Friday, January 25, 2008

My Homeland

By Hannah Lupien,
Birthright participant, January 2008

From the time we got off of the plane it has been drilled into our heads that this is the Promised Land. This is our home and the home for Jews everywhere. But I don’t speak Hebrew, I don’t cover my knees in public, and I don’t agree with many of the actions of the government. I have never been persecuted for my religion, and while I feel for those who have, I doubt I will ever be in that situation. So remind me again why this is my home?

The piece of this puzzle that most bothers me is the attitude of many Jewish Israelis towards Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians. The Palestinians of Jerusalem are not citizens of their native land. Muslims are not required to serve in the army, and many are not even allowed to serve when they request to. The general feeling I get is that these people are treated as an undeserving, highly suspect people. In my opinion that is both unfair and unjust.

At this point I ask myself again: Why should this land called Israel be so important to me? The answer is difficult, in that it is by no means cut-and-dry. Jewish tradition teaches us to question authority and the status quo, which is especially important when it comes to the direction of our inherited homeland. At the same time that this homeland treats Jews better than other groups living here, it serves an important place in the heart of Jews around the world. Israel has inherent value as the only country where we are the majority because it gives us a place to feel “normal,” if that is possible.

I question and protest again my American government and the problems I see in the United States, but at the same time I love the country in which I have lived my entire life. In the same way Israel is my home precisely because I both love and hate this land that I have so newly met.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

JAM and MLK Day

The Torah Portion Jews read for Shabbat this past Saturday, Be’shalach, recounts the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Shira,” “The Sabbath of Song,” because Be’shalach includes the “Song at the Sea” that Moses and the Israelites sing in thanks to G-d for delivering them.

Also this past Saturday, many Muslims fasted for the 10th of the month of Muharram, a voluntary fast recommended by Muhammad to commemorate Moses’s (Musa’s) fast to thank G-d for saving the Israelites from Pharaoh and his army. Since the Islamic calendar is lunar, while the Hebrew calendar is a mix of lunar and solar, the 10th of Muharram does not always fall on Shabbat Shira.

Additionally, on Monday Americans celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The language of the Exodus from Egypt also figures very strong in the Civil Rights Movement and the language Dr. King used to inspire it.

And so we have three important days on three different calendars, all commemorating the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

Thought I would hesitate to draw parallels between Jewish-Muslim dialogue and the Civil Rights Movement, there is one message relevant to both that I would like to communicate. At Shabbat services last Friday night, a fellow student spoke about Be’shalach and its relation to Dr. King and his goals. She noted that though G-d’s deliverance in safely bringing the Israelites out of Egypt was certainly a major and formative event, it was not as though the people left Egypt and directly entered the Promised Land and an era of peace. Rather, the Exodus was followed by a long and difficult journey – indeed, a passage so spiritually and physically arduous that almost all of the generation of the Exodus never made it to Israel.

Both the quest for Jewish-Muslim reconciliation and the pursuit of civil equality are grueling journeys that are easy to give up on. While each has its formative moments, no single event is enough the remedy the situation completely. But as a famous passage from the Talmud says, “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it” (Avot 2:21). At those times when it seems na├»ve to hope for peace, we should at least hope that we have the strength to continue the journeys whose beginnings, rather than completions, Shabbat Shira, the 10th of Muharram, and MLK Day commemorate.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

JAM featured in the Blogosphere!

111For those who missed it, JAM was recently featured on the prominent interfaith blog, This Is Babylon. Of JAM, blogger Y-Love writes,

Speaking of meritorious events, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a group of students at Yale University had the foresight to realize that there was a need for dialogue with Muslims, especially between Jews and Muslims, and that bridges needed to be built after the towers fell. A group of undergraduate students formed JAM (Jews And Muslims) to bridge gaps and unite communities. Now, six years later, JAM has launched its own blog...Battling mutual fear with open and respectful idea exchange. May this be the way
all of humanity begins to cope with its fear of communities and ideologies.

For the complete post, check out or


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Where do our values come from?

By Sandor

People live their lives according to the values they subscribe to. But where do these values come from? For most people in the world, and in this “secular” nation, these values come from religion. Where, then, do religions get their values? And can adherents to a religion disagree with and contradict its values?

I was raised a “Modern Orthodox” Jew. The term is complicated to explain, but basically, Modern Orthodoxy holds that the Torah is literally the word of God and that its rabbinic interpretation – beginning in the second century with the Mishna and culminating in the writing of the Shulchan Arukh in the sixteenth century – is completely faithful. Therefore, with the exception of certain added laws that the system acknowledges are rabbinic in origin, all Jewish laws are to be treated as direct commandments from God to the Jewish people.

This sounds pretty orthodox. Where does the “modernity” come in? Basically, the Modern Orthodox movement – as opposed to Ultra Orthodoxy – sees inherent value in secular knowledge. The Ultra Orthodox (a scary, not self-chosen term), engage the world around them only to the extent that it allows them to make a living and sustain their own educational system. Modern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, actively promotes engaging the world through secular study and success, and contribution to the community at large – all the while strictly observing all commandments.

I should add that these commandments are extremely broad in their scope. Indeed, Orthodox Jews see the Torah as a guide for every moment, every breath of life. The Torah, or rather Halakha – its legal system – mandates everything from thrice-daily prayers and dietary laws to charity-giving and proper business conduct.

I am no longer Modern Orthodox. I fundamentally do not believe that the Torah was written by God or that its laws are in any way binding for me. While Halakha is generally based on and in agreement with values of compassion and responsibility, it contains many aspects which are unacceptable to me. Furthermore, these flaws are not divine mysteries – they are completely and typically human flaws and intolerances. Inequality across gender, sexual orientation, and religious lines is so incompatible with my beliefs on the nature of goodness that I simply cannot accept a system that upholds it.

I still love Judaism and am committed to being an active and proud Jew. But this is not because of anything God did or did not tell Abraham, or for anything God did to people who may or may not be my ancestors, or because we are better than other people. I love the culture, from the legends of the Bible to latkes on Hanukkah – it is the culture I grew up in, it is a small but loud group of people, and they’re my people. I love taking peeks at other religions’ or nations’ traditions and culture, but I do think the diversity of human culture is a great thing and I will work to maintain my own.

So culturally, Judaism is very important to me. But it does not provide me with a moral code. Where do I get my values from? How do I live my life? Accepting Halakha as God’s word did not always provide me with a clear-cut answer to every problem, but I at least had guidelines. And at least had qualified experts – there was always a rabbi I could ask! After all, if we share the same value system, I must be able to trust his opinion, right?

I don’t have a good answer. Where do my values come from? They’re constantly evolving, and they come from my life experiences. I try to consider what my favorite rabbis would say, being careful to be skeptical of traditional wisdom, but not too skeptical, still seeing value in the tradition.

I do not dislike the Torah for calling homosexuality an abomination, or for focusing only on the achievements of men, or for seeing the Jewish people as inherently more valuable than others. These are all bad and offensive aspects of the Torah. If this is God’s word, then I’ve got some issues with Her. But no – the Torah is a 3,000 year old document from a specific point of time, written by specific people, with their own, very human, thoughts, agendas, and of course, prejudices.

The clash between some aspects of traditional Judaism and my own, personal, secular values has been a large component of my life for the past few years. Indeed, most of my friends who grew up Modern Orthodox are now going through the same struggles. I would like to hear – what kinds of struggles do young Muslims face in integrating traditional/religious and modern/secular values? What is it like being at Yale, reading about the primacy of reason, thinking critically, being skeptical, and having God on your mind as well? Are there differences in how various mosques or communities approach this issue?