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When the Song Sings the Singer

Rainbow TorahMy 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.
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"You're Just Babies!": Jon Stewart Interviews 'Book of Mormon Girl' Joanna Brooks on The Daily Show
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.
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Five Religious Approaches to Thinking about Meat Eating

Sacred cowPhoto by Alejandro Groenewold/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0

When one introduces the topic of the ethics of meat eating, a debate about religion will often follow. Scriptural texts will be invoked either for or against the practice. In short order, the diets of the Buddha, Muhammad, or Jesus will be considered. Recently, the invocation of beloved environmental writers such as Aldo Leopold has joined references to the traditional sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Leopold — famous for proposing the concept of "thinking like a mountain" — introduced the eco-centric view of a "land ethic." The first-ever panel on Animals and Religion at the American Academy of Religion was held in 1994, consisting of Andrew Linzey, Catherine Keller, Paul Waldau, Jay McDaniels, and myself. While the points made by the panelists were theological, the discussions that followed ranged from the purpose of "canine" teeth in humans to the defense that eating meat is enjoyable. An audience member suggested to the panel that "It's a dog-eat-dog world." Christian theologian Andrew Linzey responded, "Isn't that what Jesus came to change?" Paul Waldau pointed out that, in fact, it is not a dog-eat-dog world. Dogs rarely eat dogs. The digressions that occur in such discussions — then and now — suggest that approaching the issue from the lens of religion or ethics can often become muddled and unfocused. But at least five approaches for addressing the issue of the consumption of animals arise when one studies religion: 1) Most religious traditions postulate a vegan beginning. In the religions that hold the Book of Genesis as a part of their scriptures, a vegan diet is pronounced as the appropriate food for human beings (Genesis 1:29); the much-contested "dominion" granted in Genesis 1:26 is dominion within a vegan world. Christopher Chapple suggests the possibility that one can trace religious ideas of the practice of nonviolence to an ancient renouncer tradition that later gave birth to Jainism and Buddhism and influenced aspects of Hinduism, including the classical yoga school. This is one of the reasons Rynn Berry calls Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism the "four ahimsa-based 'vegetarian' religions." What do those beginnings suggest about our relationships with other created beings? 2) As mentioned above, some find it helpful to invoke what Jesus, the Buddha, or Muhammad ate. Recently, the question has shifted to "if they were alive in our time, what would they eat now? If they learned about the way animals live and die within factory farms, what would they do?" Would they agree with the winner of the recent New York Times competition that "most present-day meat production is an ecologically foolish and ethically wrong endeavor"? 3) What is the nature of creation and what is our place in it? Some religious traditions are seen as reinforcing human-centeredness because they appear to suggest that humans are the teleological fulfillment of creation. Are we removed from creation or embedded within it? If our relationship with creation is a religious issue, and since animals are a part of creation, is not our relationship with animals also a religious issue? Karen Davis suggests in response to Aldo Leopold that before she could think like a mountain, she wanted to know if that would include thinking like a chicken. In other words, we should not lose sight of the individuals within creation. 4) What are the effects of anthropormorphizing God? Does an anthropormophic God cause us to see animals as excluded from God's love or concern? Moreover, what is the effect of seeing humans as in God's image? Why is being in God's image often interpreted in view of power and manipulation and hegemony instead of compassion and mercy and emptying unconditional love? Do we anthropomorphize God out of properties that we are most likely to be using against others? We are most likely to assert the image of God when we are lording over others, and using our power. Acts of unconditional love, suspensions of judgment, mercy for the weak, kindness to animals, get associated with a picture of wishy washy ineffectualness and weakness — qualities often seen as undesirable. 5) How do we show compassion and who are our neighbors? Do animals fall within a religious call to be compassionate? Are animals our neighbors? While most religions might have what some call a "miminal treatment" ethics regarding how animals should be treated, recent writings argue for expanding that. In their Religious Vegetarianism, Kerry Walter and Lisa Portmess suggest, "Whatever the sacred and the holy are thought to be, the human slaughter of animals questions it, renders it paradoxical, demands reflection." In my own work, I have found the writings of Simone Weil illuminating. Weil writes that all our neighbor requires of us is to ask "What are you going through?" and to be willing to listen to the answer. What are you going through chicken, cow, pig, lamb, fish? This may be a more profound and urgent question in the twenty-first century than ever before.
Carol J Adams with SnowballCarol J. Adams is the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Woman-Battering, Prayers for Animals, and a four-book children's series of prayers for animals. In addition, she has edited and co-edited five anthologies, including Ecofeminism and the Sacred. She is working on a book on theology and animals and you can read more on her website.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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A Geophysicist's View of the 'Rigidity' and 'Ductility' of Human Communities and the Earth

Chitpur Leprosy ClinicA leprosy clinic Calcutta. (Photo by Donna Todd/Flickr/cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

When the geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon was 36, he had a "major crisis" in his life. As his scientific research consumed his time and energy, he found himself alienated from others in the world. He "was not seeing the people in difficulty and suffering," he said, and that led him to resign his academic positions and stop conducting his research. He went to Calcutta, India, "to Mother Teresa's place" and spent six weeks working with people in a home for dying destitutes. In "Ecce Homo", Dr. Le Pichon writes of the foundational experience:

"How old is the small boy lying on the pallet? Five, eight, ten? Misery and suffering are ageless. Emaciated, coiled up like a fetus, all his life has taken refuge in his eyes, immense eyes that look at me without any blink. He was picked up in the street two weeks ago. The sister thinks that he will soon die. 'Try to give him something to eat.'

Portrait of Mother TeresaThis is the only task that I can fill in this home for dying destitutes of mother Teresa of Calcutta. With my children, I have learned how to spoon feed a baby. From the motions of the lips, of the tongue, I detect when it is possible to delicately introduce a tiny bit of food in the mouth. The infants are so fragile that the only food they can accept is one that is given with tenderness. The proximity of death has brought back this child to his infancy. In the position he has taken, lying on his side, it is not easy to get the grains of rice in his mouth. He would like to help in order to please me. But he does not have this strength any more. The grains of rice fall on the napkin that I have spread below his chin. Small windows through the upper part of the walls diffuse a peaceful translucent light that envelops the rows of bodies from which groans are rising. The street noise that comes from the outside strangely appears to come from far away. Yet this peace islet is in the heart of one of the most life teeming quarters of Calcutta. Above the child, against a pillar, a statue of the Virgin Mary is presiding over the exchange between the child and me, exchange that penetrates in the deepest part of my heart. Who is this child that the tidal wave of human misery has deposited among the dozens of other 'dying destitutes,' as announced on the board at the entrance: 'Home for dying destitutes.' Why did I have to travel over ten thousand kilometers to meet him so that he would completely reorient my life? Suffering has suddenly swept my soul: it has washed away everything in me. How so much suffering that I had not even noticed could be present next to me? As I had been standing on the crest of the advancing wave of our scientific and technologic civilization, I did not even glance at the debris left over by its flow. I was looking ahead. And suddenly, among the debris of my civilization, this child becomes for me a person, the most important person in my life. 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' In the eyes of this child, it is Jesus on his cross, in the mystery of his abandonment, who reveals himself to me. I never felt him to be so close. Jesus alive, taking upon himself the pain of the whole world, revealing to me that I had abandoned him. 'For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Mary, his mother, is there, also present. I now understand why she is always there, next to the cross. How is it possible without her to live this suffering without revolt? The peace that comes from this child, in the middle of his pain, I know that it comes from the presence of Mary.'"
After encountering that child in Calcutta in 1973, he realized life as he had lived it would be different:

"I could not go back to my lab and continue to live as before. The “Poor” had knocked at my door. I had opened it. He had entered and was now with me forever. Borrowing the words of Isaiah, I had recognized in this child my own flesh and I could not escape any more. I did not know his name and yet he had given me a new name that I had been expecting for years. Within his suffering, my new friend had a mysterious power of presence that had enlightened my own self. In exchange for the small amount of love that I had been manifesting in my own poor way, I had received the gift of the Spirit of God who was dwelling in him. Through this gift I had been confirmed in the depth of my living being, that is of my loving being, who needs presence and who needs at the same time to give himself and to be received fully within a unique relationship."

Dr. Le Pichon then returned to France and consulted with Father Thomas Philippe. He encouraged him to come live in the L'Arche community, and share his life with suffering people. But, the wise priest and friend also urged Dr. Le Pichon to continue his work as a geophysicist. Pursuing these dual passions of science and spiritual community, Xavier Le Pichon continued to ponder the implications of the fragility that marks human life at its beginning, its end, and at places in between. During the decades Xavier Le Pichon spent working on his scientific theories explaining plate tectonics, he's come to see the analogies between the "rigidity" and what he calls "ductility" of the Earth and human communities he's witnessed from India to France:

"As I knew from my own scientific experience, the weaknesses, the imperfections, the faults facilitate the evolution of a system. A system, which is too perfect, is also too rigid because it does not need to evolve. This is true in politics; it is true within a society, within families, within nature.

A perfectly, smoothly running system, without any default is a close system that can only evolve through a major commotion: the evolution occurs through revolutions. An example from my own geological domain illustrates this very important point: most of the earthquakes occur within the upper fifteen to twenty kilometers of the Earth. A diagram of the shifts in the San Andreas faultLet us take the example of California. The western portion glides toward the northwest at about four centimeters per year along a major fracture, which is called the San Andreas Fault. Yet during about one hundred years, the two lips of the fault stay in contact and the corresponding four meters of motion are absorbed by elastic deformation over a width of about one hundred kilometers on both sides of the fault. Then suddenly there is a break: this is the earthquake. The two sides jump back to their equilibrium position with a corresponding quasi-instantaneous relative motion of four meters (100 x 4 cm) of the two lips of the fault. Yet below fifteen to twenty kilometers, instead of these discontinuous, abrupt motions, there is a continuous creep at four centimeters per year without any earthquake. Why? This is because at this depth, the small defaults of the crystals within the rocks have been activated by the increase in temperature and relax the rigidity, allowing a continuous creep to release the plate tectonic forces and thus avoiding the necessity for periodic disasters. Above this depth, on the contrary, the defaults are 'frozen in' because of the colder temperatures. The rocks keep their rigidity until they are fractured, thus producing the earthquake. One moves from rigid and brittle rocks, within the upper layer, to ductile rocks below that can deform in a continuous fashion under the action of tectonic forces. The same thing is true for all systems that need to evolve. Contrarily to what is often assumed, the weak and imperfect parts are often those that allow the evolution to occur without any revolution. This is true for the evolution of life, which is in great part based on the occurrence of coding errors during the duplication of the genetic information. One can ask whether it is not also true of our societies. We tend to dissociate the individuals who are well adapted to our social life from those that have difficulties to follow the pace that is imposed on them by our life style. Yet a society that separates the producers from the others considered as dead weight, even as marginal or excluded individuals, is a hard society, characterized by conflicts and often by complete rejection of minorities. It is sad and pessimistic. On the contrary a society where all are well integrated has a much more adaptable structure, with a different, easier and more conciliatory mode of life. It is often happier and more optimistic."
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Physicist Lawrence Krauss on Our Cosmic Origins, the Beauty of Science, and Outgrowing Religion (video)

"The ideas of science make it so important for humans — it’s part of what makes being human worth being human, the ideas of science,” Dr. Lawrence Krauss said. On July 13, Dr. Krauss sat down with radio show host and producer Krista Tippett for the final interview in her week-long series based around the theme, “Inspire, Commit, Act.”

“The ideas change our perspective of our place in the cosmos, and to me, that’s what great art, music, and literature is all about. When you see a play, or see a painting or hear a wonderful piece of music in some sense, it changes your perspective of yourself, and that’s what science does in a profoundly important way and in a way with content that matters.”

Dr. Krauss is a theoretical physicist and foundation professor at the School of Earth and Space Exploration and physics department at Arizona State University. He is a frequent contributor to publications such as The New York Times and Scientific American. He has authored many books, including, The Fifth Essence: The Search for Dark Matter in the Universe; Fear of Physics; and Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth…and Beyond. In his conversation with Ms. Tippett in the Hall of Philosophy, Dr. Krauss discussed his own experience with religion, the excitement and beauty of science, scientific progress and the universe, how science can provide comfort, a positive understanding of life and provided a short lesson on the recently discovered Higgs boson particle. Dr. Krauss was reared in a Jewish household, but religion was always considered the root of tradition and social machination rather than as a source of ideas:

“I read the Bible, I read the Quran, I read a bunch of things when I was a kid and went through phases where those myths appealed to me. And then I grew out of it — just like Santa Claus.”

Early in his life, his mother, who hoped he would become a doctor, pushed Dr. Krauss toward science. Reading about scientists and science further sparked his attention. As he, he focused his scholarship on physics.

“Physics was always, by far, the sexiest of the disciplines and still is by the way."

Scientists do the work they do because it is fun and exciting, Dr. Krauss said. In our world and society, it is becoming increasingly common to view science from a narrow, utilitarian lens; essentially, people see science as the physical technologies it creates rather than the ideas it fosters.

“To me, one of the most exciting things about science is the ideas. Science has produced the most interesting ideas that humans have ever come up with."

Dr. Krauss lamented that we live in an era where it has been both common and acceptable to be science illiterate. That is dangerous, especially when everything around us that keeps us alive is fueled by scientific research. It is shocking that the presidential candidates do not have a debate centered around science, he said. In 1996, Dr. Krauss published The Physics of Star Trek. The physicist said he liked science fiction until he realized how much more exciting the scientific ideas, discoveries, and questions behind it could be.

“People imagine science fiction as an imaginative rendering of science, when in fact science is a far more imaginative rendering of science fiction.”

In the Star Trek narrative, two very important ideas are posited.

“The Star Trek future is a better place because of science. And I can’t resist saying it here, now that I think about it. It was one of the reasons in Star Trek that basically they’ve dispensed of the quaint notions, the myopic views of the 21st century, including most of the world religions.”

Lawrence KraussDr. Krauss is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State.

“All of the interesting questions that I can see in science, and for the most part in scholarship, are based on the topic of origins.”

In his work, Dr. Krauss asks questions about the origins of the universe, life, and consciousness. He asks questions that seem to combine both scientific and spiritual curiosities. One vast difference, Dr. Krauss said, can be found hidden within the word “choice.” In religion, philosophy or theology, many questions and questions of origins are started with the word “why.” Dr. Krauss said he believes asking questions with the word “why” implies a presumption that there is a greater meaning, a greater significance, when in fact, no evidence points to that. Science alters the kinds of questions we ask, because science is always progressing, pushing at the frontier and finding new knowledge so new questions must be asked, he said. Two hundred years ago, when Darwin was studying and writing, he worked on understanding the origin of the diversity of species — he never attempted to define the origin of life, or the origin of matter, and he laughed off the notion that one ever would, Dr. Krauss said. “But today, that’s exactly what we’re talking about,” he said. The scientific world is full of ideas, questions, discoveries and failures. Often the information gathered by scientists challenges preconceived notions about the nature of the universe or religious beliefs.

“Being uncomfortable is a good thing, because it forces you to reassess your place in the cosmos. Being too comfortable means you’ve become complacent and you stop thinking. And so being uncomfortable should be a spiritually uplifting experience.”

One of the most important and widely discussed scientific discoveries in recent history is the Higgs boson. In his lecture, Dr. Krauss traced the recent progressions in scientific thought and understanding, which have allowed for the revolutionary finding. He discussed how that has expanded the scientific frontier and allowed for the eruption of a new set of questions and ideas. The importance of the discovery reflects and celebrates a change in the understanding of the universe that took place approximately 50 years ago, Dr. Krauss said. There are four basic forces of nature: electromagnetism, gravity, and strong and weak forces. At the start of the 1960s, only one of the forces — electromagnetism — was thought to be understood. By the end of that decade, scientists understood three of the four forces, Dr. Krauss said. The realization that all forces could be understood by one mathematical formalism prompted that growth in understanding, Dr. Krauss said.

“You know you make a breakthrough in science when two things that seem very, very different suddenly are recognized as being different aspects of the same thing."

In the ’60s, scientists proposed that electromagnetism, a long-range force that works across long distances, and weak force, a force that is responsible for nuclear reactions on the sun and is prompted by short-range interactions between nuclei, were fundamentally the same. Forces are understood in physics as the exchange of particles. Historically, it was theorized that electromagnetism was a long-range force because the particle exchanged was a photon, which was massless. It was also thought that in weak force, particles were exchanged over minute distances, because the particles were massive. But with the realization that those particles could be explained by the same math formula, the proposal came that those particles were essentially the same and massless, Dr. Krauss said. The only way that could be possible would be if there were an invisible field with which massless particles could relate.

“If this invisible field permeates all of space, you can’t see it, but if the particles that convey the weak force interact with that field and get slowed down like swimming through molasses, get retarded because of that interaction, they act like they’re massive, whereas the photon doesn’t — it remains massless. Then everything would work.”

Scientists are not in the business of creating forces, Dr. Krauss said. So following that proposal, physicists have been at work trying to detect that invisible force. Because if something exists, it should be detectable, Dr. Krauss said. If the field exists, scientists proposed that if they hit it with enough energy in a small enough region, an observable particle should be produced. That is what Higgs scientists think they have discovered.

“What’s really beautiful is every time we make a discovery in science, we end up having more questions than answers. Having discovered the Higgs does not close the book. We still don’t understand why this Higgs field exists in the universe, and by why I mean how."

Mystery drives science, Dr. Krauss said. Though concepts such as religion, mysticism and other similar schools are based in mystery, the difference is science has changed the language of mystery and progresses with the gathering of real knowledge.

“Science has moved beyond, has taken us beyond our childhood.”

In the lecture, Ms. Tippett discussed the value of religion and spirituality for aiding, preparing, and comforting someone who is on his or her deathbed. She asked Dr. Krauss what science would be able to say to a dying person.

“Every single thing that religion provides, rationality, empiricism, and science can provide. And not only that — they can provide it better.”

People should be taught the truth about death — that it is a natural, necessary part of life and that it will happen. The meaning of life is the meaning you make of it, Dr. Krauss said. That knowledge should be instilled in people not just on their deathbeds, but throughout their lives, so they make decisions in a way that reflects that reality. Moral and ethical decisions cannot be made or decided without a basis in reality, Dr. Krauss said.

“If the stars tonight realigned themselves and said ‘I am here,’ in Greek — presumably, ancient Greek — then I’d say, ‘Maybe there’s something to all of this.’ ”

He said, though, that when there is no evidence of something, it becomes highly unlikely.

“It seems to me the knowledge that the meaning we have is the meaning we make should inspire us to do better.”

Ms. Tippett asked Dr. Krauss whether he would appreciate or understand religion more if he experienced it in a different way. She read Dr. Krauss a passage from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish theologian:

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.”

Wise people can come from any background, Dr. Krauss said. Wisdom is born of experience and knowledge, and there have been many wise thinkers and writers from religion, such as Maimonides. However, he said, he is often confused by why people who are so wise feel they still need religion.

“There’s beauty in the paintings that Leonardo da Vinci and others, Michelangelo and others, did in context of religion. That’s just a response to the culture of the time, and I don’t see why given what you know now you can’t have that same wisdom without discarding the provincial basis of it.”

In the closing minutes of the lecture hour, Ms. Tippett and Dr. Krauss discussed the scientific refutation of the historical precedent to create “us versus them” scenarios, which often lead to prejudice, violence, and inhumanity. He said:

“Science can provide a realistic basis of understanding how artificial and myopic the definitions of us versus our enemies are. We’re made of their atoms. And every atom in our body was once inside a star that exploded. One of the most poetic things I know about the universe is that we’re all stardust. These are amazing things and they have content and they’re true.”

This article appears courtesy of The Chautauquan Daily. Photo by Eric Shea.
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What's Giving Got to Do With Love?

Hanan Harchol is back. In his last set of animated videos, he focused on the Jewish concepts of teshuva (repentance) and slicha (forgiveness). This time he focuses on the love, asking us to pause and think anew about what love is or can be. He turns an eye to people who are overly focused on what they can get out of a relationship, rather than the inherent rewards of giving:

"Look, it’s complicated. I’m looking for something else. My life is going in a different direction. It’s nobody’s fault. I just always had a certain picture in my mind, of what I want out of my life and what I want in a relationship, and honestly, what I think I really need, is to find myself. You know, I need to spend a little time focusing on me right now."

In Love and Fear (part 1), Mr. Harchol leads us to ask, 'What does giving (and fish) have to do with love?'
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Chicago Imam Works with Marginalized and Poor to Anchor American Muslims in the American Narrative (video)

At the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, Rami Nashashibi uses religion, art, and culture to fight for social justice. Mr. Nashashibi sat down with radio host and producer Krista Tippett for the fourth installment of the Chautauqua Institution's lecture series based on the interfaith theme, “Krista Tippett and Friends Who Inspire, Commit, Act.” In their conversation, Ms. Tippett and Mr. Nashashibi discussed his personal faith journey to Islam and the work he does for social justice through his nonprofit organization, IMAN. Mr. Nashashibi’s relationship with Islam resembles that of a convert, he said. Though born in Jordan, Mr. Nashashibi grew up all around the world and spent much of his early life living in Europe. The home he grew up in was not ideologically secular but areligious. Little focus was placed on the study or practice of Islam. When he reached college-age, Mr. Nashashibi came to the Southwest Side of Chicago on a soccer scholarship. When he arrived, he was confronted with the reality of American life in a city rife with economic disparity and racial violence. Mr. Nashashibi was horrified by the continued social segregation and inequality he witnessed. The early years of his time in Chicago coincided with America’s first Gulf War. While he still lived on the Southwest Side, he began to receive strange vibes from people in the community, at one point via a hateful note on his door. He soon decided to move to another college campus on the North Side of the city. The campus he moved to was more racially diverse, and when he arrived, he actively engaged in fighting for social justice issues with the black and Latino communities.
“I became increasingly fascinated and drawn to the African-American narrative, and in the process of doing that, became more and more familiar with — and interacted with those from that narrative who encountered Islam. The African-American encounter with Islam is truly an American story, and it’s one that’s deeply anchored in the larger American narrative.”
Mr. Nashashibi said he soon became fascinated with the stories and people who had participated in movements, such as the Black Panthers and Black Nationalism. Many of the activists and former members of those organizations were devoutly Muslim. They often would ask why he lacked a stronger, more formalized faith, Mr. Nashashibi said. Mr. Nashashibi would respond that he was agnostic and did not believe in organized religion. Early on in his activist career, he could not understand how the intellectual social justice activists he admired were also so reverently faithful to Islam, Mr. Nashashibi said.
“So for the first time, I really started to read the Quran only to refute these guys. And I remember seriously the first year just extracting verses from the Quran only to come back and say, ‘Do you really believe in this?’ ”
Soon a transformation began, and during the course of a few years, he began exploring the Qur'an and asking honest questions about the Muslim faith. He began to embrace the religion as a vehicle for social justice. At first, his relationship with Islam was based solely in the political and social context, but as he continued his exploration of the religion, he realized he was missing its greater spiritual aspect. Eventually, he also turned to the faith for his spiritual needs. In the 1990s, Mr. Nashashibi began to work with Muslim youth from Chicago’s Southwest Side, an area plagued with violence, drugs, and poverty. In its early days, the program focused on bringing together Muslim children from the inner city and other groups of Muslim children, such as African-Americans from nearby suburbs.
“When we brought all of this eclectic mix together — middle class immigrant Muslim kids brought up in the suburbs, young immigrant Muslims brought up in the hood, African American Muslims who have generations of experience on the South Side of Chicago — that produced this extraordinary excitement, a sense of possibility, something that had not been done, something whose time had come.”
One of the first initiatives of the program was called “Takin’ it to the Streets.” The event was held in the same park the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was stoned, in 1966. The point of the event was to take the work IMAN was doing and bring it out for the world to see, Mr. Nashashibi said. Rami Nashashibi with Krista Tippett at the Chautauqua InstitutionAbout 900 people attended the event, and the organization raised $20,000. But, it could have been 900,000 people and $2 million judging by the amount of momentum and excitement it inspired, he said. IMAN stems from a core Muslim principle, the call for social justice, Mr. Nashashibi said. Jesus Christ is often credited with working for and championing “the least of these,” but serving the marginalized was also an action and focus of the Prophet Muhammad, Mr. Nashashibi said. The poor and marginalized sections of society, including women and slaves, were some of the earliest converts to Islam, Mr. Nashashibi said. The disparities of wealth and opportunity based on arbitrary boundaries or uncontrollable events — such as a person’s race or the ZIP code in which he or she was born — motivate Mr. Nashashibi to continue to work for change, he said.
“For me, this work is in part a way to deal with the anxiety, the spiritual anxiety of those disparities. I can’t feel religiously comfortable in simply accepting that type of division in the way we live our lives.”
Mr. Nashashibi said he understands how it can be difficult to stay faithful and committed to the idea of social progress, especially when problems can seem overwhelmingly large and the actuality of change distant.
“It’s one thing to aspire towards those type of parities in our lives that we think are more reflective of the spiritual calling that we all attempt to implement into our lives and implement into society. It’s another thing when, you know, you’re walking 4- and 6-year-old girls down a block where, you know, two days earlier there was a gang shooting.”
Recently, Mr. Nashashibi was walking down his block on the Southwest Side with his young daughters. As they passed a stoop, the smell of marijuana smoke wafted in their direction. After dropping his children home, Mr. Nashashibi left his house and returned to the offending stoop and walked up to one of the men seated there. “Listen man, can I holla at you for a moment?” Mr. Nashashibi asked. The man listened, and Mr. Nashashibi expressed to him that he did not want his daughters to smell marijuana every time they walked home. Within moments, the man had his arm around Mr. Nashashibi, apologizing and promising that it would not happen again. “I want to grow with you, I want to learn with you, I’ve been watching you, and don’t worry, you won’t have to deal with that next time you walk down in front of us,” the man had said. When the enormity of the world’s problems becomes overwhelming, micro-moments such as that human-to-human interaction reaffirm his belief that change can happen. “You can engage those who sometimes you’re told to fear, who you’re told to write off,” Mr. Nashashibi said. At the heart of IMAN is a dedication to art — visual and musical. The incorporation of art in the program reflects the Muslim understanding of God as beautiful. There is a Muslim tradition that says God is beautiful and loves beauty, Mr. Nashashibi said. In Islam, God is also referred to as a beautiful storyteller. In one of the Suras of the Quran, the story of Yusuf is told. The chapter about Yusuf begins, “We reveal to you the most beautiful of stories,” Mr Nashashibi said.
“The idea of God and the divine as a beautiful storyteller is also really at the core of our tradition."
IMAN brings musicians from all around the world to perform at its events, including opera singers and spoken-word artists, Mr. Nashashibi said. The use of art, specifically hip-hop music, began organically as an effective tool for bringing together those Muslim youth from diverse backgrounds. “It became the most powerful and useful way of bringing together young kids in Chicago who were totally disconnected from one another while living and sharing the same kind of urban experiences,” Mr. Nashashibi said. One of the earliest uses of hip-hop culture and art happened in 1995, when Mr. Nashashibi asked a well-known graffiti writer in Chicago to write a phrase from the Quran on a wall in graffiti. The phrase said, “We created you into nations and tribes so that may get to know each other, not hate one another, and the most dignified among you is the one with the most consciousness of the divine,” Mr. Nashashibi said. The artist did not write in ornate Arabic calligraphy, but his transcription and artwork was so perfect that a Palestinian man walking on the street stopped to ask how long he had been training. The unveiling of that project showed Mr. Nashashibi art’s strong, uniting force. Since then, it has been a fundamental aspect of the program. Today, the biyearly “Takin’ it to the Streets” celebration has more than 20,000 attendees each year, with huge celebrities and artists in attendance, Mr. Nashashibi said.
“The arts have become the real factor for us in both humanizing each others’ stories, connecting our stories and, I think, revealing to one another the possibilities of what a better world can look like."
The idea of a collective American-Muslim culture is one Mr. Nashashibi holds dear and tries to spread through IMAN’s programs. It stems from the work of Malcolm X, following his trip to Mecca. After returning from Mecca, Malcolm X wrote to his wife that he no longer believed in race-based segregation within Islam. He had an image of Islam as a “powerful conduit in reconciling some of the great tensions of his time, of our time,” Mr. Nashashibi said.
“Nowhere is that dream, that broader dream, more possible, more relevant, more germane and, I think, more urgent than it is here within the context of the American experience."
Sept. 11 changed the lives of Muslims living in America, Mr. Nashashibi said. There are still vast parts of the United States where strong traces of fear of Islam and Muslims remain. For example, legislatures in states such as Oklahoma are introducing bans on Sharia law, he said. Following Sept. 11, Mr. Nashashibi said he began to begrudge the eagerness with which Islamic leaders would frequently make statements distancing American Muslims from the attacks. He said he felt and feels Americans do not need to hear about how American Muslims are not this, or not that. But, he said, they should be exposed to American Muslims living the American experience. In Chicago, Mr. Nashashibi does not have to tell people he is not from a religion of violence, because people see him holding prayer sessions on street corners where violence takes place, and they know he is fighting violence.
“There’s an anxiety for me even, about when to be OK with talking about the very basics and when to say: ‘Hey, damn it, we’ve been here, we’ve been doing great things, we shouldn’t have to convince you that we are part and parcel of the American experience.’ ”
This article appears courtesy of The Chautauquan Daily. Photo by Adam Birkan.

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Healing Our Sight: Training Ourselves to See the Best in People during The Three Weeks

Reading Lamentations on the 9th of Av on the Tayelet (Haas Promenade), Jerusalem - July 29, 2009On Tisha B'Av, a family reads Lamentations at the synagogue Kehilat Moreshet Avraham in East Talpiot, Jerusalem. (Photo by Brian Negin)

According to Sefer Yetzirah, to each month of the Jewish calendar there corresponds a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a zodiac sign, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, a sense, and a controlling limb of the body...

That's from The Month of Tamuz According to the Book of Formation (Sefer Yetzirah) at, a website which collects the kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. R' Ginsburgh teaches that the sense associated with this month is sight. And the tribe associated with this month is Reuben — a name which comes from the same root as the verb "to see." Our task this month, he teaches, is to rectify, or heal, our own sight. "[O]ne must train one's eyes (both spiritual and physical) to see only the inner positive dimension of reality and not to focus upon reality's outer, negative 'shell.'" On another page at that same site — The Month of Tamuz: The End of Tragedy — we read:

The sense of the month of Tamuz is sight. This means that the month of Tamuz is the best month of the year to learn to exercise our sight in the most positive way possible. Rectified sight involves both shying away from that which is negative (an ability associated in Kabbalah with our left eye) and training ourselves to see things in a positive light (associated with our right eye). In essence, both aspects are included in the right eye, which means that we should seek to see only the good points in others.

I love this idea: that this month it is our task to learn to stop seeing the bad in people, and to perfect the art of seeing the good in people. I make a year-long practice of trying to see the good in people, but there's something especially meaningful to me about the idea of strengthening that practice during this time. We've entered the Three Weeks when we are bein ha-meitzarim, caught in the narrow straits of remembered grief and suffering. We remember the sack of Jerusalem and the fall of the Beit haMikdash, the house of holiness where we once understood God's presence to dwell. I keep returning to the text from Talmud which teaches that it was sinat chinam, needless hatred between and among our community, which brought the Temple down. And I find that I'm feeling even more keenly than usual the wish that I could create bridges of understanding between people who don't see eye to eye. If we could all spend these Three Weeks healing our sight so that we truly only see the good in one another, how might the world be different? I'm not talking about superficial pretense, but about really training ourselves to see the best in people. Imagine seeing the best not only in your friends, but in the guy who cuts you off in traffic; in someone who looks different from you; in someone whose political positions are the opposite of yours. Imagine Democrats and Republicans not just pretending to like one another, or focusing on their common ground in order to get along, but really figuring out how to see the good in each other. Imagine AIPAC supporters and Jewish Voice for Peace supporters doing the same. Secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Soldiers and refuseniks. Israelis and Palestinians. The classical tradition, I suspect, would argue that our task is to learn to see the best in each other within our community, not outside the bounds of our community. (Define those boundaries how you will.) But my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has taught that in this age of paradigm shift, we need to move beyond triumphalism to an organismic understanding of our place in the world. Each religion is a necessary organ in the body of humanity; we need to maintain our differences, but we also need to communicate and connect. Maybe the best way to do that is to learn to see the best in one another. May our vision be healed; may we learn how to look at each other and to see not our flaws and failings and differences but our holy sparks, our souls which shine, no matter who we are.
Rachel Barenblat, The Velveteen RabbiRachen Barenblat is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, Massachusetts. Better known in online circles as the blogger Velveteen Rabbi, she's also an ordained mashpi'ah (spiritual director) and poet. Her first collection of poems is 70 faces: Torah Poems.
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Coverage of Romney Points Out a Disconnect

Photo Op of Mitt Romney in IowaPresidential candidate in Des Moines, Iowa on December 30, 2011. (Photo by Mike Hiatt/Flick, licensed under Creative Commons) In Wednesday's Religion Dispatches, Joanna Brooks describes how journalists report on Romney's business history with vigor, and treat his "faith" as an ethnicity. I think she's describing the disconnect between the spaces in which we live and the way we've publicly lived religion since the 60's — and that this has fermented many of our current domestic crises.
"I’m waiting for the story that transcends the flat ethnicity paradigm and gets the deeper and more persistent question of religion and moral bearings: How does the most religiously devout candidate in recent memory reconcile a life of religious commitment with a values-neutral approach to work, livelihood, and the marketplace? Why does religion play an outsized role in the politics of gay marriage and contraception but apparently has no say when it comes to big-ticket items like national spending and economic policy? That profound disconnect certainly did not originate with Romney, but it may in fact be the key to understanding how he would lead and govern."