Religion in the United States

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. – First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

Many of the refugees and immigrants who have built the United States of America were fleeing religious conflict, and our Founding Fathers wanted no part of established religion. Ironically, in the 227 years since that amendment was made to the Constitution, we have become one of the most religious nations on earth. The critical difference is that there is no established religion, no religion legislated to take official precedence and to benefit from tax revenues.

The majority of Americans are some variety of Christian. According to the Pew Forum, here’s the breakdown:

  • 25.4% of households identify as Evangelical Christians
  • 22.8% are Unafflilated (includes Atheists, Agnostics, and “nothing”)
  • 20.8% of households identify as Catholic
  • 14.7% identify as Mainline Protestant
  • 6.5% identify as Historically Black Protestant
  • 1.9% identify as Jewish
  • 1.6% identify as Mormon
  • 1.0% identify as Unitarians or other liberal faiths
  • 0.9% identify as Muslim
  • 0.8% identify as Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • 0.7% identify as Buddhist
  • 0.7% identify as Hindu
  • 0.6%, when asked, respond that they “don’t know.”
  • 0.5% identify as Orthodox Christians
  • 0.4% identify as “Other Christian”
  • 0.4% identify as “New Age” including Pagan or Wiccan
  • 0.3% identify as “Other World Religions”
  • 0.3% identify as following Native American religions

 

I confess that I find demographic information fascinating. I got all this information from a graphic on the Pew Forum website, but instead of arranging it by belief group, I’ve listed the groups by size. Some items that interest me:

  • Jews are definitely a minority. However, there are many religious groups even smaller than ours.
  • If we sometimes feel vulnerable, how must the people in even smaller groups feel?
  • Does the Jewish community have a responsibility to make sure that those “more minor” voices are heard in national discussions?
  • Do we have a responsibility to make sure that smaller groups are protected from persecution?
  • If we took an intersectional look at this list in terms of power and audible voices in the national discussion, how would it change? How do race, class, and similar factors intersect with religion?

What do you think? What does this list say to you?

 

YEAH! A Night of Music

Image: Ellisa Sun and her band play in my living room. Photo by Jimbo Scott.

Last night after Shabbat we hosted a house concert to raise funds for YEAH! (Youth Engagement, Advocacy, and Housing) a shelter and resource center for homeless youth in Berkeley, CA.  Their mission statement:

Our mission is to support young adults (18-25) in Berkeley who are currently homeless. We provide basic necessities, offer case management and counseling, linkages to education, employment and housing, and opportunities for meaningful community involvement.

In other words, they provide much more than a clean bed for vulnerable young people. They assist them in setting goals, building their lives, and making meaningful contributions to their communities.

Jaclyn Grant, the Executive Director of YEAH! joined us for the evening. Her pitch was low-key but her passion for this work shone through. Her clients are what is known to professionals as “Transitional Age Youth”: they are youth for whom foster care is no longer an option but who are entering young adulthood without the resources or the safety net available to young people whose families can provide guidance and support.

The small events that are a bump in the road for most young adults (making a security deposit on an apartment, for example) are full-on crises that can put these youngsters out on the street. Moving back home isn’t an option for them; there is no home to move back to.

If you’d like to help, it’s easy to donate online. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, YEAH! is looking for volunteers for many different roles: fundraisers, food preparation, food service, managing supplies, and interacting with youth.

The music was great, too. Ellisa Sun and her band played a set of jazzy, soulful music that made me forget how long my day had been. Her voice has an unearthly quality that lends itself beautifully to her songs. I never could guess quite where the music was going, but when it got there, I knew it was the only possible destination. I particularly enjoyed Angel’s Town, which you can click to hear on ReverbNation.com.

I’m not going to presume to review Jimbo Scott. I’m his mama, so of course I think his music is wonderful. If you’d like to draw your own conclusions, you can hear some of his music on his Soundcloud page.

The crowd was small but warm, the evening was cool and clear, and the music was beautiful. All in all, it was a nice night: YEAH!

A Prayer for MLK Day

Image: Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking against the Vietnam War, St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota, 4/27/1967. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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A vidui is a Jewish confession of sin. We tend to associate this form of prayer with Yom Kippur and with the prayers of the dying, although a short vidui is part of the traditional weekday liturgy.

A communal vidui includes sins which I may not personally have committed, but which some in my community may have committed. By claiming them as my own sins, I underline that I am responsible not only for myself, but also for elements in our communal life which may have fostered the sin in our members.

I offer this vidui for my sins and those of my communities.

For all our sins, may the Holy One who makes forgiveness possible forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Arrogance, that makes it difficult to see our own failings

For the sin of Brutality, that makes it possible for us to stand by and think, “He must have deserved it”

For the sin of Credulity, in which we have believed “news” from unreliable sources

For the sin of Disregarding facts that were uncomfortable for us

For the sin of Executing those whose offenses did not merit their death, and for standing by as our civil servants carried out those acts

For the sin of allowing unreasoning Fear to dictate our behavior towards others

For the sin of Greed, underpaying for work or over-charging for services

For the sin of baseless Hatred, that demonizes entire groups of other human beings

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of willful Ignorance, not wanting to know things that are embarrassing to us

For the sin of Jailing massive numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, separated from opportunities to better themselves and their families,

For the sin of Killing the hope of young men who believe that their only futures lie in prison or the grave

For the sin of Laziness in speaking up, when we hear racist language

For the sin of Minimizing the discomfort of others

For the sin of Non-Apologies that didn’t express true sorrow

For the sin of Omission, when we failed to act upon our expressed convictions

For the sin of Presuming that someone has a particular role because of their skin color

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Quiescence in the face of the racist behavior of others

For the sin of Racism, in all its myriad forms

For the sin of Self-congratulation for acts of common decency

For the sin of Taking umbrage when someone calls us on a racist word or act

For the Unconscious acts which have injured others without our awareness

For the sin of Violence against other human beings

For the sin of using Words in ways that perpetuate racism in any way

For the sin of Xenophobia, fearing and hating those who seem foreign to us

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Yakking when we should have been listening

For the sin of Zoning out when we assumed this list wasn’t about us

For all of the sins of commission and omission, all the sins we committed consciously and unconsciously, for those that were simply accidents and those for which we failed to make an apology

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For it is through true acts of genuine repentance and a sincere desire to change that we will open the future before our nation: a future of fairness, justice and peace. May all troubled hearts be comforted, may all wounded souls be healed, and may we live to see the day when the scourge of racism is truly behind us.

Amen.

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This is a repost of an earlier post on this blog.

A Few Preliminary Thoughts

Photo: “PARRCzar” Rabbi Larry Goldmark introduces Israel Consul General David Siegel before he speaks to the assembly of Reform rabbis in Palm Springs, January 2016. Photo by R. Ruth Adar.

There are some long, thoughtful posts brewing in my head right now, but they need more time to cook. Here are some impressions I have from the various presentations and conversations at the  PARR conference so far:

  1. History flows like a river. Learn to swim, or you will drown.
  2. There is nothing new under the sun, but things rarely happen in exactly the same way twice. When something “comes back around,” that’s interesting, but it is also important to notice what’s new about it. In the same way, when something looks new, I should ask myself, “When have I seen this before?”
  3. We live in the age of Outrage du Jour. It is tempting in so many different aspects of life to get all excited about that which is immediate: the tweet, the facebook post, the latest thing, the newest news. Jewish wisdom, however, urges us to look beyond the immediate to the Big Picture.
  4. Fear is a poor compass. It’s always worth asking what is truly likely to happen, instead of obsessing over the worst case scenario.
  5. Power vs Powerlessness is one heck of an interesting lens through which to view the world, especially if I can manage to look through it calmly.
  6. If you want to learn interesting stuff, seek out people who make everybody uncomfortable.

If any of these snippets stirs up thoughts for you, I hope that you’ll share them with us in the Comments.

 

 

 

Greetings from Rabbi Camp

image

OK, it’s not actually called “Rabbi Camp.” The official name is the Annual Meeting of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis, also known as PARR. Every year the Reform rabbis of the Western United States gather to study, pray, catch up with old friends, and to play for a few days in January.

I am learning and getting new ideas, and looking forward to bringing them back to this blog. Intersectionality, anyone?

December 25: What’s Your Plan?

What’s your plan for December 25?

Some things I have heard people planning this year:

  1. Trading with co-workers – working on Dec 25, then being able to get time off at Passover or at the High Holy Days.
  2. The American Classic: Chinese food and a movie. (Which movie?)
  3. Family party – hey, everyone’s off! Let’s get together!
  4. Family reunion – It’s going to be a long weekend! Let’s get together!
  5. Quietly hiding out.
  6. The Adar-Burnett Classic: Thai food and a movie
  7. All day Netflix binge (which show?)
  8. Cleaning out closets
  9. Gathering with Christian family members for Christmas dinner.
  10. Nothing much – how delicious is that?

What’s your plan for December 25? Is there anything about the day you find particularly wonderful or particularly irritating? Looking forward to your comments.

Murky Sunset

Last night’s sunset was downright creepy. The Sabbath departed amidst the smoke of several huge fires upstate. The horizon was obliterated by the filth in the air; the murk appeared to swallow the burning orange ball of the sun.

The land is dry from four years of drought. Unwise management in the past has left us with a huge fuel load in many of our wild lands, and in some places there are stands of exotic (non-native) plants that add to the danger because they are rich in super-flammable oils. Now firefighters are risking their lives to try to protect people, animals, and property from the ravages of the fires – and fire season in California has months yet to go.

The facts of the drought here in California are sobering: right now, we have made our water supply almost completely dependent on the Sierra snow pack, which has not been replenished in four winters. The coming El Niño weather system may or may not bring the snow our system requires. Paleoclimate research by Dr. Lynn Ingram at UC Berkeley suggests that we are entering a period of prolonged drought: the “unusual weather” was the weather of the last 100 years, not this new and much drier weather. Ever since the snowpack water has gone, farmers in the Central Valley have been drawing on groundwater, a very limited resource that is also going dry. Many people in the Valley no longer have running water at home. Some species, like the Coho salmon, are now nearing extinction. And it is fair to say that this summer the state is burning up. Right this moment, 21 huge fires are burning across the state, only a few contained by firefighters (meaning that firefighters have managed to keep them from spreading, but they are still burning.)

What are we to do?

At least twice every day from the end of Sukkot to Passover, an observant Jew prays the words, “Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem.” [who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.] It is a daily prayer for rain, composed originally in the Land of Israel, which has a climate much like ours in California. Rain falls mostly in the wintertime, and it is scarce enough to be a constant concern. So it became our practice to pray for rain in its season.

In the dry season, we pray for dew (“morid hatal”) which reminds us that the tiniest drop of moisture is precious. When we cannot expect rain, we must still pray for dew, so that life can continue. The very text of our prayer causes us to remain mindful of water, regardless of current circumstance.

According to the experts, a lack of mindfulness about water is a big part of our problem right now. We have consumed recklessly, assuming that the snow will come to the Sierras so that we can plant whatever and wherever we want. We can use water – a limited resource – in whatever way amuses us, and we act as if we can afford to waste it.

Some Jews also recite the verses from Deuteronomy that make up the “second paragraph” of the Shema in their daily prayers:

So if you listen carefully to my mitzvot which I am giving you today, to love the Eternal your God and serve him with all your heart and all your being; then I will give your land its rain at the right seasons, including the early fall rains and the late spring rains; so that you can gather in your wheat, new wine and olive oil; and I will give your fields grass for your livestock; with the result that you will eat and be satisfied.’  But be careful not to let yourselves be seduced, so that you turn aside, serving other gods and worshipping them. If you do, the anger of the Eternal will blaze up against you. He will shut up the sky, so that there will be no rain. The ground will not yield its produce, and you will quickly pass away from the good land the Eternal is giving you. Therefore, you are to store up these words of mine in your heart and in all your being; tie them on your hand as a sign; put them on your forehead; teach them carefully to your children, saying them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up; and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates — so that you and your children will live long on the land the Eternal swore to your ancestors that he would give them for as long as there is sky above the earth. – Deuteronomy 11:13-21

Some may scoff and say, “Oh, rabbi, do you really think that drought is a punishment from God?” I believe that it is, given my understanding of “God.” When we disregard the laws of nature, when we act as if  we can consume resources at will, without concern for anything or anyone else, when we worship the idols of the market and technology, we court disaster.

What can we do? Prayer and study are a beginning. Let us listen to the words of our prayers as we say them, and remember that we are merely stewards of creation, not the owners of it. While some make a pshat (surface) reading of Genesis 1 and say, “Ahh, we can do whatever we want!” the rabbis have long cautioned us that this is an improper reading. In Kohelet Rabbah 7:13, we learn that:

God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

The words of Torah in our prayers teach us  that we are the stewards of creation. We have more important things to do than merely to consume goods and services. We must care for creation, and for one another, whether we do that by fighting fires or by conserving limited resources. We can do it in our homes and in the voting booth. We can do it with our choices about consumption and tzedakah.

It is not too late to change our ways.