Tag Archives: religion

‘Tis the Season to Create a New Religion

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My daughter and a friend dressed as Tonks, a minor character from the Harry Potter books.

Christmas trees are for sale on every corner, it seems, bringing the scent of the woods to the streets of Brooklyn. Christmas lights adorn streets and houses, and carols play in all the stores. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” has earwormed into my head. I’m remembering last year, when my Harry Potter-loving family attended a seasonal event, the Harry Potter Yule Ball. The Yule Ball is an all-ages rock ‘n’ roll show that comes out of a movement of fans of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The crowd was mostly people in their 20s and 30s, a few of us in our 40s or older, and some kids like mine—young teens and tweens. We didn’t go because it was Christmas-y, but because it was Harry Potter-y.

A number of years ago, some fans formed a band called Harry and the Potters, and this began a genre that is called Wizard Rock, or Wrock. It now includes quite a large number of bands, some of which performed at the ball. Their music is what I would call midrash on Harry Potter. It takes the perspective of characters in the books, exploring their thoughts and lives. One example is singer Lauren Fairweather, who writes songs like “Maybe,” which is from the perspective of character Severus Snape.

There was fan-created merchandise at the Yule Ball, and information about the Harry Potter Alliance, a social justice organization that has brought together Harry Potter fans (and, later, Hunger Games fans too) to work for equality, human rights, and literacy.

It was my first experience with Harry Potter fandom and the midrash it has generated. Among the millions of fans of J.K. Rowling’s work, there are a subset for whom the Harry Potter saga has deep resonance. They were the ones performing, and the ones who were there that night. My family had gone on a whim, but there were others for whom the evening was meaningful in a profound way.

At the end of the night, the final song Harry and the Potters performed was “The Weapon (We Have is Love).” To my surprise, the fans standing around the stage put their arms around one another as they swayed and sang passionately along.

I suddenly felt that I was witnessing the birth of a religion. It had familiar elements: a sacred scripture, interpretation of that scripture, a social action component. Its adherents are emotionally involved with it and feel a sense of community with each other. There are differences from most of the established religions, too: There’s no deity to try to figure out, and no history of oppressing others or being oppressed in the name of the religion.

The theology is very basic—at least at this point. The primary motivator is love: Harry’s mother’s love that saved him from Voldemort as a baby; Snape’s love for Harry’s mother; Harry’s love for Sirius Black and his friends, which ultimately allows him to triumph over Voldemort. Fans take the idea of this fierce, life-saving and life-altering love and apply it to their version of what many Jews would call tikkun olam, repairing the world.

I imagine that 500 years from now a deity might have developed, as well as separate denominations of Potterism—Snapians and Harrians, most likely. After all, it seems that that’s what religions do: they form, and after maybe 100 years, they split into different groups because there are different ideas of how to do it right. I don’t think that even a religion based on “the weapon that we have is love” would be different. And that’s okay. I would hope that the Harrians and Snapians would recognize one another’s Potterism as authentic, even if it’s not their preferred way of practicing their religion.

Probably I’m just making this up, and this fan movement won’t develop into a religion. I expect that many of the Harry Potter fans would be angry that I would even say that it could. But that was my feeling in that moment at the end of the Yule Ball, and it was beautiful to see the inspiration, the love and joy, the simplicity, and to imagine that the beginning of my religion, Judaism, was that way too.

Posted on December 16, 2014

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The Four M’s

shutterstock_1994426Does the synagogue you attend speak your language? If you are not a synagogue goer, might you go if the folks there spoke your language? By language, I don’t mean Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, etc.

One of the central purposes of religion is to make sense of the world around us. “Religion,” from the Latin word “religare” means to restrain, to tie, to bind. Related to the word “ligament,” religion “binds” our ideas and experiences together into a cohesive worldview. Religious language is valuable only to the extent that your personal, most existential questions are dealt with, and in a manner that speaks to you.

Remember this scene of young Alvy Singer from Woody Allan’s Oscar winning Annie Hall?: Alvy Singer’s mother has taken nine year old Alvy to the Doctor.

Alvy: The universe is expanding.
Doctor Flicker: The universe is expanding?
Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if its expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
Alvy’s Mom scolds: What is that your business? (To the doctor) He stopped doing his homework!
Alvy: What’s the point?
Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson points out that while science has made great strides in increasing human knowledge on matters of the human scale, certainty about what we know decreases when we consider issues much larger or smaller than we have been evolutionarily conditioned to reckon with. He writes:

shutterstock_146880227“… We are limited to an intuitive sense that pertains to our range of size and our durations of time. For size ranges vastly larger than our own (planets, galaxies, space-time) or vastly smaller (molecules, atoms, atomic particles, and quanta), human intuition and logic is not reliable…[T]he only effective system of human relation and expression (constrained by our scientific knowledge) is the Four M’s: Math, Metaphor, Music, and Myth. Each provides a syntax and narrative to link our consciousness and existence to those realms of reality vastly larger or smaller than our own size range, or vastly shorter or longer than the time frames we are evolved to recognize and intuit.” – Ba-Derekh: On the Way – A presentation of Process Theology

Math, Metaphor, Music, Myth – Each of these four M’s is a language that can be used to discuss that which is much grander or much more minute then the everyday experience of humankind. Each language (each of the 4 M’s) can operate “religiously” by connecting what we cannot fully fathom to an expression that is more familiar and meaningful to us. And while each language helps us understand our place in the universe, we must acknowledge a lingering lack of certainty of the truths, or partial-truths, that each language helps us uncover.

I think it might be the case that each of us is hard-wired to have preconceived preferences among these four languages of meaning. I have students who prefer the language of math and logic. But, with imaginary numbers (such as infinity) and thanks to pioneering mathematicians such as Godel, even certain aspects of math, once considered the epitome of logical language, can be understood as limited, or merely theoretical. I have family members whose spiritual lives are fed by music. For me, I am focused on the lyrics, captivated by metaphor and myth (“all we are is dust in the wind”), rather than the notes or tones. For them, the harmonies and unexpected chord progressions thrill them to the point of goose bumps.

Religion as a Verb
What language do you religion in? Each of the four M’s has power to uncover partial truths. Each of us may prefer Math, Metaphor, Music, or Myth over the other three, but are we missing something vital when we ignore the other languages?

The Mishnah teaches, “Who is truly wise? The one who learns from everybody.” There is wisdom here, but a question lingers. If your synagogue (or the one you don’t go to) does not speak your meaning-making language, should you go elsewhere? Or, should you push yourself to find a bit a meaning in a foreign language?

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Posted on September 2, 2014

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Arizona’s Need for Freedom from Religion

Is religious freedom of greater importance than the constitutional right of equality?

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Arizona’s state law SB 1062, which has passed through the legislature and awaits gubernatorial support or veto, argues, ‘Yes’. I suggest, ‘no’, and I do so on religious grounds.

The argument for Arizona law SB 1062 is the protection of the ‘free-exercise-of-religion’. The new statute mandates that as a business owner, I should not have to serve people in my business, if I disagree with their actions on religious grounds. That is, the religious conviction of the business owner would trump the equal treatment of his or her customers. For example, a gay couple at a hotel could be turned away if the hotel owner objects to homosexuality on religious grounds. This is the definition of discrimination.

In this country, for a long time, even to this day – but no longer under the protection of law, we discriminated on the basis of race. This, of course, was a violation of a cornerstone of our constitution; equality. Today, under the guise of religious rights, the Arizona legislature has passed a law allowing businesses to refuse to serve individuals in the public because of religious differences.

UnknownWe don’t yet know if Arizona Governor Jan Brewer will sign it into law. I dare say, she seems capable of any crazy thing. Remember when she wagged her finger inches from our president’s face? Even if she does sign it, it’s hard for me to imagine that it would stand the test of constitutionality in the long-run.

I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but I fail to see how this an issue of religious freedoms being impinged. If your religion prevents you from interacting with the public with fairness and equality, than change your business. There is no government mandate that you work in a public forum. Regardless of the constitutional point, religious assertion into the public square is fundamentally bad for religion, and ergo, bad for the public.

The Talmud suggests that true freedom of religion begins with freedom from religion:

At the moment the Israelites were about to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah records that they stood at the foot of the mountain. The literal translation is “And they stood under the mountain.”(Ex. 19:17).images-1   If the people stood under the mountain, with God literally lording it over them – than acceptance of the Torah was hardly a choice.

Rabbi Aha, the son of Jacob, observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah. [ That observance of the Torah is through coercion!!!]

Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, “[the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]” (Esther 9:27). -Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a

Raba’s point is that it cannot stand that religion, i.e. observance of the commandments, is a response to a Godly threat. It is untenable for the sages to imagine that God forces our observance and faith. Indeed the entire enterprise of morality is dependent on the freedom to choose otherwise. Much better to see the observance from a less obvious, obscure verse from one of the last of the books of Hebrew scripture.

The rabbis of Babylonia circa 500 CE understood what religious fundamentalists in Arizona today have yet to learn: Faith does not come from coercion or imposition of faith is granted a a wide berth. I believe this to be just as true in Israel (see my blog on this issue as it relates to the Israeli rabbinate) as it is in Arizona. If you understand your religion to mean not eating pork, or lighting candles 18 min before sundown on Friday evenings, or not marrying someone you love because they are of the same sex as you, or any other wacky thing, do or don’t do it. Amen. The need for the state law to bless it is bizarre.

Faith’s real power, our sages understood, comes from the freedom of the individual’s choice of action, not by the power of the state, not even by the power of God:  God can control anything,with the single exception of faith in heavens themselves. Hakol B’yadei Shamayim – Hutz mi’yirat Shamamyim.

 

Posted on February 25, 2014

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How Should We Talk About Science and Religion?

As someone who loves both religion and science, I often struggle with how they interact.

Are they in opposition to each other? Do they need to be reconciled? What happens when new scientific knowledge challenges the tenets of my faith?

Part of the difficulty in talking about science and religion is that there are several different ways we can discuss their interaction. Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, the Director of the Dialogue for Science, Ethics and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, outlined several different models in an outstanding talk. Therefore, inspired by her, I want to share four different ways we can frame the discussion about how we talk about science and religion.

Contrast

The Contrast model is probably the most common way people speak about the interaction of science and religion. Often, this view is boiled down to the idea that “science deals with ‘how’ and religion deals with ‘why.'”

Stephen Jay Gould popularized it with the phrase “Non-Overlapping Masteria” (NOMA), which he describes as follows: “The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap.”

But there are two problems with this paradigm. First, religion has theories about what the universe is made of — for example, Jewish tradition has statements about the way the world came into being and why the world is the way it is. And science is now talking about morality and even meaning, with books like Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape about the science of morality and The Brain and the Meaning of Life by Paul Thagard about neuroscience and meaning. Thus the magesteria, in fact, do overlap.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, it’s simply not true that science talks only (or even primarily) about “how” — there’s a lot of “why” in there, asking questions like, “Why is there something instead of nothing? Why do our brains work in the way that they do?” Similarly, religion doesn’t talk only (or even primarily) about “why” — there’s a lot of “how” in there, asking questions like, “How do did humans come to be? How should we act in this world?”

So for people who view themselves as both scientific and religious, the Contrast model often makes them comfortable. But as science enters into the realm that has historically been the purview of religion, and especially if we look more deeply at religion and at science, this model stops working very well.

Concert

The Concert model is the opposite of the Contrast model, as people try to directly reconcile science and religion. It is another attractive outlook to those who are both dedicated to their faith and committed to reason, since it means they would not have to reject either. This model makes claims such as the concept of a “day” in Genesis may actually be billions of years, or that the crossing of the Red Sea was actually finding a swamp that could be crossed at low tide.

But here, too, there are problems with this view. After all, science is always changing, discovering new data and revising theories. If science and religion are in concert, what happens to religious faith when new scientific evidence arises? Indeed, not only physics and biology but also human sciences such as archaeology, political science and history are helping us understand who we are, why we do what we do, and our place in the universe. So if religious faith is based on science, what happens when science presents new evidence?

Indeed, this model makes it hard to do a critical analysis of Biblical texts, and that type of study frequently leads to a crisis of faith. In order for it to work, this model requires significant mental gymnastics, and forces people to maintain only a surface understanding of both science and religion.

So while this view may be appealing at first, it is actually quite fragile. All that needs to happen is for science to discover something that contradicts a deeply-held belief, and people will easily elect either atheism or fundamentalism.

Conflict

The Conflict model is the paradigm that gets the most press, and it claims that religion and science are inherently incompatible. It’s the idea that if you buy into one, you must reject the other. This worldview is exemplified by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on one side, and people who deny evolution because it contradicts the Bible on the other.

But while this outlook generates the most passion from people on the extremes, there are a vast number of people who do not buy into it.

An article in the Huffington Post describes recent work by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, who

…interviewed 275 tenured and tenure-track faculty members from 21 research universities in the United States. Only 15 percent of respondents said religion and science were always in conflict, while 15 percent said the two were never in conflict. The majority, 70 percent, said religion and science are only sometimes in conflict.

Similarly, a study from Pew Research Forum showed that “a solid majority of Americans (61%) say that science does not conflict with their own religious beliefs. Even among those who attend worship services at least once a week, a slim majority (52%) sees no conflict between science and their faith.”

Thus while zealous advocates on each side often dominate the discussion, there is a large silent majority who do not see science and religion as inherently in conflict.

The bigger problem is that while the Conflict model produces a lot of heat, it rarely creates light. It regularly devolves into unproductive arguments and ad hominem attacks, and causes both scientists and religious people to become either overly aggressive or feel themselves to be “victims” of the other side.

So even though for some people, this is an outlook they hold strongly to, it is much more likely to shut down conversations than to open them.

Contact

This is the outlook that I find most resonant. In this model, science and religion can remain in their own spheres, but when it is appropriate, they can also mutually inform each other, and provide us with a variety of ways to help us know what it means to be human. Indeed, its great value is that it reminds us that both religion and science have to be understood in the context of human experiences, because both religion and science are human endeavors.

The Contact model reminds us that science is not independent of the scientists who pursue their field of inquiry. After all, while the universe may be 13.7 billion years old, and humans may have evolved on the African savannah, it has only been since modern times that human beings have sought to undertake a rigorous understanding of fields like cosmology, paleontology, psychology, neuroscience and biochemistry. We have to remember that not only does scientific knowledge provide information, it is deeply influenced by the passions, the curiosity and the personal experiences of the scientists who pursue it.

Similarly, our own personal experiences influence our religious outlook. People’s feelings about religion are naturally affected by how they were raised and what has happened in their own lives. In the words of Rabbi Laura Geller, “All theology is autobiography.” And while religion is older than science, it is still a human creation, helping us structure our human experiences, and asks deeply human questions like, “How should I act? What should I value? Who should I choose to associate with?”

When we place science and religion in the context of human experiences, we recognize that both science and religion are driven by human needs and are victim to human foibles. The Contact model thus encourages humility in both science and religion, reminding both sides that there are things we do not know, and things we will never know.

So the other crucial piece to bear in mind for the Contact model is that “religion” and “God” are two separate things. “God” is bigger than any one human being or group of people; “religion” is our particular attempt to understand God, and is necessarily limited. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “[R]eligion for religion’s sake is idolatry…The human side of religion, its creeds, its rituals and instructions is a way rather than the goal. The goal is ‘to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)” (I Asked for Wonder, 40-41)

So for those of us who feel connected to God, when we forget that religion is not Divine, but human, we can easily fall into the trap of arrogance and narrow-mindedness. Micah thus reminds us that justice, mercy and humbleness are truly the most important values.

Indeed, our ultimate purpose in life is to strengthen ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. Science does that by giving us a fuller understanding of the world, by advancing knowledge, and by examining the relationship between theory and evidence. Religion does that by giving us a sense of purpose, by strengthening communities, and by giving us a potential glimpse of the Divine.

When we remember that both science and religion are human enterprises, we can remember that the most important question isn’t whether they need to be viewed separately, or if they can be reconciled, or if they are inherently in conflict.

The most important question is: how are they being used?

(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on February 23, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Judgment Day: See you in “Bell”

Passing a billboard saying, “Return of Christ May 21st, 2011” in Los Angeles is very different than passing a billboard for the Red Bull Soapbox Race, also this past May 21st. The motto “Red Bull gives you wings” adds a practical dimension to the rapture. Alas, since the 21st was the Sabbath, and as an observant Jew, I did not attend either event.  As a rabbi, the billboards sponsored by Harold Camping, owner the Christian Family Radio Network were troubling. While I honestly celebrated their strong connection to God, I lament the distancing between those Christians who believe that that particular day was the rapture and the other 92% of Americans, including myself, who believe in God. I have Christian friends, and even Christian family. I am glad to have been invited to Christmas dinners, though I am told that they are even better if you eat the ham. The pork hurdle may soon be remedied as scientists at Holland’s Eindhoven University are growing pig organs from cells cultured in a Petri dish – I keep meaning to contact them with an eye toward winning the contract for Kashrut certification. Christmas ham aside, the basic ethos of Judaism and Christianity are so similar that we in America are comfortable with the term “Judeo-Christian values”. We get along wonderfully, lately anyhow, and especially in this country, it feels odd to be suddenly left out.

To be blunt, Jews and Christians differ on the matter of Jesus, and among some Christians, the issue of the rapture. To be sure, these are not small things, but as long as the rapture was some far off idea it was easy to ignore, but all of a sudden it’s upon us. When my Christian friends remind me that Jesus was Jewish, I swell with pride. Spielberg, Madoff, Bernanke, part of the trinity; we’re everywhere! Even though in my circles Mel Gibson is dismissed as an anti-Semite, I found The Passion of the Christ compelling, though I was conscious of being the only one in the theater wearing a yalmaka and likely the only one at my particular screening who understood the entirely Aramaic script (it’s true, Mel did make some words up!). In fact, I appreciate trying to be saved. As we say in this town, it’s an honor just to be considered. My attitude resembles a story I was once told about the German sociologist-theologian Martain Buber. He was speaking to a group of Jewish and Christian scholars. He said to one group, “You think the Messiah has come before and will return.” And to the other group he said, “And you believe that the Messiah has not yet come, but will arrive soon.” Addressing the whole crowd he said, “Let’s not argue. When the Messiah arrives, we’ll simply ask him if anything looks familiar.” Whether he really said that or if it’s an apocryphal story I cannot say, but Buber’s wait and see attitude works for me. Maybe that is the issue with the billboards: Some of us don’t like to be rushed. Could I have a couple of thousand more years, please?

To be fair, the billboards did not just alienate rabbis, or even just Jews. The FamilyRadio.com and the WeCanKnow.com folks represent only a small fraction of Evangelicals. So it is likely that all the Atheists, Muslims, Buddhist, Catholics, Mormons, other Non-Evangelical Christians, and even the majority of Evangelicals who themselves distrusted the May 21st prediction of the rapture likewise have trouble with the billboards. Even Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind series, which depicts the rapture and subsequent period of judgment over twelve volumes, calls Camping’s prediction “ bizarre,” “dangerous,” and “100% wrong.”

To be fair, I felt exactly the same way when a fringe group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem took to the streets in yellow stars reminiscent of the Holocaust, protest against the secular government: “An organizer of Saturday’s protest in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood told Israeli television that the actions of the authorities were like a “spiritual holocaust” (New York Times: 1/1/12).  The volume of the fringes of religion still sound the loudest, but they don’t speak for the rest of us.  They just make it embarrassing to be religious at all.

According to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, Evangelicals represent between 30-35% of Americans (perhaps as many as 100 million worldwide). What percent give credence to the May 21st prediction?

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived , by Pastor Rob Bell

I am not sure, but selfishly I am excited by the seismic shift represented by another Evangelical, Pastor Rob Bell, the author of the new book “Love Wins”. One might say that Pastor Bell’s view is more Jewish than Camping’s. If Bell is right, God’s compassion is so great that He will not punish me for my particular way of believing in God. From this perspective, my being Jewish could be seen as a forgivable and honest mistake. Between these two Evangelical positions I selfishly much prefer Bell’s “love conquers all ” to Camping’s “hell on earth.” Faith that divides and chooses among us instead of uniting us has the potential to upset the pluralistic religious support we share, and in my view and in Bell’s, it is at odds with the ultimate teaching of God’s grace and love.  Not to tell Evangelicals how to go about their business, but Pastor Bell’s approach. Why? Compared to hell, love is cooler.

The Judgment Day billboards had little impact on me, nor, my guess is, on the majority of those who drove by them.  More people were excited about the soapbox race than concerned about about Judgment Day. I actually had to explain to people that the billboards are religious in nature and not promotional material for a remake of an awful Mario Van Peebles movie. Such is life in Hollywood. We are living in an age and place in which religions are so weak that they resemble entertainment.

The singer-songwriter Michael Franti says that, “God is too big for just one religion.”  There is a Hassidic Tale that teaches that the Shechinah, God’s presence on Earth, needs to be rescued from the hands of those who claim to honor her.   I think the moderate religious people of the diverse faiths of America need each other more than some can accept.  It may take a collective approach to save God from those who lay claim to God the loudest.

 

Posted on January 3, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy