News Flash -- I'm headed to the home of waffles!

CENTER FOR MULTIFAITH EDUCATION DIRECTOR TO PARTICIPATE IN HISTORIC SUMMIT Rabbi Daniel Brenner, the director of Auburn's Center for Multifaith Education, will be participating in the First World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace this January in Brussels. Under the patronage of King Albert II of Belgium and King Mohammed VI of Morocco, the summit will bring together 100 religious leaders for dialogue and strategy sessions regarding religious tensions and conflict resolution. One of a handful of American rabbis selected for participation, Rabbi Brenner will be joining Dr. Amir Al-Islam of City University as New York's representatives to the summit. The stated goals of the three day meeting are to: Gather before the media of the whole world the leaders of both religions and allow them to express a position of peace and unity. Create a dialogue and a far-reaching, durable partnership between Islam and Judaism. Allow the religious leaders to contribute to discovering peaceful solutions to the conflicts where they are influential and foster the development of concrete actions in the field. For more information, see
Hommes de Parole Foundation Website


A revelation

Smithsonian's Folkways records has an album of Music of the Jews of Uganda

Even when their leader sings syrupy Americanized brachot melodies they sound transcendent.


Get Religion

My piece in the NJ Jewish News is the "short take" on Get Religion, a nifty religion blog.


Talking with Presbyterians

Talking with Presbyterians about Israel
by Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

As the only rabbi in America who works full time in a Presbyterian seminary, my life has been complicated, as my friends can attest, by the decision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from companies that do business with Israel. “How can you work for them?” is a question I’ve heard at Shabbos tables, supermarkets, and children’s birthday parties.Luckily it is an easy question to answer — I work for an independent educational institution with a Presbyterian affiliation, not for the national church. I can also proudly say that my Presbyterian colleagues at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City have made extraordinary public statements expressing their dismay at their church’s actions. They have, in fact, taken the lead nationally when it comes to addressing the one-sided rhetoric of these declarations and building constructive relations between Presbyterian and Jewish leaders.But that said, it has been a rocky road. I have met with sensitive and compassionate Presbyterian ministers who support the divestment action. I have had the very difficult task of explaining what is wrong with divesting from Israel, even as I acknowledge that Israel severely restricts the lives of millions of noncitizens and has been charged even by its own watchdog groups with numerous human rights abuses. (Even as I write this the Israeli press is reporting that an Israel Defense Forces company commander is being indicted following an investigation into the October shooting death of a 12-year-old girl in the Rafah refugee camp.) None of the ministers, seminary students, or lay people whom I have met has been vehemently anti-Israel; they simply identify strongly with liberal causes. Back in the ’90s they were supporters of Yitzhak Rabin’s peace efforts and they believe, like most American Jews, that a two-state solution is preferable to the continuing occupation or expulsion of Palestinians or to the Jews being pushed into the sea.But they side with the powerless and oppressed, which, according to nearly every international human rights organization, is the Palestinian population. They are highly critical of the security fence, targeted assassinations, and home demolitions that make up Ariel Sharon’s counteroffensive. Divestment for them is applying a tool that was used to bring down South Africa’s white-dominated apartheid state; in their minds, the same tactic will be effective in Israel. “Israel is the new South Africa” makes sense to them.All this does make sense, in fact, until I remind myself how distorted a view this has become. How did it get to the point where a historical homeland of two peoples that has been contested for the last 3,000 years is seen in the same light as a racist colonial enclave built to exploit the wealth of Africa’s tip? What many Jews fail to understand is that the voices of Palestinian Christians, though they make up only 2 percent of the Palestinian population, are the voices that reach America’s pews. And since the vast majority of leaders in the Palestinian-Christian community have embraced nonviolence and peaceful protest as the way to address occupation, their voices are met with genuine concern and sympathy. The Palestinian Christians who write in church publications, tour the United States, and bring visitors to Israel tell the stories of living under conditions that have seriously deteriorated in the past four years. They are simply bearing witness to the lives of many Palestinian children and elderly who have suffered under the security conditions. And though many Jews would like these Palestinian Christians to lay all the blame at Hamas’ doorstep or place it with the Palestinian authority leadership, the tanks and helicopters and home demolitions have been experienced as a collective and unjust punishment on the innocent by the mighty Zionists. The actions that Presbyterian delegates took last summer at the PCUSA’s General Assembly were made in response to the speech of one such Palestinian Christian, the Rev. Mitri Raheb, who has gone on from the General Assembly to speak in other Christian institutions in the United States as part of a book tour. But I would like to suggest that as persuasive as he and his fellow Palestinian Christians have been in Christian circles, their voices are not what triggered divestment. I believe that there is a much deeper cause to this movement. And it is not anti-Semitism. It is frustration — a by-product of the spiritual and emotional antipathy carried by left-leaning Protestants toward another Protestant, George W. Bush. Truly compassionate Christians are justifiably angered with America’s poorly planned occupation of Iraq and the slaughter of more than 50,000 civilians killed in the name of finding weapons of mass destruction (or exporting democracy). It stings that Condoleezza Rice is a devout Presbyterian, and the photos of crosses hanging from American tanks and the talk of “crusade” by figures such as Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin are turning stomachs. But rather than call for divestment from American corporations that enabled the U.S. invasion and perpetuate the United States occupation, liberal Protestants end up lashing out at the eternal scapegoat, Israel.As a result, the General Assembly, which openly condemned the preemptive U.S. attack on Iraq, is not investigating U.S.-based companies like Motorola whose technology is used to coordinate artillery strikes, monitor Iraqi villages, and keep millions under restrictive curfews. But it does instruct its committee to search for dirt on U.S. businesses connected to Israel’s security.Such dirt is hard to find, and the initial reports of the Presbyterians’ divestment study committee reflect cautious statements that indicate that divestment is not likely to happen anytime soon. But I imagine that in the coming months the national body of Presbyterians will launch its actions by bringing a resolution against the bulldozer giant Caterpillar. This will trigger hundreds of letters to the PCUSA and to newspaper editors from Jewish leaders explaining that bulldozers are used to uncover tunnels and to remove sniper dens and all the rest. But if you’ve ever heard or seen a D-9, you know it is a monster — the thing can clear a minefield — and photos of the accidental death of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American activist crushed when she chose to protest in front of a D-9 in Gaza, are already on PCUSA’s Web site. So I predict that a symbolic statement will be made by the church and will be celebrated by those who call for an all-out boycott of Israel. And Dennis Prager and Alan Dershowitz will sit down and write fiery op-eds using Holocaust analogies.So what can we, as American Jews, do now?First off, we should not assume that Presbyterian leaders are ignorant on issues relating to Israel. From my perch (which is towered over by Riverside Church’s steeple), I’ve seen that although a number of Presbyterian leaders have simplistic views on the Israel/Palestine issue, many Presbyterian leaders understand very clearly the complexity of Israel’s situation. There are also many Presbyterians who are making efforts to engage with the Jewish community face to face and dialogue on the issue.We should use the energy surrounding the Presbyterian-Jewish controversy as an opportunity to leverage the practical view of both the majority of American Jews and liberal Protestants — that the United States should, through diplomatic means, actively involve both sides in reaching a settlement of the conflict. With upcoming elections in the Palestinian Authority and coming implementation of the Gaza disengagement plan, this is an ideal time for Americans to be discussing how we can capitalize on the efforts begun by Rabin. As I’ve heard a few Israelis say, “There is light at the end of the tunnel, but there is no tunnel!” The Presbyterian divestment action has clearly thrown more dirt in front of that tunnel, but it also may give us a reason to begin digging together. God knows we both would like to see the light. Daniel S. Brenner is director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary, a nearly 200-year-old Presbyterian institution on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He lives in Montclair.

Summit for Respect

In the past week, I had the honor of both addressing and participating in the summit for interfaith respect described below. We met with UN Ambassador John Danforth (two days before his resignation....which was probably why he seemed out to lunch).

Controversial Imams Enter Dialogue With Rabbis
By Eric J. Greenberg
December 3, 2004

Some of the most influential and controversial Islamic clerics in the Middle East are participating in a plan to launch what organizers describe as the first joint-training institute to produce future moderate sheiks, rabbis, priests and ministers.
The unprecedented proposal to create a summer religious institute — where young seminarians from the three faiths would study together to break down barriers and foster positive relationships — was unveiled this week during a nine-day "Summit for Interfaith Respect," held in New York City and in Boston.
Partially funded by the U.S. Department of State, the interfaith summit assembled Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, Islamic and Jewish religious leaders from around the world to study biblical texts and begin planning for the joint-training institute. The group spent Tuesday at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism, interpreting and debating the Jewish, Muslim and Christian versions of the story of Abraham's binding of Isaac.
Organizers, including Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Washington-based Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, are hailing the initiative as a vital step toward bridging gaps between the West and the Islamic world. Jewish participants included several members of the JTS faculty; Orthodox rabbi and Brooklyn College professor David Berger, and Rabbi Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at the Los Angeles campus of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
"This is a very important moment for leading religious figures from the Middle East and the United States to come together," Cohen said in a welcoming statement Tuesday. Cohen, a private citizen who has spent much of the past two decades shuttling between Arab, American and Israeli officials in an effort to promote peace, said, "The tensions that currently characterize relations among many nations and religious communities require high-level discussion about ways to advance respect and understanding across faiths."
But criticism of the summit's guest list, specifically several Islamic clerics who have endorsed suicide bombings, is highlighting the political pitfalls and moral dilemmas facing the architects of such efforts. In particular, the participation of two controversial Egyptian Islamic scholars — Ahmed Al-Tayeb, a former Egyptian grand mufti, and Sheik Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, perhaps the highest-ranking theologian in Sunni Islam — is drawing criticism in some Jewish communal circles.
"If they condone the murder of Israeli civilians saying suicide bombing is legitimate, they are not the kind of people that should be involved in a dialogue," said Yehudit Barsky, director of the department of counter-terrorism at the American Jewish Committee.
Barsky said that organizers should require Al-Tayeb and Tantawi to publicly denounce their position on suicide bombings in order to participate. "I hope we are not willfully closing our eyes because we want to see something happen," with the training institute, Barsky said. Referring to some Islamic clerics, she added: "I would be very cautious in choosing whom to speak. There's a [duplicity] here that the organizers might not appreciate."
In March 2003, Al-Tayeb, the current president of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, said that "martyrdom operations" against Israel are "100% legitimate." One year earlier, he ruled that Palestinians who carry out suicide operations in the occupied territories are regarded by God as "a martyr" and "even rises to the highest level of martyrdom." Last year, he urged Muslims all over the world "to take up jihad against the invading forces."
Tantawi, Grand Imam of the flagship Al Azhar mosque in Cairo, proclaimed in 2002 that suicide bombings against Israel are valid under Islamic law and denied there were remains of King Solomon's Jewish Temple underneath the Al-Aqsa mosque, Jerusalem's Temple Mount, according to Egypt's MENA state news agency. Since then, he has issued conflicting statements on the issue, including a November 2003 declaration that Muslim suicide attacks could not be justified.
Criticism of the clerics was dismissed by summit co-organizer Margaret Cone, who argued that past controversial statements made by the Islamic religious leaders no longer are relevant. "We have to move beyond that," said Cone, a Catholic activist and Washington lobbyist. "I know and expect critics are going to bring it up and do Google searches and smear them. It's not productive. They know what they said, and came to a Jewish seminary and a synagogue anyway. It takes guts to do what they've done."
Organizers complained that leading Palestinian clerics could not attend the summit because Israel would not grant them visas. Jewish leaders and seminaries from Israel also were absent.
Some Middle East participants expressed skepticism about the project. Ambassador Sallama Shaker, Egypt's assistant minister of Foreign Affairs, complained that the group was spending too much time interpreting and debating texts from the Torah, Koran and the New Testament and not enough time dealing with practical issues of religious hatred and violence.
Al-Tayeb said that the Koran rejects discussing Islamic theology with followers of other faiths, echoing a common Orthodox Jewish position on interfaith dialogue. Instead, Al-Tayeb suggested that dialogue should focus on social issues on which the faiths can cooperate, such as poverty and homelessness.
In addition to studying texts, the group of about 35 scholars also discussed ways that religion can become a force for peace and reconciliation.
Cohen said that the Vatican already has given its full support for the project. He also wants future meetings to include the Shia seminaries of Qom and Najaf, respectively located in Iran and Iraq, as well as Muslims from South and Southeast Asia and from Africa.
"There now exists a rare opportunity, where the governments of the United States, Egypt, Jordan and Israel are officially and formally supporting the climate for a dialogue between the world's religions," Cohen stated in his summit proposal. "Leading Muslim educators and scholars have now agreed to visit the United States for the first time, to initiate a process of dialogue, education, conflict resolution and religious respect."
Cohen said that the long-term goal of the summit is to create "an alliance of young moderates in the religious sphere" to develop an ongoing dialogue. "Such efforts will have the effect of decreasing fear, suspicion and intolerance."