Davenning at Borough Park’s Yoruba Shtiebel

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

This past Sunday morning I trekked through the foot of snow that recently visited the Big Apple to take an honorary seat on the bimah of the Christ Apostolic Church. This is one of Borough Park’s wonders - Housed in what once was a German Evangelical chapel is a church of Nigerian immigrants, whose service is mostly in the Yoruba dialect and whose band has no fewer than five onigangans – sacred drummers singing praises to the Lord on congas, djembes, and talking drums. From the moment that the band began to play every leg, arm, and head in the place began to move – men in finely tailored suits and women in magnificent hats and African dress swaying in their separate sections. This kept on for a full two hours, only briefly interrupted by a few short prayers and speeches. The energy in the room was electric – this was a house of God caught up in the throes of spiritual ecstasy.

Whenever I am called on to be a guest rabbi in a church I tell myself the following things- Smile, you represent the Jewish people. Stand up and sit down with the congregation. Don’t cross your legs or look at your watch. Pay attention to the speaker even if no one else is. Close your eyes when they have their heads down in prayer. Don’t try to sing something you don’t know. Nod politely with your mouth closed when they say ‘Amen’ to a prayer in Jesus’ name.

I tried my best to follow these rules, but let me say this – you try to go to Christ Apostolic and sit still – try not to dance when that choir begins to shout, try not to shout “Hallelujah!” when that bass line kicks in and the entire congregation is shaking like it was James Brown at the Apollo. You might be able to hold back for a few minutes, but after that, the ruach hakodesh is going to move you.

But I was moved by much more than the spiritual energy I felt that morning in Brooklyn. Chirst Apostolic is led by a charismatic 70 year old minister, Dr. Abraham Oyedeji, a man who received death threats for his stand against the military government that ruled Lagos up until 1998. His bravery in exposing human rights violations before the United Nations, along with the bravery of many others, has led to a time of great promise in Nigeria.

With all the talk these days about democracy or the lack of it in Iraq, we might look towards Nigeria to see if religious freedom and democracy are viable in a nation that is increasingly under the sway of Islamic law. The North is Muslim and the South is Christian and in the last four years, nearly 10,000 Nigerians have been murdered in various feuds between Christians and Muslims. In response, President Obasanjo has pushed forward a vision of the nation that is “multi-religious” – he has even insisted on a secular constitution. As a result of his recent re-election, there is relative calm now of these religious tensions – but they can boil over at any moment and they must be addressed at all times.

One of the factors that helps this “multi-religious” vision move forward is the strong voice of Nigerian immigrants in America who are well connected to the current government. In a private meeting after the service, the Reverend Oyedeji articulated a vision of Nigerian life that spoke to his own vision of religious tolerance:

“My uncle was a practitioner of African traditional religion but he was a righteous man – the most generous and loving man I have ever met. Could I tell him that he must become a Christian? And my older brother, he was the chief Imam of Nigeria. Could I tell my older brother what to believe? That is not done in an African family. So God will judge who has a place in heaven – not me.”

He then turned to me, and said “and this goes for my Jewish brothers and sisters as well.” At a time of global religious tension, it is reassuring to hear a personal vision of religious diversity.

So what I came away with from the Church was much more than a song in my head and a few dance steps, but a sense that we Jews are not as alone as we think. Among the new Americans, those who came after the 1965 immigration act, there are others who hold onto their traditions in the diaspora and hold concern in their hearts for their homelands. There are also others who wish that the freedom of religious expression possible in America could be true in their homelands. More importantly, there are others who experience themselves as a religious minority, who live in regions where they are seeing a wing of Islam attempting to dominate the political and legal sphere.

After the Sunday service, one of the younger ministers who saw my enthusiastic response to their worship came up to me and said “This was different from what you are used to, I am sure!” –I smiled. “Yes,” I wanted to say, “the whole Jesus thing is noticeably absent in my shul!” But I also wanted to say “No. It is no different - I, too, sing ancient words to the Holy One, grateful for the blessing of religious freedom, feeling the wondrous irony of being blessed in exile.”

Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner is the director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.


One Nation Under God

in Spirituality & Health

The Problem With One Nation Under God

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

As a child sent to a religious day school I could not help but feel that God was watching me from above every time I sat on the toilet. I also sensed that God watched sporting events, occasionally guiding basketballs into hoops from half-court (Dick Vital yelling “Hail Mary!”). In fact, all people were living “under” God – a deity above us peering down like the manager of the A&P from his perch atop the customer service desk. So as eight members of the Supreme Court and the rest of the nation debate the phrase “under God”, I’ve been thinking about the “under” part. Where did we get the idea that God was on top of us? How did we get “under” God in the first place?

I ask this question because as my theology has matured, I have come to learn that God, as conveyed in the Five Books of Moses, is not only up in the sky, but very down-to-earth. God is present in rocky valleys, bushes, even inside of tents. Jacob wakes up from sleeping on a stone pillow and says, “God was in this place and I, and I did not know it!” God in a thorn bush says to Moses “I will be what I will be,” a cloud called “God’s glory” enters the sacred tent before the children of Israel.

So how did God become “on high” – and as a result we become “under” God? The source for the phrase “God on high” is an obscure name for God in the Book of Genesis that is uttered by Melchizedek of Salem, one of the Kings who tries to butter-up Abraham. In doing so, he praises Eyl Elyon, which literally means “God on top” but is translated as “Most High God” or “God on High.” Interestingly, none of the patriarchs or matriarchs ever refers to God with this name. Rather, they have a more expansive knowledge of God, and elsewhere in Genesis, we can hear it echoed in Jacob’s blessing: “by the God of your father, who will help you, by El Shaddai, who will bless you with blessings from the sky above and blessings from the deep, lying below, blessings from the breasts and the womb.”

One of my teachers in seminary, the historian Tikve Frymer-Kensky, spoke of the Biblical God as one that is synthesized from the ancient sky gods and the ancient earth gods (as well as a few other gods with varying genders) into one deity. The innovation was to create one unified name for all of the powers that compelled the natural world. And in the Bible, God speaks from within these forces-- "Out of the heavens God let you hear His voice to guide you,” we read in the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, “and on earth God let you see His great fire, and you heard His words from the midst of the fire.”

So, from this expansive Biblical vision of God in which God permeates all of reality, in both the elemental and the human realms, how did we get into thinking of ourselves as simply ‘under’ God?

The vast majority of the metaphors used to describe God on high come in later works, most notably the Psalms, which are replete with poetic language that describes God in this way. God is ‘above the heavens,’ is the ‘King of Kings’, is the ‘Judge on high seated on his throne.’ Those metaphors would surely place us under God - but the author of the Psalms also includes conceptions that are more earthbound. God is a rock, God a fortress, God a dwelling place. And there are conceptual names for God – God as truth, salvation, exceeding joy – that have nothing to do with location.

Why does it matter so much for us to dissect the phrase ‘under’ God? In part this matters because we are increasingly becoming a more religiously diverse nation.

At a time when religious totalitarianism is making a comeback around the globe, we should recognize our diversity – the fact that while some Americans do envision that believers are below and God is above, others see God within, God as permeating all things, God as manifest in multiple realities or God as a force that by definition can not be limited to human conceptions. There are even a few folks who proudly call themselves ‘godless.’ In short, if the pledge were an actual reflection of America's theological diversity it would have to have a section with a "fill in the blank."

But there is a more important reason for us to revise the language ‘under’ God. We live in an era where it is not only up to God whether we live or die – but also up to us. As we continue to poison the planet and march faster to ecocide, both God’s immanence in creation and human responsibility should be implicit in our theology.

Yes, God is cosmic. When I look up at the night sky, I see a reflection of God’s glory. But I also see it as I dig in the garden. And that time that I went snorkeling in the Gulf of Aqaba – that was a blessing from the depths. But most importantly, I sense God’s presence as a force that exists between people when they are reflecting the attributes of understanding, kindness, support, mercy, and justice.

So I think that it is time for us to let go of “Under God” and recognize the phrases’ limits. It reverts us back to the ancient sky god and reinforces the notion that God can only be understood as a judge or king who looks down on us. God is much more.

Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner is the Director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.

Four Seasons

Rothkos on the wall, Diane Sawyer and Henry Kissinger at the next table over, Senator Corzine shmoozing up on the balcony level - I had the baby spinach, the peppered Tuna and the mocha sundae as I got to know one of our donors. The Four Seasons is one classy joint.


The Belarussians are coming!!!

The State Department called me yesterday to see if I'd speak to a group from Belarus. It is a eclectic mix of officials- a Jew, Christian, and Hare Krishna -- all coming to the U.S. on this junket:

RELIGION IN THE U.S. A Freedom Support Grant Project for Belarus

These visitors are invited to the United States under the auspices of the State Department
International Visitor Program.

March 6 - 28, 2004


The participants will be exposed to the diverse religious, social and cultural life of Americans. The visitors will:

· Explore the meaning and significance of the constitutional provision against governmental establishment of religion (“separation of church and state”)

· Discuss with representatives of the legislative and executive branches of the government issues of religious freedom domestically and internationally

· Learn about the role that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play in defining and mediating the status of religion in the U.S.

· Examine the role of religious communities in the area of volunteerism

· Meet with representatives of various faith communities to exchange observations on the practice of their faiths in the United States and their relations with other denominations and faiths

· Become acquainted with the role of the U.S. Military Chaplain Corps in promoting religious identity and tolerance

· Examine the relationship between the news media and religious practice in the U. S.


Karen Armstrong

Last night Union Seminary's Barry Ulnalov lecturer was Karen Armstrong, the former nun who went on to tv and literary stardom as a guide to religion. I enjoyed her work History of God, and I went expecting to hear her wax philiosophic...but this was a spiritual memoir event that weighed heavy on the memoir trope of "how a reject became famous" -- she was funny and charming but ultimately she had very little to say.


The Room is Spinning

Last night I attended the Temple of Understanding benefit at the posh University Club on the UES. Whirling dervishes, Bahai chants, a klezmer band, a praying Yogi, Coleman Bark's hipster Rumi poems over cello and circle drum, a Lebanese scholar reciting Gibrhan, a giggling Cokie Roberts -- all were on stage at one time or another....I sat with Sister Joan Kirby, an Episcopal priest, and some donors who couldn't make heads or tales of the evenings lineup.


The Passion

Rev. George McLean, a Methodist, invited me in this morning to the New York Theological Seminary to address the D. Min students on the topic of Mel Gibson's The Passion. It was a challenging speech - and some of the students, a Catholic priest among them, spoke with admiration of Gibson's work. But he was receptive to my perspective, which I appreciated. My gist was this:

1) I, like many Jews, view the film through two lenses: The exile and persecution of Jews that began with the first destruction of the Temple and the legacy of Christian anti-semitism that lead up to the Shoah. To me Gibson's film is focused on a Jew being tortured by governmental authorities and I can't help but link it to Shoah films.
2) Suffering and violence in film is neccesary at times to depict human cruelty, but the drawn out torture of this film is itself brutalizing and I was horrified to see young children in the audience.
3) While I think that the charges of anti-semitism are only drawing more attention to the film, I am concerned about the depiction of old Jewish men in this film. They are heartless.

We had a lovely heart-to-heart discussion after my remarks. I'm hoping that the reporter from the Jewish Week, Jonathan Mark, will capture the vibe of the room in his piece. It felt that our collective response made the controversy worthwhile.