Category Archives: Religion

A Muslim and A Jew Solving the Arab-Israeli Conflict One Walk At A Time.

My good friend Raquel Evita Saraswati has written a beautiful, honest, and insightful blog entry inspired by a conversation we had a while back on the Arab-ISraeli conflict. Here is an excerpt:

Last year, Roi and I were strolling the streets of New York City, hashing out our proposed solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. George Bush wasn’t listening, for sure. Of course, neither was Hamas. But there we were, an Israeli and a Muslim, a man and a woman, working through our most unlikely Manhattan Peace Accords.

I’ll admit now what I didn’t admit to Roi then: this was a tough conversation for me. It’s an issue that – like it does for so many – frustrates me. I remember exactly where I have been every time major movements have been made toward peace in the region. However, I better remember where I’ve been every time that already fractured chance at peace has been shattered by a resurgence in violence.

Something Roi said during our walk remained with me. He shared a powerful analogy I’ve found applicable to so many struggles for justice, for peace and for reconciliation.

Roi talked about what would best be called an escape to safety at someone else’s expense: if you are in a burning building, you may have no choice but to jump. After all, you’ll die otherwise. But – what if the result of your leap to safety is that you land on someone else’s back? What if, after you realize that you’ve landed feet-first on another person, you stayed there? What if, finally – you thought of stepping off, but feared that once you did, the person whose back you’ve occupied might finally take this chance to retaliate? This last fear may be irrational, it may not be — but even still, it is a real fear. What would you do?

To read more, click here.


Diversity for the sake of unity – Islam As It Ought To Be.

Moez Masoud delivers an inspiring speech on my favorite suras in the Quran.

Sura 49:13:

“O people, we created you from the same male and female, and rendered you distinct peoples and tribes, that you may know one another. The best among you in the sight of GOD is the most righteous.”

The music at the end is cheesy, but the speech is sincere and spot on.

Irshad Manji Features Me As An Agent of Moral Courage

Every few weeks, the public intellectual Irshad Manji features people who she calls agents of moral courage: “Those who brave the disapproval of their own communities for the sake of a greater good.” Today, much to my surprise, Irshad included me among those selected. The occasion – My “tough-love letter” to Israel. I am touched and inspired by this honor.

Have a read:

Agent of moral courage: Roi Ben-Yehuda

It’s Israel’s 60th birthday, and not every Jew is celebrating unconditionally.

Witness Roi Ben-Yehuda. He’s no party pooper. The boy knows how to have a good time. (Last year, he introduced me to the obnoxious Sacha Baron Cohen character known as Borat, and still imitates this clown at the most absurd moments in an otherwise serious conversation…)

Instead, Roi is an agent of moral courage, speaking truth to power not only when necessary, but also when inconvenient — on a landmark anniversary. A rising journalist and public thinker, he’s just published a “tough love letter” to his country of Israel. Here’s a passage:

“At sixty years young, you are an amazing success story and we are your grateful children. But grateful does not mean blind. When you shine a light on an object, you are also bound to get its shadow. And there is no escaping the fact that your shadow is Palestine.”

He goes on to write words that some will consider harsh. I consider them humane in that Roi sees the shared humanity of Palestinians and Israelis. So he also sees their destiny as shared. That’s why, elsewhere in his extraordinary letter to Israel, Roi writes that “the greatest gift you can give for your birthday is to lend a hand in creating a birthday for the Palestinian state. Don’t settle for just removing yourself; help construct a positive future for your sister nation.”

Imagine: a patriot who believes in giving rather than receiving on his country’s birthday, not as an act of charity but as a statement of national renewal. It’s what I’ve come to expect from these odd individuals whom I call agents of moral courage.

From the rest of the world, I’ve come to expect allegations of racism. Recently, I received several emails accusing me of anti-Semitism when I pointed out that secular Jewish women in Israel must still go to rabbinical courts for divorces. Even then, they often wind up with the shaft. Israel, in short, isn’t a perfect democracy for Israeli Jews, let alone for Israeli Arabs.

Finding this “shadow,” I suppose, makes me an anti-Semite. What a shame not just for Israel, but for democracy itself.

Democracy demands dissent — not to undermine its ideals but precisely to help realize them.

Roi Ben-Yehuda is one who gets it. He embodies a sentiment prominently showcased at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC: “Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”

Jewcy Thoughts: Are Messianic Jews in Israel the New Crypto Jews?

In Jewcy, I make a case for why Israel ought to respect and recognize the Jewish identity of Messianic Jews.

“Israel’s beauty shines brightest in its diversity. The country possesses one of the most culturally and physically diverse societies on the planet. No matter the kind of Jew, from Yemenite to Ethiopian to Polish, from Orthodox to Reform to secular, there is a place for you under the Mediterranean sun. Yet there is at least one group of Jews who is excluded from the Zionist mosaic. They are the Messianic Jews — a religious community that follows a Torah inspired life-style while believing in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

To read more, click here. As always, if the spirit moves you, please leave a comment at the end of the article.

A (Weak) Critique of my Godless Jews Series

Over at the Jewish Exponent, Rober Leiter reviews the e-zine Leiter writes that the magazine covers Jewish subjects from a secular point of view. He adds that this approach is refreshing, except when the writers in question get too secular. Case in point, yours truly 🙂

The only thing that gets to me on the site is when writers become aggressively “in your face” about their atheism, as was the case with a two-part essay by Roi Ben-Yehuda called “Godless Jews: The Original Atheists With Attitude.” The piece points out that, “For two centuries Jews have contributed a disproportionate creative role to the discourse of doubt, skepticism and atheism. Jewish intellectuals, the likes of Emma Goldman, Ernestine Rose, Sigmund Freud, Woody Allen and Ayn Rand have all brought to bear their considerable talents on the question of God’s non-existence.

“It should come as no surprise that the same people that gave the world monotheism also played a significant role in its negation.”

Secularism is one thing, but trumpeting atheism so determinedly seems a little too triumphalistic. And Ben-Yehuda’s examples of great Jewish intellectuals — in his second installment, he adds Karl Marx — leave a lot to be desired (though Freud, outside of his anti-religion stance, far exceeds the others on that list). Like so many in literary and academic circles these days, Ben-Yehuda seems to overstate his case out of a need to counteract the seeming triumphs of the opposition.”

Hmm, so the problem seems to be that I was trumpeting atheism a little too zealously, and that my list of Jewish intellectuals was incomplete. This misstep on my part, according to Leiter, is the result of my need to “counteract the seeming triumphs of the opposition.”

Leiter writes that he gets upset when people try to shove their atheism down the throats of others. When they get really aggressive. I can understand what he is talking about. But for him to claim that that is what I am doing with my series is simply silly. He is confusing my essay, which explores the contribution of these jewish intellectuals to the discourse of atheism, with my own personal position. He is making an intentionalist fallacy. My own position, not that it matters, is that of an agnostic.

Of course Leiter makes no effort to explain his critique of my work. He does not offer any explanation as to why my list of godless Jewish intellectuaLs (I never called them great) leaves a lot to be desired, nor does he explain why am I being too “triumphalistic”. As for the claim that I am responding to the triumph of the opposition, I honestly have no idea what he is talking about. What opposition? Oh well, perhaps the author was under a word count limit.

To read the rest of Leiter article, click here. To read part I of my series “Godless Jews – The Original Atheists With Attitude”, click here. To read part II, click here. Part III, Freud, is coming out shortly. Enjoy.

Featured Friend: Shye Ben-Tzur

Yes folks, by the sign of my last few entries I have been in an artistic and musical mood. What can I say, it gives me real pleasure to share with you the tremendous talent and vision of my extended family. So let’s get to it: Shye Ben-Tzur is not only one of my best friends, he is one of the great spiritual and musical talents to come out of Israel. His music and poetry combines the best of the Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu traditions. His new project Shoshan is the follow up to his acclaimed album Heyaam. I have heard tracks from this project and it promises to reach heights that have yet to be scaled. Here is a sample for your viewing and listening pleasure.

For more of Shye’s music, visit his myspace page. Stay tuned for more updates on Shoshan.

The Post-Modern Matazah Riddle: My Opening Remarks For Last Year’s Seder.

The Post-Modern Matazah riddle

By Roi Ben-Yehuda

In preparing a Passover seder in which many of my guests are first-timers and non-Jews, I am challenged by a number of factors: There is the barrier of language (some of the texts that we read are in Hebrew), food (some guests are vegetarian, some adhere to Koshrot, still others are Muslims and cannot drink wine), and religion (will the guests take offense at the exclusivists and bellicose passages that we read? Will the Christians day-dream about the “last supper”? Will the atheists’ role their eyes and wonder why we are rehashing these old legends? ).

But above all, my main concern is how best to convey to my guests the true spirit and essence of this wonderful holiday. In the process of thinking about this, I found myself asking: Does the holiday have an essence? If so, can it be extrapolated from a single passage of the haggadah (ritual text)? I am pretty sure that the answer is “no” to both questions, Pesach is simply too rich, diverse, and complex of a holiday for that. Yet I still decided to challenge myself and pick a passage, wrestle with it, and see what I am able produce. What follows is my commentary.

One of the most interesting passages in the Haggadah is known as HaLachma Anya (Aramaic for “the bread of affliction”). It is read at the opening of the story-telling session of the night. The passage is composed of three interrelated stages which I have called: Transformation, Responsibility, and Liberation. While no single passage can fully encapsulate the beauty, grandeur, and power of Pesach, an in-depth exploration of HaLachma Anya, as I hope to show, goes along way. Let us begin our study.

Our passage reads as follows:

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.

Let all who are hungry, come and eat.

Let all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover.

This year we are here – next year, may we be in the land of Israel.

This year we are slaves -next year, may we be free.

Transformation: “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.” The bread of affliction is of course the matzah (unleavened bread) the Jews eat during Passover. The matzah is described as the bread of affliction and suffering, yet we are instructed to feed those who are wanting with this bread. Why? Why offer the hungry and the needy the taste of affliction? Have they not suffered enough? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief Rabbi of Britain, has an interesting answer – He reminds us that the rabbis saw the matzah both as the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation. In Deuteronomy 16:3 we read “You shall eat unleavened bread, bread of oni (poverty or distress), for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly.” In the Haggadah the same explanation is used to describe the matzah as a bread of freedom. It is the bread of liberation because we took it with us as we escaped the bondage of slavery. It was the food of our emancipation.

The Post-Modern Matazah riddle: So how does the same piece of bread mean two different things? Well, according to Rabbi Sacks, what the text is actually telling us is that the transformation of the matzah from the bread of affliction to the bread of liberation comes as a result of our willingness to share it with others. He writes:

“Sharing food is the first act in which slaves become free human beings. One who fears tomorrow does not offer his bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown himself capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. That is why we begin the Seder by inviting others to join in. Bread shared is no longer the bread of affliction. Reaching out to others, giving help to the needy and companionship to those who are alone, we bring freedom into the world, and with freedom, God.”

Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and novelist, tells us in his book “If This Is man” that the first sign of humanity in Auschwitz was people’s willingness to share food. In the concluding days of the war, when the Nazis had left all the sickly bodies to die in the camp, Levi and his fellow prisoners stayed alive by cooperating. As Levi explains, this was not business as usual:

“Only a day before a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the lager said: “Eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbor,” and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the law of the lager was dead. It was the first human gesture that occurred among us. I believe that the moment can be dated as the beginning of the change from Haftlinge [prisoner] to men again.”

Responsibility: “Let all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover. Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” The Bible reminds us, over and over, that we must use our degrading experience in the land of Egypt to sensitize us to the suffering of others. The idea being that the suffering of our ancestors, which we should imagine as our own, is to be seen as an ennobling experience. We are instructed to care for the wanting because we were once wanting in the land of Egypt.

It is interesting to note that the text lets us know that there is more than one way in which we can be wanting. It is for this reason that it differentiates between those who are needy and those who are hungry. What is the difference between the two? Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a leading 20th century Talmudist and philosopher, explains to us that while the hungry are needy, the needy are not necessarily hungry. One can have all the food and wealth in the world and still be needy. One may be in need of love, respect, dignity, family, country, health, truth, happiness etc. It is for this reason that the text enjoins those who are needy to “celebrate Passover”, and those who are hungry to “come and eat”.

Finally, notice that the text refers to “all” who are needy and hungry. It does not refer to all Jews who are needy and hungry, but to all people. It is true that the text was written by Jews and for Jews, but I want to suggest that the inclusive language is deliberate. As mentioned above, the ethics of Passover, in actuality the ethics of Judaism, revolve around the concept of radical sympathy and empathy for those who are suffering. This call for identification and compassion is not reserved for Jews alone. The universalism of Jewish ethics resulted in the Torah instructing us only once to love our neighbor (who surely was Jewish), while commanding us in no less than thirty six places to care for stranger (who surely was not Jewish) “because you yourself know how it feels to be a stranger – you were strangers in Egypt.” [Exodus 23:9]

To love the stranger is a revolutionary concept – revolutionary in the ancient world with its ethics of tribalism, and revolutionary today with the scrooge of xenophobic nationalism. Of course, for these words not ring hollow, for them not to be an exercise in self-indulgence, we need to ask our selves what does it mean to be a stranger? Who is today’s stranger? And Am I, as a Jew, acting with empathy, compassion, and love towards those who are deemed to be strangers.

Liberation: “This year we are here – next year, may we be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves -next year, may we be free.” This is a passage born in exile. It literally speaks of a people who are not at home. It is written in Aramaic, and scholars suggest that it was composed during the time of the Babylonian exile (beginning 586 BCE). There is symmetry to these lines: to be in exile is to be enslaved, to be in the land of Israel is to be free. Of course the text has also a symbolic meaning – we are internally enslaved when we are alienated from our true selves. Israel, in this understanding, is not a place, but rather a symbolic psychological and spiritual state of internal freedom. It is in this sense that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1722-1811) had famously stated: “Wherever I go, I am going to Eretz Israel.”

Passover is known in Hebrew is Zman Herutinu (Time of our liberation). It is a holiday of freedom. As such it asks of us to meditate on the meaning of freedom. In his beloved essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” the intellectual Isaiah Berlin distinguished between what he called Negative and Positive freedom. Negative freedom meant freedom from coercion – from being physically constraint. While positive freedom meant freedom to act in accords with my own true nature – to be one’s own master. Throughout history, thinkers have tended to favore one type of freedom over the others. Buddha, Epictetus, Plato, Jesus, Rousseau, and Hegel all emphasized positive freedom, while philosophers like Locke, Mill, Hobbes, and Berlin favored freedom’s negative manifestation.

In contrast, Passover celebrates both types of freedom (in Hebrew they can be respectively referred to as Chufesh and Cherut). We celebrate our liberation from bondage in Egypt, but we know full well that we are still slaves. Mordecai Kaplan, the father of Reconstructionist Judaism, expressed this idea in the following manner:

“Pesach calls us to be free, free from the tyranny of our own selves, free from enslavement of poverty and inequality, free from the corroding hate that eats away the ties which unite mankind. Pesach calls up on us to put an end to all slavery! Pesach cried out in the name of God, “Let my people go.” Pesach summons us to freedom.”

To conclude, a close look at the HaLachma Anya leads us to the two pillars of Pesach: Freedom and Responsibility. In Judaism, the concept of freedom without responsibility is like a boat on dry land. Is this the essence of the holiday? Perhaps? Certainly many secular Jews think so. But as some of you may have noticed, I choose a passage that made no reference to God. Yet God, who had liberated the Jews from slavery, is central to the Passover narrative. It is through God that whole drama of Jewish history unfolds.

In the end, perhaps the essence of Passover is not to be found in the meaning of a particular text, but rather in how we approach the text. The genius of the Jewish people, the secret to their longevity and vitality as a people, has been their paradoxial reverence for tradition and irreverence for dogma. Tonight, we join millions of Jews around the world as they open up an ancient book, ask searching questions, sing songs of praise, and eat delicious food. I hope that your experience is joyful, inspirational, and educational. Let’s begin our seder.


The Agnostic Rabbi