Seek and Ye Shall Find Bias in Europe

The New York Times, January 13.

The New York Times, January 13.

Dr. John Cohn wrote this letter to The New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, in response to the paper’s call to European readers, especially Muslims, to answer questions including what kind of anti-Muslim bias they have experienced.

Dear Ms. Sullivan,

While on the Times website I came across the following pages, with the caption, “Share your experiences as a Muslim in Europe, The New York Times would like to hear from Europeans, particularly Muslims, about their experiences.” The link took me to a page with preloaded questions, such as:

  • What types of anti-Muslim bias, if any, have you experienced or witnessed in your daily life?
  • If you are Muslim, how comfortable are you practicing Islam in Europe?
  • In the aftermath of the attacks, how might your life change, if at all?

This led me to wonder if the Times had similarly solicited information from Christians in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran or Iraq, or gays, women or Christians in Gaza. Has it?

There are, of course, no Jews to query in those places, but you could ask Israeli Christians how they are doing in the only Middle Eastern country with a growing Christian population compared to their co-religionists in neighboring Arab states… Likewise, at this time of trouble, I would think you would be soliciting the concerns of all Europeans, Christians, Muslims, Jews, agnostics and atheists.

Similarly, I was struck that your paper asked, “What types of anti-Muslim bias, if any, have you experienced or witnessed.” I think the lawyers call that a leading question.

In the memory of some Times readers, 6 million Jews were murdered by Europeans. And it was the synagogues of Paris, not the mosques that closed last weekend from fear of violence. I will not defend anti-Muslim bigotry, nor do I want to suggest some universal Islamic responsibility for acts of violence claimed by the perpetrators to be in the name of Islam, but who has the most to fear?

Or does that not lead to the story your reporters have already decided to write?

John R. Cohn

Telling Christians the Truth About the Middle East

The director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel thinks that both Israel and the Palestinian Arabs are at fault for the lack of peace between them.

Speaking after Sunday morning services before a group of 75 congregants in the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church last October, Rabbi Ron Kronish went out of his way to mention the late Rabbi Meir Kahane as an example of extremism of Jews. Kahane’s party, Kach (“this way”) was banned by Israel in 1988 due to his incendiary views of separation between Jews and Arabs, before he was assassinated by an al-Qaeda terrorist in New York in 1990.

Cartoon courtesy of Yaakov “Dry Bones” Kirschen: http://drybonesblog.blogspot.com


[Read more…]

Are You Opening – or Closing – Your Children’s Hearts?

— by Rabbi Rami Shapiro

There are only two ways to raise your children: you either shut them down or you open them up.

  • If you shut them down you raise them in a zero-sum world of winners and losers. You teach them that the world is a pie of fixed size, and that if they want more they must see that others have less or perhaps nothing at all. This is a fearful world of endless and often violent competition and retribution; a world of haves and have-nots; a world of us versus them where the ends (the success of us) justify the means (whatever secures the failure of them).
  • If you open your children up you raise them in a nonzero-sum world where abundance is the norm, and while there will still be winners and losers-those who have more and those have less-it is not a world that allows some to have nothing. This is a world rooted in compassion rather than competition; a world of us and them rather than a world of us versus them.

More after the jump.
Are you parenting opened hearts or closed hearts?

One way to know is to analyze the stories you share with your children. I’m not talking about the storybooks you read to your kids, though these too need to be looked at; I’m talking about the stories you teach them through your faith and your dealings with others.

The other day I was in a local Wal-Mart walking down a toy isle. Two kids were eyeing the action figures. Both boys were with their moms, one of whom was dressed in a manner that identified her as a Muslim. The little Muslim boy picked up a toy and turned to show it to the other boy who moved closer to get a better look. As the boy moved closer his mom, who had been holding his hand, yanked him back, turned and walked to another isle. As she passed me I heard her say to her son, “We don’t talk to those people. They don’t believe in Jesus.”

Religion is often a means for closed-heartedness, and parallel stories could be found in any faith. Because religious stories are some of the most personality shaping stories we humans tell, we must examine them to see what kind of children we are raising when we tell them these stories.

A few months ago I met with a small gathering of Muslim and Christian clergy to draft a statement condemning religious violence. We had no problem doing this as long as the violence was this-worldly, but when I suggested we also condemn the eternal torture of nonbelievers (who are really only differently believing believers) in the world to come, I found myself in a minority of one. If God wants to burn people for believing what they believe that is His business, I was told. So yes, we should avoid telling our children that our God condones violence against those who believe differently than we do, but we should tell them that God will do just that when they die.

Of course religion isn’t the only source of heart-closing stories. Politics, nationalism, ethnicity, race can all be used to this end. And what all these heart-closing stories have in common is that they demonize the other.

So what stories are you telling your children?

When you see a homeless person is your story “There but for the grace of God go I,” or do you talk about the power of negative thinking, or do you talk about justice and injustice and our obligations to the poor? None of these stories stops you from giving money to the poor and homeless, but each speaks to a worldview that is either heart-closing or heart-opening.

  • If your story is “There but for the grace of God go I,” you are saying that God loves you more than God does the poor and homeless.
  • If your story is one of negative thinking: the homeless person attracted poverty to herself by “thinking poor” rather than “thinking rich,” you are saying that you think better than does this other person.

Both of these stories are heart-closing, but don’t imagine that telling the story of justice and injustice is automatically heart-opening. If your justice story demonizes the wealthy or makes saints of the poor you are still telling a tale that closes the heart. As long as you tell stories that pit an “us” against a “them,” you are perpetuating a world and a mindset that will force your child to live in a fearful world haunted by the specter of the other.

Telling heart-opening stories isn’t easy. It requires you to carefully examine your worldview and the stories you tell to reinforce it. It may force you to challenge cherished stories of your own: stories about being chosen and not chosen, or saved and damned. It may force you to change your story, and that may cause others who still cherish that story to reject you because you rejected it. Storytelling has real-life consequences, and because it does it is vital that you know what you telling.

If you want to raise open-hearted kids tell them heart-opening stories; stories that speak of us and them rather than us versus them; stories that link success to personal integrity, creativity, compassion, and curiosity rather than selfishness, greed, conformity, and exploiting the weaknesses of others; stories that show a world rooted in love rather than fear. And if you take on this challenge, just know that you will be doing so in the face of a culture that too often tells a very different story.


Rabbi Rami Shapiro, PhD teaches religious studies at Middle Tennessee State University and is the director of Wisdom House Center for Interfaith Studies in Nashville. He has written over two dozen books and a new series, Rabbi Rami’s Guide to God: Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Teacher. Rabbi Rami Shapiro is also a contributing author to Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning.

Reframing the Hanukkah Christmas Dilemma

Rabbi Goldie Milgram

In memory of my father Samuel Milgram and his birthday on the third Hanukkah Light

When almost all your congregants raise their hands to the question “Do you have a Christmas tree up this season in your home?” it’s quite unsettling for a rabbi. This happened to me back in 1989 in a rural pulpit. The Hanukkah-Christmas dilemma full-blown. What to do, if anything?

A creative program came to mind during a night of troubled dreams. The president of the congregation, ever a supporter of my tendency towards R&D on behalf of the Jewish future, organized everything perfectly to my specifications. And the congregants came, almost all of them.

More after the jump.
First, we set up the synagogue president’s dining room perfectly ready for Passover.

Then we set up her basement, perfectly ready for Christmas with a whole set up borrowed from a pious Christian neighbor.

Then we set up her den with menorah, dreidl, Hanukkah decorations and foods.

Perhaps you can intuit why this particular set-up, a month before Hanukkah and Christmas which fell close together that year.

Bringing in the Light of Spiritual Intimacy and Understanding

As each couple arrived for the program, they received a questionnaire suggesting they go to the Passover room, if raised primarily Jewish, and the Christmas room, if raised primarily Christian. And there to sit quietly and sing along with the music, look at the tree, the art, the food, allow memories to arise and then answer a series of questions.

To the best of my recollection the questions were:

1. Please list all holiday and religious symbols in this room and  their meaning to the best of your knowledge.

2. Make a list of those with whom you’ve primarily shared this holiday with over the years and how that is for you.

3. What are your favorite foods for this holiday?

4. What are your most and least favorite customs and practices for this holiday and why?

5. Is this a holy day for you and what makes it holy for you?

Now, if you are in the Passover room please go to the Christmas room and vice-versa, turn this page over and answer do the same as you did here, answering the questions as well for that room as duplicated on the other side of this page. When you have been to both rooms, we will meet up in the Hanukkah room for a discussion of our findings, three couples will explain why they either a) have a Christmas tree and a menorah in their home, b) have only a menorah for this season c) have neither. We will conclude with a Hanukkah teaching with Reb Goldie.

What Do These Symbols Tell Us?

It was so moving to watch laughter and tears flow softly as congregants moved from room to room experiencing the differences among the holidays. The sharing was profound and interesting. What does the wine mean on the seder table? Jews would say joy, several Christians reported it symbolizing the blood of their Lord Jesus. Wine in Judaism actually symbolizes the joy of the gift of life, the life-force itself.

The painting of Jesus on the Cross that we were given to put up in the room with tree, presents and carols, Yule log (both aflame in fire place, and a yummy cake), Wassail bowl, etc. Jews reported sadness and some fear at seeing a young Jewish man dying a horrible death as a religious symbol, Christians reported the symbol of what their Lord Jesus did for them that their sins might be forgiven.

We listened to each other, educated each other, forgave each other our misunderstandings, appreciated fears of loss of identity, of family connections and histories, made room for respective persecutions across the ages. The power of Passover, one of our major holy days, became so palpably meaningful it seemed to all present. Dealing with the bitterness of slavery and taskmasters of old, within and present employers on the metaphor level. The importance of a holy day that values the tears of effort and pain shed on the way to eliminating slavery. Breaking the bread of affliction, the matzah over our hearts to led in the Light of healing…and so much more.

Balancing a Festival against a Holy Day – Ahhh, We Get It

Christmas tree envy was indeed described and receded as the program progressed and a striking concept emerged through our studies. The Hanukkiah, the menorah, is mentioned twenty-seven times in the Torah. Precise details of its construction are given when Moses is alone on the mountaintop, listening to G*d and seeing the Architect’s vision (Exodus 25:31-40). The menorah, then, becomes a symbol of this listening and holding of the Light of awareness that began for him at the Burning Bush. The menorah’s original shape is, indeed, that of a tree.

More on Menorah as Inspiring Metaphor

Torah (The Five Books of Moses) is called a Tree of Life and is made of the original light filtered, condensed, formed into creation, and encoded in letters dancing with energy. The menorah symbolizes the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, the awareness it only takes one person of vision to lead the way to face the pharaoh’s of our times and all times, the menorah is our Burning Bush. Its light is God as Torah, filtered through the prism of your soul and actions, focusing us on the mission of the Jewish people, to live mitzvah-centered, rather than self centered lives.

The original menorah had seven branches. The Hanukkah menorah has nine, to commemorate the Maccabees’ eight day festival for rededication of the temple, plus one extra branch for the shamash, a helper candle to ignite the others.

What about the miracle of the cruse of oil lasting eight days? This and many other stories arose long after the event, entering the realm of our tribal sacred myth. The Hanukkah menorah, however, does recall miracles-that there was enough “oil,” then and now, enough of the Jewish soul left after so much assimilation and trauma, to rededicate ourselves to the covenant of living as Jews. Even today a huge menorah engraved with scenes from Jewish history stands outside Israel’s parliament, an enduring symbol of that dedication.

The Seleucid Empire, part of the Greek Empire and its intent for homogeneous practices among its citizens, had enacted edicts prohibiting Jews from living our Torah. We were prohibited at peril of death to observe the sabbath, have a Jewish name, keep separate milk (the gift of life) from meat (life taken away), and worse. Hanukkah also symbolizes the courage it takes to trust and maintain our ways. We are one of the longest continually existing peoples on the planet with much of depth, importance and beauty to transmit across the generations. We exist for a purpose.

On the Roman arch of Titus, commemorating the conquering of Jerusalem, the Romans are shown carrying off the menorah in triumph. Those Romans didn’t know that the most precious part of all had been left behind, carried in the soul-sparks of our people, every one of us a branch of a hidden menorah, carrying the light of Torah.

Through our congregation’s program and studies we became a menorah of community in the room; each soul a candle burning brightly with a vision of God’s light coming into us as inspiration for living mitzvah-centered lives.

Making Each Night of Hanukkah Remarkable

We began to brainstorm how to make each night of Hanukkah a gift of awareness, spiritual growth, family and friend connection, and caring beyond our immediate circle. Jewish families, someone noted at that program, tend to randomly come home with gifts for our children throughout the year. Those presents are one way we show love and recognition of the interests and abilities of our child. On Hanukkah, we realized, the present is how we receive and utilize the light of Torah.

To transform from consumer consciousness to mitzvah consciousness on Hanukkah, over the years with communities, we’ve brainstormed:

On the first candle of Hanukkah some of us venture with into attics, closets and garages to find surplus things – bikes, tv’s, vcrs, computers; and after school and before lighting the menorah, brought these goods to family service professionals who know those in need…

Some of us focused on saving energy and care for the planet by putting in more efficient light bulbs, having energy audits, doubling up on blankets and lower thermostats for another day of Hanukkah…

Some hold an Israel arts evening as the Hanukkah candles glow, each family showing something they’ve acquired to symbolize the miracle of Israel realized in our times in their hearts and homes….Some also hold out a light to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and hold a Hanukkah fundraiser for joint learning centers and summer camps…

The fifth candle might include an invitation to bring a photo of Hanukkah family times past, to tell and video stories of those no longer with us whose lives added light to our own… Some consider our own inner light on Hanukkah, is our spark dim or bright? What do we need to do to heal in order to become better able to serve and savor in this life?

By the sixth candle some of us take our tzedakah boxes (where we regularly drops coins and bills to accumulate for charity) and open them to count what has accrued over the year for distribution. Each person brings information about a good cause and those present become a holy allocations committee, sometimes adding Hanukkah gelt – funds dedicated with care on Hanukkah…

The seventh candle might involve bringing a menorah, candles and home-made latkes over to share at a shelter for abused women and children, homeless persons, or a home for elders…

The last night of Hanukkah, as eight lights blaze in the menorah sometimes we do an Internet search on the meaning and places in Torah and Jewish literature and history of  our Jewish names and make or give a piece of jewelry to honor the freedom we have to hold those names dear…

The eighth night is also a time to dream of peace and good lives for all, to discuss and donate to causes that work for education, well-being, the environment and peace. The root letters of Hanukkah come from the term for education and dedication. All ages who can be present for such discussions increase the light of understanding and let it fuel constructive action.

How the Christmas Tree Question Received Closure

My first pulpit showed me how to cast light on making Hanukkah spiritually meaningful. On the Shabbat of Hanukkah they brought their handmade menorahs from a congregational workshop and in front of the lights dedicated themselves to advancing their learning and practice. Each year I taught a series on one of the ten major aspects of living a mitzvah-centered life – Prayer, God, Torah, Shabbat, Hebrew, Halachah (guidelines), Mitzvot (actions to engage in and refrain from), Life Cycle Rituals, Peoplehood and Hebrew, our sacred language wherein so much wisdom and light abides. These teachings became my first three books.

My first congregation’s farewell service to launch me into a new career chapter as a seminary dean offered closure on the original Christmas tree question. After a quilt with a square of learning from each family was presented as part of the ritual, the president asked, “How many present put up a Christmas tree for the family at your home on the holidays?” As I recall, one new member family and one long-time member family raised their hands. I encouraged them to go to extended families for Christmas with love and joy, bearing and receiving gifts if that is expected. Their own homes had become Jewish homes with a tree of the light of Torah, the menorah at the center of their holiday season.

Blessings this Hanukkah to experience and increase “de”-Light.

See the Reclaiming Judaism Website for books by Rabbi Goldie Milgram.