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Building bridges between Judaism and Islam

MultifaithRetreatGarrisonfor5.31.11r postSeveral years ago, when I was still in rabbinic school, I participated in the first Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders, organized by RRC's office of multifaith initiatives. I blogged about the experience a bit as it was unfolding, and later wrote the essay Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan / Elul, which was published in Zeek magazine.  (Here's a short outtake from that essay.) Next week I will have the tremendous honor of participating in that retreat again -- this time as an alumna facilitator.

This year's retreat is for women only, which I think will shift the experience in fascinating ways. Our scholars will be Judith Plaskow (author of Standing Again at Sinai) and Aysha Hidayatullah (author of Feminist Edges of the Qur'an), and we will study the Sarah and Hagar story as it appears in our two traditions' holy texts. I'm responsible for facilitating the storytelling session one evening, and will offer a short workshop in writing spiritual poems / psalms for those who wish to partake.

I am so excited about doing this. Attending the first retreat of this kind back in 2009 was an amazing experience on many axes at once: meeting Jewish student clergy from across the many streams of Judaism, meeting an equally-diverse group of emerging Muslim leaders, studying texts together, breaking bread together, delving into the difficult conversations about what divides us, coming away with a stronger sense of what unites us and how our traditions can inform and enrich each other.

It's an honor to have the opportunity to help facilitate this experience for the women who will be attending next week's retreat. (And having read the participant bios, I'm eager to meet everyone who is taking part!) We've been asked to eschew our "devices" -- phones and computers and tablets -- as much as possible so that we can be wholly present to the retreat experience, so I may not be online much during the four days of the retreat program, but I look forward to coming home with stories to share.


Image from a post on the RRC Multifaith World blog.

On revelation

It is here that these classics come to life. They are not dry texts; they speak to us. Each is the opening voice of a conversation which we are invited to join -- a voice that expects reply. So in India we say that the meaning of the scriptures is only complete when this call is answered in the lives of men and women like you and me. Only then do we see what the scriptures mean here and now. -- Eknath Easwaran, Essence of the Upanishads

Fe_2007_calivingtorah_002_pWhat then do we mean by revelation?  Whether we understand the tale of Sinai as a historic event or as a metaphor for the collective religious experience of Israel, we have to ask this question.  Revelation does not necessarily refer to the giving of a truth that we did not possess previously.  On the contrary, the primary meaning of revelation means that our eyes are now opened, we are able to see that which had been true all along but was hidden from us.  We see the same world that existed before the great religious experience, but now see it differently.  The truth that God underlies reality, and always has, now becomes completely apparent...

Revelation, like Creation, is an eternal process.  The real faith-question regarding revelation, like that of Creation, is not "Do you believe that it happened just that way, so many years ago?"  It is rather, "Are you present to revelation here and now?" Are our inner eyes open to hearing the eternal message that calls out to us in every moment of existence?  That message, the true essence of revelation, is Torah in its broadest sense, and its call may come through a great variety of channels.        -- Rabbi Arthur Green, Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow

God is speaking on all 360 degrees; the question is, how do we open ourselves to the broadcast?

If I could hear all of the vibrations in this room -- cell phones, broadband, wifi, radio waves, microwaves -- I'd hear a jumble. If I can tune in to a particular frequency, I might hear something I could understand. God broadcasts on all frequencies; we need to adjust our radios to attune to God.

To connect with God, to log on to God, we need only awareness, because God is there all the time, making your heart beat.

I believe in progressive revelation. A metaphor: my first computer had 36k of memory. And I could do a lot with that. But some things, I couldn't do! Every generation adds more bytes. What we couldn't do individually, we can do collectively.

If we can't remember the revelation at Sinai, we need to recreate the memory. It's like experiential karaoke! The tradition is the music, and we reenact and recreate the words of the song.     -- Reb Zalman (transcribed in 2004)

Happy Shavuot to all! May we each receive the revelation of Torah which we most need this year as our festival unfolds.

A psalm of gratitude for walking by the water


For the asphalt which received my blue sandals.
For the homeowner who planted two palms
    and a banana tree despite the latitude.
For the piles of broken seashells
    at the base of the mailbox.

For robins puffing out their medaled chests
    on manicured lawns
for the impromptu composition of birds
    marking a melody on telephone wires
for the tabby cat resting beneath a rhododendron.

For sky blue as a freshly-pressed shirt
and Long Island Sound glinting in the sun.
For the homeowner's association
    which allows pedestrian acess to land's edge.
For water splashing joyfully on the rocks.

For the smooth wooden bench of the gazebo
and the smell of salt in the air.
Even if my fingers tapped on my keyboard
    the infinite clatter of pebbles dragged by the sea
    I couldn't type enough of a thank you.

When I taught the master class on spiritual writing on City Island a few days ago, I asked everyone to write a paragraph about something for which they are grateful, using as many details and sensory descriptions as possible. Later in the morning, after many conversations about psalms and poems and words for God, we took fifteen minutes to draft psalms of gratitude, drawing on the raw material from the earlier generative exercise. I did the exercise and drafted a psalm along with everyone else. Here's what I wrote.

This Year's Revelation -- at Zeek

I have a new essay in Zeek. In this piece I draw on classical midrash and on Rabbis Without Borders thinking (as I did last year in the essay Being Meir) to make the argument that Torah belongs to all of us, no matter who we are -- and that God calls us to rise above the binaries which polarize us. Binaries within the Jewish community, binaries between us and other communities, binaries in the American political system -- what would happen if we could transcend those?

Here's a taste of the essay, a passage talking about the revelation at Sinai:

All of us were there. All of us heard.
 And what we heard, we heard according to our ability to understand. Torah comes to meet us wherever we are. Torah comes to lift us up, wherever we are. Torah comes to inspire us, wherever we are. And because each of us hears according to her or his own temperament and inclinations, we don’t always understand Torah in the same ways. But Torah doesn’t belong only to those who read it this way, or those who read it that way. Torah does not belong to religious liberals any more than it belongs to religious conservatives. Torah trumps those categories.

According to our midrashic tradition, God gives Torah to all of us — regardless of gender expression, sexual orientation, age, race, creed, color, class, political party — and it belongs to all of us, wherever we are.
 oes that seem too radical? Look back at the beginning of the midrash: God’s voice divided itself into every human language. For all that our tradition privileges Hebrew, revelation didn’t happen only in that language.

Revelation came in every language, because revelation belongs not only to Jews but to all creation. As my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi likes to say, God broadcasts on all channels; each religious tradition hears revelation on the channel to which we are attuned. The necessary corollary to that, of course, is that each religious tradition contains at least some ultimate truth. If some facet of the Infinite is revealed to each religious tradition, then it’s no longer possible to say that we have it right and they have it wrong.

Torah isn’t just for us, no matter how “us” is defined. [...]

I hope you'll click through and read the whole piece: This Year's Revelation.

Comments welcome.

Glimpses of a sweet Shabbat on City Island

First, a "City Island mojito" on Friday night:

Then, sweet davenen with "your band by the sea" at "your shul by the sea:"

A message imprinted as I lit the Shabbat candles:

A Shabbat morning walk by the water before services:

 ...and then more wonderful davenen -- soul-uplifting music -- harmony -- Torah -- conversation -- learning -- joy.

This morning I'll be teaching a master class in spiritual writing, as the culminating event of my TBE Shabbaton. (The class is at 10am at Samuel Pell House, 586 City Island Avenue; $20 for non-members, bring writing implements and an open heart.) At noon I'll read poems from 70 faces and Waiting to Unfoldtake questions and offer answers, and then enjoy some conversations and connecting before hopping in my car to head home to my family again.

Deep thanks to everyone at Temple Beth-El of City Island. You are a wonderful congregation and I'm so honored to have had the opportunity to sing, pray, teach, and learn with y'all!