Letter from Doha

I write from the exquisite conference center of the Four Seasons hotel in Doha. In the hours before the conference began, I swam in the Arabian Gulf, played squash with Saeed Khan (a Pakistani Muslim who now lives in Detroit) went Oud shopping in the shuq with Rabbi Roly Matalon, and watched a few Arabic music videos on one of the two 54 inch plasma screens that adorn the massive room that the Emir has graciously set aside for me to rest my weary bones.

The trip to the music shop was typical - our Phillipino driver parked in front of a butcher shop with sheep carcasses hanging out front, we first walked into an Arabic music/cassette tape shop and the proprietor had no idea where to go. We then asked a guy selling electronics and he told us to go up a couple of blocks. We passed by a number of leatherworkers who sat on the street corners. There were many textile shops and women in full burkhas walking in and out. In lieu of traffic lights, the street corners have men in beige uniforms on platforms directing the flow. A traffic official waved to us and yelled out "Welcome!" smiling widely as we ran across the dusty intersection. When we finally made our way to the oud shop, the Ouds were all Egyptian made, and $700. Roly played one and I took a few photos and we headed back to the car.

Doha is one massive construction zone. There must be fifty high-rises going up - there are workers in green uniforms everywhere - taking periodic breaks to bow to Mecca. The new buildings are an eccnetric mix of moorish and modern - they are trying to create a new Islamic architecture here.

The conference kicked off with the minister of foreign affairs - and three speakers representing what the moderator referred to as 'the divine religions' More on the conference later.

Afterwards, I had dinner with Chase Untermeyer, the U.S. Ambassador. He was appointed here by George W two years ago - he was George HW's assistant when when HW was the VP. The guy was fascinating - He was born in the Garden State but was raised in Texas, German Jewish father, agnostic mother - after getting back from Vietnam he got into Republican politics, he served a short stint as the head of Voice of America.

I ended the day with a stroll through the palm tree lined hotel grounds with a young Imam from Malawai, talking about who is ready for democracy and who isn't.

More to come.


Off to Doha

Dear readers,

I'm leaving for Doha tonight - to speak at a religious dialogue conference. Here's a draft of my speech - which may go through some changes in flight....I'll update on my return.


Inter-religious Dialogue and Environmental Protection

Doha Conference on Religious Dialogue
April 26, 2006

Address by Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner
Auburn Theological Seminary - New York City

I begin with words of prayer from Psalm 148:

Exaltations to the Holy One! Mountains and hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds, give thanks to God!

First, my gratitude to His Highness the Emir of Qatar. Your openness to religious diversity and dialogue is an example to all world leaders. Your vision to initiate this gathering is commendable, your commitment to sustain it is deserving of praise. And now I understand why so many say that your hospitality is unrivaled. I also wish to thank those on the faculty of the University of Qatar and those who work for the embassy of Qatar and all others who have made it possible for this extraordinary event to take place.

My thoughts today are drawn, in part, from the reality that the beautiful body of water whose shores we are on now has suffered great ecological damage, mostly due to the spills and fires produced by wars between nations. While the Gulf continues to recover, the only thing that will insure its return to health will be peace and stability in the region. May God bless His Highness with the patience and wisdom to carry out his vision of Qatar being the place where enemies reconcile and new relationships are born.

As a child growing up during the tail end of the cold war, I often had nightmares of the mushroom clouds and the radioactive rains of a thousand Hirsoshimas. In the summer, when I would accompany my father to synagogue to read the Book of Lamentations, ascribed to the biblical prophet Jeremiah, I would hear a slow sad chant of the destruction of Jerusalem

Those who feasted on delicacies perish in the streets;those who were brought up in purple cling to ash heaps. (Lamentations 4:5)

I would imagine such a destruction ripping through suburbia. And I would dream of a getaway plan.

How could one escape such a nuclear disaster? A disaster that would make large parts of the earth uninhabitable?

It seemed like there were two options – either sail-off to a remote island off the coast of Chile or jump aboard a giant rocket propelled spacecraft – a modern Noah’s Ark – a genetic lab of all that lived on earth, and head out into space. In either place, I imagined, we few survivors would start a new life and build a utopian community.

The science fiction answer to environmental devastation – either devastation wrought by world war or wrought by the power of one mutant virus – seems like the twenty-first century’s preferred mode for escape. As we sit here now, up above us the International Space Station is orbiting. Anthropologist John Moore estimated that it would take only 160 humans to preserve the human species in space for centuries until they can repopulate earth. Unfortunately, the entire crew of the International Space Station is currently all men.

The Space Studies Institute has identified the number one priority for future space colonization to be the perfection of a totally closed environment life support system. Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona, brought together the world’s leading scientists to do just that. They spent over 200 million dollars to build a 7,200,000-cubic-foot sealed glass and space-frame structure containing 5 biomes, including a 900,000-gallon ocean, a rain forest, a desert, agricultural areas and a human habitat. They succeeded in creating a giant sunny airtight warehouse where nothing can breathe or live. It will now be modified and turned into a conference center.
A space colony that operates independently of earth is not in the foreseeable future. So the other escape seems more compelling. The escape away from the electrical grid – the escape backward – a return to a simple life of rudimentary agriculture and a smaller human population. The leader of the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Ingrid Newkirk, argues that "Humans have grown like a cancer. We're the biggest blight on the face of the earth." Apparently in the developed world, people of my generation are listening to her – and they are not particularly interested in having children. This is especially true in Italy, Japan, Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria where birth rates are falling below death rates. Those on the most extreme end of the environmental movement who say that our ultimate goal as a species is to reduce our human numbers 400-fold. I wonder: Who gets chosen to have children? Who decides? It sounds to me like a veiled plan for forced sterilization and indirect genocide.
What does all this have to do with inter-religious dialogue and environmental protection?

It seems to me that the role of religions leaders at this hour, especially the role of those of us in monotheistic religions, is to say loudly and clearly that there is no escape from our responsibility towards the natural world – there is no escape to outer space or to forests in far corners. In the words of the Psalms we Jews sing each Sabbath, “the Heavens are for God, and the earth is given to the children of Adam.” Heaven may be an unpolluted garden of delights – but God has instructed us to take responsibility for the earth right here and right now, to work together to harness the best of what technology offers us and to utilize our own self-control to reduce waste and promote sustainable development. This should be the top priority for inter-religious dialogue. I commend all those who planned this conference for putting it on the agenda.
Our seminary runs an educational program for young people – Christians, Muslims, and Jews – entitled Face to Face/Faith to Faith. The students come from Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the U.S. In the summer, when they come to New York, I ask these young people the question: “If you think that we are learning from history and that the world is becoming a better place to live, would you please raise your hand?” Very few hands go up. This, my friends, is a serious concern.
When I was a child, I would travel with my family to the tropical climate of Florida to visit my grandparent’s home. In the back yard were magnificent orange trees and grapefruit trees. Each morning my grandfather and I would go out back, pick fruit, and squeeze juice for breakfast. When he became sick and died and eventually my grandmother had to sell the house, the first thing that the new owners did was to chop down the trees and build a parking lot.
In my heart, my grandfather’s death and the death of the trees are inseparable. The story is a parable about what we in the developed world have done to the forests of the planet and the people of the developing world in the last generation. Young people are very aware of this destruction. And they are looking for religious leaders who are willing to be a voice that reminds government and business leaders of our responsibilities to the earth.

One of the other things that I have learned in working with the teenagers of the Face to Face program is that as the world becomes increasingly commercialized, the spiritual thirst grows. While religious extremists quench this thirst with visions of global domination and social purity, we who believe in human progress must foster a vision that sees diversity at its heart. Diversity not simply in the marketplace – but diversity in terms of the books one can find in the library, cultural diversity, religious diversity, and beyond. There is no better model for this diversity than the bio-diversity of the planet.

A teaching from the sages on the Book of Ecclesiastes:

In the hour that the Holy Blessed One created Adam, the first earthling, he took him and let him pass before all the different species of trees of the Garden of Eden. The Holy One said: “See my works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I have created, this has been done for your life. Reflect on this, and do not corrupt or destroy My world, for if you do, there is no one to straighten it up after you.” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:28)

The spiritual path is the path that follows Adam’s footsteps – to walk the land and pass before each species of tree in awe and gratitude. God intends us to understand bio-diversity and to protect bio-diversity. From the Tower of Babel story we learn that God does not desire that we speak one language, or that we form one empire. God desires diversity.

The first step in an inter-religious dialogue on environmental protection is often a simple acknowledgment that there are sources within each of our traditions that guide us in understanding our responsibility to protect and preserve the natural world. When we share these stories across religious traditions we are supporting one another in the shared work of protecting the planet. I want to conclude with what I believe to be two other critical steps.

The second step in inter-religious dialogue on the environment is that we build a bridge between religious leaders and those in the scientific community who are working to address ecological concerns. At Auburn Theological Seminary, we have been gathering religious leaders – Christians, Muslims, and Jews - to participate in a week long seminar which is lead by a biologist from Columbia University. We spend a day on cosmology and creation, a day on evolution and genetic mutation, and a day on the origin of human consciousness. In the seminar, science and religion are in dialogue, and we who are concerned with spiritual matters must turn our attention to the earth.

The third step is for religious leaders to work with government and business leaders to address the two factors other than war that are driving us to destroy the environment - poverty and wealth. Those who are poor strip the natural world for their own survival. Those who live in comfort are stripping the natural world for the sake of convenience and greater wealth. The ethical question we must ask is: Exactly how much of the natural world’s resources is one nation, one group, or one person entitled to use? What are the limits? What are the responsibilities of resource rich countries to those who do not even have seeds to plant trees? The United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals are a noble effort to respond to these questions. Each of us should publicly lend them our support.

I began this address with my fears about nuclear war and ecological catastrophe. I want to end with my hopes for inter-religious cooperation. My friend Rabbi Michael Cohen, works for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies which brings Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and other graduate students together to study desert ecology. The students, Jews, Christians, and Muslims study stream restoration, sustainable agriculture, and issues related to the body of water that is called in English the ‘Dead Sea’ that lies between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. On a walk with Michael, he laughs as he tells me “We are trying to bring the Dead Sea back to life.” But it struck me as a perfect metaphor for religious leaders and the natural world. Let us work together to restore life to the planet – beginning with the lowest point on earth and working our way skyward. Could there be any better way to praise the Holy One?


Over 2,000 Unique Visitors!

Thank you to all 2,000 plus of you who have stopped by Reb Blog!

Wishing you all a joyous holiday associated with eggs.

Love, Daniel


Passover Poem 5766

The Amphibian Haggaddah

This is the part of the seder when we close our eyes and imagine the Guangzhou Baiyun District Xinshi Xinye Plastic Factory.
We follow the cement steps to the third floor,
Climbing past the roar of giant machines on the first,
the huge exhaust fan on the second,
opening a beaten-in aluminum door to reveal a vast storeroom.
A room full of…..

“…and the frog arose and covered the land of Egypt" (Exodus 8:2)

the frog?
One big frog, Rashi says.
And the Egyptians hit that big ol’ frog
And it spewed out more frogs.
Guess it was a mamma frog.
And the more they hit, the more came out.
And I guess they couldn’t stop themselves,
Smacking that frog
until every inch of Egyptian land was wall-to-wall baby frog.

…full of frogs, freshly molded plastic green squeezy frogs with big eyes and cute froggy smiles. Wall to wall frogs, this room, all frogs except for one, one lone…

Commentators differed in their understanding of zefarde'im, "frogs." Many said it referred to a sort of fish found in Egypt, known as al-timsah in Arabic, which comes out of the river and seizes human beings.

One lone half frog-half piranha. A mutant frog, really. The first frog pulled from the mold, removed from the heat too soon.

A scary looking plastic froggy.

And this is where the story begins –
a well-meaning grandmother ordering a cute frog from the catalog
to place at her grandchildren’s seder table.
And guess which frog she gets?
Yeah, that’s right, half-piranha boy.

But this grandma is not your typical grandma.
She loves piranha frog.
She turns him into a center-piece,
sets a plate before him like Elijah.

And so on this plague we focus tonight,
the supposedly cute one,
the plague of mutation,
the plague of death leaping from the green waters of life,
the plague which makes us think twice about dipping our fingers into the wine.

-Daniel S. Brenner


Speaking Truth to Pharoah

I was reading the fantastic blog Velveteen Rabbi and she had a link to a Radical Torah piece by Rabbi David Seidenberg on Passover and social responsibility. Since I did a text study on this theme a few years back, focusing on three midrashim from Shmot Rabba, I thought I’d share them below…

1) And...Moses...went out to his brothers and looked upon their burdens... What did he see? He would look upon their burdens and cry and say, "I feel so distressed for you. If only I could die for you. Their is no harder work than the work of bricks and mortar." And he would help them with their work, every one of them.

2) Rabbi Eleazar son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean said: He saw heavy burdens put upon small people, and light ones upon big people; men's burdens upon women, and women's burdens upon men; the burden that an old man could carry on a youth, and that of a youth on an old man. So he would from time to time step away from his retinue and rearrange the burdens, making believe that his intention was to be of help to Pharaoh.The Holy One said: You left your own concerns and went to look with compassion at the distress of Israel, behaving like a brother toward them. So, I, too, will leave those on high and those below, and speak [only] with you.

3) Another comment on "He looked on their burdens." He saw that they had no rest whatever. So he said to Pharaoh, "When a man has a slave and the slave does not rest at least one day during the week, the slave will die. These are your slaves. If you do not let them rest one day during the week, they will surely die." Pharaoh replied, "Go and do with them as you say."So Moses went and ordained the Sabbath day for them to rest.

And btw, here’s a few of my Passover musings over the years…

On Eggs http://www.juf.org/news_public_affairs/article.asp?key=2249
On History http://www.clal.org/ss59.html
On Freedom http://www.jewishbulletin.ca/archives/Mar02/archives02mar22-04.html

A Zissen Pesach to all!

Imams and Rabbis - Reunion

While I couldn't go to Seville for the 2nd Imams and Rabbis for Peace Conference (I was in Florida at the RRA Conference) it is great to see that the event is continuing, and generating some good press. On Engaging America, the piece that I wrote on the first congress is being featured along with some other press.


"Well" by Lisa Kron - a short play review

Last night I saw Lisa Kron's play "Well" - a play on Broadway about a Jewish girl growing up in Lansing, Michigain whose mother believes in two things: Allergies and racial integration. The piece was deeply funny - especially the part of her mother, played on stage by a woman seated on a Lazy-boy recliner. But more important than the inventive staging of what is basically a one woman memoir based show was the central idea -- the "through line" of the piece - Kron is conveying to her audience that we should not be talking about identities as if they are clothing. She first claims that people think that 'being Jewish in the Midwest is like being Christian with a layer of Jewish on top" then she says people think that 'being Black is like being White with a layer of Black on top' and then she says being sick is like 'being well with a layer of sick on top.'

The result of her symbolic layering of these identities is that she challenges us to think about the origins of prejudice - not by calling attention to acts of racial and religious prejudice - but by calling attention to the natural prejudice that evolves around how we discuss our health, around being 'well' - i.e. if we feel sick, we prejudice those who are well, if we feel well, we prejudice those who are sick. By starting with that which all humans share -anxiety around the 'am I sick?' / 'am i well?' question, Kron has created a powerfully humanistic piece of theater. Between Doubt, Well, and Bridges & Tunnel, Broadway is starting to feel like the theater world again.