to be — dry one moment, cool the next, like a balmy lake with icy flows that tickle your toes. The sky when it turns into a luminous cobalt dome, infinite but somehow also sheltering. The Hebrew sources speak of chupat shamayiim, the canopy of the heavens. Since 2001, when I wake up and see this ethereal shade of blue, a shade that appears only now, in September, the words that flit across my mind are: it’s a 9/11 day.
Autumn invites us to surrender to the fact that all things come to an end, and to hold this truth with tenderness, with awe.
So as I swaddle myself in my woolen layers — in synagogue, at work, in the supermarket — I wonder whether I am the only one who dreams of a world with open windows. Is 24/7, year-round conditioned air really a choice that we as a society actively made, or did it creep up on us? Who wants this? The AC lobby? The military industrial complex?
Or perhaps this is a gender issue? For one, women are generally more sensitive to cold than men. More importantly perhaps, and here I’ll speak only for myself, my growing appreciation for nature’s cycles coincided with the acceptance and even delight I discovered when I started paying attention to the changing moods and rhythms of my own cycle.
Ani Difranco begins one of her songs with these lines:
Somethin' about this landscape
just don't feel right,
and lit up all night.
Like we just gotta see how comfortable comfortable can get,
Like we can't even bring ourselves to sweat.
The song goes on to tie over-airconditioning with consumerism, conformism, and pollution. It ends with a call to women. “O women, won't you be our windows,” sings Ani. “Show us we are connected to everything. Show us we are not separate from everything.”
Some see Judaism as an essentially patriarchal religion. Like all religions, it has many faces. The Judaism I am drawn to puts love of women and love of nature at its center. It gives us words and customs that can help us practice non-attachment and humility, to see ourselves not as masters but as stewards.
Rosh Hashanah starts on the new moon. It is the darkest night of the month, but also the time when the stars shine at their brightest. We can still catch a glimpse of the show if we turn off the lights even from inside our air-conditioned bubbles, but a different sort of communion is available when we revel at the constellations while breathing with the night.
Shari Motro is a professor of law at the University of Richmond. She is currently on sabbatical in Jerusalem, where she is working on a book based on her article "Why I Left Israel, and Why I'm Going Home."
Photo by Brian DeFeo
Three years ago, on the ninth anniversary of 9/11, my friend Frankie began losing her mind.
The cancer steadily worked its way through her brain, though she remained conscious and aware almost to the end.
This is a day for remembrances. But even on a big day, there are other things that happen, known to few. These are opportunities for quiet contemplation — a private, sacred space amid larger, more public, observations of mourning.
It was Frankie’s third encounter with the disease. First, there was breast cancer. Then it moved into her reproductive organs, with long rounds of chemo and radiation. She and I volunteered at the same meditation center, and it seemed a small thing to lend a hand, especially since I was just a few blocks from her in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: picking up groceries, doing a bit of laundry. Frankie lived in a second-floor room of a brick house on the verge of ruin, run by the Addams family.
Frankie was a painter who grew up in an intellectual Jewish family. One brother went mad, dying in an institution, and the second stopped speaking to her. A sister phoned intermittently from far away, talking only of herself. When I started helping her, Frankie was working on a series of stamp-sized watercolors because that was all she could manage. When I admired the tiny paintings, she said I could have one.
Frankie learned I was a writer and asked me to read to her from my book. I had written a novel and, like most authors, could barely stand a word from my own pages; it felt like being trapped in traffic in a carload of people with whom I’d spent far too much time already — siblings or coworkers, all of us on a road we’d been down before.
Against my better judgment, I started reading. Frankie closed her eyes and listened. Her cats, terrified of strangers, sat under the bed. I read of an Asian American family in Ohio, of a trip to China. Later, Frankie would tell people that she loved the sound of my voice.
Months went by. I carried gallons of lemon-lime Gatorade up the stairs; it was one of the few things that didn’t make her nauseous. We became friends. She told me to keep writing, and I believed her.
But Frankie also infuriated me. I learned that she was alone and had no money due to a series of bad decisions, which she continued to make. She was a terrible procrastinator, not wanting to do boring work though she needed the money; she wanted her mother and father to swoop in and save her though she was almost 70, her parents long dead.
When she got better, she still wanted me to read from my book, but I put my foot down. “You’re a big girl,” I told her. “You can finish it yourself.” Yet the bookmark remained in the place where her cancer went into remission.
I realize now that I wanted her to finish the book — for me. I wanted her to try, to make an effort. But she didn’t and, after several years, became ill again, going quickly into hospice. When I visited, we just sat. I held her hand. She would wake, greet me with pleasure, then slip away again as though under a tranquil sea.
When she died, two of Frankie’s old friends came from New Mexico and, along with her health care proxy, cleared out the apartment, taking away her paintings and ashes for safekeeping. They put down the surviving cat, which was very sick and frightened. I never got the little watercolor she’d wanted me to have, and I don’t know what happened to the copy of my book.
So on this day of remembrances, I have my own private one and my own sacred space: of being with Frankie in the cool autumn twilight in Abingdon Square, West Village, on our last outing together. I had signed her out of the nursing home, and we sat on a park bench across the street, watching a multitude of dogs go by. “I love this light,” she said.
It’s fitting, I think, that Frankie never found out what happened at the end of the book. That way, in her mind, all things are possible, even in the face of the unimaginable.
I’ve added my sacred space to the Asian American Arts Alliance’s Locating the Sacred Festival project. What's yours?
During the past week, we watched and listened to a half-dozen or more "secular sermons," as Alain de Botton calls them, from The School of Life in London. These are weekday or Sunday meetings that are rich with singing and presentations by Mr. de Botton himself, as well as a wide array of outside speakers from all types of disciplines. Our task: to find about a minute of audio from one of these secular sermons that gives listeners a more visceral sense of what he's describing:
"We've had terrific success by hosting what we're calling secular sermons. Why are we calling them sermons? It's to try and suggest that listening to them is not simply going to be an intellectual exercise, you know, fascinating little bit of knowledge, a way to show off to friends about new stuff you've learned. It's actually going to be something that will hope to steer how you live. So it's didactic, you know, it's explicitly moralistic not in a kind of starched, Victorian way, but in the best possible sense. It exhorts you to a kind of better, fuller life and why not? Why should these pretty quite nice maneuvers only be the preserve of religion? As I say, they really are for all of us.
We ended up excerpting part of neuroscientist David Eagleman's lecture on "being oneselves." Dr. Eagleman holds joint appointments in the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and is the founder and director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. In this secular sermon, he focuses on how our conscious mind represents only a small portion of who we are: "It turns out that almost everything that you think and do and you act and you believe is generated by parts of your brain that you don't have access to."
He follows by saying that each person is not one singular body, but an amalgamation of many parts that are competing with one another. He likens our brains to conflicted democracies engaged in these internal battles with each other: emotion versus reason, how we make decisions in time and the appeal of right now, and the moral contracts (check out the part about the "Ulysses contract" at the 30-minute mark!) we make with ourselves.
"And I think the thing for all of us to think about, all the time, is how are we lashing ourselves to the mast. We all have weaknesses and things that we want to do better. And as we come to understand more about ourselves, there's this issue of what can we do to — to combat this? How can we really think hard about structuring things in our lives so we don't do the wrong things? And I think this gives us traction, you know, understanding what's going on under the hood gives us traction on old philosophical problems and ways to think about things.
Just think about the concept of virtue. I think that virtue has to do with the battles between these populations. If you've got a real drive to do something you want it so badly and yet you override that with more long-term decision making, with the parts of your brain that care about the deferred gratification verses the parts that care about, I want it right now. If you have that battle and you're successful, I think that's what we mean by a virtuous person. . . .
I think virtue comes at people's point of struggle, right when the parliament is sort of evenly balanced and they have real decision to make there about which way it tips."
We've collected some highlights of Krista's interview with Alain de Botton. He is the author of Religion for Atheists.
"I’m a snowboarder—that’s probably my biggest hobby. I’m also into this really interesting podcast ‘On Being.’ A journalist [Krista Tippett] interviews everybody from a man who changed his life through his relationship with animals to this guy who studies creativity in the brain. It’s fascinating."
Guess what famous actress gave our public radio program a shout-out in the August issue of InStyle magazine?
That’s right. It’s Jessica Biel. Very cool.
My first year in college, I was dubbed the "singing freshman" because I used to regularly and vocally sing as I walked around campus. Some people looked at me askance, but I always wondered why they weren't singing. I never thought my non-conventional, self-expression would connect me to Hasidic Judaism until I encountered the teachings of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer a.k.a the Baal Shem Tov (which means Master of the Good Name).
The Baal Shem Tov was a Jewish mystic and teacher who lived in the late 17th and early 18th century Ukraine. He revolutionized Eastern European Jewish culture and changed the course of Jewish history. He founded what is now called the Hasidic movement and taught God could be known not just by the elite, but by all people through "serving God with joy." Ordinary mundane life, he taught, could be revealed as sacred and awesome through "raising the sparks" of our everyday actions with godly intention. A Hasid was someone who went beyond the letter of the law and lived life fully. Part of his practice was a form of ecstatic singing meditation that would bring the singer to a state of dvekut, a "union with God." He taught that "through music you can reach joy and dvekut with the Infinite One, blessed be He.” These sacred melodies called niggunim were and still are sung around Shabbat tables, and at other sacred gatherings around the world.
This niggun called "Shalosh Tinuous" ("the three stanzas") is one of the most famous Hasidic niggunim. The first stanza was composed by the Baal Shem Tov, the second by his student and successor Rabbi Shmuel Dov Ber who is known as "The Maggid," and the third stanza by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, a student of the Maggid who founded the Lubavitch movement.
Ecstatic music has always been a part of Jewish spiritual practice. The Book of Samuel describes that part of King Saul's transformation from an ordinary man into a king was that he would “meet a band of prophets coming down from a high place with a lute, a drum, a pipe, and a lyre before them; and they shall prophecy: and the spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you shall prophecy with them, and shall be turned into another man.”
When I get deep enough into a niggun, all my thoughts settle and quiet down, I remember my Godly soul, and it feels like I am no longer singing the niggun. Rather, the niggun is singing me.
Special thanks to Nichoach Chabad for the recording.
Ethan Stephen Press lives and works in Jerusalem, Israel. You can read more of his work on The Huffington Post.
With Mitt Romney on the verge of becoming the Republican presidential nominee, the media has been focusing in ever more tightly on the LDS Church and the Mormon faith. And Joanna Brooks has become a go-to voice during our national inspection of Mormonism during this election season. Particularly in the last month. She's been featured on CNN, cited in a New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik, and most notably appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
If there's one thing Jon Stewart does superbly, it's poke fun at his Jewish upbringing — especially when he's counseling Joanna Brooks on her "baby" religion of Mormonism. It's a fun, lively conversation in which the author of The Book of Mormon Girl discusses the fears, tensions, and survivalist instinct of Mormons of today.
For a more in-depth conversation before Ms. Brooks hit the national spotlight, listen to her hour-long conversation with Krista Tippett. You'll be moved.