Tag Archives: Religion

Sometimes History is Worth Repeating: Public Jewish-Muslim Gathering.

Recently I read about the Jerusalem Initiative in Marc Gopin‘s excellent book, Holy War, Holy Peace. The initiative is a Jewish/Muslim treaty that highlights some of the universal and life-affirming ideals of each religious tradition. As I was reading about this, I was reminded of an obscure passage I once came across doing research on the impact the bubonic plague had on the Jews. So I wrote Marc a letter which he published on his blog. Sometimes history is worth repeating. Have a read:

Dear Professor Gopin,

I am reading about the Jerusalem Initiative in your book “Holy War, Holy Peace”, and I was reminded of a gem I once found researching for a paper on the impact that the black plague (1348-1351) had on the Jews. It comes from the pen of Ibn Batutta, the 14th century Muslim scholar and traveler.

In his book, entitled “Ibn Battuta Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354″, the author provides an account of the Middle East during the plague. For those of us interested in the “Black Death”, Ibn Batutta’s account is a precious primary source. But there is one passage that really stood out. After documenting all the horrible destruction of the plague, Ibn Battuta describes how the community (i.e. Muslims, Christians, and Jews) responded to the disaster.

He writes:

“I saw a remarkable instance of the veneration in which the Damascenes hold this mosque during the great pestilence, on my return journey through Damascus in the latter part of July 1348. The viceroy Arghun Shah ordered a crier to proclaim through Damascus that all the people should fast for three days….So the people fasted for three successive days, the last of which was a Thursday, they then assembled in the great Mosque, amirs, sharifs, qadis, theologians, and all the other classes of the people, until the place was filled to overflowing, and there they spent Thursday night in prayer and litanies.

After the dawn prayer next morning they all went out together on foot, holding Korans in their hands, and the amirs barefooted. The procession was joined by the entire population of the town, men and women, small and large; the Jews came with their Book of the Law and the Christians with their Gospel, all of them with their women and children. The whole concourse, weeping and supplicating and seeking the favor of God through His Books and His Prophets, made their way to the Mosque of the Footprints, and there they remained in supplication and invocation until near midday. They then returned to the city and held the Friday service, and God lightened their affliction; for the numbers of deaths in a single day at Damascus did not attain two thousand, while in Cairo and the Old Cairo it reached the figure of twenty-four thousand a day.”

As you can read, Ibn Batutta’s account is an arresting example of Jews, Muslims and Christians engaged in public prayer together. While in general, the plague tended to exacerbate divisions and tensions that were already inherit in the structure of the society, we have here an extraordinary example of a disaster bringing different people together. It seems that faced with a common and universal problem, a shared understanding of both its origin and solution, the citizens of Damascus sought to collectively elevate their suffering.

It is worth noting that the interfaith prayer takes place inside a mosque. And not just any mosque, in an example of inter-mythic architecture, Ibn Batutta tells us that it is the Mosque of the footprint of Musa (Moses).

The event in question gets additional significance when we compare it to what was happening to the Jews in Christendom during the time of the plague – as you recall, under Christian rule the Jews were being blamed and persecuted for precipitating the Black Death by poisoning the wells. Historians estimate that hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed as a result.

Of course this text is also important in light of the fraught relationships between the children of Abraham today. What a text like this shows us is that the inimical relationship between Jews and Arabs is not built in into the DNA of the cultures or the religions. Rather, we see that our traditions are much more plastic than we give them credit for. Moreover, with this historical precedent in mind, one can see that it is not impossible for religion to be leading the way towards unity and peace. After all, the true meaning of the word religion, derived from the Latin ligare, is to bind and connect us together. And in that sense of the word, and that sense only, we can say that the Middle east can use a little more religion.

All the best,

Roi Ben-Yehuda


Quote of the Day: Jackie Mason

With the recent death of George Carlin, the subject of atheism and humor has been in the air. While Carlin was instrumental in using humor to carry forth a philosophical message, he was not alone. For many years Jewish comedians have used humor to go beyond the pale of accepted theological discourse.

Here is a great example from Jackie Mason:

Life has no meaning beyond this reality. But People keep searching for excuses. First there was reincarnation. Then refabrication. Now there’s theories of life after amoebas, after death, between death, around death. Now you comeback again as a shirt, as a pair of pants…. People call it truth, religion: I call it insanity, the denial of death as a basic truth of life. “What is the meaning of life?” is a stupid question. Life just exists. You say to yourself, “I can’t accept that I mean nothing so I have to find the meaning of life so that I shouldn’t mean as little as I know I do.” Subconsciously you know you’re full of shit. I see life as a dance. Does a dance have to have a meaning? You’re dancing because you enjoy it.”

To read more about Jewish atheists, see my Jbooks series of articles entitled “Godless Jews: The Original Atheists With Attitude” You can find part II here, and part III here.

p.s. This quote is by no way an endorsement of Mason’s political views.

A SACRED DUTY: Applying Jewish Values To Help Heal The World

Emotionally powerful and thought-provoking doc on how Jewish values can be instrumental in healing our planet and selves.

“Produced by Emmy-Award-winning producer, director, writer, and cinematographer Lionel Friedberg, A SACRED DUTY will take its place alongside Al Gore’s AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH and Leonardo di Caprio’s THE ELEVENTH HOUR as another powerful expose of the dangers of global warming. However, it goes beyond the latter two films, by showing how religious responses can make a major difference and why a shift toward plant-based diets is an essential part of efforts to reduce global climate change and other environmental threats.”

Warning: Extremely graphic accounts of animal abuse and slaughter toward the end of this film. The not so subtle allusion to the holocaust should have been avoided, but the film is worth seeing and thinking about.

Jewcy Thoughts: My Interview With Gabriel Meyer (Co-founder of the Sulha Peace Project)

For my latest with Jewcy, I interviewed Gabriel Meyer – the co-founder of the Sulha Peace Project. While covering a few different topics, the interview was at its best when we discussed the difficulties inherent in the making peace, and the role of religion in peacemaking.

Here is an excerpt:

Q: Many people see religion as an inflexible force that perpetuates the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews, yet at the Sulha Peace Project religion is harnessed as a force for peace and unity. Can you speak to the use of religion as an instrument for peace?

A: There a saying in Hebrew: hadinim nimtakim beshorsham, which means “stern judgment is sweetened from the root.” I believe that religion is at the root of both the conflict and the solution. At our gatherings, we have all kinds of people – religious & secular – but we do use the gems of religion as possibilities for healing. I think that one of the problems with the Oslo peace process for example was that the religious were kept out of the discussion. There was zero mention of the root of peace in the Koran and Torah, for example. Something was missing. For most of the people who are involved in this conflict, religion matters. If you touch the positive part of religion, it has highly medicinal power.

Q: On your website, you say that the goal of the Sulha Peace project is to heal and reconcile the children of Abraham. Why the emphasis on Abraham?

A: Abraham is our common father. Likewise, Sarah and Hagar are our mothers. We all come from the same family, the same tribe.

Q: I am sure that such recognition goes a long way — but isn’t Abraham also the father who is willing to sacrifice his children in the name of God? Isn’t Abraham’s relationship with his children also an apt metaphor for the willingness of authority figures in this conflict to blindly sacrifice their children on the altar of some religious or secular ideology?

A: I personally think Abraham is an archetype. I realize that he is a very complex figure. We can go into a discussion about the binding of Isaac/Ishmael, or how he let Hagar and Ishmael go out into the desert (though he made a point to visit them there), but I see him as a figure of compassion and humanity. He opened his tent to the four directions, and provided hospitality to strangers. Legend goes he would wash the feet of pilgrims and feed them. He defended the innocent at Sodom and Gomorrah. In the Kabbalah he’s related to unconditional loving-kindness, as the creator of the morning prayers, as flowing water.

To read more, click here.

Indian Madness – The Dark Side of Spirituality.

India was always a land for the spiritually and superstitiously inclined. That is all fine and well when we think about Buddha and Gandhi. But like everywhere else, such thinking can have dangerous consequences. Recently, a witch in India was filmed being beaten while she was tied to a tree.

The story: A man hires a woman with spiritual powers to magically cure his ailing wife. When his wife conditions turns worse, he blames the woman for putting a curse on his wife. In a fit of rage, he chains the woman to a tree, gathers a mob, and proceeds to beat and abuse the woman. Here is a vid of the incident – Warning, this video is graphic and disturbing.

Disturbing as this video is, such behavior is text book example of what psychologist and sociologist call displacement and scape-goating. The man could not fight the invincible power of his wife’s sickness, so he displaces his frustration on the poor woman who tried to help. He blamed her for something that was clearly out of her (or his) control. By attacking her he was able to feel less powerless (and perhaps less guilty). Likewise, the group took up the opportunity to take out their trouble and frustration on a stranger who became the symbol of their lowly condition. By doing so, the sociologist tell us, the group managed to redirect and allay their collective fears and anxieties onto an “other”, a scapegoat.

Such events are sadly not all together uncommon in certain parts of the world. But the winds of change are blowing, even in India. A friend of mine recently sent me an article about a TV show in India which featured a live confrontation between a famous tantrik “holy man” and self-proclaimed rationalist Anal Edamaruku. They came together to discuss “Tantrik power versus Science”, and to opine on wither or not people can have magical powers. When the tantrik man claimed that he had the power to kill and harm others with magic spells, Anal challenged him to prove it by trying to kill him. The tantrik man agreed, and for the next few hours he tried to kill Anal with his spells. While the events garnered large ratings, at the end no one died, and Anal was pronounced the winner of the encounter.

The rationalist’s victory may seem to us amusing and silly, but in a society that still experiences pockets of witch-persecution it is nothing to wiggle your nose at. It is a small but important triumph of rationality over superstition. The irony, of course, is that if the millions of people who watched the show were to take the message to heart, the witches and magicians in India would be deprived of their occupation. But if you look at the face of the woman above as she is being beaten and humiliated, loss of job seems to me to be a price she would be willing to pay.

Moses May have Smoked the Bush that was “Not Consumed”.

Haaretz reports on a new paper by Israeli psychologist Benny Shanon that suggest that Moses’ encounters with God were visions precipitated by hallucinogenic plants found in the Sinai and Negev.

Shmuley Boteach VS Christopher Hitchens

Here is the debate/massacre that people have been talking about. Enjoy.