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Holiday Almanac: Hanukkah, Jewish festival of freedom

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Hanukkah menorah alit with candles. Photo via Pixabay.com.

Tonight starts Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Feast of Lights. Hanukkah, whose name is Hebrew for “Dedication,” recalls the Jews’ recapture of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from a pagan tyrant.

Hanukkah is sometimes called the Jewish Christmas, and the first night falls on Christmas Eve this year. But the two holidays have overlapped only eight times since 1900, according to Vox. And the founding events of Hanukkah are not related to Christmas; they took place 165 years before the traditional date of Jesus’ birth.

At the time, Israel was ruled by a Greco-Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes. The king banned Judaism and had a pig — a ritually unclean animal — sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple.

The Israelites finally revolted for freedom of religion, led by the five Maccabee brothers. They miraculously defeated the Greek army and set out to rededicate the Temple, but found only one day’s supply of oil for the Great Menorah or candelabrum. In the story’s second miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to purify a new supply.

Jewish families commemorate the victory by lighting a small, eight-branched menorah at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or “Rock of Ages.” One more candle is lighted each night, until by the last night, the whole candelabrum is ablaze.

Hanukkah also features festive foods: latkes, or potato pancakes for East European Jews; sufganiot, or doughnuts filled with jelly or chocolate, for Mideastern Jews. Both are deep-fried in oil, recalling the miracle of the Temple lamp.

A more subtle holiday custom is the dreidel, a four-sided top that children play with. The sides of the dreidel have Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin . The letters form an acrostic for a sentence: Nes gadol hayah sham, or “A great miracle happened there.”

— James D. Davis

 

Written by Jim Davis

December 24, 2016 at 5:18 pm

Holiday Almanac: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, starts for Jews

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2 ShumashThe setting sun tonight ushers in Yom Kippur, the awesome Day of Atonement for Jews. Yom Kippur is the last of the High Holy Days, which began at sundown Sept. 24 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

The holy days are a time to examine one’s life, repent of shortcomings and resolve to correct them. Tradition says that God holds people’s lives in the balance during these ‘‘10 Days of Repentance” before determining their fate for the coming year.

Tonight’s service features the Kol Nidre, a prayer set to sad medieval music. The prayer asks for release from ‘‘all vows” — the translation of Kol Nidre — to God that have not been kept.

All day tomorrow, the faithful will fast and attend a succession of synagogue services, including Yizkor memorial prayers for the dead. Traditional prayers include Al Het, a list of sins whose initials form the Hebrew alphabet. As the worshiper recites the list, he strikes his chest to emphasize repentance.

Last service of the day is Neilah, signaling the closing of heaven’s gates and the sealing of everyone’s fate for another year.

Although non-Jews might view the High Holy Days as guilt-ridden, rabbis say the observance actually shows divine mercy. They point out that het, usually translated “sin,” is an archery term that means to miss the mark. And shuva, repentance, is almost identical to teshuva, to turn — as in returning to right living.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

October 3, 2014 at 9:53 pm

Posted in judaism

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Holiday Almanac: Passover, the oldest freedom festival

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Seder plate photo by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr Creative Commons

Seder plate photo by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr Creative Commons

Passover, called the oldest festival of freedom, starts at sundown today (Monday, April 14, 2014) for the world’s 13 million Jews. The eight-day holiday dates back some 34 centuries, recounting the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

As told in the biblical book of Exodus, the pharaoh rejected the prophet Moses’ demand to release the people, bringing a wave of plagues on the land. The last plague was the Angel of Death, who struck down the firstborn of every Egyptian household in one night. The Israelites escaped death by dashing lambs’ blood on their doorposts — a sign of faith that made the angel ‘‘pass over” those homes.

In modern Jewish homes, the festival starts with a ceremonial meal called a Seder on the first two nights, with foods symbolizing the Exodus story. The foods include a lamb shank; a piece of bitter herbs such as horseradish, for the bitterness of slavery; a bowl of saltwater, for the tears of oppression; and a mix of apples, cinnamon and wine, for the mortar used in the Egyptian bricks.

Also on the Seder plate are a roasted egg and leafy vegetables, for the springtime occasion of Passover; and the hard, unleavened bread called matzoh, for the Israelites’ haste in evacuating Egypt.

— James D. Davis

 

 

Written by Jim Davis

April 14, 2014 at 5:21 am

Holiday Almanac: Purim, Jewish victory over arch-enemy

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Jews worldwide celebrate Purim today. The joyous Jewish Festival of Lots celebrates their deliverance from a would-be mass murderer 2,500 years ago.

Pastries like this one, called hamantaschen, are common treats for Purim. (Photo: eran chesnutt via sxc.hu)

Pastries like this one, called hamantaschen, are common treats for Purim. (Photo: eran chesnutt via sxc.hu)

The story, told in the biblical book of Esther, takes place in Persia, where many of the Jews were living in exile. There Esther, a Jewish woman, won a beauty contest and married King Ahasuerus.

Haman, the king’s prime minister, hated the Jews after Esther’s cousin Mordecai refused to bow to him. Because of this, Haman persuaded the king, who was unaware Esther was Jewish, to sign an iron-clad decree for the Jews’ extermination.

After Esther bravely pled her people’s case, Ahasuerus changed his mind but could not rescind the decree. However, he issued another order allowing the Jews to defend themselves. They killed thousands of their enemies, and Haman was hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai.

Purim takes its name from the Hebrew word for ‘‘lots,” for the method in which Haman had decided the date of the slaughter — which became, instead, the day of the great Jewish victory.

Boisterous celebrations lift Purim above its formal status as a minor religious holiday. Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Synagogues hold costume parties, with children dressing as their favorite Purim characters. And refreshments include hamantaschen, triangular pastries in the traditional shape of Haman’s hat.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

March 16, 2014 at 4:08 am

Torah-Science Conference to scrutinize life: birth, death and in between

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(Photo: Renaude Hatsedakis via sxc.hu)

(Photo: Renaude Hatsedakis via sxc.hu)

When does life begin? Who has the right to end it? Where is the soul? And between birth and death, how to decide if a life is worth living?

These age-old questions, once the domain of sages and religious leaders, are being increasingly tackled by doctors and other scientists. But the best approach blends the two, according to a conference in South Florida starting this weekend.

“Scientists can’t deal with miracles, but we humans can,” says Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the main organizer of the three-day Miami International Torah and Science Conference, starting 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14. “[But] science empowers us to understand God in a more majestic way.”

Site for the free biennial conference will be the Shul, just north of Miami Beach, where Lipskar is the head rabbi. The conference had a kind of soft launch Friday night with a dinner and talk.

Scheduled at that event was rabbi-cardiologist Alan Rozanski of Columbia University, who is noted for a study that indicated a person’s attitudes and even moods affect physical structures like arteries, Lipskar says. The dinner had more than 200 reservations, Lipskar says.

Lipskar himself then will help kick off the opening session Saturday night, discussing the beginning of life. Topics will include new biotechnological ways to begin life and the light that halacha, Jewish religious law, can shed on it.

The rabbi will share the dais Saturday night with Nathan Katz, founder of the Program in the Study of Spirituality at Florida International University. Katz, who himself has helped plan the conferences since 1999, agrees on the value of blending scientific and spiritual perspectives.

“Traditionally, religious people and accomplished scientists live in different approaches to reality,” he says. “Here, they seem to be making a tremendous effort to understand each other’s perspective. That deepens their own understanding.”

Sunday’s events will start at 11:30 a.m., with a talk on epigenetics, a new study of changes outside a gene. Lipskar finds the study “exciting, because Kabbalah and Hasidic philosophy already concluded this: that there is something outside the genetic structure that can change it in behavioral reality.”

The Sunday evening events will deal with the end of life — including the provocative question: “Does Life Ever End?” Final issues on Monday will cover neuroscience and cosmology, even comparing ideas of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and contemporary scientist Stephen Hawking.

The Torah and Science Conferences are held every two years, always around Hanukkah, Nov. 27-Dec. 5 this year. The timing was chosen to relate the spreading light of the menorah candles to the growing light of knowledge and reason.

It was light, and the theories of Albert Einstein, that caught the attention of the late Chabad Lubavitch chief rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. Schneerson gave his blessing to the first Torah-Science Conference, which was held in 1987.

Subsequent conferences have probed heady concepts like time, intelligent design, the nature of the soul and brain, and links between the natural and supernatural realms. Even after the conferences end, the papers of the speakers are available through B’Or Ha’Torah, a peer-review journal of the Jerusalem College of Technology.

Basic viewpoint of the conferences is that faith and science are different yet complementary, Lipskar says. And that each viewpoint is necessary.

“Science makes you an expert, but not a kinder, gentler person,” the rabbi says. “When you integrate science and religion, you add the element of meaning and purpose. You have the conductor of the orchestra.”

If you go

Event: Miami International Torah & Science Conference

Featuring: Discussions of the beginning and end of life, from the perspectives of religion and science

Where: The Shul, 9540 Collins Ave., Surfside, Fla.

When: Dec. 14-16

Starting times: Saturday at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Monday at 9:30 a.m., noon and 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: 305-868-1411, ext. 329, or torahscienceconference.org

Written by Jim Davis

December 13, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Jewish-Muslim relations to be examined in FIU series

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Religion scholar Nathan Katz of Florida International University helped organize the upcoming series on Jewish-Muslim relations. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Jews and Muslims have been at each others’ throats forever — or so it might seem from blogs and headlines. But a look at history would show otherwise.

“How Islam Saved the Jews,” in fact, is the title of a discussion this weekend planned for the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, on Miami Beach. The free forum is the first of a three-part series on Jewish-Muslim relations planned by Florida International University.

“This is so crucial right now,” says Nathan Katz, an organizer of the series and academic director of the museum. “If we can show people that their God wants them to get along with the other side, it will be a big step.”

Amanullah De Sondy, one of the participants in the FIU series, agrees.

“There is a lot of mistrust and fear between Jews and Muslims for a lot of religious, cultural and geopolitical reasons,” says De Sondy, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at the University of Miami. “But Jews and Muslims have more in common than Jews and Christians.”

The first event, starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, will host a talk by David Wasserstein, a professor of history and Jewish studies of Vanderbilt University. Wasserstein will discuss how Muslim rule, including the Ottoman Empire, placed most Jews in a single state, permitting a flourishing of faith and culture.

Responding will be a panel of South Florida leaders and scholars, including FIU’s Katz and Iqbal Akhtar, plus De Sondy of UM and Mohammad Shakir of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations (COSMOS).

Second in the series will take an equally surprising title: “The Shoah (Holocaust) Through Muslim Eyes.” Giving the keynote talk will be Mehnaz Mona Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College.

Afridi will touch on what she has called the “struggle with anti-Semitism within the Muslim community,” including lack of education about the Holocaust. Her topic is also the title of her soon-to-be published book.

Third of the three-part series, “Sufi Music and Poetry,” will bring back New York-based actor Peter Rogen and Turkish musician Alan Amir Vahab to perform works by Rumi and Hafiz. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes interfaith harmony and a direct connection with God.

The FIU series has some impressive support. Besides COSMOS, which includes mosques and other Muslim organizations, supporters include the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews. Also endorsing the series is the Jewish Community Relations Council, a branch of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Such endorsement was made possible largely because of Katz himself. Over the last decade and a half, he has built religious studies at FIU through hires like Erik Larson, who currently serves as the department’s chair. And through the spiritual studies program, which he directs, Katz has also brought such diverse speakers to Miami as the Dalai Lama, Marianne Williamson, Christopher Hitchens, Dominic Crossan, W.D. Mohammed, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Modern eyes can be blinded by the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, a conflict heightened by the creation of Israel in 1948. Katz says that Baghdad, Iraq, was once the greatest center of Jewish learning in the world. Jewish communities also flourished in Egypt, Morocco and Istanbul, he says.

“We have a shared history that is more friendly than not,” Katz says. “I hope some people will come away [from the series] with more appreciation and understanding, and even affection, for people on the other side of the aisle.”

Like other planners, Tudor Parfitt of FIU, who will moderate the panel talk on Sunday, voices a hope that friendships will grow out of the three-part series. “We’re all interested in promoting discussion and interfaith harmony. We hope the communities will get to know each other.”

They have an advantage in South Florida: Leaders on both sides have increased contacts for more than a decade.

JAM & All was formed by Jews and Muslims in 2001 to counter rising tensions after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 that year. Since then, it has expanded to include Christians, Buddhists and those of other faiths.

Shakir says COSMOS, the Muslim organization, was organized in 2010 with a similar impetus: to combat tensions over the planned so-called Ground Zero Mosque in New York.

Even before then, he was sent to Israel in 2002 by the Miami chapter of the American Jewish Committee to gather facts about the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule on the West Bank. On returning, he wrote about his impressions for the Miami Herald.

“If we come out of the time box of the establishment of Israel, we can see that Jews and Muslims have been interacting for almost 1,500 years,” Shakir says. “This may not solve the problem in the Middle East, but it shows that our communities are open and willing to work together.

“We can respect disagreements, find ways to heal and move forward.”

Jews and Muslims have also met on the UM campus, discussing matters like the hijab, the headscarf worn by most Muslim women. And in 2012, De Sondy says, students watched a movie called Arranged, on marriage in an Orthodox Jewish family.

The activities have helped students of different beliefs get past stereotypes and see one another as people, De Sondy says.

“Jews, Muslims and Christians can use scripture to build bridges or burn bridges,” he says. “But when you get up close and personal, you see how connected we are.”

The Jewish-Muslim initiative is part of an expansion of Jewish studies at FIU, starting with the merger of the Jewish Museum with the university last year.

FIU has launched a project to examine Jewish communities around the world, working with advanced students. Parfitt, former professor of Jewish studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, cites work with Jewish groups in Israel and Argentina. He and a Ph.D. from Colombia plan to research Jewish communities in Burma and India.

Parfitt has also written a new book about Jewish museums around the world, due out in December.

“The idea is to be a great hub of Jewish intellectual activity,” Parfitt says.

If you go

All the events will be at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.

First Event: “How Islam Saved the Jews”

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10

Featuring: Lecture by David Wasserstein, professor of history, classics and Jewish studies, Vanderbilt University, with panel of local experts

Second Event: “The Shoah Through Muslim Eyes”

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21

Featuring: Mehnaz Mona Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College

Third Event: “Sufi Music and Poetry”

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3

Featuring: Actor Peter Rogen and singer-musician Alan Amir Vahab performing Rumi and Hafiz

Cost: Free, but RSVP requested via info@jewishmuseum.com or calling 786-972-3175.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

November 8, 2013 at 3:07 am

Holidays Almanac: Yom Kippur ends High Holy Days

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1024px-Hebrew_Sefer_Torah_Scroll

A Sefer Torah, a handwritten scroll on parchment, about 400 years old. The holy book was written in Poland and survived the Nazi Holocaust there during World War II. (Photo: Bejinhan, via Wikimedia.org)

Jews worldwide end their observance of the High Holy Days tonight (Sept. 13) and tomorrow (Sept. 14) with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Ten Days of Repentance, as they are also called, began at sundown Sept. 4 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

The days are an interim period during which the faithful examine their lives not only for sins committed but for good deeds undone. Traditional Jews call the period Yamim Noraim, or the Days of Awe, believing that God judges each soul to determine what kind of year each will have, and even if they live or die. Less traditional Jews use the time for introspection and resolving to live as better persons for the coming year.

Observant Jews fast from sundown through the following sundown. Yom Kippur Eve has its own distinct service: Kol Nidre, meaning All Vows. The prayer, set to sad, medieval music, is a plea to be released from promises left unkept during the year. Anti-Semites used to point to Kol Nidre as proof that the word of a Jew could not be trusted; however, rabbinic authorities have said the prayer refers only to vows made to God.

Congregants say other prayers in all-dayservices on Yom Kippur. They include:

Al Het, an alphabetical list of sins to recite — including cruelty, dishonesty and direspect for parents — in case the worshiper may have forgotten some or committed them unknowingly. Each time a sin is mentioned, the worshiper strikes a fist on his or her chest.

Yizkor, a memorial prayer for the dead. Yizkor prayers are said also during three other holy days: Passover, Shavuot and Shemini Azteret.

Neilah, a chant at the end of Yom Kippur to hold open the gates of mercy for the last repentant souls.

At the end of the Yom Kippur service, the shofar, or ram’s horn, is sounded in a long, steady note, as long as the blower’s breath holds out. For, according to Jewish belief, the judgment is complete, and the fate of each person has been sealed for the coming year.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

September 13, 2013 at 8:42 pm

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