Archive for the ‘Religious Pluralism’ Category

International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Jerusalem in May 2008 Promotes Interfaith Collaboration and Coexistence

Poster1_2 My friend and college classmate, Mark Gluck, continues to promote inter-faith tolerance and cooperation in Israel through adult education.  In cooperation with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute for Advanced Studies, Mark has organized the second US-Israeli-Palestinian Brain Research Conference, which will be held next May in Jerusalem and at Al Quds University in the West Bank on the Early Detection of Alzheimer’s Disease.  Mark is a Professor of Neuroscience at Rutgers, and his efforts are bringing together students and academics from around the world for this important collaboration.  In my view, this is positive change, unlike the misguided academic boycott of Israel that a group of British professors continue to promote.  to contact Mark about the conference, email him at gluck

Young Adult American Jews Can Reverse a Trend of Indifference and Alienation by Visiting Israel

An increasingly large proportion of American Jews under the age of 35 is becoming increasingly indifferent to and alienated from Israel.  Why?  Primarily because these people have not visited Israel. 

According to a new white paper- Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel, by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, “the erosion on Israel engagement has taken place over the entire age spectrum, from elderly, to upper-middle-aged, to lower-middle-aged, to young adult. … We see a pattern of shifting (declining) attachment to Israel stretching over 50 years, from those who are now 65 and older down to those in their 20s.”

Funded by the Jewish Identity Project of Reboot and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, this paper’s conclusions are based on a survey of 1,828 Jewish respondents between December 2006 and January 2007 and focuses on non-Orthodox respondents.
What does Jewish American alienation from Israel mean?  It means that the majority of American Jews under the age of 35 do not believe that the destruction of Israel would be a personal tragedy and do not talk about Israel to non-Jewish friends.  Over 40% of American Jews under the age of 35 and almost 40% of American Jews under the age of 50 describe their level of Israel attachment as Low.  60% of the respondents have never been to Israel, and only 15% have been more than once.  48% of respondents believe that there is either a moderate amount of anti-Semitism in the U.S. today; 38% believe that there is a great deal of anti-Semitism in the U.S. today (62% believe there is a great deal of anti-Semitism in Europe today).  More importantly, 47% believe that anti-Semitism will increase in the U.S. over the next several years (62% believe so in Europe).       

Among the paper’s most important observations, intermarriage has an important influence on the distancing of American Jews from Israel.  However “contrary to widely held beliefs, left-liberal political identity is not primarily responsible for driving down the Israel attachment scores among the non-Orthodox.  If left-liberal politics were influential, we should see significant differences between liberal-Democrats and conservative-Republicans.  The absence of such a pattern, and their inconsistent variations within age groups, run contrary to the assertion that political views are the prime source of disaffection from Israel.”

I am the son of a Holocaust survivor with a strong Jewish religious education, but I was largely indifferent to Israel for much of my life because I didn’t have the perspective that you gain from actually going there.

I first visited Israel in early 2002 and have now been there 11 times.  Going there has completely changed my perspective about the importance of the State of Israel.  Today I am actively involved in direct philanthropic initiatives in Israel that promote religious pluralism.  I care deeply for Israel while being highly sensitive to the country’s many faults and contradictions.  I care about preserving the Jewish State of Israel in the face of great challenges, and I respect the deeply passionate people who make the commitment to live in Israel, even though I may not share their social or political views.

If you are a Jew who is indifferent to or alienated from Israel, you should visit the country and see for yourself why it is the center of so much global controversy.  Don’t be a bystander in this developing story.  The Business Leadership Council of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation is leading a business professionals Mission to Israel next April 30—in my view, this is a great opportunity to gain a new perspective on Israel and on your Jewish identity.       

How Do We Prevent Religion From Degenerating Into Fanaticism?

Many people are asking this question today and not finding any satisfying answers.  To my surprise, Maimonides answered this question concisely 800 years ago.

Kenneth Seeskin’s analysis of Maimonides’ positions on religious fanaticism and false prophets is profound and refreshing:

"… Maimonides had firsthand experience of religious intolerance.  He knew that Jewish people are not immune to to ignorance or superstition.  His answer is that our prime criterion for deciding who speaks for God is truth (Guide 2.40).  If we are presented with a body of law which inculcates true beliefs, which encourages intellectual growth and critical reflection, which makes sound recommendations for personal health and social harmony, then, and only then, do we have a basis for believing that the message may be divinely inspired.  So the criteria for deciding who is a prophet are just as rigorous– indeed, more so– than those for evaluating expertise in other walks of life. . . . only the most extraordinary individuals have the right to claim that they speak for God.  And the only way they can earn this right is to provide both a vision and a rational defense of it. . . . the more a person asks us to make leaps of faith, the less likely it is that he or she is carrying a divine message."

Maimonides’ approach is so basic that it is novel: Question the messenger.  Raise the credibility bar.   Ask yourself if the message makes sense and if it is in harmony with moral absolutes. 

Seeskin continues:

"God does not want people to starve themselves,  torment themselves, take vows of celibacy, or endure physical deprivation.  What He wants are honest dealings with our fellow human beings, moderation of the passions, respect for the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, rest on Sabbath, and in general a life in which we grow to our fullest potential."   

Maimonides has been criticized by some as being an elitist, and he is certainly not popular among ultra-Orthodox Jews (or among fanatics of any brand).  In my view, these critiques fall far short.

I strongly agree with the view that not everyone can be a prophet, just as not everyone can become a brain surgeon or a semicondutor designer.  In Maimonides’ philosophical construct:

"True prophecy is instructive; it teaches us about God and calls us to our highest moral ideals and aspirations.  It is founded on a thorough understanding of the universe and human efforts to grasp the principles thatr underlie it.  A person ignorant of those principles, whose only claim on our attention is an intuitive feeling or dreamlike image, cannot speak for God.  Allow such people to determine our religious practices or beliefs and we are certain to get chaos."

Why does this seem so reasonable and yet sadly true in the context of current global affairs?  It is because unscrupulous people continue to manipulate religion to their will for power.  Unfortunately, these manipulators are not held to a higher standard of accountability.  Why? In my view, these answers have more to do with the weaknesses of man than the weaknesses of religion and the shortcomings of faith.

Kenneth Seeskin’s Maimonides: A Guide for Today’s Perplexed, was first published in 1991.

Maps of War: A Geographical Rendition of the History of Religion

To see a 90 second graphical map representation of the origin and spread of various religion across the world over the past 5,000 years, click here.

Faceoff: the New New Atheists vs. Maimonides

Sam_harris Chris_hitchens Dawkins

The New New Atheists (present day)

… from the vantage point of the 21st century, and thanks to the moral progress of mankind and the achievements of natural science, we can now know, with finality and certainty, that God does not exist and organized religion is a fraud. "



Moses Maimonides, aka the Rambam (רמב"ם)


"… Maimonides suggests . . . that, rather than talk about God, and give the impression that we understand what we are talking about, it might be wiser to contemplate His perfection in silence.  In this instance, silence would be the mark of learned ignorance."

In the July 16th edition of the Wall Street Journal, Peter Berkowitz, a law Professor at George Mason University who is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, writes an interesting though necessarily superficial critique of the ‘New New Atheist’ troika– Messrs. Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins (pictured above, respectively).  This being The Wall Street Journal, the article first notes how much money these gentlemen are making on "today’s fashionable  disbelief."  Getting to the theological point of the New Atheist argument, Berkowitz concludes that "the disproportion between the bluster and bravado of their rhetoric and the limitations of their major arguments is astonishing."

Berkowitz focuses on debunking Hitchens and notes many inconsistencies in his various writings.  In particular, he blasts Hitchens’ assertion that "all attempts to reconcile faith with science are consigned to failure and ridicule."  Citing Alistair McGrath, who holds a doctorate in molecular biology from Oxford, his wife, Joanna Collicutt McGrath, who is currently a lecturer in the psychology of religion at the University of London, and the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whom Hitchens respects, Berkowitz notes:

"According to the McGraths, Gould was correct to think that both conventional religious belief and atheism are compatible with natural science, in part because "there are many questions that by their very nature must be recognized to lie beyond the legitimate scope of the scientific method.

Berkowtiz continues, "The literalness of Mr. Hitchen’s readings [of the Bible] would put many a fundamentalist to shame."

Which brings me to Maimonides, a man of science and of faith, who happened to live 800 years ago and spent many years addressing these questions in a far more comprehensive manner (writing the Mishneh Torah, for example, while being persecuted and hiding in a cave for close to ten years) than any of the people mentioned above.

Maimonides, who wrote many of his manuscripts in Arabic, completely rejects the literal interpretation of scripture.  He also keenly grasps the battle between faith and reason from the standpoint of man’s intellectual limitations.

Kenneth Seeskin’s outstanding book, Maimonides: A Guide for Today’s Perplexed should be required reading for the New New Atheists because the story they are telling is an old one.

Maimonides starts developing his thesis at a place that the New New Atheists probably don’t spend a lot of time visiting: asserting the concept of God’s unity and transcendence and deriving the practical implications of what this means to man:

"The passages in the Bible which depict God as sitting on a throne or descending on a mountain cannot be true in a literal sense.  If we are to understand the truths such passages contain, we must go beyond the anthropomorphic language to the philosophic point they are trying to make.  … In the Middle Ages, philosophers like Maimonides claimed that God’s consequences or effects emanate from him.  It is as if God were like an eternal and inexhaustible source of light whose energy is so vast that it nourishes and illuminates everything around us.  But even the best scietific theories cannot explain how that light is generated….

When most people think about God, they try to imagine what it would be like to have infinite power or infinite knowledge.  They picture themselves being able to move mountains or see through walls.  Does this sort of conception help us to know God?  Maimonides is convinced that it does not, that it is no more than a ticket to incoherence. …

One can almost hear Maimonides saying: Do not focus your effort and attention on what you cannot comprehend….  Recognize that God is completely transcendent; no earthly force or entity can be compared to him.  When dealing with God as He is in Himself,all we can do is admit ignorance and contemplate God in awe.  On the positive side , we must focus our effort and attention on the qualities which flow from Him.  Think about justice. mercy, feeding the poor, healing the sick, observing the Sabbath, following one’s obligation to parents, friends, and civil authorities, respecting the dignity of other parts of God’s creation, living  in knowledge of and harmony with  the forces in one’s environment.  What is God? He is the one who bids us to perfect our souls and insures that such perfection is possible."

I am a rational person of faith. In my view, Maimonides posesses a far firmer grasp on the complexities of the universe and of the debate between faith and reason than anyone else I have encountered in my studies of religious philosophy. 

My Summer Reading






I admit to having a particularly eclectic reading list this summer.  Here it is, in no particular order:

Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason is an important, factually supported indictment of the Bush Administration.  A must read, regardless of your political affilation.

Three books on Maimonides:

Kenneth Seeskin’s Maimonides: A Guide for Today’s Perplexed, is a clearly written, relatively short monograph that ties together some of the key themes in The Guide for the Perplexed— such as why literal iinterpretation of the Bible is not only senseless, but is contrary to G-d’s intention.  Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s The Faith of Maimonides, and David Bakan’s Maimonides on Prophecy.   If you are into Maimonides (yes, there are a few of us who aren’t Rabbis), philosophy, or general deep thinking, you will enjoy these books, which were recommended to me by a new friend who is a Maimonides expert.

In the "I wish it really was fiction" category, I read, in one extremely long sitting (while flying across the country) Khaled Hosseini’s powerful A Thousand Splendid Suns.  This novel takes you through 30 years of Afghanistan’s chaotic history, as experienced through the personal tragedies of several families.  The novel combines factual historic detail with an emphasis on the abrogation of women’s rights under Shar’ia as applied by the Taliban.  I agree that it is better than The Kite Runner, which I also devoured and found disturbing and enlightening.

On the lighter side, for the fisherman in you, there is Sex, Death, and Fly-Fishing, by John Gierach, who is the great scribe of all that makes trout-fishing a religion, as opposed to a recreational sport.  What do I mean by that?

"The wool sweaters and millar mitts came off shortly aftrer the sun was up, and we were squinting and sweating by nine-thirty when the Callibeatis mayfly spinner fall should have started,  but wouldn’t.  Not in that heat and piercing sunlight.  That’s why we were up so early in the first place."

Comprende?  If not, don’t read this book.

And finally, for paperback Ludlum-style mystery lovers who also enjoy a religious conspiracy that ties together the Holocaust, Pope Pius XII, professional assassins, the Mossad, Bernini, and the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, read Daniel Silva’s The Confessor— it’s actually quite good.

Looking back at this reading list, I can see why I don’t feel that I rested much this summer.

Beldock on Bigots and Irshad Manji

James Beldock, whom I have known for years from the Aspen Institute’s Socrates Society and, more recently, from our investment in ShotSpotter, has posted on his blog about the thread in On Faith’s Guest Voices about Irshad Manji and Project Ijtihad— his comments are worth reading.

Dialogue on Irshad Manji and Project Ijtihad in ‘On Faith’

Irshad Manji is a featured Guest Voice on the Washington Post’s Blog, On Faith, where she writes about Ijtihad– the process of critical thinking in Islam which thrived for several hundred years until the end of the 12th Century– in the context of Islamic inter-faith marriage and women’s rights.  The comment stream, 187 at last count, and my comment hasn’t made it on to the thread yet, runs the gamut from knee jerk rejection of critical thought in Islam to thoughtful questioning of how the concept can be re-introduced into the mainstream of today’s Islamic theological debate.

What is Ijtihad? Ijtihad (Arabic اجتهاد) is a technical term of Islamic law that describes the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of the legal sources, the Qu’ran and the Sunnah.

Based on my own research and thinking on this subject for the past five years,  Ijtihad presents the only viable solution to the conflict between faith and reason that prevents many Muslims from embracing modernity and is at the root of the crisis in Islam today.  There is historic justification in Islam for the validity of Ijtihad dating back to the Golden Age of Islam– which happens to coincide with the Dark Ages of Western thought and the ascendancy of the Iberian Peninsula.

One commenter on the Post blog asks how do you "undoctrinate the indoctrinated"?  The answer, in my view, is that you have to start with a process, and you have to capture the minds of progressive thinkers who are willing to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.  It takes brave, committed people to get there.  Thankfully Irshad Manji is one of them.

To learn more about Project Ijtihad: click here


Bedouin Update: Civil Protests in Front of the Knesset Draw Attention to Negev Home Demolitions

I’ve been writing for a couple of years about the disturbing sequence of events in the Bedouin communities of the Negev, as home demolitions incite greater frustration among the Bedouin communities and their leaders.  Recent protests at the Knesset seem to be getting more attention from the Israeli authorities (I received this message July 23 from Faisal Sawalha, spokesperson for the RCUV, whom I met with Hussein Al-Rafay’a on a trip to the Negev in 2005):

Thanks to the RCUV’s [Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages] pressure: the evacuation and home demolition in Um Al-Hiran Stopped

Mr. Hussein Al-Rafay’a, the RCUV’s chairperson, and the RCUV leadership who are in the Refugee Camp for the Victims of Home Demolition in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem since July 16 got information this morning that a large number of policemen with their vehicles and bulldozers were near Omer on their way to demolish homes in the village of Atteer Um Al-Hiran, where 20 homes were demolished three weeks ago. Mr. Al-Rafay’a called people in the relevant ministries and governmental offices asking them not to demolish homes. After that, they received a call from the Ministry of Housing saying that the forces will not demolish homes today.

Mr. Al-Rafay’a sad, "We started the Refugee Camp last week to protest against home demolition. After that, we talked to people from different governmental ministries. The Ministries of Interior and Housing said that they will stop home demolition if the Legal Counselor of the government approves this agreement. We are still waiting for his decision. There are people in the governmental offices in the Negev that do not want this agreement. When I called the ministries this morning, they did not know about the home demolition that was planned today."

المجلس الاقليمي للقرى غير المعترف بها في النقب
המועצה האזורית לכפרים הבלתי מוכרים בנגב
The Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages in the Negev
tel: 972-8-6283043
fax: 972-8-6283315

There are two sides to every story, of course, but, in my view, the Bedouin community issue will not be resolved through government stonewalling.

Could American Muslims Become As Alienated as European Muslims?

Moushumi Khan recently posted an article on Slate which picks up where Irshad Manji’s Wall Street Journal opinion piece left off:

"The Muslim communities of North America and Europe are often compared, with the conclusion that American Muslims are better integrated, less likely to be radicalized than their European counterparts. But as the war on terror proceeds, racial profiling, the lack of direct communication between Muslims and the government, and the use of paid confidential informants to monitor the Muslim community are all causing an increasing rift between American society and Muslims."

Ms. Khan worries, as I do, that the successful integration of Muslims in America may not continue as it has historically:

"While there might not be actual radicalization in the American Muslim community, there is a danger of increasing frustration leading to alienation. … While the vast majority of Muslim youth are wondering how they can be civically minded Muslim Americans, the government seems to be stuck on the theme of the radicalization of Muslim American youth. … European Muslims and American Muslims have not had much in common until now, but if we unreflectively adopt the European view of Muslims as the perpetual "other," we risk making this true. "Equality not integration" is the rallying cry of European Muslims. Ours is "due process." Some of our worst laws were passed and later regretted at times of reaction against ethnic communities, from the Palmer Raids of 1919 to today’s Patriot Act. In a land founded by immigrants and the rule of law, our nation’s strength lies in its resilience; our way of life depends on equal opportunity. Europe and European Muslims are suffering from the inability to bring Muslims into the economic and political mainstream. Will America turn its back on its rich heritage of celebrating diversity? Will we start to see Muslims as a "law and order" problem as Europe does, rather than as the next wave of dream-seekers?"

These are profound, important thoughts about the social context in which Muslim Americans may come to see "due process" stood on its head.  Going forward, America runs the risk of hiding behind anachronistic notions of protectionism and isolationism in the midst of knee-jerk reactions to stop the inexorable trend of globalization.  The social side effects of these hiccups on the road to the future may lead to unfortunate laws that alienate Muslim Americans and push them closer to the European reality in our own country.  We can avoid this by asking  tough questions of ourselves now– and answering them with the type of tolerance and the spirit of religious pluralism that has made America strong– before it is too late.