Friday, September 18, 2015

Rabbi Rami Shapiro: An Interfaith Conversation

Rabbi Rami Shapiro and Andrew Smith
Rabbi Rami Shapiro joined us for Wake-Up Wednesday this week for the first leg of our interfaith journey.  Shapiro is a prolific author and practical mystic who lives in Murfreesboro. We expected an in depth discussion about Judaism and how it fits into the interfaith web.  What we got was much better. 

Rabbi Rami presented us with a smorgasbord of faith traditions and opened up the conversation to little known pieces of Hebrew translation that make all the difference.  For another curve ball, he even expressed this idea that Judaism, his chosen path, is only one path to a universal truth and ultimate reality, or God, depending on your individual path.

One of the points Rabbi Rami talked about was this idea of drawing teachings from many different faiths.  Yes, all religions are mutually exclusive as religious doctrine.  If you ask a Christian how to get to heaven, she will tell you to accept Jesus Christ into your heart.  No other answer will fulfill her faith requirements.  The same goes for any other religion and whatever their answer may be.  But are there not things we can learn from other faiths that may even enhance our own spiritual journey? 

You may believe that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as your savior, but does that prevent you from learning a thing or two about life from other faith traditions?  We don’t think it should.  We all have something to learn, even if it is just respect, from other faith traditions. 

As Rabbi Rami said, “I was only interested in what worked.”  His statement says it all.  If what works for an individual on his or her path to this universal truth we all so desperately seek happens to be a collection of teachings and beliefs from a multitude of faiths, who are we to say that person is wrong?

As a translator, Rabbi Rami was able to give us some insights into the original Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.  Certain words or phrases can often get lost in translation causing us to lose the original meaning of the text.  One such instance occurs when Abraham is called in Genesis 12 to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1 ESV).  Another translation of the Hebrew could be “go inside yourself” instead of “go from”.  This interpretation changes everything.  It makes Abraham’s journey and our own journey not one of physical travel but one of pscyhospiritual exploration.  It calls us to free ourselves from ourselves rather than the external world so that God can do His work.  The translation means everything. 

Another translation issue Rabbi Rami spoke about comes in the opening lines of Ecclesiastes. The English translation says “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 NIV).  The Hebrew word that was translated into “meaningless” is hevel, which can also mean “impermanent.” This completely changes how we read this entire book.  Rabbi Rami put his understanding of the text like this, “Life is no more permanent than the morning dew.”  Nothing in life can be meaningless.  Even a single drop of morning dew is meaningful.  It is God—or a piece of God.  It becomes words to a poet and perfection to a painter.  We simply cannot reconcile ourselves to a life where anything is meaningless.  It hurts more the more meaning you have, but imagine carving your heart out of your chest every day, rather than sit with absolutely nothing where everything should be.  A simple translation difference can change a life perspective. 

One of the most powerful pieces of our talk with Rabbi Rami came when he talked about this idea that God cannot be named but only experienced.  A brilliant illustration of this came when he explained about contemplatives (people who spend their lives praying and meditating) of different religions coming together to meditate in their own way and having a discussion about their experiences.  Rabbi Rami said that no matter what faith each person came from, he or she had the same experience as everyone in the group.  Each person experienced this oneness with God. 

Alternatively, he or she experienced God even though each person would have a different name for what they were experiencing.  No matter your faith, God can be anywhere.  We may not be able to put a name to what we’re experiencing, though we’ve been using the term “God” throughout this blog simply from habit or lack of a better term at the present time or because of the comfort that familiarity brings.

Perhaps the most fascinating piece of our evening was Rabbi Rami’s discussion on goddesses and femininity in the Bible and religion in general. In the original Hebrew text, the Holy Spirit is feminine.  Just another thing we lost in translation. 

Mary could be said to be a type of goddess particularly in the Catholic tradition.  Protestants tend to shy away from the existence of goddesses or femininity in religion at all, even though Lady Wisdom appears in Proverbs 8: “Does not wisdom call out?/ Does not understanding raise her voice?/At the highest point along the way,/where the paths meet, she takes her stand” (Proverbs 8:1-2 NIV).  The masculine cannot exist without the feminine.  The creative energies of both the masculine and feminine are needed to maintain balance.  More importantly, when the presence of the feminine is acknowledged it must not be with the attributes of soft, delicate, and nurturing only.  In fact, even in Proverbs the feminine is strong calling her people to understand their own failings. 

Students crave meaningful interfaith conversations that are honest. Surely not everyone shares Rabbi Rami’s interreligious approach, but we all wanted to learn from him, as this was our best attended Wednesday night discussion to date.

Join us next week for a discussion of Islam with Dr. Wali Kharif. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

What is White Privilege?

This week at Wake-Up Wednesday, we welcomed Dr. Troy Smith of the history department here at TTU. He joined us to discuss the topic of white privilege, and what follows are some of our insights from the evening's discussion. 

So what is white privilege?  Many people associate white privilege with prejudice, but it’s not exactly the same thing.  While prejudice can be handed down as a learned behavior from family members, it is ultimately a choice one makes to be prejudiced towards a certain group of people based on their race.  White privilege refers to the cultural privileges white people are born into in this society and have no choice in.  Some aren’t even aware that it’s something they have.

To better explain white privilege, Dr. Smith spoke about the concept of whiteness.  White people did not always identify themselves as white.  In fact, the concept of whiteness only came along when white people began interacting with other races who happened to have darker skin colors. Shortly after this interaction began, a social hierarchy developed placing white Anglo-Saxons at the top and other races at the bottom.  This hierarchy and concept of whiteness became the backbone of the slave industry.  White people had to believe that black people were inferior to them in order to justify slavery.

Slavery left the hierarchy permanently ingrained in everyone.  W.E.B DuBois said that black Americans had a double consciousness meaning that they not only had to see themselves as how they truly were but also had to be aware of how they appear to white people.  White people do not have to have this awareness.  White people in the United States seem to possess an ingrained fear of black men.  This fear traces back to our ancestors who feared slave rebellions of black men during the antebellum period.  It doesn’t mean that these people are racist though they may be; it only means that the race hierarchy put in place by our ancestors still plays an important role in today’s society.

In 1954 when Brown v. Board was brought to the Supreme Court, psychologist Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie Clark designed an experiment to show the psychological effect of segregation on school children.  Black and white children were given dolls that ranged in skin tone from white to black.  They were then asked questions like which doll would be the good doll and which one would be the bad one.  Both black and white children responded that the white doll would be the good doll and the black one would be the bad one.  This study was replicated ten years ago with similar results.  This is just another example of how white privilege and social hierarchy have leaked down into the generations.

So now that we’re aware of white privilege, what can we do about it?  Can we do anything about it?  How do we use it to everyone’s advantage?  As white allies, we can change the system from the inside.  As unfortunate as it is, one white person is generally more likely to listen to another white person especially on race issues.  This is a prime example of white privilege.  If we use that privilege by speaking to people about the issues of groups other than our own and becoming a support group within activist groups, we can change the white privilege system from the inside out.  We must, however, remember to come with a sense of humility as we offer our support.  - Chelsea Mathes and Andrew Smith of the Tree House, commenting on our conversation with Troy Smith 

Join us next week as we begin an interfaith journey with Rabbi Rami with a talk titled “Heart of Judaism”.

Friday, September 11, 2015

What is Wake-Up Wednesday?

Welcome to our Wake-Up Wednesday Blog!  Wake-Up Wednesday is a program hosted by Andrew Smith, Faculty Head in the Tree House the learning village in New Hall North at Tennessee Tech, along with the Academic Peer Mentors of the building.  Guest speakers join us every Wednesday at 7 pm in our residence hall to facilitate discussions over current controversial topics.  Please feel free to join us and learn about the important topics going on in the world today.  New blogs with information from the previous discussion will be posted weekly. Thanks for reading!