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Category: Religious Pluralism

RRC Helps to Bring Ali Abu Awwad to Philadelphia During Sukkot

This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.

Ali Abu AwwadAt the start of his talk in the main sanctuary of Germantown Jewish Centre, Palestinian nonviolent peace activist Ali Abu Awwad joked that he has a hard time keeping track of the Jewish holidays. While he had learned the greetings corresponding to Rosh Hashanah—“Shanah tovah”—and Yom Kippur— “Gmar tov”— he hadn’t yet learned a greeting for Sukkot, the holiday we were celebrating when he spoke at GJC on Friday, October 10th, addressing a crowd of more than 100, including Christians and Muslims who regularly participate in programs of RRC’s Multifaith Studies Program.

Ali’s commitment to learning about the culture of his audience (and about Judaism in particular, which many Palestinians understandably associate with their oppression), and his willingness to admit the limits of his knowledge, provided a powerful example of his approach to peace-making. It begins with deeply listening to others in order to humanize oneself and the other side, and continues through the practice of non-violence.

Ali’s personal example of nonviolence particularly moved me. As a young man, Ali refused to take violent revenge against the people responsible for killing his brother.  Ali reflected on the practice of nonviolence--its power comes from the power of our inherent humanity. Non violence creates a safe space for the sides in a conflict to see each other’s truth. Contrary to popular perceptions, nonviolence is more powerful than violence.

I was also struck by Ali’s lucid presentation of the contradictions found at every level of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here are a few of them:

  • Despite being commonly referred to as “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” there are other nations involved and their role is often not a constructive one
  • What the heart wants (revenge against those who have hurt you and/or your loved ones) may be at odds with what the mind wants (a successful solution to the conflict)
  • When those outside the conflict take sides (being “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian”) , it doesn’t help achieve a solution, indeed it worsens the problem
  • Israelis’ need for security leads them to support the continuing the occupation until Palestinians no longer resort to violence, but Palestinians can’t see the value of peace while the occupation continues

All of these contradictions make a solution to the conflict seem unlikely, but Ali stressed that the solution to the conflict does not lie in ideological purity and clarity. In fact, there are contradictions working in favor of peace, too. Ali told us about the Roots project which he co-directs, a Palestinian center for nonviolence situated between six Jewish settlements on the West Bank. It’s hard for someone who mainly sees the conflict through the lens of American media to imagine Jewish settlers and Palestinians with conflicting claims to the exact same land sitting down together for a civil discussion, but this is precisely what Roots creates.  Through this work, there was even a group of settlers, including rabbis, that took part in an interfaith fast for peace in Gaza on the 17th of Tammuz this summer. Ali asserted that a solution to the conflict will be a place where two truths fit, even if they are contradictory. (This reminded me of the wonderful Amichai poem, “The place where we are right.”) So in order to create peace, we must be comfortable with contradictions of this kind.

In reflecting on the opportunity to learn from Ali, I realized that the sukkah itself is a structure of contradictions. It must be solid enough to serve as a home for the duration of the holiday but it must be fragile enough that a strong wind would knock it down. It must have a roof, but the roof must have enough openings that the stars are visible through it. It also struck me that Ali could count among modern day ushpizin—special guests symbolically invited to reside in the sukkah in honor of their contribution to the survival of the Jewish people. I pray that through Sukkot and beyond we may be comfortable dwelling in the contradictions that will advance the cause of peace in Israel and Palestine and learning from ushpizin like Ali Abu Awwad and others.

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The Best Revenge Is Reconciliation

Here is a post about our Ali Abu Awwad event by our multifaith colleague, Krystin Komarnicki:

Ali-Abu-Awwad-10.10.14I had the enormous privilege today of hearing the radical Palestinian peacemaker Ali Abu Awwad speak at a synagogue in Philadelphia. The son of woman who belonged to the PLO, Awwad was raised in
the highly politicized atmosphere of Israeli-Occupied Palestine and participated in the first intifada. But after four years of imprisonment during which he discovered, via a 17-day hunger fast, that nonviolent
resistance holds a mirror up to one’s enemy, his journey to peacemaking had begun.

“It’s not about taking sides,” he said. If you are pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, you are not helping. You need to be pro-solution. “It’s not about being right. It’s about willing to succeed.”

After his release from prison, an Israeli citizen shooting at Palestinians from his car shot Awwad in the knee, leaving him severely injured. Hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, Awwad learned that his older brother had been violently murdered at an Israeli checkpoint, leaving behind two young children. The grief and anger Awwad experienced felt bottomless and “as big as a planet,” and he realized that no revenge—no number of Israeli deaths—could ever make up what had been taken from him. “I knew then that I couldn’t kill anyone,” he said.

One day several members of the Bereaved Families Forum asked his mother for permission to come see her. They were Israeli parents who had lost children to the conflict and wanted to meet with Palestinian parents who had survived similar losses. To Awwad’s surprise—”Israelis were always in Palestine and they were not welcome. Now here were Israelis asking permission to come see us!”—his mother agreed to receive them. He saw an Israeli person cry for the first time in his life, and something shifted within him. Awwad and his family soon joined the bereavement group, partnering with Israelis in spreading a message of reconciliation and calling one and all to the hard work of nonviolence.

The best revenge for his brother’s death, says Awwad, is to reconcile with the enemy. “The men who killed my brother wanted to bury my humanity along with my brother,” he said. By refusing to use violence, by working instead toward partnership and political solutions, Awwad and his friends of both nationalities are choosing a very different path.

Learn about the Roots project, of which Awwad is an important part. Roots seeks to build trust between trust and partnership between Israelis and Palestinians.

Read or listen to Krista Tippett’s 2012 interview with Awwad on Public Radio International.

(Special thanks to our peacemaking, bridgebuilding partners at Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College for hosting this talk.)

2014 Evangelicals for Social Action

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, October 10, 2014

Please Note - The Location of our Breakfast has changed!  See the flyer below for the details:

Multifaith Breakfast 10/10/2014

Our breakfast is by invitation only.  Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at JHollenbach@rrc.edu or 215.576.0800 x 135 by Tuesday, September 30, 2014.

You are invited to stay for services for the second day of the Festival of Sukkot which begin at 10 a.m.

Please note, the $10.00 suggested donation for this program may be sent to the following address: 

American Friends of Roots c/o Oakbrook Church

1700 Reston Parkway,     Reston, VA  20194

To view a clip of the JustVision documentary, please visit:  http://www.justvision.org/encounterpoint/watch/ali-wounded-youth-encounter-point

For more information about Encounter, please visit:  http://www.encounterprograms.org/

 

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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, rafii@sas.upenn.edu
To contact PERL Organizer and RRC rabbinical student Josh Weisman:  joshweisman@gmail.com

Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together

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Dreams of Peace: Arabic for Interfaith Engagement

We are thrilled to announce an exciting new course this Spring at RRC for students and qualified community members. This Introduction to Arabic course will provide the tools needed to reach out to Muslim American dialogue partners and to Arabs in the Middle East.

We believe that learning a foreign language can be a powerful peace building practice.

The flyer below provides the details:

Arabic for Interfaith Engagement

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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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