Sunday, June 17, 2012

An Unpardonable Sin

And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven…either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:31-32)

I smile as I recall my adolescent self reading this verse out of context and wondering if a particularly naughty curse, which I equated with blasphemy, might damn me or one of my friends for all eternity! Now understanding blasphemy as an adult, I have a deeper appreciation of Jesus’ words as Matthew quotes them: blasphemy is not a single sin but a characteristic of one who calls good “evil” and evil “good.” In defending himself and others against the criticism of detractors, Jesus emphasized that “a house divided against itself cannot stand;” nor can anyone who does the will of God be demonized as an agent of evil. (verse 26) No single instance of slander or blasphemy, then, is too great to be forgiven by a loving God. Only one’s continual rejection of godly love can “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit” by closing, on the receiver’s end, the circuit of repentance that God always seeks to complete. What do your faith traditions teach about blasphemy or about unpardonable sins?

There are two kinds of sins in Judaism, which mirror the two categories of mitzvot (commandments): sins against God and sins against fellow human beings. It would be natural to assume that, of the two, sins against God are more severe. For example, the Torah prescribes capital punishment for the sin of idolatry, which is viewed as treason against the King of kings. Blasphemy, however, is a sin of words and only considered a high crime if one blasphemes with the express purpose of leading others astray. Generally, actions against God and other people are punishable, while sins committed in one's heart or with one's words are left to God's judgment. The mechanism for seeking forgiveness for sins against God is the observance of fasting, prayer and repentance, especially on (but not limited to) Yom Kippur. We believe that a person who is truly repentant--who when faced with the temptation to commit a previous sin overcomes it--is forgiven by God.

Muslims believe that God is limitlessly Merciful, Forgiving and Clement, and for this reason He will repeatedly forgive the one who sincerely repents. However, on the Day of Judgment, the only sin that is not forgiven is associating other gods with God. The Quran says: "God forgiveth not [the sin of] joining other gods with Him; but He forgiveth whom He pleaseth other sins than this." (al-Nisa, 4:116) As for blasphemy--and I believe this is the case with any religion--there is a wide spectrum of offenses. Muslim law, like Jewish law, makes a distinction between one who blasphemes in private and one who blasphemes publicly--who has the intentional desire to propagate false information and sway others into believing inaccurate concepts about the religion. In the first case, the individual must ask forgiveness, and he or she is not subject to any punishment. In the latter case, the punishments differ based on the situation and are only applicable in an Islamic State.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Traveler's Prayer

"May it be Your guide us in lead us to our desired destination in health and joy and peace....Save us from every enemy and disaster on the way, and from all calamities that threaten the world."

Summer vacation has arrived. As the airplane lifts off the ground, I pull the gently-worn copy of the traveler's prayer from my wallet and begin to recite the words under my breath. I am immediately struck by how relevant this prayer—written many centuries ago—remains in this age of modern travel. The author of this text was most likely anxious about storms at sea, bandits along trade routes or the physical deprivations that were the hallmark of travel in ancient times. Yet his words resonate for me as I drag my suitcase through the security line which snakes through the terminal; I am reminded of the "calamities that threaten the world" as I pass a soldier arriving home on leave. When the TSA officer returned my driver's license to me and told me that I was "free to move about the country" I didn't feel entirely free. But soaring through the sky, I ask God's protection and guidance, and dream of a time when the words of this prayer will no longer be necessary.

Tziporah, as a traveler on life’s journey (alas, not privileged with vacation at the moment), I share your mindfulness of the many “calamities that threaten the world;" in that knowledge, I too find solace in a prayer beseeching God to lead us “to our desired destination in health and joy and peace.” In a prayer for travelers from my own tradition, the invocation “O God…whose presence we find wherever we go” reminds me that all our journeys begin, continue, and end in God. Despite all dangers in our path that rob us of a sense of safety—whether they come from natural disaster, personal illness or threats of violence—I take comfort in the wisdom expressed in the words that “when God is all we have, God is all we really need.”

I agree that we suddenly become aware of our potential lack of physical wellbeing and security as we leave the comfort of our dwellings. But this vulnerability does not go unnoticed in the eyes of our Creator. According to Muslim tradition, various times are considered “special windows of supplication opportunities," and travel is one of them. One Prophetic Hadith states that the supplication of the traveler will not be rejected.* In addition to reciting several prayers for his or her own safety, the conscious Muslim—in a heightened state of spiritual awareness when traveling—is often asked by friends and family members to pray for them during his or her journey. To me, the weakened emotional and physical state of a traveler is mended by the comfort and peace of being in an elevated state of connection with The Preserver and Trustee.

*Three supplications will not be rejected by God, the supplication of the parent for his child, the supplication of the one who is fasting, and the supplication of the traveler. (al-Bayhaqi, at-Tirmidhi - Sahih)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Reciter (calls each phrase, except last one, twice)                 Listener
God is Greater                                                                                  [repeats same words]
I bear witness there is no god but God                                         [repeats same words]
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God         [repeats same words]
Hasten to prayer                             [there is no power, nor strength except with God]
Hasten to prosperity                       [there is no power, nor strength except with God]
God is Greater                                                                                  [repeats same words]
There is no god but God                                                                  [repeats same words]

The call to prayer, or Athan, marks the beginning of each of the five mandatory, daily prayers for Muslims. While we may offers prayers and supplications any time, recitation of mandatory prayers coincides with the movement of the sun.  Athan serves as a public announcement that the appropriate time to perform mandatory prayers has arrived. During this time of mental and spiritual preparation, the listener is invited to shed his or her preoccupations and humbly reflect on the meaning of the words of the call and response.  The reciter, or mu’athin, leads the community in the praise of God and reaffirmation of the Supremacy of God.  By maintaining a high state of awareness every time I hear the Athan, I am able to subdue any worries or challenges I might be facing. The opening phrase of Allahu Akbar, God is greater, unravels the Majestic generosity and Power of the One Who can uplift our hearts and elevate our spirits.

I love the Muslim call to prayer, Yasmina, especially the melodic intoning of the Athan and its universal reach to all who respond to this call five times each day.  As the ringing of church bells often calls Christians to worship, so a “call and response” prayer is familiar in most Christian traditions; however, the when and how of Christian daily prayer is more often a matter of private conscience than public mandate.  With the exception of The Lord’s Prayer, the recitation or repetition of Christian prayers is usually denominationally specific. The Rosary, for example, is a devout supplication for “us sinners,” which Catholics recite quietly and repetitively with prayer beads. Pentecostal and other charismatic Christians pray in spontaneous, melodic utterances, “tongues,” which are sometimes repetitive and are received by an individual as a spiritual gift. Different traditions, different forms, yet all attesting to the greatness and goodness of God.

Jews also include a call to prayer in the morning and evening liturgy, known as Barkhu.  All assembled stand and the leader chants, “Blessed are You, Lord who is blessed.” The congregation responds, “Blessed is the Lord who is blessed forever and ever.” Then the leader repeats the congregational response. Each time the leader or worshiper recites the word “blessed,” he or she bows before God.  Like the Athan, Barkhu marks the official beginning of public prayer. This invitation to join in communal worship can only be recited if a quorum of ten Jews is present. The call and response of Barkhu also comprises the opening lines of the blessing recited during the public reading of the Torah.  This reminds me of the concluding lines of the Athan, as these two lines also serve as an affirmation that we are about to engage in a public act of honoring God.