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Category: Interspirituality

December Dilemmas

This year, the last flickering candles of Hanukkah were long extinguished before Christmas Eve, so the mash up of celebrations proved less intense than some years. Nevertheless, the entire month of December provided ample opportunity for those who are concerned about such matters, to engage in the annual conversation about interreligious boundaries.

When my young daughter, bedazzled by the gorgeousness of Christmas, craved a tree indoors, we told her that she could have one, but only after Christmas was over. Acquired in early January, the tree became part of our celebration of the Jewish New Year of the Trees --a holiday that serendipitously falls soon after Christmas. We thought we had that one figured out until Soviet Jewish immigrants moved on to our block and brought their secular New Year’s tree tradition with them. The Russian revolution had banished Christianity, but not the longing to celebrate light and life in the darkest moment of the year. Our new neighbors were shocked when the Jews on the block informed them that their tree transgressed an important seasonal boundary. 

What can Jews borrow from Christmas without worrying about assimilation? (Christmas carols? Listening? Singing? Singing but lip-synching the word Christ?) _ Visits from Hanukkah Harry (yes, that is a thing)? At the Jewish moms’ site Kveller, they are still arguing. On the other hand, can Father Andrew Greeley light Hanukkah candles without being accused of cultural appropriation (yes, that was a thing)?

Before December ends, I would like to weigh in. Let me state my credentials: I am interested in boundaries between religions. I like keeping them and I like crossing them. I care about Jews who care about boundaries. I also like learning about others’ religious practices and often participate. I spend a lot of time with people of other religions who think about religious boundaries in many different ways.

I want to understand when and why it makes sense to opt in to others’ spiritual practices and when it does not. I also want to understand the ways in which this conversation has become irrelevant in and why -- in other ways -- it still matters.

Christmas and Hanukkah are a good test case. As Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart knew, Hanukkah and Christmas are not commensurate, they are not even in the same league as holidays.  Unlike Pesach and Easter, which really are related holidays (in romance languages, Easter is called Pasques for a reason), discussing our December holidays together almost makes no sense.

Almost. We shouldn’t move too quickly to separate the two observances. The Jews rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE in December, three years after the Syrian Greek conquerors had dedicated the Temple to Zeus and destroyed the Torah scrolls. The Books of Maccabees recounts how Jews negotiated their differences with Greek culture—including an intra-Jewish argument precisely about this question. Had the Jewish culture not survived that encounter, a century and a half later, Jesus would not have known the Torah, his life and teaching unimaginable. 

Fast forward three centuries when Christianity was still emerging and the date of Jesus's birth was unknown.  The Romans celebrated Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (birthday of the unconquered sun) on the Winter Solstice. Some scholars believe that the Church fathers, worried that Christians would be tempted by the lovely light filled ritual, chose December 25th to focus Christians  on their own magnificent story of hope.

On the deepest level, what we share is celebrating renewal and the hope for light in darkness. Multiple ways of doing that (often involving candles) are part of our shared human heritage. On another level, this is a time for us to notice what our traditions were striving for in keeping their practitioners away from foreign glitter -- how to keep the next generation telling their unique stories. Each tradition has particular ways of reminding ourselves of the invincible sun when it appears to be slipping away.

One way of thinking about religious rites, symbols and practices is to turn to a popular set of gerunds used to describe religious life by sociologists — belonging, behaving and believing. When Mordecai Kaplan spoke about the primacy of belonging, his thought resonated for many Jews in 20th century America. Today, the idea resonates with people who were raised in a variety of thick traditions from Judaism to Islam to Roman Catholicism.Belonging is being part of something bigger than oneself.  Believing is affirming something true.

In many (but not all) Christian spaces, communion is understood as an affirmation of membership, either through belonging or belief.In those spaces, a non-Christian might well choose not to participate. 

In many (but not all) Jewish spaces, being called to the Torah is understood as an affirmation of belonging to the Jewish people. In those spaces, a non-Jew might honor the rite by standing by.

I don't have this all figured out, not even close. In a mosque with my Muslim friend, should I stand shoulder and go through all the motions of the prayers with her? Does this signify  belonging and/or believing? And to whom? What message might I be communicating?

When I think about stepping into another religious tradition, I want to stand by in respectful witness until I understand the job of a ritual for it's practitioners.If it is primarily to express and strengthen belonging for a community that is not my own or beliefs I do not share, I lovingly affirm their world by opting out. 

And I want to remember that, without the boundaries our Christian and Jewish ancestors guarded  around their beliefs and their belonging, we would not have these powerful rites and narratives to inspire our lives and enliven our winters.

That said, conversations about setting boundaries around belief and belonging appear to be of less and less interest to the younger generation. Intermarriage, post ethnicity, multiple identities have changed the belonging question and a postmodern sensibility casts the issue of belief in a new light.

Which brings us to behaving. The most generative conversations seem to happen when we share our practices for behaving, that is, exercising the spiritual muscles that that help us to show up as our best selves (or keep us from showing up as our worst.)

Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Humanists can sit together without boundary crossing anxieties and share their practices for cultivation of character, teaching one another disciplines as varied as prayer/journaling, spiritual scripture reading, or chanting the names of God.

To the extent that elements of Christmas and Hanukkah carry meanings related to belonging and believing in particular contexts, I want to respect those boundaries in those contexts. And I want to recall what a commitment to belief and belonging has bequeathed us from the past. But to the extent that other elements can be seen as nurturing values and virtues to which we all aspire (the genius of the holiday of Kwanzaa), I am less interested in setting lines and more interested in sharing.



Harry Potter and the Campus Chaplain

Over a hundred religion professors held forth at last week’s American Academy of Religion meeting, some to half empty rooms.

Passing up theology, history and politics, I squeezed into the back row to join a standing room only crowd of millenials to unpack the meaning of the first sentence of the first book of the Harry Potter series.

You may have heard about Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, young Harvard Divinity School graduates who began reading Harry Potter, week by week, chapter by chapter in dialogue with each other and a growing group of followers. Eleven million downloads later, their podcast is deep into the third volume of seven. They  are clearly on to something.

Their project, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, could not have interested me more.

Thanks to the generosity of the Luce foundation, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College is creating a program, Campus Chaplaincy for a Multifaith World, to serve religious advisors and others concerned with the spiritual and ethical lives of college students. Like the founders of the Harry Potter podcast, we hear a yearning among young people for meaning, for community and for intentional living. Like the podcasters, we believe the answer lies in renewed attention to spiritual practice.

Although the “canon” is not traditional, the podcast’s listeners share a text in common; many have loved it since they were children. Vanessa and Casper apply themselves to the task of reading with rigor. To do this, they make use of practices from the traditions of their own origins, Judaism and Christianity.

In the sample lesson in which I participated, we explored that first line “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley…. were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”  We employed a Jewish method of text reading known by the acronym PaRDeS. Together, we uncovered the words’ plain sense, their hidden meanings, the moral sermon within and possible mystical secrets.

The leaders shared that they have adapted other traditions, including the Benedictine practice of sacred reading, lectio divina. While Christians have understood lectio divina as “reading toward God,” Vanessa and Casper explain that they are “reading toward love.”

Our program for chaplains poses the question: How can interfaith engagement become an opportunity to “practice toward love?”

It seems the right moment to ask.

Since last November, many are struggling to find their footing in a time of increased polarization and anxiety. The usual pressures of college life have combined with alarming events in our public square to make student life even more challenging. Differences of race, gender and politics can be  fraught. Campus chaplains have always had a key role to play in helping students nurture courage, joy and resilience. We hoped interfaith encounter could be one of the ways to nurture these strengths.

Our program grew out of a desire to supplement the staples of multifaith engagement--the cerebral approach involving dialogue, interfaith literacy and the “sage-on-the-stage” and the action-oriented model of working working-side-by-side on shared concerns.

In Campus Chaplaincy for a Multifaith World, we encourage multifaith encounters in which peers teach one another. A participant will share a trait they find most challenging and explain how a particular spiritual practice helps them to sustain it. They then invite others to join in the practice, as comfortable.

Reflections follow. What does it mean for a Jew to kneel down in the line for Muslim prayers or for a Buddhist to add his voice to a Roman Catholic discussion of a New Testament passage? What is it like to talk about impatience and then invite new friends to chant for an hour with you? Or to simulate a “Shabbat table” while talking about cultivating “enoughness.”

In our experience, shared aspirations and softening edges open a gateway into another faith that transcends theology or politics. Even veterans of multifaith dialogue quickly realize that beginning with vulnerability elicits honesty and depth.

As devoted readers know, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley were not so perfectly normal after all, thank you very much.  Actually none of us are perfectly anything. That is why we need to pray, chant, read, sing, journal, dance, and meditate. And why we need each other. 


Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together

Exciting news from PERL (Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders)! The leadership council proudly invites all local emerging religious leaders to their first public event Sunday, April 6. Check out the flyer below!

Funded through the generosity of the Henry Luce Foundation and the Legacy Heritage Fund, PERL is an interfaith organization by and for seminarians, rabbinical students and graduate students who gather to build relationships, learn and practice the tools of interfaith dialogue, and pursue social justice together.

Now in its second year, the student leadership core has grown to include Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Sikh emerging leaders from local seminaries and universities.

The group has been actively involved with POWER, working on social justice issues in our city together. Next month, PERL is proudly offering its first major outreach program, an Interfaith Dialogue Training to build relationships and to learn and practice tools of interfaith dialogue.

See below for the event information and forward this news to anyone whom you think would be interested. Note that an "emerging religious leader" can be defined broadly to include seminarians, rabbinical students, graduate students and professionals studying for or entering positions of leadership as clergy, teachers, academics, chaplains, counselors, faith-based professionals and lay leaders in their religious communities.

To RSVP for the event, contact: Raha Rafii,
To contact PERL Organizer and RRC rabbinical student Josh Weisman:

Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together


First Year RRC Student Emerges as a Multifaith Leader

Our Multifaith Intern, first-year RRC student Josh Weisman, is already making a name for himself in the Philadelphia emerging religious leaders community. Recently, Josh became a contributing scholar at the State of Formation, a national interfaith blog for seminarians and young religious leaders. Below is his first post, in which Josh responds to the following question: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions?

Josh and Father GabrielInterfaith engagement can be more than just a goal for emerging religious leaders, it can be the path itself. I have been shaped at key moments on my journey towards becoming a rabbi by encounters with people from other religious traditions, and at each turn I have only been enriched by them.

During college I studied in Guatemala for a semester, where I did field research in a community of poor Catholics who had organized themselves out of a slum and into their own thriving neighborhood. Their story continues to be the most remarkable example of grassroots social change I have ever encountered. Through petitions, media advocacy, and civil disobedience they departed their disease- and crime-ridden shantytown, planted themselves on a plot earmarked for military officers’ homes, and won, against the government’s wishes, all the services of a functioning neighborhood: water, electricity, a school, a market, and eventually recognition of their legal status as owners of their lots. What set this community apart from so many others who had met with less success were the framework and communal bonds provided by their faith. In my dozens of conversations with grassroots leaders, they all spoke in the same terms: the slum they left was “Egipto;” their new community, “la tierra prometida;” their midnight journey between the two and crossing of a police cordon, their “éxodo.” They knew that God loved them, wanted a better life for them, and was on their side. They had organized themselves from the beginning through their church, were guided by priests along the way, and continued to base their organizing in their new parish.

Josh and JorgeFor me, as a young American Jew, this encounter with Guatemalan Catholics was a seminal experience. In many ways, my career since then has been an exploration of how religion can be such a powerful force for social change in communities closer to home. Yet while a parish on the outskirts of Guatemala City may seem like a faraway place for a Jew from California, what I found there was remarkably familiar. Their story – the Exodus – is also my Jewish story. They were living out the potential that I and so many contemporary Jews see in our tradition’s central narrative. I had traveled “beyond the sea,” as the Torah says, only to find what was already “very near” to me, already “in [my] heart,” which enabled me to begin to truly “observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:13-14).

Since then, organizing with Protestants and Catholics has taught me not only about their faiths, but more about my own. Praying in a mixed group of Sufis and Jews, I have glimpsed oneness through multiplicity, a core lesson of both our traditions. I have many rabbis for role models, but I also count a priest, a pastor, and an imam among my inspirations for becoming a rabbi. It is thanks to my relationships with all these people – including Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims – that I have become the Jew I am.

Photos courtesy of Josh Weisman.

Photo Upper Left:  Later, I worked as a Congregation Based Community Organizer for the interfaith San Francisco Organizing Project. Here, Father Gabriel Flores and I participate in a vigil against deportations.

Photo Lower Right:  Me and Jorge Ibarra, a parish leader since the beginning in the organizing effort in Villalobos II, Guatemala City, and my main contact in the neighborhood, standing in the courtyard of his home. Like all homes in the neighborhood, Jorge's house was constantly under construction as money and supplies became available.

Josh WeismanJosh Weisman is studying to become a rabbi at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Josh has been bringing people together for community building and social change for over 14 years. As a Congregation Based Community Organizer in San Francisco, he helped congregations put their religious values into action by joining together to campaign for policies that addressed pressing community problems. He graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Macalester College where he produced ethnographies on communities in Guatemala and Minnesota. Josh practices Jewish mindfulness meditation, and traditional ecstatic prayer and dance. He actively explores the intersection between spiritual practice and social justice. Josh is currently the Organizer for Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders, a new interfaith organization of leaders in formation who come together for social action, dialogue, and relationship building. Josh lives with his wife, Pella Schafer Weisman, a Marriage & Family Therapist, in Philadelphia.


Interfaith Food Justice

We are thrilled to announce another exciting new learning opportunity this Spring at RRC for students and qualified community members. This Interfaith Food Justice course will examine the connection between food and our lives as well as food justice and sustainability.

The course will be co-taught by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling (RRC) and Reverend Katie Day of Lutheran Theological Seminary (LTSP).

The flyer below provides the details:

Interfaith Food Justice


The Huppah and the Supreme Court: A New Year's Resolution

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page

HuppahBack in 1982, a young couple came to me with an unusual request. They wanted a Jewish wedding that included a public statement acknowledging what they referred to as their “heterosexual privilege.” They felt it was important while under the huppah to recognize that they were invoking a right denied gay people by every state in the union.

Just a few years before, I had been married with the blessing of the State of Connecticut and two Reform rabbis. Not a word was said about gays, lesbians or injustice. I knew only one person who had celebrated her same sex union with a “wedding ceremony,” but my cousin Frances Fuchswas way ahead of the curve, even for California. In fact, Frances recalls that her friends, gay and straight, thought it was “a little weird.” In those days, no movement in Judaism, including my own, knowingly ordained gay people, much less sanctioned their marriages.

I told the couple that I would marry them, and that they were free to say whatever they wanted about this issue. But I would stay out of it. The truth is: I had nothing to say. In my encounter with that couple, they were the religious leaders, I, the follower.

Today, I have something to say. Hence, my (secular) New Year’s Resolution:  to challenge others as that couple challenged me. Weddings are celebrations, not only of personal milestones, but also of communal values. I will no longer squander the opportunity to lead. Over the years, what once seemed to me an incongruous addition to the wedding ritual began to feel increasingly appropriate. At the start of 2013 it has become—for me—imperative.

Why imperative? Haven’t we come far enough already? Indeed, in some segments of our society, we have witnessed an astounding transformation. All the non- Orthodox rabbinical  seminaries now ordain men and women regardless of their sexual orientation, and many rabbis perform Jewish weddings for straight and gay couples. Even the stodgy New York Times marriage section now announces same sex weddings. A growing number of citizens live in states that recognize gay marriage. And this year, for the first time, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases involving the constitutionality of denying gay people access to the same protections and privileges accorded straight people who commit their lives to one another.

Which brings us to why establishing gay marriage as a social norm is imperative.

First, most states still do not allow gay people to marry. Where I live, my gay rabbinic colleagues routinely perform weddings by “the power vested in them by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” a state that will not recognize their own marriages. Furthermore, our federal law lags behind and takes precedence over the laws in states that have gay marriage. Significantly, this spring the justices will rule on a case in which the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) will come under scrutiny. That Act defines marriage as between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law. Until DOMA is overturned, same sex couples marrying in one of the states in which it is legal still do not have the rights of a spouse to access federal benefits ranging from social security to treatment of their children to immigration status to inheritance taxes to health insurance. The listgoes on for eight pages.

Consider the analogy to interracial marriage. In 1966, Gallup polls. showed only 20% of the U.S. population approved of interracial marriages. There were still 17 statesin which such unions were prohibited. In 1967, the Supreme Court declared those laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia. The struggle for a racially just society required the legal breakthroughs of the civil rights era. It also required—and still requires—changing hearts and minds. As we await the Supreme Court’s decision, one that may well take its place beside Loving v. Virginia as a landmark of justice, I want to move toward that landmark on the ground, one conversation at a time, one ritual at a time, until gay marriage becomes a legal right and a social norm.

My New Year’s Resolution:  Each time I plan a wedding with a heterosexual couple, I will initiate a conversation about marriage equality. To be specific, I will suggest that they include in their service a prayer for change. The particular prayer is not important, acknowledging the issue publically is. I will also challenge my rabbinic colleagues who do not already do so to include something similar in their own wedding planning routine. Here is my version, also posted on

As we stand under the huppah today, we give thanks that we can marry with the blessings of our rabbi, our community, our state and our federal government.

At this moment, we turn our gratitude to concern. We pray for the day when our country recognizes and honors the marriages of our gay brothers and sisters just as it recognizes and honors our own.

We pledge to contribute to _______ (fill in organization) that is working toward that end.

May there soon be heard in our land the sound of gladness and joy as loving couplesall loving couplesdance and sing and celebrate.

May that time come speedily and in our day.



Life of Pi: Can a Movie Make You Believe in God?

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.

Life of PiWhile there are many new films in the theaters this holiday season,Life of Pi” seemed to be required viewing for me. As an interfaith educator, how could I not see a film, whose protagonist, a boy named Pi, is born a Hindu, loves Jesus and practices Islam? While Pi’s co-star is a 450-pound carnivorous Bengal Tiger and I am not a fan of animal movies, the theme of interspirituality intrigued me. And as a person of faith, how could I pass up the opportunity to see a story that claims it will “make you believe in God”?

I went with my daughter and returned a week later to see it again with my husband. I will gladly go back a third time with anyone who will come along, if only for the magnificence of Ang Lee’s visuals, the brilliance of first-time actor Suraj Sharm, and the opportunity to hear if my companion agrees with the critics. I do not.

The reviewers seem to agree that Ang Lee’s gorgeous film, based on Yann Martel’s 1991 novel, is a stunning technological achievement. No argument there. The more sophisticated ones, however, refuse to be taken in by its alleged theology. The film “invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things,” says the New York Times, but “leaves you wondering if you saw anything at all.” Or to put it as Salon did, it is “radioactive hokum.”

I think the critics are missing something. The film tells a single story in two versions, only one of which is shown on the screen. At the end, it poses a question: “Which version do you prefer?” followed by the comment: “So it goes with God.” The New Yorker reviewercalled that, “the most howlingly presumptuous and vapid line of dialogue I’ve heard in a movie this year.” If I saw that exchange as the key to the meaning of the film, I might agree. And though I would not say it so arrogantly, I might also agree with the one line Twitter comment: “Ang Lee’s Life of Pi brings you closer to God the way Skittles bring you closer to rainbows."Fortunately, I do not think that is the point.

No doubt, the film does want to contrast, as Pi puts it, “dry, yeastless factuality” with the power of the imagination. On one level, the movie is—as some critics have noted—about believing in art. It is not incidental that the overall frame of the screenplay has the adult Pi telling his story to a novelist who is in search of a new plot. But the ability of stories to create transcendent meaning is just the start. I do think the movie is about God, but not the kind of God one chooses to “believe in” or not, who is featured in lush stories with animals rather than in dryer, flatter, more prosaic accounts. It is certainly not about a God who explains why people suffer and redeems all evil. This is not a God whose story one necessarily would “prefer.”

I understood the movie to be about living in relationship with the mystery at the heart of all life. Some call that mystery God, others use different names. But as the film itself reminds us, names are a tricky business. (Due to a clerical error, the tiger, Richard Parker, has a human name.) From an early age, Pi is drawn to the mystery. He reaches out to God in every language he can find, while his father, a rationalist of the New India, tries to impress upon him the value of cold, hard science. The young Pi also wants to connect with Richard Parker, at this point still a caged animal in Pi’s father’s zoo. Pi’s father does succeed in teaching him the danger of that particular longing. In the version of the story we see on film, as a result of a shipwreck, Pi finds himself on a life boat with the very tiger he both loves and fears. In awe of what soon becomes his only companion, Pi must figure out how to survive.

Richard Parker is magnificent, terrifying and inscrutable. Often, he is hiding. Pi soon despairs of ever fully taming Richard Parker, but, as Pi puts it, he tries to at least “train him.” At one point, Pi has the option to be rid of the tiger forever, but he chooses to take him back, knowing that his struggle with Richard Parker is keeping him alive. Pi wants more than to simply triumph over his companion or even to reach a détente, to endure. Pi wants a relationship.

Later in the film, Pi narrates another version of the story, not shown on the screen, one that is quite horrifying and lacks any wondrous animals. But, as Pi says, neither version of the story explains why the boat sank in the first place; neither version is without its terror. The story with the animals, presumably the “God” story, is no sweet pie-in-the-sky theology, as the critics seem to assume. The Slate critic asks: “If the tiger isn’t just a tiger but a stand-in for God or nature or the universal Other, do we still need to worry about him chomping off Pi’s arm?” I don’t know about you, but my God takes arms, not to mention whole persons, frighteningly often. This is not a simple story of the value of enchantment, a “sugar coated revelation.”

In one of the last scenes in the movie, Richard Parker reveals that Pi’s love for him is not reciprocated. In fact, he apparently has no interest in Pi at all. It is an absolutely devastating moment, one so powerfully realized that I completely forgot the tiger was only an animal, and a computer generated image at that. I wept. In the end, it is not about preferring one version or another, of “believing” in God or not believing in God. Like Pi, some people simply can’t help but see the universe as Thou, even if that Thou— at once gorgeous and terrifying—is largely indifferent to us. Nevertheless, the effort to connect sustains us.


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