Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Is a Religious Project Worthy of Support in the Era of Religious Violence?


Is a Religious Project Worthy of Support in the Era of Religious Violence?

During the month of December, I am writing short pieces that give insight into the initiatives of Panim Hadashot to inspire support for our innovative work. This piece is the The Religious Inspiration of Panim Hadashot I just finished reading Sam Harris books, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.

Sam Harris shines a bright light on religious faith and finds it to be the source of evil in our times. In many ways, his analysis is compelling. He identifies how faith and belief can become irrational. Irrational faith combined with violent zealotry becomes terribly lethal. In his sweeping book, he finds fault even with religious moderation. Many people I have spoken withare fascinated by his writings and by other writers such as Richard Dawkins who are engaged in an angry attack on all expressions of religion.

It is hard to build support for a humanizing and passionate approach to religious life in this climate of polarization between advocates of atheistic scientism and fundamentalist faith. As a rabbi and a Jew, I draw from the resource of the Maimonidean tradition that is deeply aware of the capacity of religious life and Jewish religious life in particular to become a form of idol worship. I follow this traditions understanding that all human beings are very prone to idolatry and we must be always on guard for this slippery slope of religious life. Religious teachers bear an onerous responsibility to fight their own tendencies toward idolizing their ideals and practices and conveying an idolatrous approach to their tradition in the teaching and mentoring.

I have tried in creating Panim Hadashot to convey a religious vision of Judaism that is passionate, deeply religious, yet modest and humane in its religious message. Our message focuses around the centrality of hospitality as a religious practice. Mi Kol Melamdai Hiskalti-From all my teachers I have learned, says the psalmist. Hospitality is the act of regard for the other, for the stranger. It is the willingness to learn from all people, from each individual. It is the willingness to create encounters with the other.

Hospitality is the delicate act of opening up to another and sharing something dear to you that emerges from your deep felt values. But in sharing with another, we do not negate or judge the values and deep felt beliefs of the other. The hospitable person wants to share, but also to learn from the other. A life of hospitality is then creating ongoing experiences of sharing, of opening to new experiences of relationship.

Panim Hadashot focuses on teaching and modeling what we feel are the most sublime aspects of Jewish tradition. We also focus on those aspects of Jewish tradition that convey Judaisms deepest intuitions and wisdom about life, community, holiness, friendship, and sacred time. That is why we focus on a type of Jewish learning the interactive and participatory study of the great texts of our tradition and the Jewish genius of turning a meal into a sacred occasion of holiness and fellowship.

We have discovered that by focusing on these dimensions of Jewish life we are able to transcend the divide between secular and religious and Jew and non-Jew. Great learning and profound celebration open doors and connects people. Combined with a practice of hospitality these Jewish practices spread wisdom, understanding, friendship, and good will.

If you believe that this approach to religion is good and important, then please consider supporting our efforts. We rely on the good will and support of friends across the community to help us extend this religious and humane vision to new faces. You can easily and securely make a donation online by going to www.panimhadashot.com.

Shalom, Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Outreach and Public Displays of Jewish Symbols


There was a very widely covered flap between a Chabad Rabbi and the Seattle Port Authority about the display of a Menorah at the Seattle International Airport. The Rabbi threatened a lawsuit to get the Port to put a Menorah at the airport along with the Christmas Trees that were already there. The Port, wanting to avoid the suit, removed the trees which in turn created an uproar that made its way to national news outlets.

Many have already commented about the issues about the separation of religion and state. I want to focus on the outreach goals of Chabad in its effort to put Menorahs in public and prominent private spaces. Chabad's main goal is to bring Jews back to a life of observance. One of the ways they do this is to appeal to Jewish pride. They are saying, "We are not afraid to proclaim our Jewishness in public." Jews in these public spaces see the Menorah and feel pride that their symbols.

Chabad is not interested in creating a public dialogue about religion. This is the key criticism I have of their outreach. Chabad does not engage Christians. Their views about non-Jews are not clear, yet a reading of their main sources shows a traditional outlook that views Torah as an exclusive truth and that other religions are false. This is a widely held belief of fundamentalists from many different religious perspectives. Chabad is unique because of their exceptional ability not to judge other Jews and to play down their fundamentalist views regarding non-Jews and the choseness of the Jewish people.

I am committed to outreach like Chabad, but do not feel it is necessary to place Jewish symbols next to Christian ones. I favor an approach that engages people of different religions in a true sharing of our faith traditions and wisdom. We live in a truly multicultural world in which intermarriage and the mixing of culture is the norm, not the exception. That means that Jews can prouldly share Hanukah with their non-Jewish friends and family in ways that reveal the teachings of this holiday and its particular insights.

Synagogues and Jewish homes should invite non-Jews to experience our Hanukkah celebrations. And Jews should graciously accept invitations to be guests with Christians in their churches and in their homes to share their experience and joy of their holiday. This means an open validation of the wisdom of other traditions outside our own and the capacity to share religious experience while accomodating difference.

Judaism has much to offer to the general culture, but I think the foisting of Jewish symbols into the public square is an ineffective approach and can backfire as we recently saw.

Another Observation unfortunately I think the focus of Jews should be responding to the Holocaust Deniers Conference in Iran rather than pushing for Menorah's at the Seattle airport. This is an extremely serious development and reveals a growing trend to stoke Jew hatred and deny Israel's right to exist. Holocaust education and fighting anti-Semitism while fostering real dialogue with other communities should be very high on the agenda of all Jewish groups and individuals.

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg