Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Command to Forget

Deuteronomy 24

19. When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

20. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow.

21. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow.

22. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.

These gifts to the poor are one key example of helping those in need. While beneficial to the poor, one can certainly argue that what is left behind is not enough to actually sustain the needy. A number of commentaries suggest that the primary purpose of these commandments is to build the moral personality of the owner of the field who must understand there are limits even to his/her ownership of the property. The poor also have a claim to it, albeit limited to certain categories. God is after all, the true owner of the field.

The forgotten sheaf which must be left for the poor is an odd example of a commandment to fulfill. There can be no intent here by definition, the sheaf was forgotten. I am forbidden to return to harvest it. It must remain forgotten. In a religion in which memory is so foundational, and it is precisely because we are commanded to remember we were slaves in Egypt, that when it comes to sheaves in the field, I must truly learn how to forget.

As we struggle in Elul to honestly look at ourselves and begin to reconcile with those we have hurt, we must first remember where we erred with others and with God. With repentance and forgiveness must then come a form of forgetting as we begin the new year.  

For a full discussion, please see Nehama Leibowitz Studies in Deuteronomy  pp 243-249.

Posted on August 30, 2012

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Jewish Republican$

What does the Republican Convention mean for Jews?

Not much – for two reasons.

First off, the conventions, Republican or Democrat, are virtually meaningless.  This is true for Jews and non-Jews alike. They are so tightly scripted, you might as well add in the laugh and applause tracks from the Price is Right.  We’ll hear the narrative each candidate wants us to hear, the media slanted in his direction will declare the speeches inspired, and the opposing Spin Doctors will say, “it was predictable, but passible.”  Such is the jaded view of anyone who has lived through a couple of these, seen the movie Wag the Dog, and lives in the shadow of Universal Studios.  Folks, it’s all about the sound and light show (this year I mean that literally – the Republican Convention will have two musical stages, 13 video screens, and a $2.5 million dollar theatrical main- stage).  Conventions highlight style points, “can I imagine this guy as president”, but let me save everyone the money and time, with all the stagecraft that goes into these things the answer is “yes.”

Secondly, when it comes to the Republican party, Jews largely prefer to stay behind the curtain.  Of course there are exception.  Here are two interesting examples:  Linda Lingle, Hawaii’s first female governor is a Republican and is jewish – she’s running for reelection.  And there is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who became popular as Michael Jackson’s rabbi, and is running as a Republican in North Jersey.  In the current congress there are 13 Jews in the Senate, not one is a Republican (both Joe Lieberman and Bernard Sanders are Independents).  On the House side, there are 26 Jews, all Democrats, save one, Republican Majority Leader, Eric Cantor.  However, behind the curtain there is Sheldon and Miriam’s $10 million plus as well as millions more from other conservative jewish power-brokers.

To my eye, these numbers are stark.  There is disproportionate (to population) Jewish representation on the Democratic side, and disproportionate dollars on the Republican side.  While I expect that others will respectfully disagree, I read the above stats as follows:  There is an innate comfort for Jews in the stereo-typical positions of the Democratic Platform (social responsibility that begins by lifting up the bottom) that does not exist for Jews who embrace the individual liberties, and “hands-off” mentality of the Republicans.

There are real issues that separate the positions.  And, Israel is certainly a hot-button issue, but what does it mean if they court your donations but keep you behind the curtain?  I’m not sure.  Still, I’m reminded of an ancient caution:

Be careful in your relations with the government; for they draw no man close to themselves except for their own interests. They appear as friends when it is to their advantage, but they do not stand by a man in his time of stress.” – Pirkei Avot 2:3 (200 C.E.).

Posted on August 28, 2012

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Waiting for God

We have entered the Hebrew month of Elul.

This is the last Hebrew month before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Traditionally, it is a time when we begin to reflect on the year that has passed, the work we have done, and the mistakes we have made. As part of a daily prayer practice many people recite Psalm 27.

Psalm 27 is one of my favorite psalms. I feel the author’s desire to be close to God. The yearning that God will protect us, keep us safe. Every day I reach out to God and wait…wait for an answer, wait for God’s comforting presence. Some days I feel it and others I do not. But for some inexplicable reason just reciting this psalm renews my faith. I give it to you here in the hope that you can make your own connections to it.

Psalm 27
New International Version (NIV)
1 The LORD is my light and my salvation —whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked advance against me to devour[a] me,
it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
4 One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.
6 Then my head will be exalted  above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the LORD.
7 Hear my voice when I call, LORD; be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, LORD; lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations.
13 I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.

Posted on August 27, 2012

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Kosher McDonalds and Jewish Cowboys

Congregation Libertad, the oldest in the country also home to the Jewish Museum

In 1850 two men found themselves standing under a tree near the famous Recoleta Cemetery in the center of Buenos Aires. Each man was carrying a small book and reading to himself. It was Yom Kippur and each man prayed silently to himself without saying a word, even though they each knew what the other was doing. After finishing their prayers they started to talk and they agreed to meet next year and to try to find some more Jews. The year after this story the first minyan took place for Yom Kippur and they decided to found the Congregacion Israelita de la Republica Argentina, the first Jewish Institution in Argentina.

When I asked Rabbi Guido Cohen about the history of Jewish life in Argentina, this was the legend he shared, truth or fiction it is hard to say, but as he pointed out the tree is still there.

The roots of Jewish life in Argentina are relatively new, prior to the late 1800s there had been a small smattering of Sephardic Jews who had come to the country but the Inquisition followed and all signs of Jewish life disappeared. The eradication of the Inquisition in 1813 paved the way for the potential of Jewish life but it was not until the very end of the 19th century that large numbers of Jews began to settle in Argentina.

Today Argentina is the home to the world’s largest Spanish speaking Jewish community. There are over 250,000 Jews in Argentina, most living in Buenos Aires. The earliest European Jewish settlers, however, initially made their homes on the Pampas, the vast Argentinean plains, where it was common to find Jewish cowboys.

In many ways Jewish life in Buenos Aires bears a strong resemblance to Jewish life in any major North American city. There are a myriad of synagogues, Jewish organizations and schools. The arts scene is vibrant and there a Conservative Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, which like it’s American counterparts, trains rabbis. On a recent Friday, I attended a Shabbat Service in the center of the city. The tunes were a recognizable mix of contemporary liturgical music used in the United States.

But even as it is familiar, there is no mistaking Buenos Aires for Boston or Los Angeles. While visiting, Rabbi Cohen offered to take me to see a local synagogue, which he promised, would be quite special. Walking into the courtyard and then the sanctuary of Amijai, it was easy to understand what he was talking about. Set amidst greenery, the building is modern and rounded, the sanctuary made of Jerusalem stone and the acoustics state of the art.

Congregation Amijai

But it was Cohen’s comment as we left that reminded us of exactly where we were, “not only is this the most beautiful shul in the city, it is also the safest.”

Concern for safety is real. In 1994, the Jewish Community Center was bombed and 85 people were killed and over 200 wounded. Moving around town with the World Union of Progressive Judaism we were never without our security team. Moreover, the economic instability that plagued the country in 2001 led to significant migration to Israel, the United States, Spain and Canada. As proud as Argentineans are, they have reasons to worry too.

Courtyard of the Tarbut School in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Still Jewish life is vibrant and uniquely Latin American. Though concerns about safety abound, there are 1,500 students at the Tarbut Jewish school where Rabbi Cohen directs Jewish life and learning, and this is only one of many openly Jewish schools. Jewish children are educated to be multi lingual. Though not particularly religious –the numbers for intermarriage that I heard while there varied but were around 50% – people are proud to be Jewish. Recently, the city elected Rabbi Sergio Bergman to an important seat on the city council. Buenos Aires boasts more than a dozen kosher eateries including the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel. The popular ten member Samaj band has a really local flavor. It plays a mix of Klezmer, Israeli and Latin music, that had us dancing for hours one night at our conference.

Today the Recoleta Cemetery is in the center of one of Buenos Aires’ most posh neighborhood which buzzes with life at all hours of the day and night. It is hard to imagine that it was ever a place where two Jews might find some quiet for reflection on Yom Kippur. Yet, if those fabled men were by some extraordinary means to come looking for Jewish life in Buenos Aires today they would be far from alone as they were just over a century and a half ago, instead they would be in the midst of the worlds most vibrant Jewish communities. The biggest question they would face would be choosing which synagogue to attend!

 

 

Posted on August 23, 2012

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Coaches and Rabbis — A Post Olympic Reflection

I love watching the Olympics. This summer, I even watched reruns for a week after the games were over as my entertainment while I exercised. Watching the athletes’ amazing prowess motivated me to go faster and longer and stronger.

What is it that so fascinates us about the Olympic games? Why are we so gripped with emotion over who wins and who misses their moment?

Like other sports, the Olympics give us a vicarious surge of emotion for the effort, the competition, the feeling of winning. We imagine the athletes as extensions of ourselves. What a sense of accomplishment when our team or our favorite athlete wins!

But it does not stop there. Some of us try to get there. Even knowing that almost all of us will never reach professional heights, many still try. I am talking about team sports for kids.  When I was a kid, team sports were about the game. We took the competition in stride, while learning sportsmanship – in playing, in winning and in losing. While a spirit of competition drove us, it didn’t define us.

I think things have changed dramatically since my childhood in the 60’s and early 70’s.  Today the attachment to sports among many of our kids is much more serious and intensely competitive, and often not about “play.”  It is about winning.  It is about performance.  That’s not bad if it is a part of a child’s identity formation. It can surely boost a child’s self esteem.

While in a previous era most kids developed their identity through their religious community and extended family, today sports can take center stage. Perhaps that’s an indictment on religious communities and our ability to be a compelling force in the lives of emerging young people. But it is also a comment on the values of our culture and its priorities.

Today, the coach often plays the clergy role as an authority and guide. The power of coaches in dictating schedules and priorities for families is stunning. My generation reveled in the insistence of baseball player Sandy Koufax that he not play on Yom Kippur when he would have pitched for the first game of the 1965 World Series. He was our hero.

Times have changed. In today’s culture, sports routinely take precedence over religious school, Shabbat and holidays. Many kids and parents worry about being left out of games or even the team if they miss practices or games. Today’s heroes win on the field, and rarely by declining to participate.

But coaches and games, no matter how good, can’t help us with core questions of life the way our religious traditions can – as a foundation for our whole lives.

We need to get back to a better balance – where religious schools, which have mostly become quite nimble at adapting to the sports-conflict phenomenon, provide experiences so compelling that it would be harder to miss it. But more — coaches also need to understand that other activities are equally important to a child’s development.  Coaches and parents need to teach their kids perspectivethe game is just a game. Life – that’s a different matter.  Four thousand years of Jewish tradition offer an inheritance that teaches us to live a life that matters.  That takes practice and coaching too.

Posted on August 19, 2012

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What if God is Praying for You?

The Old City of Jerusalem

“Just call me on my cell. My house can be difficult to find.”

I hobbled through the alleyways of the thick, cobbled ancient stone in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. I found an open seating area. I called.

In moments, an exuberant, petite, head-scarved woman holding a cell phone next to her ear skirted past me.

“Emunah!” I exclaimed.

“You must be Tamara with the red glasses!”

The conversation continued at a rapid pace as we were both curious about the other.

Emunah had made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel forty years ago from Brooklyn. Fourteen children and two husbands later, she now resides inside the walls of the Old City. She is a believer. Her name, Emunah, means faith. She teaches and practices her faith.

When we arrived at her home, she quickly set up chairs outside for the small gathering of four women and one man that enlarged our intimacy. We ate her homemade oatmeal chocolate bars and drank water to refresh ourselves from the middle eastern summer climate.

Emunah reflected about our personal prayer and the power of God’s prayer.

“It is not about what we want. Think about it. What if God wants to pray for us? What would God pray for? Knowing that God loves us. Knowing that God would want the best for us. What would God want for you?”

God’s prayers for me! Perhaps my prayer requests should come from God’s point of view.

“We are all in God’s shadow. We pray because the Holy One of Discernment prays for us.”

As we listened to Emunah’s lessons, the day darkened into a bold night. The illumination from Emunah’s question continues to delight and excite me: What is God praying for me now?

Posted on August 19, 2012

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Community Is Not Cherry Pie

Many of us love a good delicious piece of pie. It does not matter whether that pie is cherry, blueberry, chocolate chip or strawberry because there are very few taste sensations like a scrumptious piece of pie. Yet, our love of pie should not carry over to our community building and organizational framework. Because the thing with pie is that for every piece you consume there is one less piece left. This way of looking at community – if you have a piece then that is one less piece for me – is not only wrong but damaging.

All too often community leaders can see their city demographics as slices of a pie. The slice could be called “senior citizens” or the slice could be called “left-handed dark-haired Democrats with three children and two pets,” regardless of the term, that grouping is seen as a limited quantity item that one either gets or does not get. The reality of the matter is that community members are more like human beings than they are like slices of a pie.

A person appreciates engagement. People respond when organizations and the individuals who run them are attentive to their needs and their desires. A community member desires to feel that they matter and what they bring to the table is critical. If one organization can provide that or if two organizations can provide that, the result is the same: engagement with the community and strengthening the bonds of affiliation and cohesion. There are times where a shopper will exclusively only rely on one company or one product to meet their needs. There are people out there who will only drink one type of soda and no other. However, for every one person that will never deviate from their brand loyalty, there are many more who will go where they find meaning, connection and where they are appreciated regardless if that means shopping at one store, two stores or even three.

When the various community organizations come to realize that they ought not to be expending so much energy, time and resources on aggressively competing but rather on making sure they are offering the best service they can possibly offer and that the needs of each person that comes through their door is being met to the fullest extent then we will have moved in a very positive direction away from seeing every individual as another slice of pie to be fought over. The added dimension to moving away from the pie model is that, from the perspective of the community member, a Jewish community that is collaborative, that is cooperative and that is friendly with each other, is one that makes all the various organizations more attractive and more desirable.

Let us leave pie to the dining room and out of the board room.

Posted on August 17, 2012

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Where Were You?

The first two weeks of August my wife and I visited the Canadian Rockies which are magnificent. Most of the time there was blessedly no cell reception so we missed hearing the news and receiving emails. It was not until we got to our hotel room late Sunday evening that we heard about the shootings at the Sikh center in Wisconsin. Before we left Monday morning for touring, I spent some time working on a visible response from the Rabbinic community in Chicago to the violence. All sorts of positive things have occurred  since that time, even as some incidents have taken place at  two mosques in the area and  shootings continue in other parts of Chicago daily.

That Monday among the places we visited was a waterfall. After a short hike, we came to it. The paths get you really close to the falls and it was easy to get soaked from the spray.

I stood for a while just at the top of the falls overlooking the powerful streams of the water before they cascaded downward. For years, their power has cut new paths in the rock but these are hardly noticeable while it occurs. Come back in five hundred years and you can see the difference!

As I watched the surging waters, God’s words to Job came to mind: “Where were you when I made the foundations of the earth?”  To put it another way, I felt irrelevant. These falls were here long before I was born and will be here long after I die.

As I reflected more, I knew I could not dismiss the importance of who we are and what we do. But the experience did reinforce in me a need to cultivate greater humility. We do not have to relinquish our passions or belief. We do not have to give up our traditions and practices. However a genuine ethic of humility can allow us to stand with others. I may want you to believe as I believe, but I must make room for you to believe and practice as you desire. Your places of worship may be “other” for me, but I must allow them to stand.  This is more than mere tolerance, even if it does not reach the level of pluralism. If those of us involved in interreligious dialogue have something to offer, it might be how we model and act with humility toward each other.

Posted on August 16, 2012

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Mars: One Blind Leap for Mankind

 

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” -Genesis 1:1

Curiosity, The Mars Rover

… existence on this planet, a rather beautiful gift. No?

Maybe it’s just that the grass is always greener somewhere else, but before we finished our task of “tilling and tending” this great planet, our roll as partners in creation with God, we’ve started looking around at other planets.  What’s wrong with this one?  Maybe it’s like an old car, after a while you just want something else.  My fear is that we’ve just found taking care of this planet to be too much work: It’s dirty, it’s hot, it’s crowded.  So a peek at Mars, the cute little planet next door.  Nothing wrong with looking.  Right?  Besides, SarcasticRover tweets are hilarious: “I thought ASTRO-PHYSICS just meant I had to study THE JETSON’S DOG. Rorry Rorge”.

Why Mars?

I remember when President Bush announced that we would redouble our efforts in space and go to Mars.  It had just become public that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and then, just like that, Mars… It felt like a distraction then, and to me, it still does.  It must have felt like that to comedian Dave Chappelle as well.  He captured my sense of it perfectly in his announcement of the “United States of Space” as his character Black Bush.

 

 

 

“The Mars Exploration Program is a science-driven program that seeks to understand whether Mars was, is, or can be, a habitable world. To find out, we need to understand how geologic, climatic, and other processes have worked to shape Mars and its environment over time, as well as how they interact today.” – Official NASA statement.

The official NASA website says that the purpose of the exploration of Mars, which so far looks like Death Valley, is to A) Determine if there was ever life on Mars, B) Study the climate of Mars, C) study the geology of Mars, and D) Prepare for human exploration of Mars.

I’m all for science, but preparing for human visits to Mars while there is so much more to

Wall-E at the sisyphean task of cleaning up Earth

do on our planet (get a handle on climate change, cure cancer, feed the hungry, correct our over-consumption, create peaceful understanding among its inhabitants, to name a few) seems premature.

Earthlings Livin' Large far away from Earth - Wall-E (Pixar)

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the goal of Mars exploration is the preface of the Pixar script for Wall-E:  We’ve messed up our own planet, so we’ll leave for a while and our robots do the work of cleaning up after us.  Like at a fine hotel, instead of cleaning up after ourselves, we simply pick up the phone and call House Cleaning.  But unlike a hotel, we live here.

 

 

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” – Genesis 2:15

This is my hope and prayer:  As we check out Mars, we come to appreciate the gift that God has given us, Earth.  May we redouble our efforts to “work it and take care for it”.

Posted on August 14, 2012

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The Media, Guns, and Turbans

It has been a week since the terrible shooting in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Life has continued and new news is dominating the headlines. This tragedy has been quickly forgotten by many.

As I sat in a Gurdwara, a Sikh Temple, this Sunday at a service to remember those who were killed and pray for those who were injured, I took a moment to be very present in the room. The room itself was a big hall with windows on either side, fans circulated air on the high ceiling and an alter on the floor in the front of the room was covered in a pink and gold material. A rug with different colors marking the walkways covered the floor. Everyone, men, women children sat on the floor together since a belief in the equality of every person is part of the Sikh philosophy. Men wore turbans, and woman had on colorful Indian clothes, pants and tunics with matching head scarves. Taking in the peaceful scene of people sitting together on the floor and children running in and out, I could only imagine the terror which pervaded the temple when the shooting started… unexpected, shocking, and life altering terror.

If the same thing had happened in a church, maybe even in a synagogue we will still be talking about it. The news would be giving us updates on the injured. A sacred space was violated and life has quickly gone on. The Temple I visited in Glen Rock, New Jersey had opened its doors to the community on Sunday to educate people about Sikhism as well as to remember the dead. In addition to being invited to the service, visitors were encouraged to attend a presentation about the tenants of Sikh religion and understand why Sikhs do not cut their hair and wear turbans. (Sikhs believe that people are created with long hair for a reason and they accept hair as a beautiful part of their bodies. When the religion was founded over 500 years ago, only wealthy men wore turbans as a sign of status and many kings wore turbans. Since Sikhs have believed in the equality of all people since the creation of their religion, all Sikhs wear the turban as a sign of equality. Source: http://www.sikhnextdoor.org/teachers/faq.html#h1 ) It is the turban that has attracted the attention of mainstream Americans, so several minutes of the presentation was devoted to talking about the turban, and a slide was shown distinguished between different types of turbans. Those worn by Sikhs and those worn by other groups like the Al Qaeda. The image of Osama bin Laden wearing a turban has caused many individuals to assume Sikhs are Muslim. The Sikh community is now working hard to change this perception.

I was very moved by the people I met at this Sikh community. Everyone was eager to help the visitors, directing them around the Gurdwara, explaining the customs, and encouraging us to eat. A meal is served in the social hall of the Temple while the service is going on and anyone can come and eat for free at any time. Other Jews I encounters there laughingly said that maybe if we served a free meal DURING the service more people would come. It is a lovely tradition and again speaks to the Sikh belief of equality and the need to honor and take care of fellow human beings. I felt incredibly well taken care of there.

One young woman who welcomed me to the Temple asked me why I came. I responded. “As a Jew, I am also a minority in this country. I understand what it feels like, and I wanted to show your community my support during this difficult time.” She smiled and thanked me. But I don’t think she fully understood the emotional weight my words held.

I grew up as a Jew with a kosher home in Texas. I always felt different, other. I have deep admiration for those Sikhs who do wear turbans. It is extremely difficult to be a minority in America. We may be a melting pot, but it can hurt to stand out and be different.

I wish more visitors had come to the Gurdwara on Sunday. I wish there was a way to do more education about religious and cultural differences in this country. It would, quite literally be lifesaving. Instead of moving on to the next story, the news media would do well to spend a moment educating Americans about Sikh beliefs and practices. In our world of streaming information, a few more minutes, even hours, spend talking about and honoring our differences would have a strong impact. We owe that to the six who died.

Sikh Beliefs
1) One Source
One God is the Creator of the Universe
2) Equality
All human beings are equal
People of all religions and races are welcome in Sikh Gurdwaras
Women have equal status with men in religious services and ceremonies
3) Human Life Precious Above Other Life
The human life is supreme and it is through this life that we can achieve oneness with God’s will.
Finding God in this life and living by his commands helps us to attain God’s mercy.
4) Defending Against Injustice
Sikhs are a peace loving people and stand for Truth and Justice
Guru Gobind Singh Ji said, “It is right to use force as a last resort when all other peaceful means fail.”

Posted on August 13, 2012

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