Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Guest Blogger Responds to Last Week's Post

Thank you, Yaira, for sharing your insights & wisdom with She Answers Abraham readers!

“You shall completely destroy all the places there, where the nations that you’re dispossessing worshiped their gods: on the high mountains and on the hills and under every lush tree.  And you shall demolish their altars and shatter their pillars and burn their Asherot in fire and cut down the statues of their gods and destroy their name from that place.”
(Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
On first reading, this passage seems harsh and not at all fitting with the concept of religious pluralism. These verses—when removed from their original context and interpreted on a literal, surface level—can lead to fundamentalism and trouble. So first, let’s put them back into context.

By Divine decree, Moses will not cross with the Israelites into the Promised Land—so by the bank of the River Jordan, he gives his final address to the people. He begins by reviewing the exodus from Egypt and the subsequent forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Then he offers guidance about how the Israelites should conduct themselves moving forward.

The central message that I hear in all of his advice, throughout the book of Deuteronomy, is to keep God as the focus of their lives. They are told to love God, “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) The people are told to demolish the worship spaces, altars and statues of the former occupiers of the land because the continued existence of these things would distract them from true service to God.

Next, let’s look beyond a literal interpretation. It’s important to know that what happens in the Torah is not just an event in the distant past. Just as Moses stood addressing the Israelite people thousands of years ago, he stands today, here in my living room, talking to me. What I hear Moses saying to me is that to enter the Promised Land—to uphold a sacred, covenantal partnership—I must clear out all the things in my life that would distract me from a central focus on God. All of those false idols of cash and comfort and consumerism must go, and what must remain is true and constant devotion. When these verses are interpreted in this light, they are a reminder that to live a life grounded in the holy, we must keep our hearts clear of clutter and open to God. 

 * * * * * * * *

*Yaira is a Jew who believes that honest interfaith engagement is an important part of the connective, healing work so needed in the world right now. Yaira has a B.A. in English and is working toward an M.A. in Theological Studies. She is married with two boys and is fueled by laughter, gratitude and radical amazement.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Taking Possession of Sacred Space

“You shall completely destroy all the places there, where the nations that you’re dispossessing worshiped their gods: on the high mountains and on the hills and under every lush tree.  And you shall demolish their altars and shatter their pillars and burn their Asherot in fire and cut down the statues of their gods and destroy their name from that place.”
(Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
While I can appreciate the historical context of this commandmentto take possession of the land by abolishing the pagan cults of its indigenous people—reading this text makes me uncomfortable. The sounds of destruction resonate as I chant the Hebrew words aloud: demolish them, shatter them, burn them, cut them down and destroy them.  At first I thought it was the rampant destruction of the environment along with man-made structures that offended my modern, ecological sensibilities. After rereading this section of the Torah, however, I find myself deeply disturbed by a realization: This is not merely an historical account.  In modern struggles over physical space and sacred space, we continue to completely destroy places and utterly dispossess people in order to exert ownership.  And then—after we take possession—what do we have?

I share Tziporah’s discomfort with this text if it is treated as a contemporary commandment. But I understand the Deuteronomist’s words as an attempt by a devout man, writing thousands of years ago in a very different culture, to imagine how the God he knew and worshiped might speak to a monotheistic people. As we read and interpret Holy Scriptures today, I think most of us are genuinely striving to listen to God and to heed God’s commands. However, just as we have come to understand the ungodliness of slavery, despite justifications our ancestors quoted from the words of sacred texts, we might do well to realize that we are equally prone to misrepresent in our own time the One who continually reshapes us. When trying to make sense of difficult texts, I find it helpful to recall the words of Jesus: “As you would that others do to you, do you even so to them.” (The Gospel of Matthew 7:12)

I totally agree that this text ought to be interpreted in light of the time and place it was written, and we need to consider for whom it was intended. I, too, share your discomfort when sacred text is used to justify any wrongdoing, whether it is expropriation, destruction or abuse.  In our days, individuals around the globe misquote sacred texts to purposely spread fear and mistrust in people’s minds. I am deeply concerned when I hear about acts of injustice which violate people and their property, regardless of whether these abuses are physical or emotional. This can make me feel helpless, because it deeply affects our personal states of being, and can lead to despair. However, in response to this state of being, I am empowered by what fills my own heart: a renewed sense of submission to the will of God, because He is the Best Disposer of all affairs.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When Prayers Go Unanswered

“When My servants ask you about Me, then I am near. I respond to the call of one when he prays to Me. So they should respond to Me and have faith in Me, so that they may be on the right path.”
(al-Baqarah 2:186)

Muslims are taught early on that supplications or personal prayers are to be coupled with all their actions.[1] These prayers are meant as a way to remember God, be closer to Him, and affirm the need for Him in all affairs. However, people might wonder why some of their prayers are answered while others are not. The prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him] gave the following explanation: “The supplication of the servant will be accepted as long as he does not pray for what includes sin or severing family ties, and as long as he does not become hasty.” He explained that a hasty person says, ‘I prayed and prayed, but I do not see that my prayer is being accepted from me,’ and thus loses interest and abandons his prayers. The prophet further said: “God will grant him one of three things. He will either hasten the response to his prayer, save it for him until the Hereafter, or turn an equivalent amount of evil away from him.'' This definitely reminds me of the notion that we must always trust in God for He is the All-Wise.

Jews often struggle with the idea of personal prayer, since there are prescribed supplications in the liturgy, which implies that there is a correct way to pray.  Many of these ancient prayers relate to the rebuilding of the Temple and coming of the Messiah—supplications that do not appear to have been granted for nearly 2,000 years.  For me, true prayer is about searching my own heart and finding the strength to ask for things that I deeply desire but may never be given.  Each time I pray for the healing of someone who is dying, I struggle to find the right words to pray.  This brings to mind a folk tale, found originally in the Talmud, about a shepherd who does not know the liturgy but desperately wishes to pray to God.  In alternate versions of the story he plays his flute, sings the alphabet and says, “God, if You had sheep, I would take care of them as if they were my own.”[2] Some people mock his prayers and attempt to silence him, but in the end he is always rewarded for offering a true and heartfelt prayer.

Christians too struggle with the question of why some prayers, particularly deep supplications of the heart, seemingly go unanswered.  The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives…”[3] The lives of saints and mystics show that the search is particularly important, for long periods of seemingly unanswered prayer are not empty at all; the search always leads to discovery, always brings the seeker closer to the heart of God. We discover that prayer is about changing us. “Not my will, but thine be done” was the prayer of Jesus in his darkest hour. That supplication shows Christians that when we seek to conform our own will to God’s, darkness becomes light and goodness ultimately prevails.

[1] These prayers are distinct from Salaat, the mandatory act of worship which includes prostration. They are referred to as Duaa.
[2] This version is retold by Eric A. Kimmel in Days of Awe: Stories for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Another beautifully told and illustrated rendition is Yussel’s Prayer, by Barbara Cohen.
[3] The Gospel of Matthew 7:7-8

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Eternal Life

A man asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? The man then recited the Ten Commandments and commented that he had kept them from the time of his youth. Jesus replied, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
The Gospel of Mark 10:17-22 
This story from the Gospel of Mark challenges its Christian audience for several reasons. On the surface, it appears to be making a statement against material wealth. It further suggests that obedience to the Law of God is insufficient for inheriting eternal life, usually understood as life after physical death. However, this text challenges me in a different way. I think Jesus was emphasizing that although obedience to religious life is important, it is not completely life giving, even in this life.  Life in its fullest sense comes through sacrificial giving, not hoarding, of whatever riches a person may have; these riches may be talents, resources, special traits, monetary wealth, or other gifts. To follow Jesus, in this case, is not so much about dutiful obedience to the Law—or even about fervent belief in Jesus and his teachingsas it is about living fully every day through the giving of oneself to others.

As a Muslim, I believe that the path to eternal life is belief in God and living righteously.  The means for staying upright and walking on this path are interdependent, and building one’s life on them can be described as servitude to God and His creation. They include belief in God, His messengers, the Scriptures and the Day of Judgment; ritual practice; and Ihsan, high moral character, which is reflected by doing acts of kindness.  The messengers and prophets exemplify righteous living, and people who follow their example in life will be closest to them in the hereafter. It is for this reason that Jesus [Peace and Blessings be upon him] invited the man to an even higher place in heaven, where he would find treasure and companionship with the most upright beings. The prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him] said: “A man’s true wealth hereafter is the good he does in this world to his fellow man.” As a Muslim, I believe in all the prophets, whose lessons were given in different times and contexts but share a common thread: love and servitude to God, and dependence on Him alone.

While it is true that many Jews believe that observance of mitzvot (commandments) and strict adherence to Jewish Law is the path to eternal life, there are varying opinions regarding the centrality of ritual laws.  One stream of rabbinic thought emphasizes gemilut hesed (deeds of lovingkindness) as taking precedence over all else.  These acts of kindness, such as visiting the sick, burying the dead and bringing peace between people who disagree, can never be repaid. Rabbi Elazar quotes the prophet Micah to define lovingkindness: “You have been told what is good and what God requires of you: ‘to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.’ What does this verse imply? To act justly, this is the law.  To love kindness, this is deeds of lovingkindness. To walk humbly with your God, this is to bury the dead and accompany the bride to her wedding canopy.”[1] Similarly, the Talmud lists examples of gemilut hesed, stating that the principal of the reward for these deeds—a richly fulfilling life— is earned in this world, and the interest is rewarded in the world to come.[2] Personally, I am striving to achieve a life of gemilut hesed, with the early rabbis—and Jesus and Muhammed—as my guides along the path.

[1] Sukkah 49b   
[2] Shabbat 127a